Elizabeth Norton depicts the lives of eight generations of Boleyn women, from the heiresses who brought riches and social position to the family, to the most famous Boleyn daughter, Elizabeth I.
The early chapters, covering the 13th to 15th centuries, are a maze of marriage and death and inheritance with only fragmentary sources to draw upon. It makes for a rather dry read, particularly as the wives and daughters left few traces in written records. The earliest Boleyn woman, recorded in the Court Rolls for 1377, is an Emma Boleyn but no further details are known about her.
The Boleyn family, based in Salle, Norfolk, were prosperous farmers until the mid-15th century when Geoffrey Boleyn II, already a member of the Mercer's Company, became Lord Mayor of London. He married Anne Hoo, daughter of Lord Hoo and Hastings, as his second wife, which propelled the family into the gentry for the first time. Around 1475, Margaret Butler, daughter of the seventh Earl of Ormond, married William Boleyn, which brought more riches and moved the family up the social scale to the extent that their son, Sir Thomas Boleyn, was able to marry Elizabeth of the noble Howard family. Elizabeth Howard Boleyn was mother to the most notorious Boleyn women, Mary and her sister Anne.
Norton's tale takes off as first Mary and then Anne become the object of Henry VIII's interest. Mary had briefly been the mistress of Francis I, the French King, and when she returned to the English court she became Henry's mistress, bearing him at least one child.
Mary is a tantalising figure; little is known about her but Norton gives a vivid account of how she was pushed to the sidelines by her more cunning sister. When Henry started wooing Anne, she refused his advances unless he promised marriage. This was a risky strategy but it paid off when Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne, but her failure to provide a son spelled her doom.
The subtitle to Norton's book is misleading because it infers that noble women of the time had control of their destinies, which they did not.
Marriages were prosaic affairs, joining families to strengthen their positions, and love matches were rare. Married women were legally prohibited from making a will, a point hammered home by the dying Catherine of Aragon who refused to make a will because she believed herself still married to Henry.
Anne may have been alluring but she too was subject to the ambitions of the men in her family who saw her marriage as a way to further the Boleyn family. Norton's painstaking research is admirable in its scope, resulting in an intelligent history of the fascinating Boleyn women.