Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Background on The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory
You don't have to be a feminist to object to one modern historian's
description of Katherine Howard as a 'stupid slut', but if you are, it makes it
more annoying. I am both a feminist and an historian, and I object very much.
Indeed both she and her immediate predecessor, Anne of Cleves, suffer the worst from pejorative verdicts of history. Many historians have accepted without question King Henry's view of his wives: the one as sexually repellent and the other as wanton. It was obvious to me, when I started the research for this novel that there would be more to these young women than the verdict of the man who turned against them. No-one of any sense would take a resentful husband's word as the only truth. Actually, no historian of any sense would take Henry VIII's word on almost anything.
In search of the reality behind the condemnation of these two women I embarked on my usual process of extensive reading (see booklist below) and the intense process of thinking and imagining the every-day lives of these two young women, often starting with the question of how it would seem in the here-and-now to them.
The first thing that struck me was their intimacy. Katherine was one of Anne's ladies from almost her first moment in England. Katherine was her daily companion, advisor, and friend. Katherine was present when the King first met Anne of Cleves, and we have reports from other courtiers that suggest that King Henry was attracted at once to the maid in waiting and not the bride.
Anne would have known that Henry's two previous wives had met him in the rooms of the Queen and it can only have added to her sense of unease. But we have no record of her ever complaining of the presence of Katherine Howard (unlike both Catherine of Aragon who quietly made it clear that she knew what Anne Boleyn was doing, and Anne Boleyn who threw an enormous scene on catching Henry with Jane Seymour on his knee).
Anne of Cleves was never in a strong-enough position to protest and in any case, she was quickly removed from court.
The historical record is clear that a secret inquiry gathered evidence from her ladies, indeed probably invented evidence (just as occurs in the novel); and it seems that there were a number of strategies in place to rid the King of the wife he did not like. Accusations of witchcraft and causing impotence were certainly considered and Henry was so determined to be rid of her that he allowed his doctor to supply medical evidence of his own sexual failures.
We cannot know why Henry so violently disliked Anne of Cleves, but we know that from that first meeting in Rochford (when he did indeed approach her in disguise and plant an uninvited kiss) that he complained that he did not like her. Working as a novelist, rather than an historian, and imagining this scene and Henry's behaviour, it seems to me plausible that a vain narcissistic man like Henry might be shocked to his very core to be rejected by his chosen bride - a girl that he had selected from a large pool of candidates and generously invited. I suggest in the novel that her visible and instinctive shock at the .sudden approach of a plainly-dressed man, old enough to be her father, was such a blow to Henry's vanity that he could not like her, that he could not assuage his distress except by saying that he did not like her, except by describing in the most offensive terms that she was unattractive: with slack breasts and belly, and body odour.
This is so unlikely that one has to wonder at the historians who have accepted Henry's account for so many centuries. No courtier, no foreign ambassador would have suggested a bride for Henry who was ugly and smelly. It would be a certain route to disgrace or worse. Nobody ever suggested that Anne of Cleeves was anything but attractive and indeed a number of observers praised her looks and her charm. Only one person went on record (Lady Browne) saying that she did not think the young Duchess would suit the King; but she did not say why. Certainly the Holbein portrait shows a pretty girl, and historians have put themselves into tangles for generations trying to explain why the pretty portrait was not like the original - though Henry himself never complained to his official painter. Finally, everyone agreed that once the divorce was made final that Anne of Cleeves was a pretty woman and she created a great stir when she returned to court for Christmas, charming everyone.
The evidence seems to me to point to the obvious conclusion that - rather like the fable of the emperor's new clothes - that nobody dared to disagree with the King and when he declared that she was so ugly that he was made impotent, they all fell-over themselves to agree. Thus Henry could seek an annulment, thus he could go on to marry a woman he preferred, and the court and he could applaud the decision. Anne of Cleeves was (as the modern tabloid press would say) "monstered" - blamed for everything that went wrong, and the blame was laid at the door of her physical appearance.
Katherine Howard's story has come down to us only through the filter of the criminal trials for her treason. Thus we know almost nothing of her early life except some very young sexual activity with her music teacher - which I suggest in the novel should perhaps be seen more as sexual abuse by the older man than evidence of her excessive sexual appetites. The belief that Katherine Howard was excessively sexually active is based on the evidence that she was betrothed and sexually active with one young man, and then fell in love with another young man after her arranged marriage to a man old enough to be her father. This was very shocking to the Victorian historians but I think to us, in more sexually active times, one would not call a young woman a 'slut' for having two boyfriends. Katherine's story is that of an ordinary rather badly-educated girl who was put into an extraordinary position with no guidance and a great deal of difficulties and temptations.
The evidence for her extravagance and folly is in the historical record but the mysterious part of her story is that played by Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford.
No good biography is currently available about this extraordinary woman and so the research I have done on her has all been in the footnotes and as asides in the other great stories. She did indeed give evidence at the trial of her husband and sister in law and sent them to their deaths. She may have done this to save her own skin or her own wealth - as I suggest. She did ndeed give evidence against Anne of Cleves and such evidence was almost certainly invented - the young Queen simply did not have the command of the English language which the women report. Finally she was extraordinarily active in arranging for the meetings of Thomas Culpepper and Katherine Howard, and then she gave evidence against them that she knew would lead to their deaths.
Some historians have believed that all this amounts to psychosis and that her 'madness' before the scaffold was genuine. It seemed to me that much of her behaviour could be explained by the influence of the many complicated conspiracies of the Tudor court as well as a voyeuristic and perverse sexuality. Her story is perhaps one of the most extraordinary ones that have come to me while working on these Tudor novels. I suspect that she was hoping for escape up to the last minute and that her 'madness' which seems to have come on as she realised that Katherine Howard would be found guilty of treason, was feigned. On the scaffold she made a long speech saying the only thing she had ever done wrong was the evidence she had given against Anne Boleyn and George.
The Howards suffered an eclipse of popularity with the King but survived as a family to attain prominence when Anne's daughter Elizabeth came to throne. A Howard descendant recently wrote in the readers' group that he felt I don't 'really like' the Howards and I apologise for giving that impression! The truth is that I don't think any historian of this period could overlook the astounding behaviour of this extraordinary family. The Tudor attraction to the Howard women, and the Howards' determination to exploit this is one of the background stories to the Tudor reigns.
I wrote this book in three voices in an attempt to bring to life these three very contrasting young women in their attempts to survive and profit in these dangerous times. It is currently my favourite book - not just because it is the newest! but because I find it very vivid, and filled with life. I hope it will be one of your favourites too.
Reading Group Guide
The Boleyn Inheritance
We are players in this game, but we do not choose our own moves. The men will play us for their own desires. All we can do is try to survive whatever happens next...
In Tudor England, three women are determined to escape their circumstances and start anew in the court of King Henry VIII.
There is Jane Boleyn, who longs once again for the world of courtiers and royal intrigue even though the last scandal in which she became entangled resulted in the deaths of her husband and her sister-in-law, Queen Anne. There is fourteen-year-old Katherine Howard, who has her cousin Anne Boleyn's beauty and precociousness. When she catches the king's eye she sets in motion a dreadful political plot she is too young to understand. And there is Anne of Cleves, a duchess from a far-away country who cannot even speak the language in her new homeland. Desperate to flee her abusive mother and brother, she is willing to marry Henry and sit on England's throne under the shadow of its last three queens.
A vengeful and unpredictable king, Henry descends deeper and deeper into madness. The peril runs deep, especially for these three women, recalling the terrified days leading up to the death of Anne Boleyn five years earlier. To be a favorite of the king comes at a risk. Will one of these three women inherit the fate of the former Queen and pay with her life?
Questions for Discussion
Book Club Tips
Along with The Boleyn Inheritance, read and discuss The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory's novel about the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn as seen through the eyes of her sister, Mary.
Learn more about the Tudor monarchs (and see portraits of Henry VIII's six wives) at www.tudorhistory.org.
Set the scene by serving traditional English tea and pastries. A variety of teas is available at www.englishteastore.com, along with Norfolk Manor biscuits, Currant Scone Mix, English Clotted Cream, and other delicacies. You'll also find a selection of English Tea Party Recipes at www.joyofbaking.com/EnglishTeaParty.html.
Visit Philippa Gregory's website, www.philippagregory.com, to learn more about the author, view a Tudor family tree, and read background information on The Boleyn Inheritance.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Touchstone. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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