I’m am not entirely sure what the Boleyn family did to deserve Hilary Mantel. In both her novels, and the TV adaptation of her novels, the Boleyns bear no resemblance to the historical people that I have come to know. Although they are supposedly seen through the eyes of Cromwell, it is not Cromwell who puts words in their mouths or who imagines their actions. He merely reacts to the actions and conversations of the characters around him, which have been fictionalised by the author. If he is imagining everything around him then Cromwell would have had to have been delusional.

So does the Boleyn family deserve it’s fictional portrayals?


Mary Boleyn

Mary’s relationship with her sister is unknowable, but her indiscretion when discussing Anne with Cromwell is shocking. Likewise her propositioning Cromwell and constantly flirting around him is equally shocking. For Mary to have behaved in such a way she would not only have to be very foolish indeed, but also the sexual predator of previous works of fiction. Her discussions with Cromwell, which portray her as spiteful, flirtation, indiscreet and foolish, are completely fictitious.

George Boleyn

In the novels George Boleyn is a fop and a dandy, and a rather foolish liability to his family. In the TV show he is a thug who swears and threatens to punch his wife. I sincerely hope that no one seriously believes that portrayal is credible. George Boleyn was a renowned court poet, a successful politician and one of Henry VIII’s most trusted foreign envoys. There is also no evidence that he had an unhappy marriage or that he was an aggressive thug. His characterisation is completely fictitious and it not indicative of anything we know about George. I admit have a vested interest in the Boleyn brother having co-written a biography of his life, but his accomplishments are omitted from the books and TV show to enable him to be depicted as the author, and the author alone, has chosen to portray him.


Anne Boleyn

Anne caught and retained the King’s attention for seven years before they were married.  As portrayed by Mantel it is difficult to understand how that could have been possible. Anne could be nasty and could display a fierce temper, but she also had a charm and charisma which infatuated a King. No one so devoid of charm and humour could have done so. Anne’s humour, charisma, charitable generosity and strength of religious beliefs are omitted to enable her to be depicted as the author, and the author alone, has chosen to portray her.

Thomas Boleyn

Ah, that renowned pimp. In the books he is arrogant and foolish. In the TV show…. is he there? In reality he was a highly successful courtier and diplomat long before either of his daughter caught the King’s eye. Evidence strongly suggest he was against the marriage of his daughter to the King. Primary sources portray him as a rather cautious man rather than an arrogant one.  His competence as an ambassador and diplomat are omitted to enable him to be depicted as the author, and the author alone, has chosen to portray him.


Jane Boleyn

Poor Jane is in an unhappy marriage to a husband who hates her and threatens to punch her. Again, there is no evidence that Jane and George had an unhappy marriage and there is no evidence to suggest she gave evidence against him or Anne beyond admitting that Anne had told her of Henry’s sexual problems. For anyone who hasn’t read Julia Fox’s book on Jane it is worth a read because it puts to bed the suggestion (perpetuated by Alison Weir by using incorrect sources) that Jane was responsible for the incest allegation. Mantel apparently read Fox’s book but chose to ignore it to enable her to depict Jane as she, and she alone, chose to portray her.

Of course, Mantel is writing pure fiction, and therefore she can portray her characters any way she chooses. But don’t lets kid ourselves that accuracy in lighting and costume equate to accuracy in character development. The novels and the show have been very carefully crafted, firstly to provide an excuse for poor character development by saying the characters are depicted from Cromwell’s point of view, which is clearly ridiculous, and secondly by omitting contrary evidence which flies in the face of the fictional portrayals.

Mantel tells us how much research she did before writing the novels. She has said in interviews that she understands what a historical novelist owes to history (accuracy presumably). She says she makes up as little as possible and that she is not cavalier with the truth or her characters. But on the other hand she has chosen to depict her characters as she, and she alone, has chosen to portray them.

I hope people do not read her interviews and think this is what the Boleyns were like. Mantel has been extremey economical with known facts, and she has been cavalier with her characters. Don’t let her fool you otherwise.

Read More:

George Boleyn: Forgotten Poet

George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat


Clare Cherry lives in Hampshire with her partner David. She works as a solicitor in Dorset, but has a passion for Tudor history and began researching the life of George Boleyn in 2006. She started corresponding with Claire Ridgway in late 2009, after meeting through The Anne Boleyn Files website, and the two Tudor enthusiasts became firm friends. Clare divides her time between the legal profession and researching Tudor history. Clare has written guest articles on George Boleyn for The Anne Boleyn Files, Nerdalicious.com.au, and author Susan Bordo’s The Creation of Anne Boleyn website.

George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat by Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway, 2014

George-Boleyn-Cover-SBuy George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat

George Boleyn has gone down in history as being the brother of the ill-fated Queen Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, and for being executed for treason, after being found guilty of incest and of conspiring to kill the King.

This biography allows George to step out of the shadows and brings him to life as a court poet, royal favourite, keen sportsman, talented diplomat and loyal brother. Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway chart his life from his spectacular rise in the 1520s to his dramatic fall and tragic end in 1536.

37 Responses

  1. Neil Kemp

    I think the phrase “don’t let her fool you otherwise” is very apt as I freely admit to having been fooled by Dame Hilary for a while, but have now realised that, despite her claims of meticulous research, her works do as much for historical accuracy as Marcel Marceau did for radio.
    Wolf Hall continues to get rave reviews in the press, but frankly, even leaving history aside, I don’t even find it good entertainment. Cromwell’s sexual fantasy with Anne was ridiculous, as are his continual flirtations with Mary.
    It’s got to the stage where I find the characterisations laughable and that in itself is worrying, as there is nothing at all funny about people coming away from this and actually believing that the stereotypes they are watching are the real deal.

    • Clare

      Thanks, Neil. It’s sad when there is laughable characterisation of people who are about to die, though innocent.

    • Olga Hughes

      It would be difficult not to be fooled Neil. The media machine behind Mantel is awesome. We’ve even got BBC History purporting Mantel has created a new genre “semi-fiction”.

  2. Denise Hansen

    Well said Claire! I haven’t seen the series yet – just clips but I have read the books and have seen “The Bring Up the Bodies” play in London. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  3. Jacki Milbank

    I’m no historian and rely on authors to feed my knowledge and then try to sort out what appears to be real but the long and the short of it is, no-one will ever know what these people were really like. Yes we have historical records of what they did and said but we are talking about people who were living in a dangerous time and who would probably do anything and say anything to stay out of The Tower and keep their heads. No-one can claim to know a person’s character from a few bits of written information. Even now , depending on ‘what side you’re on’ you perceive things differently. We are talking fiction based on fact here and so it is safe to say a lot of it is false but the fact is we can never say 100% who did and said what and thsts what makes it all the more intriguing. I’m sure to get slated here or told I’ve missed the point but just wanted to say !

    • Olga Hughes

      The attitude that we can never prove anything 100% is fatalistic. We can, in fact, prove many things beyond all reasonable doubt. We can, in fact, take the climate, political or social, into account when we are examining contemporary sources, we can take the source itself into account and we can make sound judgements on what we know.
      The only ‘sides’ in history are truth and fiction, and the line between the two should not be blurred.

  4. Deb

    Go Claire! You are fearless & I greatly admire that trait in a writer. Thank you for sharing this with us. Cheers!

  5. Timothy Morgan-Owen

    I find all the hype around Wolf Hall extraordinary, but there was just as much for the BBC’s “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” in 1969. Six plays by six different authors, there was a level of accuracy but again they were fiction as was ‘Anne Of The Thousand Days’ and ‘A Man For All Seasons’. In my view Wolf Hall owes much to those two plays and it is as off Mantell has them cobbled together with Cromwell replaces More.

    As for all the rubbish about historical accuracy with costumes and sets. Most of the french hoods have come from the film The Other Boleyn Girl, I defy anybody to find a french hood in any of the Tudor portraits like the one’s in Wolf Hall. They also had black velvet or satin tubes hanging down the back encasing the hair to stop the oils used to clean the hair getting on the clothes. Not chiffon veils. the case against not using large cod-pieces because it might upset the audience in the U.S is extraordinary. Why didn’t they upset the americans in 1969? as for using authentic locations , most of the locations are Elizabethan not Tudor and they would have been brand spanking new not 500 years old as would have been the furniture.

  6. Eleanor

    I think its important to remember that Mantel bears no claims the book to being entirely factual. Although I agree to a certain extent that the dramatisation of the Boylen family is a little over the top, I also feel that people romanticise their name a great deal. Anne would’ve been somewhat of a cold hearted woman. To pursue another mans husband (particularly a man with whom her sister had had a releationship), to dominate in such a way that she did and to help lead a county into such a change of political state does not indicate the nature of a soft, kind hearted monarch.

    In addition the portrayal of Cromwell is subject to interpretation, Depending on which camp you side with. I have pondered on this many times and beleive it must be difficult for an writer to portray an historical character, even based on a small but important piece of evidence, without the influence of your own judgement. I often wonder how people would envisage me in 500 year time if they only had a few scripts to decifer my character?

    I think avid Historians and Tudor fans will have their own opinion on the Boylen family and interpretation of Cromwell and others will just appreciate the show for its asthetic beauty and storytelling.

    • Clare

      Oddly, Eleanor, I greatly admire Cromwell, but I didn’t like the portrayal of him in these books. He is shown as a man with petty spite and malice, but I think he was a much better man than that. It’s not only the characterisations of the Boleyns which are two-dimentional, but ALL the characters, including the leading man!

    • Olga Hughes

      The fact that she does not claim the book is entirely factual does not cancel out the fact that the media has spent the weeks up to BBC’s Wolf Hall purporting that Mantel is dedicated to historical accuracy (besides the years before that), that Mantel writes non-fiction articles in the guise of a history expert and that we are supposed to place her on a pedestal above all other historical fiction authors.

  7. Ingibjörg Ágústsdóttir

    I have to say I tend to agree with Jacki here. No one will ever know what these people were REALLY like. What Mantel is doing, with Cromwell and other people that feature in these novels, is fictionalizing history. I agree that she should not claim that she is as accurate as possible when she clearly disregards certain facts that show a person in a different light. Nevertheless, Mantel’s books are FICTION and surely even she would never claim otherwise. Also, I do think the question of perspective IS important, even though Clare clearly thinks otherwise. The novels are written through the perspective of Cromwell. Even if the conversation of, say, Anne Boleyn, is something that Cromwell responds to rather than imagines, it is still his perspective on this conversation that governs the way things are presented to us. That Anne lacks charm through this skewed portrayal is perhaps not surprising. I think it tells us more about Cromwell as a character than about Anne. After all, while the novels do present a different picture of Cromwell than has perhaps been done before – giving a more “rounded” view, e.g. of Cromwell as family man, as patron, as friend, as lover of good feasts – they also clearly reveal why he got as far as he did, his fierce, ruthless ambition, how driven he is, how almost everyone – except those close to him – is worth less, to Cromwell, than what he himself is aiming at. In short, how little other people count in his big view of things. Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn, George Boleyn and others are worth little in his grand scheme. It is absolutely terrifying how Cromwell brings down all these people -Anne and George Boleyn, Smeaton, Norris, Brereton, Weston – in Bring Up the Bodies, and he does have a grudge against most, if not all, of them. While Mantel’s books are far from perfect she at least deserves praise for her portrayal of Cromwell, how he can be both endearing and terrifying at the same time. That is something not every writer can do.

    It is my belief that historical fiction should be valued first and foremost on the basis of a) how well it manages to establish a FEELING of authenticity, i.e. how successful it is in making the reader feel that the events and people portrayed are true to the period at hand (but they do not necessarily need to have been true), and b) how successful it is in making the reader engage with and empathize with the central characters and with how the central characters react and behave given the circumstances of the time in which they live. Perhaps Mantel’s portrayal of the Boleyns does not fulfill my criteria as laid out in a) – I quite agree that Mary’s flirtatious and gossipy talk with Cromwell is overdone (and perhaps informed by a 21st century sensibility; what author can escape the “contamination” of his or her own time frame?), but in my view the rest is pretty well done.

    And of course, the bottom line of it all is: historical fiction is FICTION, not fact.

    As for the TV series, I cannot really comment on that, because I haven’t seen any of the episodes.

    • Olga Hughes

      The book is not written through Cromwell’s eyes. The book is written in third person, through the eyes of a narrator which is confused by Mantel’s use of present tense, which is usually applied to first person narrative.
      Cromwell is having his own thoughts in reaction to what the characters are doing around him. He does not invent the conversations, he does not make them walk and talk and hiss and spit and backstab and betray.
      Cromwell had no ‘grand schemes’ against the Boleyns, that is simply another example of how dishonest this interpretation of his character is.

      • Ingibjörg Ágústsdóttir

        I did not say he had grand schemes against the Boleyns. I mean just his ambition for power and his determination to hold onto that power. “Grand scheme” in a more metaphorical sense.

      • Ingibjörg Ágústsdóttir

        By the way, I don’t agree that the present tense “is usually applied to first person narrative”. Novels/stories are often written in the third person, present tense.

  8. Carolina

    Well said. I did enjoy Mantel’s novels but I frowned every time the Boleyns came up because they were so unrecognizable from the Boleyns that I came to know thanks to biographies and books such as yours, Ridgway, wives and Henry VIII biographies from Starkey, Licence, Kramer, Lisle, just to name a few. They seem like they belong in an alternate universe like “The Tudors”. I can enjoy good fiction but my beef as I have said in my facebook history pages and on my blog, is when people take these things too much to heart. In terms of costumes, manners and everything else the show excels and I gave it a good grade but in terms of portrayals on the Boleyns, Mary I, and Katherine of Aragon, it falls short. I feel they could have done better in that area and when Mary Tudor appeared on screen in the first minutes of episode three “Anna Regina”, she seemed so alien to me. Katherine was harsh to her and I know she did have a temper in real life, but it still seemed out of place. Mary looked like she was about to pass out. I said in a post that it looks though Cromwell is distorting the facts, though it is true that this is the author’s view; I still feel that we are seeing things through Cromwell’s eyes and naturally he is distorting the facts to justify what he later does to his enemies and rivals.
    Excellent piece and I enjoyed your book.

  9. Glyn Pope

    Goodness, you’ll be saying you prefer Phillippa Gregory to Hilary Mantel next.

      • Monique

        To paraphrase Stephen King: “One is a terrific writer and the other can’t write worth a darn.”

      • Monique

        If it’s your honest opinion that Meyer is on par with Mantel (and Gregory is with Rowling), I don’t know what to tell you. Historically accurate/flawed or not, I think most would deem Mantel a very skilled writer. “The Other Boleyn Girl” is a simple bodice ripper with pedestrian, wooden prose.

        I think it’s a bit childish, your response. You know what I meant.

      • Olga Hughes

        I don’t believe I said anything about Gregory being on par with Rowling. Gregory is irrelevant to that quote. You quoted King comparing Meyer and Rowling. And yes I am childish, we have a sense of humour here.

        In terms of smutty content I see no difference whatever between Gregory and Mantel, and that is my opinion after having read both of their books. However we’re not discussing skill in the article, we are discussing historical fact vs. fiction.

    • Underdogge

      I can’t speak for Olga but I personally cannot warm to Mrs PG’s work – admittedly I didn’t finish reading “The Other Boleyn Girl” but it’s my understanding she has Anne Boleyn going to her death in a somewhat cowardly and timorous fashion whereas witnesses who were present at the event seem to be of accord that she met her death with fortitude (and I can’t see that contemporaneous witnesses of Anne Boleyn’s death would have gained any advantage by lying about her mental state). I’ve heard that Hilary Mantel’s writing style is better than Mrs PG’s (but then I know people – I’m referring to real life here not the internet – who think Mrs PG is fantastic including people with degrees though not necessarily history degrees). As the old adage goes “One man’s meat is another man’s poison” [or should I say “human’s” these days?]. I suppose I should try a Hilary Mantel book to judge for myself. Mind you, I have enjoyed some of Paul Doherty’s historic whodunnits. He is a bona fide historian but I have heard that he sometimes bends things to make an interesting story. Or am I being a little wordy in response to something you only meant as an amusing quip?

  10. Shirley Isaacs

    I have been watching the series, and love the fact that it is slow. I can knit lots while it’s on! I do think artistic license is at work here and what makes a good story. However, as other people have said, we really dont know absolutely people’s motives in that period, and think the series should at least be enjoyed for the costumes and sets!

  11. Alex Karas

    I think it sad that Anne Boleyn can still be depicted in such a relentlessly negative way. Her life almost plays out like a Gothic fairy tale – but a real one – and she is variously depicted as The Bitch, The Witch, The Wicked Queen, The Evil Stepmother, The Temptress … templates begun in her own life time and perpetuated today. Rarely is Anne Boleyn portrayed as a real and complex woman which she appears in many ways to have been. Perhaps the lure of a nasty, calculating Anne Boleyn is too exciting to resist – but people must not forget that she was a real woman who died tragically. She was incredibly brave and tenacious – in a brutal age, a man’s world. She didn’t look the way she should. She didn’t behave the way she should. She was clever and charming and determined. And after years of looking at her life I cannot understand how she can be depicted so negatively. Unless you take the negative primary source material at face value without carefully going through it with a fine tooth comb – the real Anne Boleyn is buried beneath all that. It’s not the actors of Wolf Hall or at fault – they can only work with what they are given. And it belongs to Mark Rylance. But I do hope that one day we will present a balanced Anne Boleyn without resorting to templates that don’t ring true. She was a human being. We need to stop judging her according to modern standards and stop removing her from her time and era. We see Anne Boleyn (as Professor Eric Ives wrote) through a glass dimly – but we do see her. And she bears no resemblance to the Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall. Kudos for this article.

    • Olga Hughes

      Thank you for your comment Alex. I also hope that we can see some fairer depictions of the Boleyns on screen at some point. Fiction is very influential.

  12. Mary the Quene

    Hilary Mantel is the twenty-first century’s answer to Agnes Strickland.

    • Clare

      Agnes Strickland supposedly wrote non-fiction, though not entirely accurate. Mantel writes fiction, which is entirely inaccurate. Is Mantel the twenty-first century answer to Strickland? Possibly, but I suspect the comparison would have Strickland spinning in her grave.

      • Mary the Quene

        No doubt. 🙂
        The exercise may do her good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.