We begin with Mary Boleyn, who is listening to some drums. We haven't heard of Mary. She must be the other Boleyn girl. Why is she listening to drums? Is she at a Rush concert?
No, she's at an execution.
In 16th-century England, drummers were available for weddings, parties, and beheadings. The man on the chopping block is Mary's uncle, the Duke of Buckinghamshire. Someone should take an axe to that long name.
The Duke of Buckinghamshire is executed for saying the king would die without having a son. It's the truth, but the guy is beheaded, anyway. The lesson: don't insult a manchild's fragile ego, especially if that overgrown baby is wearing a crown. In others words, "There is no room for mistakes at court" (1.12).
The next year, Mary's sister, Anne Boleyn, joins her in the court of Henry VIII. In case that fella's head rolling into a haystack didn't clue you in, Henry has no male heir, and he's mighty sensitive about it. The scheming Boleyn/Howard family plans to have Mary seduce the king and have his royal babies.
To make a long story short—which is why you're here reading a summary, right?—it works. Mary uses her charms and is eventually welcomed into the king's bed. She has a baby, but it's a stupid useless girl. Mary loves her daughter, anyway, and she names her Catherine, in tribute to Katherine, the queen. Yes, the same queen whose husband fathered Mary's baby. That would be like if Angelina Jolie had named her first daughter "Jennifer Aniston Jolie-Pitt."
Thanks, but no thanks.
Mary means well, because she likes and respects the Spanish queen—but not enough to stop doing the horizontal fandango with the queen's husband.
Mary gets pregnant with another kid. Worried that the king will get bored, the family positions Anne to flirt with and entertain the king. You can see where this is going. Mary has Henry's second child, Henry. That's not a typo. Mary has a boy, and she names it after the boy's father, the king.
Squeezing out a kid with a Y-chromosome gets Mary back in the king's favor for a few months. Mary soon misses her children, though, since they're being raised at the family farm in the country. She goes to visit them for a week. Seven days is too much for Henry to bear. When Mary returns, Henry is officially courting her sister, Anne.
Over the course of the next year, Henry's affections bounce back and forth between Mary and Anne. Behind the scenes, Henry is orchestrating a way to divorce Katherine of Aragon, the queen, but until he does, no one knows which woman he will land on. Everyone believes he will choose Anne, and Mary's husband approaches her to resume their marriage.
Remember him? No? We forgot to mention him because he willingly stepped aside to let Mary seduce the king. Why is he fine with this? Because he gets money and land as a reward for being the kingdom's biggest cuckold. Now he wants Mary back.
Mary agrees because she has no other choice, but he's nice enough, even if Mary doesn't love him. She doesn't have to love him, because he soon dies of "the sweat," an illness that sweeps the country. Mary is glad he's dead, if only because she hopes to escape the king's court and live on the farm with her children by herself.
There are a few road bumps on Mary's road to happiness. First, Anne adopts Mary's son, Henry, against Mary's will. Anne doesn't even like the little brat, but she wants to have a son the king can call his own. She's confident the divorce will soon happen, and that Henry will choose her as the next queen. The second bump is a pleasant one: a horseman named William Stafford begins flirting with Mary. Hmm. Maybe being married won't be that bad after all…
In a whirlwind of events, the king declares himself head of the Church of England, exiles Queen Katherine, and makes Anne his new queen. Mary is like, Peace, guys, I'm out, and she flees to the country to secretly marry William Stafford—but she's totally summoned back to the court by Anne, who has Henry's child. Mary does her best Pacino impression: "Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in!."
Anne has a girl, whom she hates because she's a girl. She names the stupid little female Elizabeth. Anne gets busy with Henry to provide him a male heir. She gets pregnant again and has a miscarriage. Desperate for a male heir, Anne looks elsewhere than Henry, who, you know, being the common denominator in all this baby drama, might be the one with the problem. But Anne makes an even bigger mistake by probably having sex with her gay brother, George.
Don't even try to make sense out of that. Anne is queen. She doesn't have to make sense.
The incest is never outright confirmed to Mary, but she definitely suspects it. When Anne gives birth to a hideously malformed child, rumors spread that Anne is a witch. How long before they strap a grizzled old carrot on her face and put her on a scale with a duck?
Henry is already moving on, his eyes set on the virginal Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woma—err…Jane Seymour. More rumors spread that Anne has been having affairs with many men, and all of those men happen to be the group of "sodomites" that brother George hangs around with. George and his friends are put to death, and Anne is imprisoned in the Tower of London.
We end with Mary Boleyn listening to some drums. Whoa, déjà vu. Why is she listening to drums? Is she at a Rush concert? No, she's at an execution. The other Boleyn girl—i.e. Anne Boleyn, the queen—is about to be beheaded. This time, things are a little different. Mary has a happy husband and two healthy children. But Mary still thinks the king will spare Anne at the last second.
The axe falls. The queen is dead. Jane Seymour already has her wedding dress picked out, and the king is ready to move on before Anne's head takes its second bounce.
Mary wonders what the future holds for her family, and we turn to Wikipedia for spoilers.