Discussion Questions – The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory


The King's Curse by Philippa Gregory

  1. The King’s Curse pans over forty years of Lady Margaret Pole’s presence in and around the Tudor court, as she and her family rise and fall from favour with Henry VII and then Henry VIII. How do Lady Margaret, her characteristics, and her goals change over the course of her life at and away from court?
    • Margaret at first is ambitious for herself and her brother, and then her sons, but she comes to realise that what is more important is that they survive.
    • Margaret’s goals change as the people she cares about die generally – her first goal was to help her brother, Edward Earl of Warwick, then Elizabeth of York, and then her husband and sons.
    • As Margaret becomes more experienced she begins to understand the politics of power and how her family came to fall from power, and grows to accept it to an extent.
    • The turning point in Margaret’s thinking comes with the execution of the Duke of Buckingham in 1521, because Margaret thought him to be invincible in a way.
  1. Discuss the meaning of the title, The King’s Curse. What is the actual curse? How does Henry VIII’s belief that he is cursed affect his behaviour? Do you believe that the curse that Elizabeth of York and her mother spoke against the Tudors comes to fruition?
    • I think the title refers to the curse that Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth of York are said to have enacted against the person who killed the Princes in the Tower.
    • The curse would affect Henry VIII if his mother, Margaret Beaufort, was the one who killed the Princes, as Gregory suggests in ‘The Red Queen’ as well as here.
    • I think in a way Henry VIII is determined to outrun the curse so he begins to kill off anyone with a claim to the throne so that the only heir left is his own son.
    • Eventually the curse does seem to come to fruition as the Tudor line dies out and the crown descends instead through the female line of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret, and the rulers of Scotland.
  1. Consider how deeply Margaret is affected by the execution of her brother Edward, “Teddy,” the Earl of Warwick. How does this affect her familial loyalty and influence her actions? What does it mean to Margaret to bear the name Plantagenet? What does the White Rose mean to her?
    • I think that, at first, Margaret didn’t believe that Henry VII would execute her brother who was just a naïve boy – from all accounts he was mentally stunted from his time in the Tower.
    • When Margaret has children of her own she becomes even more determined that they won’t suffer the way she and her brother did for their Plantagenet blood.
    • I think at the beginning of the novel Margaret saw the name Plantagenet as marking her out as special and blessed, but towards the end she sees it more as a curse as it pulls apart her family.
    • Even towards the end Margaret believed that the White Rose was the rightful ruler, but she wasn’t willing to risk as much to bring it about.

  1. How does Margaret see Henry VIII change over the course of his life? As a child, how was he different from his brother Arthur, Prince of Wales? What are his primary characteristics as a young king, and then as an aging monarch?
    • Before Arthur’s death Henry had been spoiled being brought up with his mother and sisters in a very loving environment when he was indulged in whatever he wanted to do.
    • After Arthur’s death Henry VIII was kept close to his father and so when he came of age and out from under the wing of his father he wanted to do everything he hadn’t been able to do up until that point.
    • As a young king, Henry was determined to enjoy himself and do everything he couldn’t do when he was younger, and a quest for glory I.e. Battle of the Spurs or Field of the Cloth of Gold.
    • As an aging monarch Henry was determined to see the succession secured, and executed several people who would have threatened that, including Margaret herself.

Philippa Gregory

  1. Describe the ways in which motherhood and maternity are portrayed in The King’s Curse. How does the pressure to produce a male heir define the role of royal mothers? How does Margaret’s presence at the loss of so many royal babies affect her own view of motherhood? Compare the differences between Katherine of Aragon’s and Margaret’s sense of motherhood.
    • The pressure to produce a male heir would topple two of Henry VIII’s wives – Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, because it was believed that women couldn’t rule, even though England’s most successful monarchs have been women – Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria.
    • I think being at the loss of so many royal babies makes Margaret appreciate what she has all the more when her children survive and thrive, and she becomes determined to protect them at any cost, choosing family over her royal blood.
    • Katherine and Margaret both see motherhood as their duty as well as their love, but Katherine is let down; it seems that god didn’t want her to have a large family in contrast to Margaret. Katherine was naturally a mother where I don’t think Margaret was so much.
  1. Lady Margaret Pole is a unique figure in the Tudor court: when her title is restored to her, she becomes one of the wealthiest individuals in England in her own right. In what ways does Margaret use her position and influence that was unusual for a woman of this time?
    • Margaret was the only woman at the Tudor court to have a title in her own right until Anne Boleyn became Marquess of Pembroke in 1532. Margaret’s title also didn’t pass to her children as they received titles of their own.
    • Margaret is determined to use her influence to help Katherine of Aragon once the divorce is set in motion because she believes that Katherine was meant to be queen, though she also knows the truth about Katherine’s marriage to Arthur.
    • Margaret was also determined to use her influence to help her children, or even to support a cause in which she believed passionately, like the Pilgrimage of Grace – many noble and royal women didn’t dare to get involved in causes like these for fear of repercussions.
  1. “‘It’s just that from boyhood, the king has never admired something without wanting it for himself,’” Margaret cautions her cousin Edward, Duke of Buckingham. How does Margaret’s advice to her family to desire obscurity, and therefore safety, contradict her ambitions for her family, her sons in particular, and desire for power? What does the loss of Margaret’s son Arthur mean to her? Consider this moment: “We walk back to the house, and I look at the great house that I have renewed, with my family crest above the door, and I think, as bitterly as any sinner, that all the wealth and all the power that I won back for myself and my children could not save my beloved son Arthur from the Tudor sickness.”
    • I think Margaret had power and ambition in her from the beginning – how could she not with her father the Duke of Clarence and her uncles Richard III and Edward IV?
    • However, Margaret has seen how being close to the throne can destroy people – her own father was executed by his brother who feared he was getting too powerful.
    • When Margaret lost her son, Arthur, I think she blamed the Tudors in part because it was the sweating sickness which entered the country with Henry VII that killed him.
    • I think Margaret wins back her title, wealth and power because she wants to be able to hand something down to her children in the way that her father couldn’t for her.
  1. Margaret forces Reginald to stay in the king’s service as a scholar and theologian, even if it means being exiled to Padua, Paris, and Rome and separated from his family; Reginald resents his mother for much of his life because of this. Do you think this shaped Reginald’s opinion toward the new religion and his eventual letter to the king on his findings? Why or why not?
    • I think because Reginald spent so much of his life surrounded by the traditional Roman Catholic religious ceremonies and people who were utterly devoted to that religion it did affect how he saw the new religion and why he was so opposed to it.
    • Reginald Pole was said to be incredibly learned and academic, and it did take him many years to publish his findings, possibly realising that Henry VIII wouldn’t be happy and might take it out on his family, but I think he realised Henry wouldn’t back down, so he felt he had to publish.
    • I also think that Reginald was aware of his mother’s family connections and how she could potentially be considered an heir to the throne and so he is trying to protect his family by not publishing, but in the end his conscience won out.

Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.

  1. Compare and contrast Margaret’s attitudes about illness, contagion, and death with those of Henry VIII. How does each handle the Sweat and other diseases among their subjects? How is each affected by the death of Katherine of Aragon?
    • Henry VIII really sees illness as a punishment from god, especially things like the sweat. It has been suggested in the primary sources that Henry was questioning what he had done wrong.
    • A lot of things in the 16th century that happened were said to be a punishment from god – Henry VIII believed he couldn’t have a son with Katherine of Aragon because his marriage was invalid.
    • Henry VIII seems relieved by the death of Katherine of Aragon because he no longer has to deal with her stubbornness, and there was now no reason for the emperor to invade England.
    • In contrast, Margaret is deeply saddened by Katherine’s death as they were close friends but had been kept apart, and Margaret worries about Princess Mary more with Katherine dead.
  1. Think back to the promise that Margaret made to Katherine when she first revealed Prince Arthur’s deathbed wish to his young wife: If Margaret had not promised to keep Katherine’s secret then, how might have the following events turned out differently?
    • If Margaret hadn’t promised to keep Katherine’s secret it might be that nothing really changed, because Henry VIII might have gone ahead and married Katherine anyway, using the verse in Deuteronomy to excuse his actions and as a reason for the Pope to grant a dispensation.
    • However, it might have happened that Henry VIII didn’t want his brother’s used goods and so married elsewhere and had a son (or more) and plenty of daughters, and the Tudors spread across Europe through marriage alliances.
    • If Katherine had admitted that her marriage to Arthur had been consummated then Henry wouldn’t have needed to push so hard in the divorce, even if he did divorce her in the end there would have been much less debate over the state of Katherine’s first marriage and maybe no Break with Rome.
  1. The wheel of fortune, or rota fortunae, is a popular notion in medieval philosophy that refers to the unpredictability of fate: the goddess Fortuna spins the wheel at random, changing the positions of those on the wheel. Keeping this in mind, discuss the many great fortunes and misfortunes that befall Margaret and her family, and England as a whole, throughout the novel. What is the driving force behind these quick changes of fortune?
    • At Margaret’s birth she was heir to a great fortune, the niece of Edward IV, and grand-daughter of Warwick the kingmaker, though her fortunes fall when her father is executed.
    • Margaret’s brother, the Earl of Warwick, is imprisoned in the Tower and then executed under Henry VII, though he seems to have been manipulated into wrongdoing.
    • Margaret and her family are again on the up when she is appointed to look after Prince Arthur, but struggles again after Arthur’s death until Henry VIII comes to the throne.
    • Margaret is a lady to Katherine of Aragon, but I think Henry comes to see Margaret as linked to Katherine’s failures in childbed, and then sees her as a threat to his throne because of her royal blood.
  1. “The one thing I would have taught him, if I had kept him at my side, is to never weary of life, but to cling to it. Life: at almost any cost. I have never prepared myself for death, not even going into childbed, and I would never put my head down on the block.” Margaret encourages her children to choose life on multiple occasions, even over loyalty or truth. What does this tell us about Margaret’s moral compass? How does this guide the decisions she makes for herself and her children?
    • I think Margaret saw enough death in her early life to know that she wants to live and that she wants her children to live, and live life to the full.
    • Margaret saw the death of her father the Duke of Clarence, her brother the Earl of Warwick, Thomas More, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, so knew how dangerous it could be.
    • Especially living in the court of Henry VIII it was dangerous as he came to realise what power he had and how ruthless he was to ensure a smooth succession to his son.
    • Although is descended from royal blood she comes to realise that it is a curse and not a blessing, and it is her blood in the end which dooms her and her sons.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540

  1. Lady Margaret Pole was beatified by the Catholic Church as a martyr in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII; her feast day is celebrated on May 28. In The King’s Curse, Margaret is portrayed as devout to the church and the old ways and is outraged when Henry VIII allows Cromwell to shut down England’s abbeys, priories, and monasteries. How does Margaret’s religious devotion influence her family’s involvement with the Pilgrimage of Grace? How do you think Margaret reconciles her disagreement with the king over religious issues, but outward loyalty to the throne?
    • I think because Margaret is so devoted to traditional Roman Catholic religion she brings up her family in the same mould and it is this religious devotion that drives them to become involved.
    • Margaret is determined that no more of her family will end on the executioner’s block (obviously we know they do) so is determined to appear loyal to the crown.
    • However, Margaret’s religious beliefs combined with her royal blood automatically make her someone for the crown to be wary of, and eventually an enemy of the crown.
    • The Pilgrimage of Grace involved people from different levels of society from the bottom to the top, so perhaps the Pole family saw this as their chance to change things, thinking it would succeed.

Author: Helene Harrison

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.

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