I absolutely ADORED this book! It took me a while to read it because I had to keep going back to reread bits and pieces, and I was sending snapshots to friends as I was reading. There were times when I was rolling around in bed laughing while I was reading it.
Greg Jenner really has a way of writing that is so engaging, no matter whether the subject is one you’re completely interested in or not. My favourite questions I think were ‘Why do Greek statues have small penises?’, ‘Is it true that a dead Pope was put on trial?’, and ‘Who invented meringue and why?’, though the historiography section was also particularly interesting for me as a historian myself, particularly looking at how we name periods.
I would love a series of these books with different questions from members of the public – it’s such an engaging way to learn about different parts of history that you might not know much or anything about, but this makes you want to go away and learn more, I think in large part because Jenner is so good at writing about these things in a way that you can understand it without having a lot of contextual knowledge.
I needed something like this to read right now given where my head is at, and I’d been eyeing up this book for a while and I just thought, sod it, I’m going to buy it, and I am so unbelievably glad that I did! I will come back to it over and over again, and now I just want to read ‘Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen’ and I can’t wait for the next series of the ‘You’re Dead to Me’ podcast either!
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.
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.
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.
As Alison Weir says in her author’s note, Jane Seymour remains an enigma. Yet writing a fictional account of her life, while based on deep research, allows a certain freedom as she chooses how to portray Jane’s choices and actions, and her interactions with other historical figures. Do you agree with the Jane Seymour that Alison has created, and did you find her different from the character shown in other fictional interpretations? Do you like her?
I quite like the Jane Seymour that Weir has created as it is a very different portrayal from the usually meek and mild Jane that we see in general.
I don’t think that Jane could have been as meek and mild as she is usually portrayed as it would have required some strength to marry a man who had his previous wife executed.
I do quite like Weir’s Jane – I generally find other fictional interpretations quite boring and bland, so this one was a pleasant change, and it seemed to work for me as well which I wasn’t expecting.
I thought Jane showed a strength of character, but was also the kind and gentle person that history accepts Jane was, without making her dull and boring, it’s very clever.
The Haunted Queen opens on a wedding celebration as two prosperous families unite. How is this need for advantageous alliance echoed throughout the novel? As a child, Jane feels safe and content with her loving family and apparently happily matched parents. Do you think this is what Jane strives to reproduce when encouraging Henry to reconcile with his elder daughter? How much do you think her father’s betrayal of the Seymour family affects her own choices?
In Tudor England marriages, especially within the nobility and royal families, were largely decided by how advantageous they were in terms of wealth, titles, and connections, so this wasn’t unusual. The Seymour family had connections with many of the great families of England through marriages.
I think that Jane coming from such a large family, and having had a seemingly happy childhood does play a role in her wanting Henry to reconnect with his eldest daughter. However, I think that Jane’s religious beliefs also play a part, as I think she sees Mary as the rightful heir over Elizabeth.
I think that Jane was completely shocked by her father’s actions, especially the fact that his betrayal was with his daughter-in-law. I think Jane and her siblings saw that their family wasn’t as perfect and happy as they had thought, and Jane wanted to recreate that happy feeling she used to have.
Jane’s desire to become a nun shows a calm determination from a young age. When she finds this is not the life she expected, she sets her heart on a place at court. She might seem a malleable character, yet tends nonetheless to achieve her ambitions. How much do you feel other people, including Jane’s own family, underestimate her quiet strength of character, and do you think it gives her satisfaction to surprise them?
Jane is willing to explore her options and test them out – she sets her heart on one thing, finds it isn’t for her and moves the goalposts, which is admirable. She can adapt when she realises something isn’t for her.
I think Jane’s parents in particular underestimate her because they are used to having no trouble from her, unlike her brothers and sisters, so they don’t understand her quiet strength.
I think it does give Jane satisfaction to surprise people because they expect her to be quiet and malleable but she is really a strong character and it gives people a shock when they realise it.
Jane is strong because she can accept that her ambition wasn’t really for her and adjust accordingly – it takes a strong person to admit they’ve made a mistake.
In the beginning of The Red Queen, young Margaret Beaufort is an extremely pious young girl, happy to have “saints’ knees” when she kneels too long at her prayers. Discuss the role of religion throughout Margaret’s life. What does she see as God’s role for her?
Margaret has always seen religion as her calling in this novel – right from the beginning she wants to enter a religious life and not marry as she is expected to do.
Margaret sees it as her role to work for the return of Henry VI and the house of Lancaster to the throne of England, and the overthrow of the Yorks.
After the death of Henry VI in 1471 Margaret sees god’s role for her as being to put her son on the throne of England and depose the Yorks.
Right until the end of her life there is plenty of evidence that Margaret was devoted to god and her religion – it doesn’t seem that she ever really wanted to marry but saw it as a necessity.
As a pious young girl, Margaret wants to live a life of greatness like her heroine, Joan of Arc. However, her fate lies elsewhere, as her mother tells her, “the time has come to put aside silly stories and silly dreams and do your duty.” (Page 26). What is Margaret’s duty and how does she respond to her mother’s words?
The duty of all girls in the 15th century was to marry and advance their families, especially heiresses, who had a lot of worth to bring to a marriage.
Margaret’s duty and destiny certainly looked good when she was married to Henry VI’s half-brother, Edmund Tudor, and birthed a Lancaster heir to the throne.
Margaret seems to have had a strong will and tried to resist her mother’s wishes, but ultimately had to comply as she didn’t really have a choice.
I think Margaret knew that she would have to do what her mother told her to, but she also hoped that her mother would give in and allow her to do what she wanted and dreamed of.
At the tender age of twelve, Margaret is married to Edmund Tudor and fourteen months later she bears him the son who will be the heir to the royal Lancaster family line. During the excruciating hours of labour, Margaret learns a painful truth about her mother and the way she views Margaret. Discuss the implications of what Margaret learns from her mother, and what is “the price of being a woman.” (63)
Margaret learns that, as a woman, she is disposable, and that her son is more important than she is (assuming it is a son of course).
Being a woman in the 15th century wasn’t easy because you were expected to marry young, make a good marriage and bear children, and that was it.
It was more likely for a man to outlive his wife, as women died in childbirth from a lack of hygiene, or issues which would be considered easy to deal with now.
I think that moment was a wake-up for Margaret because she realises that her mother will never be proud of her – she sees her as something to be used to better the family.
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!
Whom did you find the most interesting character in The Queen’s Confidante?
For me the most interesting character was Elizabeth of York, wife and queen to Henry VII, and mother of Prince Arthur.
I thought that the way that Elizabeth was portrayed in this novel was interesting – obsessed with what happened to her brothers, the Princes in the Tower, and determined to remember them.
The historical record doesn’t tell us much about what the Tudors thought about the fate of the Princes, aside from an insinuation that Richard III killed them.
I thought that Elizabeth’s love for and obsession with finding out what happened to her brothers and her son was admirable, and it also showed a softer side to Henry VII in the end.
Who would ever expect tyrannical Henry VIII to have had such a beautiful, loving mother? Do you know of children who have turned out very differently from their parents, in personality, values, and general attitude toward life? Does a parent really have so little influence over his or her children?
I think, had Elizabeth of York still been alive after 1503, she would have had a more marked influence on the future Henry VIII – her gentler ways would have softened Henry VII’s harsher approach.
I think a lot of children turn out very differently from their parents’ – I know I am very different from both of my parents, but not necessarily in a good or a bad way, just different.
A lot of what makes the child the adult they become is the environment they grow up in – if you grow up in a loving environment you are more likely to be loving to other people.
Henry VIII was loving like his mother, but his love had a darker edge and his love turned to hate, especially with Anne Boleyn.
If Prince Arthur had lived, how might English history have turned out differently?
Without Henry VIII having taken the throne, there likely wouldn’t have been an English Reformation, no Bloody Mary or Elizabeth I, and the English royal family probably wouldn’t have descended through the Stuart line.
Some historians suggest that Katherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur were in love and that their marriage was consummated and, if this were true, Katherine may well have had a son as well as daughters, without her seven-year widowhood affecting her fertility, as has also been suggested.
England might have entered a new golden age, as Henry VII had hoped, and the Tudor dynasty might have survived, but this is one of the great what-ifs of history – we might not have had the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution or countless other events which now define English history.
What early hints do you see that the boy Shakespeare will become the writing genius? What sorts of traits do you see that indicate particular talents or tendencies?
The boy was very imaginative and determined to live life to the full with his friends – these experiences have given him something to draw on.
The boy Shakespeare seems to have wanted experiences – he led the others in the group astray, into trouble, or doing things they wouldn’t otherwise have done.
Shakespeare seems very determined and ambitious – he doesn’t want to stay at home with a family, he wants more out of life.
Traits like being charismatic lend themselves to actors and public speakers, whereas being bookish and hard-working are more academic traits, and being adventurous and a bit of a daredevil lends itself to travel, where imagination lends itself to writing and art.
Over the years, some Shakespeare critics and scholars have argued that it would be impossible for a boy with Shakespeare’s small-town grammar-school background to write the brilliant plays he did with all their diversity and depth. Do you think such a mind could come from a rural background?
Good writing comes from experience and imagination – being able to use your experiences and develop them with imagination into a storyline.
You also need to understand people and emotions and, according to what Shakespeare and his family undergo in this story, it is certainly believable that he had experiences he could draw on.
I don’t think background necessarily precludes being successful, even in the 16th century, where background was more important than it is today.
Wolsey was the son of a butcher and Cromwell the son of a blacksmith, and they were two of the most powerful men in the realm – it also depends on luck and knowing the right people.
Although Will and Anne Whateley are in love from their early days, they disagree on many things. Do you think this weakens or strengthens their relationship? Can two strong-minded people who disagree on key issues really get along over the years? In love relationships, do opposites really attract?
Some disagreements can strengthen a relationship because constant agreement can be boring and disagreements mean you’re comfortable expressing feelings to that person.
I think opposites do attract but don’t always last as you need something in common in order to fully engage and talk to each other.
Strong-minded people can get along over the years, and often the big clashes result in passionate reconciliations which can make up for the negative parts.
Opposites do attract because people like what they see as the exotic and unusual rather than that which is familiar to them.
Three Sisters, Three Queens opens on the eleven-year-old Princess Margaret, who, while spoiled and materialistic, is a product of her environment. What did you think of the choice to open the novel at this stage of Margaret’s life? What did you think of Margaret? Does it matter if we, the reader, like her?
I think it was a conscious choice to show her development through the most traumatic events of her life – the loss of her brother, mother, marriage to the Scots king, and the death of her father and husband.
I don’t really like Margaret in this novel – I knew the bare bones of her story but no more, and this doesn’t make me want to read more.
Margaret is spoiled all the way through and I don’t think her losses really change her as she continues to just go after what she wants.
I don’t think it particularly matters whether we like Margaret or not, as it is about her story and not so much about the character.
Discuss the title of the novel in relation to the characters. Margaret, Katherine, and Mary must navigate their political relationships in addition to their familial relationships. Do you think they would have had stronger bonds with one another without their political responsibility? In what ways did it bring them closer together?
Margaret and Mary are sisters by blood and Katherine by marriage so in a sense Katherine is put on the back foot from the beginning.
Margaret is isolated from the other two in Scotland while Katherine and Mary are in London.
I think they would have had stronger bonds without the politics because Margaret wouldn’t have been sent to Scotland if there wasn’t a need for a political alliance, or Katherine to England, and Flodden wouldn’t have soured relations.
Politics brought them together because Katherine and Margaret both lost their husbands, though in different ways.
All three enjoyed happy marriages – Margaret to James IV, Katherine to Henry VIII (until it turned sour), and Mary to Charles Brandon.
What role do faith and religion play during the time period represented in The Last Tudor? What is the relationship between religion and politics, and how does this relationship affect the cultural climate of England? Is the country mostly united in their faith or divided? What impact does this have on the royals of England?
After the Henrician Reformation, there was the mid-Tudor crisis, already with differences of faith across England.
Edward VI was a devout Protestant as he had been raised, Mary I was a devout Catholic as her mother Katherine of Aragon had been, and Elizabeth I looked for a middle way in religion having seen the chaos of her brother’s and sister’s reigns.
Edward VI altered his Device for the Succession to stop Mary I succeeding to the throne and returning the English church to Rome.
Politics was based on religion – generally people who supported Edward VI and Jane Grey were protestant, and those who supported Mary I were Catholic, although Mary I did at first also attract the support of protestants as the real claimant to the throne by Henry VIII’s will.
What is “the true religion” according to Lady Jane Grey? Why does Jane believe that she and her family do not need to earn their place in heaven as others do? Does her faith ultimately serve her well? Discuss.
Jane Grey believes the true religion is protestant – each is influenced in religion in the way that they were raised.
Protestants believe in pre-destination – that it is already decided whether you go to heaven or hell before you’re even born and you can’t influence that through good works.
Good works leading to heaven is a Catholic doctrine.
Jane Grey relies on her faith and it ultimately helps her to die, but she wouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place if she wasn’t staunchly Protestant.
Edward VI settles the succession on Jane Grey because she is Protestant, rather than his Catholic half-sister Mary I.
Anne, only eight years old when the novel begins, grows up over the course of the book’s twenty-year span. In what major ways does her voice change from the beginning of the novel to the end? At what point in the novel do you feel she makes a real transition from a young girl to a woman, and why?
Anne becomes more cynical towards the end once she has been through war, betrayal, death and everything that comes with it, losing many of the people she loved along the way.
The point when I feel Anne really made the transition from girl to woman was when she was forced to marry Edward of Lancaster – from that moment she experienced life in a way she didn’t want to, and that changed her.
Anne begins naive and thinks that everything will go right for her because she is a Neville and they are one of the greatest families in the land; this changes when her father, Warwick, turns his back on Edward IV and Anne realises that her name now marks her out as a traitor.
Anne becomes wiser throughout the work, but also more paranoid. Her high point is late in the reign of Edward IV when she is a happily married wife and mother, then it starts to go downhill as Richard III gains power.
Consider the major turning points in Anne and Isabel’s relationship. How does their relationship progress as they grow up, marry, become mothers, and vie for power? At what point are they closest, and at what point are they the most distant? How do their views of each other change?
The point at which Anne and Isabel are closest is when Isabel is pregnant for the first time and they have to flee overseas with Warwick and Clarence; they both seem so scared they forget their enmity.
The sisters are most distant from each other after Edward of Lancaster is killed at Tewkesbury and Isabel and Clarence take Anne into their household – I think Isabel distances herself from Anne because she doesn’t want to be tainted and likes to lord it over her sister.
At first Anne sees Isabel as the all-knowing big sister, but I think she comes to realise that Isabel is in fact very vulnerable and puts on airs and graces to cover it; she likes seeming powerful.
I think in a way Isabel becomes jealous of Anne, as Anne seems to marry for love to Richard and be very happy with her husband in a stable relationship, whereas Isabel’s husband, Clarence, is volatile and unpredictable – Richard also seems to hold Edward IV’s trust, and so power stems from it, where Clarence does not.