Ship’s name ignites story about sisterhood

chris atchison/metro toronto


Phillipa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl.

Philippa Gregory is the first to admit that she’s made a handsome living detailing the trials and tribulations of a very troubled family.

Wracked by soap opera-worthy drama and the omnipresent threat of upheaval, the Tudors, who ruled between 1485 and 1603, were one of Britain’s greatest royal dynasties.

The most famous of their kings was, of course, Henry VIII, known in history for his numerous marriages, divorces, beheadings of wives and schism from the Catholic Church, a move that severed key strategic ties to Europe and would influence hundreds of years of history.

But Gregory, a well-known English historian and author, wasn’t particularly interested in Henry or any of the other Tudor kings when she sat down to write a book about the family in the late 1990s.

She wasn’t even sold on a specific angle about the Tudors until she came across the name Mary Boleyn, sister of the famous Anne who married King Henry VIII and ultimately fell prey to his fickleness, eventually winding up on the wrong side of the executioner’s blade.

“I came across her because I was (researching) the Tudor navy,” Gregory recalls.

“I came across the name of the ship Mary Boleyn. I said, ‘I’ve never heard of Mary Boleyn’ and discovered that she was Anne’s sister and the king’s lover and thought this is a fantastic story, to tell the story of Anne Boleyn from the story of her sister, herself a royal mistress.”

That research would provide the foundation for the novel The Other Boleyn Girl, now a feature film starring Eric Bana (Munich) as the king, Scarlett Johansson (The Nanny Diaries) as Mary and Natalie Portman (Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium) as Anne.

The film details Henry’s scandalous abandonment of his wife Catherine Of Aragon for the younger Mary, and later for the seductive and ambitious Anne.

For the 54-year-old Gregory, the excitement of discovering the story of the relatively obscure Mary Boleyn was a gift that she likens to uncovering a major scoop back in her journalism days.

But that’s only where the major work began.

As she explains, the rewards of detailing the life of a minor character such as Mary Boleyn takes a greater devotion to research simply because history tends to focus its attention on major figures rather than their less-important contemporaries.

“I was at university post the big 1950s change in history when people said the lives of ordinary people are worth investigation,” she says.

“We know almost day by day what Henry VIII was doing. We can almost get that. Mary Boleyn is in the spotlight of history sometimes, then other times she disappears and we have to really search to find what she was doing.”

  • The Other Boleyn Girl opens in theatres today.