Blog, Wolf Hall

“There’s One Sort of Huge Difference?”

How alike are the current Queen Elizabeth II and her sister, Princess Margaret, with the then-Queen Anne Boleyn and her sister, Mary? An article in a recent Daily Mail wants to suggest “pretty alike!” However, just real quick like, let’s count how many heads Liz and Maggie have between them, and then how many heads Anne and Mary have between them.

Mary Boleyn
Anne Boleyn

There’s a new documentary coming, A Tale of Two Sisters, which, I am promised, is not that weird Japanese horror film I saw where something upsetting happened to teeth. (I think it was teeth? Don’t you dare tell me.) Instead, it looks at Elizabeth and Margaret, comparing and contrasting them with Anne and Mary.


Mary Boleyn was Henry’s mistress, and was played by Scarlett Johansson in a movie just two grasps from anyone’s reach. (Natalie Portman played Anne Boleyn and accents remain a challenge for her except in Jackie, a film that I believe is brilliant and I’ll brook no counter.) When they started together, and when that ended, can only be guessed. No one left a passive-aggressive text we can point to. It’s also not even certain if she and Henry had any children together. It’s a possibility, and a sort of cruel irony, that Mary maybe gave Henry the sons Anne didn’t.

(Not that this was ever Anne’s fault except when maybe it is. We know Henry had several natural children. We also know that, before Henry, there isn’t a record of Anne having had any children at all. Infertility can usually rest comfortably on the shoulders of the men with their sperm and their sperm’s low motility. If you’re a person who believes in curses, it’s possible some cursing happened somewhere.)

Anne Boleyn was Henry’s wife and we’re going to spend so much time talking about her during our six weeks together that I’ll limit it here except to say that she famously did not provide Henry with a male heir and didn’t make it to their third wedding anniversary, what with being beheaded.

Anne, realizing that she overdressed for the anniversary party she won’t make it to.

The Daily Mail wants to draw conclusions and relations between the two sets of sisters. “Four centuries later, another love match was to cause chaos in the House of Windsor.”

And that’s really it. That’s the “striking similarities” between the Boleyns and the Windsors. A love match.

“When the King died in 1952, Margaret plunged into an affair with the much older Captain Peter Townsend, a divorcé with two children. When the press found out, palace officials, fearing the monarchy wouldn’t survive the shame, raised objections until the romance fell apart.”

In the early 1500s, Anne Boleyn was in love with a man named Thomas Wyatt (and more on him, and his poetry, in another post), a match that would do nothing for the Boleyn family economically or politically. Wyatt was forced, by Cardinal Wolsey, to forfeit Anne if he wanted to keep his life. Wolsey hoped that by helping the King out of his Current Unfortunate Situation (marriage to Katherine of Aragon), the King would help Wolsey to the last highest step: Pope.

Princess Margaret Windsor’s Daily Routine

But in this case, the similarities are thin at best. They’re both sets of sisters; we have to give the documentarians that. Margaret, one might guess, is the Anne of the family, only with her head but no crown, while Elizabeth is the Mary, of the family, only with her head and the crown. Anne was a reformer, interested in a break with Rome and something of a democratization of religion. Margaret chain-smoked in her bed until 11.00 a.m. (I am not knocking Margaret’s daily shed-yule. I aspire to it. Maybe not the smoking, though Zach and I did both decide that if Armageddon were imminent — like, three years imminent — then smoking was 100% back on the table, and no guilt for seconds on any dessert. Hi. I’m Erma Bombeck, and I’ll be your guide to the afterlife.

The sisters — Boleyn and Windsor — are best understood within their own terms, and their own time. There is little useful we can glean about them standing on a cliff’s edge, 400 years in the future, other than that how their dresses catch the light, and the way the wind might play with their hair.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.