‘The Tudor Wife’ by Emily Purdy – Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss the roles guilt, jealousy, and vengeance play in the novel. How do these feelings affect and motivate Jane and influence the outcome of the story?

Jane is effectively guilty of the deaths of both Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. This is because she accused Anne, with George, of committing incest, and then turned on Katherine. She is also responsible for her own death as well as theirs. These actions were both to try and save herself. Jane also feels guilt over George’s death, as the charges were fabricated and it has been argued that she hoped George would save himself at Anne’s expense, and they could live happily together. It is this guilt that, in my opinion, leads to her aiding Katherine Howard in her trysts – she wanted someone to have what she couldn’t. Jane was jealous of her husband’s relationship with his sister, hence where the charge of incest derived from. Similarly to Jane, Anne was jealous of Henry’s relationships with other women. There is a further consequence of Jane assisting Katherine – she becomes jealous of Katherine’s happiness. Jane wanted vengeance on Anne for supposedly ruining her marriage, as George appeared to prefer Anne to Jane. Jane also wanted vengeance on Katherine for finding with Culpeper what she never had with George. Henry wanted vengeance on both Anne and Katherine for cheating on him and cuckolding him. Ultimately, it was only Henry who achieved vengeance, by executing the women, as Jane was ultimately also executed, and was miserable for her whole life.

Emily Purdy's 'The Tudor Wife' (2010).
Emily Purdy’s ‘The Tudor Wife’ (2010).
  1. Discuss the relationship between Anne and George. Is incest a valid suspicion, or is this all in Jane’s mind? Jane blames Anne because George doesn’t love her, and she is convinced Anne ruined her marriage – is this true?

Incest was theoretically possible, but not likely. George and Anne were close, but this was unusual between siblings in the sixteenth century, from all accounts. It’s not unusual today, but siblings, particularly brothers and sisters would be raised apart, as girls would be taught at home and boys sent away to tutors, especially in the nobility. Possibly it was this unusual relationship that meant that incest was theoretically possible. It’s all in Jane’s mind. She is so in love with George and so jealous of Anne that she cannot see that a false accusation is wrong. She merely wants vengeance on Anne, and doesn’t seem to care that George is also implicated. Jane believes that Anne ruined her marriage because of too close a relationship with George. However, this is not true. Regardless of George’s relationship with Anne, if he wanted to love Jane or spend time with her, he could have. From all accounts, Jane wasn’t a very nice person – she was manipulative and cold, and wanted George all to herself. This was her downfall. The incest accusation was only the beginning. Ultimately it was her jealousy that brought her down.

  1. Discuss Katherine of Aragon and the stance she takes regarding her marriage to Henry VIII. She could have made things a lot easier for herself by giving in, but she chose to stand her ground. Do you admire her for this, or not? Do you think she did the right thing?

It was a silly and dangerous stance to take. However, it was also admirable, and she didn’t know at that point just how ruthless and uncaring Henry could be. That was only revealed through his relationship with Anne Boleyn. It appears that Katherine thought Henry would soon tire of Anne and set her aside. Even if Katherine did know how it would end, no doubt she would have acted in the same way again. She wanted, above all else, to protect her daughter’s rights. If Katherine accepted her marriage was invalid, then her daughter, Mary, would have been illegitimate and unfit to rule, which she was declared eventually, but not without a fight. Katherine incurred Henry’s wrath and ultimately precipitated the English Reformation by her refusal to co-operate. However, the Reformation would have happened as long as Anne had the king’s ear, in my opinion. Katherine stuck to the courage of her convictions and what she believed in. The strength of her faith in God was amazing, and the fact that she wasn’t fighting for herself, but also for her daughter, makes it all the more admirable. However, the consequences of her actions could have been so much more severe for both Katherine and Mary if Henry had been inclined to do so.

  1. Discuss the song ‘The Holly’ and the way it is used in the novel. It is sung twice, first by Henry and later by Anne. How does the meaning, the message conveyed by the song, change between the two performances?

The song is first sung by Henry VIII on p. 111. In my opinion, it seems as if Henry has cast Anne as the holly and himself as the ivy, as the song claims that as the holly grows so does the ivy. Hence, as Anne flowers and her love grows, as does Henry’s. However, it could also be the other way around, with Henry as the holly and Anne as the ivy. In this case it would suggest that as Henry pays more attention to Anne, she grows more enamoured of him. Either way, the song in this instance is a testament to their growing love and affection for, and commitment to, each other. Henry seems to have written it to promise Anne his commitment and his heart, probably to reassure her that he will not stray. If this is the case, he remained true to his word for six years, until they were married. The likeness to nature could also have an affect that Henry wasn’t aware of. Nature tends to be wild, which also fits Anne’s nature. The second time the song is sung by Anne on p. 200. Anne appears to be attempting to renew Henry’s love towards her – to remind him of what they had shared and what she believed he could never have with anyone else. However, it probably also served to remind Henry of how bewitched he probably seemed, possibly encouraging him to break with her.

  1. Discuss Jane’s relationship with Cromwell. Each uses the other; does each of them get what they are expecting from the relationship, or does it turn out to be more than they bargained for?

I think that in the Tudor court it was all about people using each other. This was clear for Cromwell, but I think that Jane hoped to get more out of the relationship than he did. Cromwell wanted to use Jane to get information on Anne Boleyn, in particular her relationship with her brother, George, to help solidify the charges, as incest didn’t come into the equation until Jane’s accusation. I think Cromwell gets more from the relationship than he initially expects. He probably doesn’t expect Jane to be quite so open, or so willing to denounce Anne and so do anything to bring her down. From Jane’s point of view, I think she wanted to hurt George for hurting her by sleeping with Cromwell, though George never knew. I also think she hoped that if George acted properly contrite and innocent Jane expected him to get off. She hoped George would love her as he had loved Anne. Jane didn’t expect George to purposefully incriminate himself. In that respect it was more than she bargained for. Cromwell got more than he bargained for in not realising quite how clingy Jane was.

  1. Discuss Mark Smeaton. Why does he admit to being guilty? Does torture alone induce his confession?
Jane Boleyn, nee Parker, Lady Rochford, by Hans Holbein.
Jane Boleyn, nee Parker, Lady Rochford, by Hans Holbein.

What I’ve always thought about Mark Smeaton was that he had a crush on Anne and so confessed (in part) in order to make it seem as though his dream was true. He loved Anne so much that he would do anything to be with her – even lying to make it seem as if he had even if he hadn’t. This would also explain maybe why he didn’t retract his confession on the scaffold – he wanted to die believing that his wish had come true. Even if he retracted he would not have been saved, so he may as well have salvaged what he could from a bad situation. I also think that Smeaton was quite weak and couldn’t withstand torture (if in reality it was used) and so confessed in order to stop the pain. He is described as being quite beautiful and vain, and I think that the destruction of his looks would have been quite a shock for him, and that he wanted that to stop. Surely he would have known that even had he pleaded not guilty he would still have died.

  1. Discuss the impact the executions of George and Anne Boleyn have on Jane’s life.

The executions of George and Anne Boleyn shape the rest of Jane’s life. They are the reason why she aids Katherine Howard in her adultery. In part, I think she blames Henry VIII for getting rid of Anne, and by extension, George. She wanted Katherine to have what she couldn’t. However, I also think that there was a more sinister motive as Jane wanted to hurt Katherine and Henry as she had been hurt, but she didn’t expect it to backfire on her as she managed to survive Anne’s fall. George’s execution was particularly influential on Jane. She knew that it was in part her fault, as she allegedly told the King’s agents (namely Cromwell) about Anne’s incest with her brother, which is what implicated George in the first place. She also gave evidence against them, hoping that by sacrificing Anne, she could save George. Because of George’s reckless actions, Jane realised how much George hated her. He was willing to die rather than spend the rest of his life with her. That was hugely influential on her, and particularly in her actions in aiding Katherine Howard’s adultery. Jane must have felt guilty about her role in their executions as her final speech was to vindicate George, though it only slightly vindicated Anne. She wanted people to know that George was innocent and that she made it up. In the end she did in part do the right thing.

  1. Discuss Jane Seymour. Did she really love Henry or was her every move calculated, either by herself or her family? Was she playing Anne Boleyn’s game?

In my opinion Jane did love Henry, but in this particular novel she does come across as entirely calculating and ambitious. Possibly even if she loved Henry her every move was calculated by her family anyway. They saw the way to the top and took it. Anne Boleyn had set an example, and others tried to follow. Her own ambition and success made her position unstable. The only way her position could be secured was by providing Henry with a son and heir, which she failed at, and this opened up the way for Jane and her family, and Jane succeeded where Anne failed – she provided Henry with a son. She was playing Anne Boleyn’s game, but essentially played it better than Anne did, and Jane succeeded where Anne failed.

  1. Discuss the role of childbirth in the novel. So much depends on it; it is a matter of life, death, and also, for queens and noblewomen, of providing a male heir. Both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn lose Henry’s favour when they fail to give him a son. Jane Seymour dies after giving birth to a son. Jane Boleyn has strong maternal yearnings; discuss how her dream of motherhood becomes a nightmare and how this influences her behaviour.
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

Childbirth isn’t just a key feature of this novel, but of women’s lives in general. Women’s fates could be decided in childbed. For example, Anne Boleyn miscarried of a male foetus in January 1536 and she was dead by May 1536. Both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn only had surviving daughters and this was a key reason why both of them were eventually divorced – to make way for a new wife who would hopefully have a son. Neither of them died in childbed, unlike Jane Seymour. She gave Henry the son and heir he had spent nearly 30 years waiting for and died of puerperal fever just days later. Jane Seymour’s untimely death was a big reason why Henry VIII didn’t remarry until 1540 (which was a disaster) as he spent three years in mourning. Jane Boleyn’s maternal instincts are strong, but they remain unrealised, as George isn’t interested in his wife. Most men only slept with their wives in order to get the vital son and heir, particularly in the upper classes, where it was essential to have a son to pass their wealth and titles onto, as women couldn’t inherit, or only rarely. At the beginning of her marriage, Jane is hopeful of bearing children and having her husband’s love. Her first hope is shattered when she realises that George doesn’t love her, and probably never will, and this reflects onto her hope of children, as he rarely sleeps with her, making it difficult to conceive a child. It makes her more determined to ruin Anne’s life, as she had a daughter but no son, and it makes her determined to allow Katherine Howard to conceive, even if the child wasn’t the King’s.

  1. Discuss Anna of Cleves’s role in the novel. What do you think of her ruse to make herself unattractive to Henry?

I think that her clever ruse to make herself unattractive meant that she was cleverer than she is given credit for. I don’t know whether this was actually the case in reality. In the novel people assume Anne of Cleves is slow and stupid, but this demonstrates her intelligence and determination to act to avoid a catastrophe. She only has a relatively small role in the novel, as her marriage to Henry lasted only six months, but it is a pivotal one, as it was the first time that any woman had survived intact a marriage to Henry VIII. It demonstrated that it could be done, where Katherine, Anne and Jane had failed. Jane would have survived had she lived past childbirth. She couldn’t have fallen like Anne did after giving Henry a son who survived. Anne of Cleves’s story also demonstrates the kind of life Katherine of Aragon could have had if she had given in to Henry and allowed her marriage to be annulled. It could also have given Anne Boleyn a chance to conceive earlier than she did, and possibly survive.

  1. Discuss Katherine Howard and the role sexuality plays in her life and how it influences the decisions she makes. Katherine’s sexual experiences at such an early age often seem shocking to modern readers; discuss how our modern beliefs about childhood and child abuse differ from those of the Tudor era, when women were often married and mothers by the age of sixteen.

To be having sex at the age of fifteen or so (depending on which date of birth you accept for Katherine Howard) wasn’t really unusual at the time. What was unusual in the nobility was having sex before marriage. This was only ‘acceptable’ if you were a King’s mistress. Sex within marriage but outside it was only ‘acceptable’ for women if you had already given your husband two male heirs, as the succession had to be secured. It wasn’t really acceptable at all, but a lot of husbands turned a blind eye, particularly if the affair had a political purpose. What was different about the affairs of Katherine Howard is that they were with people far beneath her in rank. She was a Howard: of one of the highest families in the land, and she was sleeping with commoners without any respect for her own body. Her sexuality was one of the reasons why she caught Henry VIII’s attention. She was able to use her body and her youth to attract the King, who wanted a wife who couldn’t argue with him and wouldn’t interfere in the affairs of state or religion. Katherine Howard fitted this perception. Katherine’s looks and sexuality influenced every single move she made. She wanted to be admired and have nice clothes and jewels above all else. Henry could provide this, but she was also very physical and wanted that side of the relationship, which is what Thomas Culpeper could provide for her.

  1. Discuss the role ghosts play in the novel. Are the ghosts Jane sees real, or are they delusions of her mind? Is Jane really insane?

I don’t believe that the ghosts Jane Boleyn sees are real. I think that they feel real to her, because of what happened with Anne and George Boleyn and her guilty feelings surrounding their deaths. I think the idea of their ghosts around her is also part of the reason why she confesses on the scaffold that she lied about Anne and George committing incest. I think that was her way of trying to put their ghosts to rest. I think it was also a bit of a fear about the afterlife. Back in the sixteenth century, the afterlife was a very prominent idea, and I think that Jane was scared of spending too long in purgatory and tried to put right what she had done wrong. The ghosts were delusions of Jane’s mind, but they were a manifestation of her own conscience as she approached her own death. Jane wasn’t insane, as we would understand it now, but back then it would have seemed like she was insane, as people had little concept of things like ghosts and hauntings, which we accept as normal, if a little weird. The fear of witchcraft had a huge effect on ideas of imagination, and it would have seemed like Jane was mad, when in fact seeing ghosts was the way of her conscience of trying to persuade her to put right past sins.

  1. Which of the five wives of Henry VIII who appear in this novel was the happiest one? The luckiest one? The unluckiest one? Discuss the five women and how they were alike and how they differed from one another?
Katherine Howard miniature by Hans Holbein.
Katherine Howard miniature by Hans Holbein.

What all the wives of Henry VIII had in common was the way in which they were merely pawns in a bigger game. Katherine of Aragon was married to Henry to secure an English-Spanish alliance. Anne of Cleves was the same, but an English-Cleves alliance. Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Katherine Howard were largely because of lust, and because of Henry VIII’s conscience telling him that he needed a male heir to succeed him to avoid a repeat of the Wars of the Roses. Jane Seymour was the antithesis of Anne Boleyn, and that is probably why Henry was so attracted to her – she didn’t remind him at all of Anne, who had failed him and made him look like a fool. Similarly, Katherine of Aragon was the antithesis of Anne Boleyn, and this was probably why Henry was attracted to Anne rather than one of the more pious and English rose-type women serving Katherine. Katherine Howard was also the antithesis of Anne of Cleves, and Katherine was also different to those who had gone before, having very little court experience, and being seemingly innocent, and actually having had a lot of sexual experiences. The luckiest wife was definitely Anne of Cleves, as she got out of marriage to Henry alive, which none of the earlier three did, or her successor. The happiest one was also probably Anne of Cleves as she could control her own life as she saw fit and not answer to anyone else. The unluckiest one I would say was Anne Boleyn. She did nothing wrong, but was brought down by circumstance and bad luck – the main piece of bad luck being her inability to produce a male heir.

  1. Discuss the enduring fascination with Anne Boleyn. Of all of Henry’s wives, she is the one most written and talked about. Why? What is it about Anne Boleyn that still captivates us more than four hundred years after her death?

Anne Boleyn is, personally, the fascinating of Henry’s wives because she was so wronged. Although Katherine Howard was also executed, it seems she was guilty as charged. Anne was innocent of the charges against her and her spectacular fall is unique. Her rise to power also offers significant historical research prospects as it was also unique. She was only the second commoner to sit on the throne of England (the first being Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV a century earlier) and her rise encompasses the most controversial issues of the day: the divorce, or ‘great matter’ and the English Reformation. With so many key issues interlinked in her life, it is difficult not to be fascinated by Anne, the circumstances of her life and death, and her legacy. Although Jane Seymour gave Henry a son, Edward VI, Anne Boleyn gave England Elizabeth – the first sign that a female monarch could be a successful ruler.

  1. Jane has long been vilified as the woman whose testimony helped send Anne and George Boleyn to their deaths, and who later aided and abetted Katherine Howard’s adultery. After reading her story, in her own words, do you think she has been judged harshly or justly? Has your opinion altered? Are you more, or less, sympathetic towards her?
Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein 1539
Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein 1539

I believe that Jane knowingly sent Anne and George to their deaths, as she was jealous of their close relationship. I think she has been judged justly, particularly with respect to Anne. With the case of Katherine Howard, Jane was merely a pawn for Katherine to use, but she still consented to it, and was even eager to be a part of it. After reading the book my opinion hasn’t altered, but actually been cemented. If she was indeed a bit mad it would make me more sympathetic towards her, but I have yet to be convinced.

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