Interview with Dr Josephine Wilkinson
What attracted you to write a book about Mary Boleyn?
To be honest, I had no interest in writing about Mary Boleyn when the idea was first suggested to me and I resisted it for quite some time. This was primarily because I thought there was so little to say about her that such a project would be frustrating and, sadly, a waste of time when there were so many other books to write. At length I allowed myself to be persuaded and I’m glad I did. I found I liked Mary very much, and I loved researching her life and the people in it as well as the places she would have lived, her dresses, portraits and so on. In the end, I found much more than my allocated 50,000 words would allow, but I had to keep it short!
What are your thoughts on the whereabouts of Mary Boleyn between 1515 and 1520?
It is impossible to tell without sound documentary evidence, but it does seem probable that Mary returned to England with the Duchess of Suffolk. It is interesting that the seventeenth-century French novelist, Madame de Lafayette, includes Anne in her novel La Princesse de Clèves (link below), but mentions Mary only in passing. This is because the characters are discussing Princess Elizabeth and this, in turn, leads them to talk about Anne Boleyn and her life in France. Mary is mentioned only once as the mistress of Henry VIII, and she is not associated with France. As to where she was when she returned home, I can only speculate that she remained with her family until her marriage was arranged, although it is not impossible that she served at court.
Do you think Mary had an affair with Francis I?
I think she was possibly seduced by François, which is not the same thing. Also, François was probably bragging a bit to annoy Henry!
Who do you think fathered Mary Boleyn’s children, Catherine and Henry Carey?
I think there’s a very good chance that Henry fathered Catherine Carey, but I’m really not so sure about Henry Carey. Because there is no concrete evidence either way, it is difficult to talk in absolutes; however, there is strong circumstantial evidence, particularly the information contained in Sir Francis Knollys’s Latin dictionary. If the king did father him, then the love in which Henry Carey was conceived had died before he was born.
What qualities do you most admire in Mary Boleyn?
I think I admire her strength of character most of all and the fact that she knew her own mind. She does not appear to have been the favourite child of the family, where she comes across almost as an outsider. Anne and George were close, but Mary did not fit into their world. This is a difficult situation to be in, but she managed it perfectly. I also admire her determination – she married a man out of love, which was unacceptable for a woman of her status, but she stuck to her guns and lived happily with him for the rest of her life.
If you could find out one more piece of previously unknown information about Mary Boleyn what would you wish that to be?
I would like to find something about her in a household book or some other document that would confirm her whereabouts before her marriage. Primarily, though, I regret that more of Mary’s letters no longer exist. The one she wrote to Cromwell does not show her in the best light, although her anger and bitterness are understandable. If we had more of her letters, we could better discern her character and gain greater access to her inner thoughts, this would allow us a more rounded picture of her.
When she was older Anne Boleyn appeared to be closer to her younger brother George, what are your thoughts regarding Mary and Anne Boleyn’s relationship?
Do you think Mary Boleyn was grieved at the loss of her sister and brother despite being banished from court and not being able to see them in their final years?
Yes, without doubt. Mary had her differences with her family and with Anne especially, and she had been banished from court. This saved her life, but it also deprived her of any chance of resolving those differences, so she would have had no real sense of closure. This could only have increased her grief.
What are your thoughts regarding the recent portrayal of Mary Boleyn in Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”?
Actually, I like Wolf Hall very much (although my favourite Mantel remains A Place of Greater Safety), and I really enjoyed the BBC adaptation. Mary is portrayed as an unhappy woman, although she tries to cover up her unhappiness by making caustic remarks about Anne and flirting with Cromwell – but how much of this is the ‘real’ Mary, and how much of it is Cromwell’s perception of her? One thing I especially love about Mantel is her characterisation and the way she makes readers think, and just when you think you understand a character, she throws you off, genius writing!
It is one of my greatest regrets that people seem to be losing their ability to understand literature (and its filmed adaptations) for the art it is; instead, they try to treat it as they would history and get indignant about what they see as libellous interpretations and portrayals of historical characters.
What’s next for Josephine Wilkinson?
I have just completed a biography of my favourite of Henry’s wives, Katherine Howard. I revisited all the original documents in the National Archives and came up with some fascinating material. The book is due out in April of next year.
Please follow the links for more information on Dr Wilkinson or to purchase her books….