Elizabeth Boleyn readily admits that she is a vain woman. What do you think of her vanity and pride and the way they affect her thoughts and actions? Do you agree that she was raised to be this way or do you regard this as an excuse and her attitude as more of a personal failing? Does she remain you of the Tudor era equivalent of the mean, pretty, snobby girls everyone encounters in high school? What do you think of the way she treats people, like her maid Matilda, her husband, children, and the men she has affairs with? Near the end of this novel she describes her husband’s attitude toward people as “use and then lose” – he discards them when they are of no further profitable use to him. Though, as far as we know, no one has ever died as a result of Elizabeth’s behaviour, is this a case of the pot calling the kettle black?
I think that Elizabeth was raised to be vain and spoilt – she was a daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, one of the greatest and most powerful nobles in England, and she would have been raised to know and understand this. However, I think that you can change the way you were brought up, but Elizabeth shows no desire to do so. It is one of her failings that she sees the only improvement she can make to herself to be social improvement – she can’t see any personal improvement being necessary. I think she treats people more as stepping stones to advancement rather than people in their own right – except her husband, who she initially sees as a block to her social advancement. She sees Thomas Boleyn as not being good enough for the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. I think Elizabeth and Thomas do treat people very similarly – Elizabeth uses people to help her social advancement and then discards them when they are of no use, in the same way that Thomas does.
Discuss the marriage and relationship between Elizabeth and Thomas Boleyn. Do you believe he deserves the contempt Elizabeth treats him with? She regards herself as superior, sneers when he changes the spelling of his name from Bullen to Boleyn, and rubs his family’s mercantile origins in his face whenever she has the chance. She glories in cheating on him with men of an even lower social status. What do you think of all this? How would you react, if you were in Thomas Bullen’s shoes, to a wife like Elizabeth?
I think that Thomas Boleyn was the archetypical man aiming for a higher social status – the Tudor court was full of them, and even outside the court, people were always aiming to better themselves. However, I think that, because Elizabeth was born into a well to-do family she was one of those who saw social advancement of the low classes (as she saw Thomas) to be silly. She believed, as many of the nobility did, that the country should be ruled by them and not by the “new men”, raised to the nobility by the likes of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Elizabeth enjoys rubbing Thomas’s nose in his origins I think because it establishes her as the primary partner in the relationship – she is of higher origins so should take the lead. I think she enjoys cheating on him with men of lower status because it emphasises Thomas’s own humble origins, and how far Elizabeth has to go to find someone lower than him. I think Thomas saw Elizabeth as his stepping stone to greater power. I think that, as long as she didn’t take lovers in public he didn’t really mind all that much. Continue reading →
Discuss the personalities of the three sisters – Jane, Kate and Mary. Who do you like best and why?
Jane comes across as serious, studious, intelligent, logical, quiet, impassioned, determined and resolved. Katherine, on the other hand, comes across as flighty, flirty, likes to be the centre of attention, loved, passionate and impetuous. Mary comes across as the outsider, serious, logical, strong-willed and determined, though most of these only towards the end of her life. The three are completely different and contrasting, and perhaps that it why they get on so well. Mary is the most like me, she is the one that I can most identify with as she is an outsider, but is strong and determined, although people don’t always see it. I like Mary the best, then Jane and then Katherine, possibly because that is the order in which I identify most with them.
The Grey sisters have a little ritual in which they stand before the mirror and identify themselves as “the brilliant one”, “the beautiful one” and “the beastly little one”, making fun of the way other people see them. Discuss the outside world’s perceptions of the three sisters and how they see themselves. Discuss their relationship with each other. If they weren’t united by blood and family ties, would these three girls have been friends?
Making light of harmful comments (“the beastly little one”) or idle gossip means that they don’t have as much power to hurt you. It means that you know how the world sees you but you don’t really care, or seem not to care – it’s a form of armour. The world sees the sisters as very one-sided, but the girls themselves know that there is more to each of them than meets the eye. For example, Katherine is beautiful and seems flighty, but is steadfast in what she wants in the end. Jane has a loving, caring side when it comes to her sisters, but no one else. I think that, had the girls not been related by blood, they wouldn’t have naturally gravitated towards each other, but I think their relationship with each other enhances their own personalities, so I think if they hadn’t been related to each other they wouldn’t have been the same people. Continue reading →
The Duke of Norfolk declares: “William is his father all over again – what he wants, he gets” (page 257). Do you agree with Lord Norfolk’s assessment? Why or why not?
I think it becomes more so towards the end of the book as William suffers betrayal by his best friend and the woman he loves. He isn’t willing to give things up without a fight, so strikes out at those around him. Henry VIII wanted to marry Anne Boleyn and wouldn’t stop until he achieved that. He broke with Rome to achieve it, and changed the religion of the entire country, suppressing revolt and rebellion at home and abroad. William seems to have the same attitude towards Minuette, but doesn’t realise that she doesn’t share the same hopes. He kills people who disagree with him (George Boleyn and Princess Mary) and tries to gain foreign support for an unpopular match.
Elizabeth tells William that she can always be trusted to put England’s good before her own personal interests (page 367). Are her actions in England’s best interest? Do you agree with her assessment of her motives, or is she serving her own personal interests? Had William not murdered Robert Dudley and confined Elizabeth to the Tower, do you think she would still consider William’s death and her ascension to be in England’s best interest? What are Elizabeth’s defining characteristics that make her a more desirable monarch than William?
I think that Elizabeth knows how distracted William would be if he married Minuette, and she also understands, when Minuette and Dominic are married, what William’s emotions would be and how he would deal with the situation – I think that’s why she encourages them to flee. It is largely about the interests of the country, but I think that she also wants to do what is best for her friends. Elizabeth knows that, if William doesn’t have a son and heir, then she will succeed to the throne, and she knows that William’s revenge on Dominic and Minuette could ruin the country, so she does what she can to stem it. I think that Elizabeth began to see that William was becoming more like their father, and more unstable in the betrayal, so I think she did come to believe that her own accession was in England’s best interests. Her best characteristics are her patience and loyalty to those who are loyal to her, and her long-term friendships. She knows how to value people and the importance of valuing people. Continue reading →
The novel starts off with a description of hawks soaring in the sky and swooping in to slaughter their prey. In the same manner, the novel closes off with an image of a fox attacking a hen coop. What is the significance of these animals and what do they symbolise?
Hawks tend to symbolise awareness, intelligence and a regal bearing. Possibly this is a sense of what is to come – the intelligent and ambitious Anne Boleyn losing awareness of her position as queen and what it relies on (Henry VIII’s love) and ending up being beheaded on the orders of her husband, the king. In the case of the fall of Anne Boleyn the fox represents Cromwell, and the hens are Anne and her faction who are brought down. However, this could also foreshadow what is to come for Cromwell when he becomes one of the hens, along with the rest of the reformist party, and they are attacked by the foxes (the conservative faction).
2. How has Cromwell’s upbringing influenced him to become the shrewd and ambitious man that he is? What is the significance of Cromwell refusing to adopt the coat of arms belonging to a noble Cromwell family even as he widens the chasm between his father and himself? How does Cromwell view family and how is it different from his own experience growing up?
I think the fact that Cromwell had such a difficult relationship with his father encourages him to get away and prove himself. He wants to be a better person than his father. I think this difficult relationship also enhances Cromwell’s ambition and desire for power – he wants to feel the power that he didn’t have when at the mercy of his father. Cromwell doesn’t want to be a part of the inherited nobility – his religious beliefs encourage the rise of self-made men, and promoting them on the basis of their abilities and not their wealth or title. I think Cromwell doesn’t want his own wife and children to experience the family life he had when he was younger – he tries very hard not to exhibit the same characteristics as his father did, and tries to create a happier home. Continue reading →
What does Holbein’s portrait capture about Thomas Cromwell’s character that even Cromwell, himself, recognises? What kind of man is Cromwell? In the rapacious world of Wolf Hall, do you find him a sympathetic character, or not?
I think that Cromwell becomes more ambitious when he gets a taste of power. I think he likes to thwart those in power with his knowledge, like when Wolsey is demanded to give up the great seal. I think that Cromwell doesn’t come across as more sympathetic in ‘Wolf Hall’ than in other books featuring him, as we see the deaths of his wife and daughters, and the fall of his mentor in his own eyes, rather than the eyes of Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn. I think he is a very caring person with a ruthless streak in his religious beliefs. I think Holbein’s portrait captures Cromwell’s essence in not flaunting his rising position, but still showing his power with the books and papers around him. It’s very clever that it’s not explicit, but it still shows the reined-in power.
What effect did Cromwell’s upbringing have on his character and his later views about the privileged society that permeates the court? How does he feel about the aristocracy and its insistence on ancient rights?
I think that Cromwell’s relationship with his father affects a lot of his thoughts and actions now he is an adult. He seems to be very fixed on not ending up like his father, and having a better relationship with his children than his father had with him. He wasn’t brought up to a privileged way of life, so he can see more clearly than those at court the importance of promoting people for their abilities rather than their wealth and titles. He believes that, in the future, self-made men will have an important role in running the country, more so than the old nobility who represent the medieval period that has now been left behind – men like him represent the future. Continue reading →
Bess describes George and herself as newlyweds happy and in love. On page 2, she says, “Only my newly wedded husband is so dotingly fond of me that he is safe under the same roof as such a temptress.” What is it that first makes Bess uneasy about her husband’s feelings towards Queen Mary?
I think it is the fact that Mary is so unusual and attractive. Bess of Hardwick was unusual but Mary was in a different league. I think it is the time that Shrewsbury spends talking to Mary that makes Bess uneasy. I think she wonders whether Mary is converting her husband to Catholicism and rebellion against the queen, which would threaten her own position. Shrewsbury turns into more than Mary’s captor; he becomes a kind of friend and protector.
Authors often challenge themselves by writing from the point of view of characters of the opposite sex. Do you think Gregory does a convincing job of creating her main male character, George Talbot? Do you think he is more or less realistic than the women in this novel, such as his wife, Bess, or Queens Mary and Elizabeth?
I think George is quite a weak character. Bess comes across more strongly in my opinion. Possibly it is difficult for a modern female to get into the mind-set of a medieval man. I don’t think he is entirely realistic, as I don’t believe that Shrewsbury was, in reality, so easily taken in by Mary, otherwise he would doubtless have been removed as her gaoler. I think Bess and Mary come across the most strongly as the story revolves most obviously around those two. Elizabeth is a background character but you can still sense her presence and influence across the events of the novel. Continue reading →
What kind of tone does the novel’s opening scene instantly set, and what does it tell us up front about Hannah’s and Elizabeth’s characters? If you’ve read other fictional accounts of Elizabeth’s life, how does this portrayal of her compare?
I think the opening of the novel shows both Hannah and Elizabeth as very strong characters, but both have their secrets. It’s an interesting opening to contrast a very real person in Elizabeth I, whose life is so well-known, and an entirely fictional one, Hannah. Somehow their lives seem to seamlessly intertwine which is quite clever. I’ve read many other fictional accounts of Elizabeth’s life, but as she doesn’t play a very important role in the developing story in The Queen’s Fool, it’s difficult to compare, because in most stories she appears in she is the main character.
In public, Hannah plays the fool to Mary’s queen, but in private their bond is more intimate. Why is the relationship valuable to each of them, both personally and politically? How is Hannah’s connection to Elizabeth different?
I think Mary feels connected to those on the outside, as she once was. Hannah is different to those who pander to Mary and want her to give them something. Mary knows that Hannah is different and that she can relax her guard with her. I think it gives Mary a respite from the public persona that she projects. Elizabeth and Hannah’s relationship is more challenging because Elizabeth is more perceptive than Mary, and I think it challenges Hannah intellectually more than her relationship with Mary, but I think she benefits equally from both relationships in different ways. Continue reading →
Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley were childhood playmates and also have in common the experience of being accused of treason and locked in the tower. How does Dudley use this shared history to influence Elizabeth? Is he successful?
I think Dudley was quite manipulative in a way. He used what he knew was Elizabeth’s weakness to get close to her, and make her almost dependent on him. He tried to ingratiate with her when she was vulnerable and alone. I think there were so few people who had things in common with Elizabeth that she was automatically drawn to someone who shared one of the most important experiences of her life and that shaped her into the monarch she was. I think there was also an element that no one really treated Elizabeth as a normal person apart from Dudley – everyone else saw her either as a bastard or a queen. I think he is successful at first, but that, as Elizabeth settles more into her role, she realizes how dangerous it could be and changes her approach to him, at least in public.
What is your opinion of Amy? She says about Dudley, “In his heart I know that he is still the young man that I fell in love with who wanted nothing more than some good pasture land to breed beautiful horses” (105). Has Amy completely misjudged her husband, particularly how ambitious a man he is?
I think that Dudley knew that he could never have that life, even if he wanted it, and I think that when he and Amy married he wasn’t so attached to Elizabeth. His father was on his way up, but not yet at the height of his power. He must have known that his future was at court. I think that Amy was blinded by her love for him, and assumed that he and she wanted the same kind of life. It was inevitable with who his father was that Dudley was destined for a life at court rather than in the country, and I don’t think that he really wanted any other kind of life. I don’t think Amy really understood Dudley, or his love for the court, because she had never been there, and I think it was difficult to understand the allure without having experienced it yourself. Continue reading →
What reasons do Jane Boleyn, Katherine Howard, and Anne of Cleves each have for seeking a place in Henry VIII’s court? Do any of them believe it might be dangerous to be a part of the royal circle, or is it a risk they’re willing to take? Does your opinion of each woman change over the course of the novel?
I don’t think Anne of Cleves had much of a choice in the end. She was a pawn in the arena of international politics. I don’t think she sought it; so much as it was thrust on her by her father and brother. No doubt she was excited about the prospect of becoming queen, but she must have also heard the stories about Henry VIII’s treatment of his previous wives, which no doubt made her a bit nervous. I think that Katherine Howard sought a place at court because it was expected of her. She was brought up to know that, as a Howard, she was important. I think she wanted the pretty dresses and jewels and the male attention. I don’t believe she had any deigns on being the king’s wife. Jane Boleyn was more complicated. She had been at court in the years when Henry VIII was still a golden prince with his whole reign ahead of him. She saw the divorce and the break with Rome – she was at court because it was expected for a noble lady. I think Katherine and Anne must have known that it was dangerous to be around the king from the start, but I don’t think Jane truly knew it until Henry VIII executed her sister-in-law and husband. After that point, I think Jane saw it as a risk she was willing to take. I actually grew to like Jane less and less over the course of the novel. She made her own fate.I liked Anne more and more, as she survived and came out of her marriage well-off. My opinion of Katherine didn’t really change – she was silly and naive but ultimately a victim. For me, she was the character that didn’t really come fully to life – she was a shadow compared to Jane and Anne. Continue reading →
Throughout the book, Alison Weir shows how Katherine was raised to confirm to contemporary cultural and religious norms, and how this influenced her thinking and her actions. What impression did this make on you, and did it aid your understanding of her dilemmas and conflicts? Did this take on her story allow you to empathise more closely with Katherine’s choices?
I think that the standards and norms of 16th century England were very different to today. People believed very strongly in God and in the existence of heaven and hell and purgatory. They saw their lives on earth as a prelude to the afterlife. I think my background in history really helps me to understand the cultural and religious norms of the 16th century. I think that the understanding of the dilemmas and conflicts that Katherine faces in the novel depend on the contemporary culture and standards. You can’t understand Katherine’s motivations and feelings without understanding the context of the 16th century. I think that the emphasis on her religious devotions and the wellbeing of her soul were the central considerations for Katherine and understanding this made me understand more about what drove her to make the choices she did – she wasn’t being stubborn on purpose, she really believed she was saving her soul, and that of her husband. Continue reading →