Discussion Questions – ‘Anne Boleyn: a King’s Obsession’ by Alison Weir
From the opening scene of A King’s Obsession, Anne Boleyn is impatient for change—-for something new and exciting to happen. She is a capricious child, highly aware of her mother’s ancestry on one hand and her father’s ambition on the other. How do you think her character is influenced by this family background? How does Thomas Boleyn’s tendency to value his children in terms of their use to the Boleyn name affect Anne’s actions throughout her life?
Anne is immensely influenced by her family – her father and mother have both drummed into her in their own ways that theirs is a great family and they need to act in the family interests.
We are all influenced by our family and our environment, and I think that Anne’s childhood experiences in foreign courts and her father’s international influence played heavily with Anne.
Anne is determined that her father will be proud of her – her mother plays less of a role than her father I believe – and I think she acts to ensure that she will be remembered and will outdo her parents and siblings.
There is a definite sense of sibling rivalry, especially between Anne and Mary, as Mary comes to prominence first as the supposed mistress of Francis I and Henry VIII, but Anne betters her and becomes queen.
By including Anne’s education in the courts of Margaret of Austria, Queen Claude and Marguerite of Valois, Alison Weir explores a fascinating world of high culture and intellect. What key lessons does Anne learn at each court, and how is her outlook changed by these three women? Does she manage to emulate them once she has the crown? Did anything Anne learned surprise you?
The main lesson that Anne learns is that women can wield power – she sees Margaret of Austria in particular wield power in her own right.
Anne also sees how dependent women are on their menfolk in this world – if they want to have power it has to be allowed by a king or emperor, and this is the mistake which Anne ultimately makes.
Her time at the courts of Margaret, Claude and Marguerite introduce Anne to the new religion as well, although it takes a few years to fully develop in her consciousness.
Anne does manage to wield her own brand of power, but it is dependent on Henry VIII’s love for her, and her power ceases to exist when Henry falls out of love with her.
George Boleyn is a complicated and interesting character. He has a similar craving for power as Anne but has to find different ways to gain it. How are he and Anne alike, and how do they differ? On the surface he has far greater freedom, but is he also trapped into achieving the Boleyn family’s ambitions as firmly as she is?
George and Anne are quite similar in their personalities and their ambitions, but with George being a man he seems to have more freedom to take what he wants, where Anne has to depend more on others, particularly the men around her, to get what she wants.
George is also trapped into achieving the family ambitions – the main example of this is his marriage to Jane Parker. It is well known that their marriage didn’t seem to be a happy one, and it is rumoured that Jane actually spoke against George at the trial which condemned him to death.
George and Anne are more alike than either of them is to Mary – perhaps Mary doesn’t feel the same ambition as her siblings so doesn’t feel like she needs to push to get the best she can, perhaps she is more easily satisfied. After all, siblings can be complete opposites!
Every scene in A King’s Obsession is shown from Anne’s point of view, so the narrative is shaded by her thoughts and emotions. How does this technique develop the “Anne Boleyn” Alison Weir has chosen to portray, and does sharing Anne’s viewpoint increase your empathy for her actions?
I think the way that you only see what Anne sees is a very clever way of portraying her story – it means you can connect more easily with her paranoia and fear towards the end and her happiness and elation as the courtship progresses.
It definitely makes you empathise more with Anne because you can understand why she was so scared and why she did at least some of what she did. I don’t think you can ever fully understand someone because you might react to a situation differently on a personal level.
In some ways I prefer seeing everything from Anne’s point of view precisely because it makes it easier to empathise with her, especially in this series because, when the stories overlap as Anne’s does with that of Katherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour, you can see the same event from different points of view.
The behaviour of powerful men toward women, including Mary Boleyn, causes Anne grief and anger. The shocking moments of discovery that a king’s sister is not protected, nor a favourite brother innocent, have a profound effect on Anne. How does she attempt to overcome this? How does she try to exercise her own control over others, and was there a scene when you felt she finally achieves this? When she does have power, does she ever use it well?
Anne attempts to overcome the behaviour of men towards women by presenting herself almost as a man and showing that she can’t just be walked over.
However, this backfires in the end as it is precisely her “mannish” characteristics like being outspoken, political and powerful which turns Henry VIII against her.
Anne’s control was greatest before she married the king, when she could influence him by taking one step forward and two steps back and testing him as to his love for her.
Anne is still very focused on her family ambition, even once her dreams have been achieved, and I think that this makes her vulnerable and makes her abuse her power rather than use it for the best.
“ ‘You don’t love him, do you?’ Mary challenged. ‘You just want to be queen.’ ” Henry’s feelings for Anne are described by many as an obsession—-something emphasized even in the book’s title. Alison Weir’s interpretation shows Anne herself motivated by a desire for power rather than by love. Does this match with your idea of their relationship before reading the book and, if not, did Weir convince you? What is it about becoming queen that Anne finds so seductive?
I don’t think Anne loved Henry at the beginning – I think it was initially the lure of power, and a desire to fulfil her ambitions.
I think Anne did grow to love Henry in the end. He was very kind to her during the years of their relationship and I think it would have been difficult for Anne not to acknowledge that.
The Anne Boleyn portrayed by Alison Weir seems too emotionally aloof at times, and not at all concerned by anything, even when facing her death.
Anne craved the power that being queen could give her, and she wanted to do better than her siblings and her parents had done, and they had achieved quite a lot.
Henry and Anne’s relationship is dominated by Katherine of Aragon, both in presence and absence. How does Anne reconcile her early affection for the queen with her need to remove and replace her, and justify her cruelty toward Katherine and Mary? Do you feel she starts to identify more with Katherine’s situation once she has won this battle, and when is this most starkly shown?
I think Anne’s relationship with Katherine of Aragon is a very interesting one, and it certainly is in Weir’s books as the relationship changes so dramatically.
I think in a way Anne believes she is behaving in the best interests of the country as well as for herself as she knows that the king needs a male heir to secure his dynasty, and she understands that displacing Katherine and Mary is key to this success.
Anne identifies most with Katherine when she begins to lose babies – her first born is a girl, and after that there are no more live children.
There are suggestions that Anne began to fear that Henry VIII would do with her as he did Katherine of Aragon, but of course in the end she suffered a worse fate.
Anne’s role in encouraging Henry’s stance against the Church of Rome is an intriguing part of the novel, and she isn’t afraid to express her desire for change. How much do you feel this is through a powerful personal belief in the need for Reformation, and how much expedience to reach her own goals? How do Alison Weir’s descriptions of this period of history bring its turbulence to life?
Anne’s time in France and the Low Countries introduced her to the New Learning, and she met some powerful women at this crucial time who were all exploring these new ideas.
I think a lot of it is to do with the time she was first introduced to these new ideas, when she was an easily influenced girl, and then she was surrounded by family who also believed in the same ideas.
However, I think Anne might not have dared to express herself so vigorously if the New Learning didn’t help her to achieve her goal of becoming queen. She truly believed in these ideas, but was willing to use them to get what she wanted.
I don’t think Weir is the best at describing the tumult of these times – she focuses more on the people themselves. I prefer Hilary Mantel’s approach to historical description of time and place as I think that Weir doesn’t really do the chaos of this time enough justice.
A King’s Obsession is the second of six novels about the queens of Henry VIII. Anne’s impression of Henry is very different from that of her rival, Katherine. How does Alison Weir show Henry through Anne’s eyes, while retaining the character she developed in The True Queen, where Katherine of Aragon sees her adored husband very differently? How would you compare the voices of the two queens in the first two books in the series?
It’s interesting to see the same events from different points of view, and lots of the events in Katherine’s and Anne’s lives do overlap so they are experienced by both women, often in very different ways, like the progress of the divorce which drained both women.
It’s good that Weir managed to retain much of Katherine’s character from the first book while developing Anne in this one – we still see Katherine’s stubbornness and love for her husband, but we see it from Anne’s point of view, tinged with her annoyance and frustration.
Katherine of Aragon comes across as more stoic, accepting and loving unconditionally, where Anne is more fiery, outspoken and ambitious in a way that Katherine isn’t. This is probably at least partly because Katherine was born to power, where Anne wasn’t.
“ ‘Strike now!’ she cried, her heart hammering so hard and painfully in her chest that she thought there might be no need for any headsman.” The ending of A King’s Obsession is visceral and perhaps shocking but very vivid. How did you feel reading Anne’s last moments, and how effective did you find Alison Weir’s narration of her final experience on the block?
Weir managed to portray Anne’s fear while still keeping the essence of her strength, which is very clever and hard to do in general because they are in conflict with each other.
I have read quite a few fictional accounts as well as nonfiction accounts of Anne’s final moments, and I think this was very evocative, but not as visual as the ones by the likes of Jean Plaidy.
I didn’t find the account particularly memorable if I’m honest, but I really wanted it to be good because I really enjoyed Katherine of Aragon’s story, and I have since read jane Seymour’s which I also really enjoyed.
What I found difficult to like about the ending was that I didn’t really seem to connect to Weir’s Anne Boleyn in general, making it difficult to find myself sunken into her final moments.
Alison Weir’s background as a historian means that she has distilled a huge amount of research into this novel, creating a rich and vivid background to the characters’ lives. However, as a novelist, she has had to choose a version of Anne’s story to tell. Do you agree with the journey Alison has given her, and did you discover a new angle on Anne’s life through A King’s Obsession?
I’m not entirely sure I agree with Weir’s perception of Anne as a person – she paints her as quite cold and uncaring, whereas sources seem to point to there being a lot of fire and passion in her which I don’t think that Weir managed to get across in this novel.
Weir’s is a new angle for me on Anne’s life, but it’s not one that I wholly agree with. I think that Anne was a very intelligent and passionate woman who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to go and get it, but I think Weir paints her as being almost too staid and conventional.
Anne Boleyn was one of the most unusual and controversial women of the 16th century, and she gave us one of Britain’s greatest monarchs, Elizabeth I, but I don’t think that Weir gives Anne the credit she deserves for her exceptional life.
I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.
View all posts by Helene Harrison