Dress Down Sunday: The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

published 2001    events in 1532: Mary, Anne and George Boleyn at the court of Henry VIII


‘Let him in,’ she said.

I hesitated. She was tying her skirt around her waist but apart from that she was naked. ‘Go on,’ she said wilfully.

I shrugged and opened the door. George recoiled at the sight of his sister, her dark hair tumbled over her naked breasts…

Anne, holding the stomacher across her naked breasts and belly, turned her bare back to George to lace her up. He rose to his feet and threaded the laces through the holes in the criss-cross pattern. At every insertion of the thread his hand brushed her skin and I saw her close her eyes in pleasure at the continual caress. George’s face was dark, he was scowling as he did her bidding. ‘Anything else?’ he asked. ‘Tie your shoes for you? Polish your boots?’

‘Don’t you want to touch me?’ she taunted him. ‘I’m good enough for the king.’

‘You’re good enough for the bagnio’ he said brutally. ‘Get your cape, if you’re coming.’

observations: George is Anne Boleyn’s brother, so there’s every reason for him and their sister Mary to be rather shocked by this. In this version of Anne’s story, the incest of which they were accused does happen, and is very convincingly teased out – the book creates an enveloping atmosphere of the court, all-pervasive, an air of desperation, a slow corruption, and the sadness of lost dreams.

Gregory is very good at portraying characters who don’t know how things will turn out – even though hundreds of years later we know exactly what will happen, we can get caught up in it, somehow almost think that Anne will conceive the son who would have saved her. The book is also very good on how those apparently small things – conception, fertility, sex of a child – can change things, for men as well as women, as can barrenness and missed chances.

The stomacher was the front part of the bodice, and could either be the stays / part of a corset, or could cover the undergarment. In this case it is obviously the former. 

ADDED LATER: see the comments below for a costume expert's view on what Anne Boleyn would have been wearing.

Links on the blog: The Other Boleyn Girl featured before, here and here, and more Tudors in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies.

The gorgeous picture is a photo by Jean-Pol Grandemont, and comes from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Moira - An interesting look at the Anne Boleyn story from another perspective. It always fascinates me how much depended on the sex of a child, in this case very much so. And I always give extra credit to an author who can make readers engage themselves in a story when they already know the ending. I have to say though that I would not have wanted to wear that stomacher...

  2. Very interesting. I went and looked at the pictures of Anne and Mary. This is the only book by Philippa Gregory that I read, and I did enjoy it a lot. Had not known anything about Mary before that.

  3. *sigh*. Very much in the modern bodice-ripper tradition, but not a good description of clothes that a Boleyn girl would have worn. Her skirt and bodice would have been worn over a voluminous linen shift trimmed with black-work embroidery and the lacing would have been done "straight" (i.e. one lace going round-and-round) rather than in a criss-cross pattern. That's Victorian and later. A stomacher is a triangular piece that fills in the open front of a bodice, either behind the lacing that fastens the garment or pinned on the front of a plain under-bodice to cover it. Either way, it is not something that can be laced down one's back. I do wish authors and editors would get used to the idea that readers really *might* know something about the subject.

  4. Thanks yet again for the info kennye - of course you're right and most people don't have the expertise. It sounded convincing enough to me, but what you say is much more interesting. I never really know what blackwork is? - I have come across the phrase a few times in clothes descriptions.

    Please carry on putting us right!

  5. Oh, I don't think the world needs all that much setting right, but when I run into something like this in an area I know something about I have to wonder how much else is wrong. I'm sure it's a constant dilemma for authors to balance pedantic accuracy with the Hollywood images that readers within a genre seem to need. Unfortunately, it tends to make me put a book down, unfinished. Blackwork is simply a style of embroidery done in black silk on white linen. It was particularly fashionable in Tudor times, and is often seen in portraits as caps, and on the edges of ruffs and the bits of shirts that peep out at cuffs and necklines.


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