Discussion Questions – ‘Secrets of the Tudor Court’ by Darcey Bonnette

Darcey Bonnette's 'Secrets of the Tudor Court' (2011).
Darcey Bonnette’s ‘Secrets of the Tudor Court’ (2011).

This book focuses on the life of Mary Howard, who married Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII.

  1. Discuss how Mary’s character changes throughout the novel.

The main that Mary undergoes in the novel is her loss of innocence. At the beginning she truly believes in her father and in the king. The turning point in the relationship with her father is when she sees him beat her mother, and finds out about his relationship with Bess Holland. With the king, there are a lot of little things, but the major event is his actions against her cousin Anne Boleyn. Mary is still essentially innocent until her husband, Henry Fitzroy dies, and she realises that she has to become more forward and ruthless in order to live. Other events which contribute to her loss of innocence are her relationship with Cedric Dane, the executions of Katherine Howard and Henry Howard, and the actions of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford. Mary’s perception of loyalty also changes, as she realises that loyalty to the king should come first and foremost in order to survive, and loyalty to your family should come after. The examples of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard illustrate this. Self-preservation is also an important motivator for Mary, particularly in the case of the accusations against her brother and father. Her mother and Cedric Dane encourage this.

  1. Who were Mary’s biggest influences?

Mary Howard’s biggest influence by far was her father Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk. Being the premier noble in the realm obviously influenced Mary a lot, as did his treatment of her mother. Mary’s fears for her own marriage are embodied when she asks Fitzroy if he would ever hit her, and she realised that perhaps her parents’ marriage wasn’t normal. His ambition and ruthlessness also influenced Mary, to the extent that she veered towards self-preservation over family loyalty, especially after the executions of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. Anne Boleyn was also a big influence on Mary, as she served Anne at a time when she was still impressionable. Anne’s vibrancy and the way she spoke and moved influenced Mary and she tried to copy it. However, she soon learned that Anne was one of a kind, and she saw that Anne’s ambition and pride brought her down. Katherine Howard was an example to Mary of the destructive power of love and innocence and really opened Mary’s eyes to the ruthlessness of her father, who was willing to let a second niece go to her death. Mary was also influenced by her brother, Henry Howard, and how he changes. She didn’t want to be like him.

  1. How did Mary’s regard for the king change throughout the novel?
Mary Howard Duchess of Richmond by Hans Holbein
Mary Howard Duchess of Richmond by Hans Holbein

When Mary first came to court, she saw the king as the embodiment of power and justice in the realm. He sat at the centre of the court and everyone bowed to him. She saw him as a positive figure, if a little mean for divorcing his first wife. Her belief in power was so strong that she immediately gravitated towards Anne rather than Katherine, particularly as they were family. When Henry began to authorise executions, like More, Fisher and the Carthusian monks, Mary began to realise that power could have drawbacks. In a lot of ways, I think she compares her father with the king, and her father comes out more favourably, so her relationship with her father is influenced by her perceptions of the king. It was the execution of her cousin Anne Boleyn (and later that of Katherine Howard) that really changed Mary’s perception of Henry VIII. The king became so mired in being all-powerful and fathering a male heir that he didn’t really care what happened to those he professed to love. With Katherine Howard, it was more a case of him being cuckolded and his pride being touched. But Katherine didn’t have to die. Mary expresses her astonishment at the fact that Henry allowed Anne of Cleves to live, and possibly opens one of the great ‘what ifs’ of history – what if Katherine of Aragon had given in to the divorce at the beginning? Would England have broken with Rome and would Anne have had a son? By the time Henry VIII dies, Mary has seen him kill two of his wives, divorce another two, kill some of his best friends including her brother, and sign the death warrant for her father while he was on his death bed.

  1. Discuss Mary’s fascination with Norfolk’s hands.

In my opinion, a lot of Mary’s fascination with Norfolk’s hands comes from her knowledge of just what he’s done with those hands. As he himself states when holding a dagger to Mary’s throat, he killed many, not just in battle, but also executions after the Pilgrimage of Grace. He also hurt her mother with his bare hands, but was also capable of loving Bess Holland with those same hands. Hands are also a sign of age, and hence weakness. Mary points out when Norfolk is in the Tower of London that his hands are small and thin and weak, possibly adhering to his weak position. Hands show wear and tear more than any other part of the body and so perhaps Mary sees looking at Norfolk’s hands as a way to try and understand what he has been doing and what he intends to do, because otherwise he is almost hidden from her.

  1. How do you think Norfolk regards Mary? What were the major contributors to his persona?

Norfolk sees Mary largely as a pawn to be used for family advantage. She is married to Henry Fitzroy in order to get the Howards closer to the crown, though Anne Boleyn was already on the throne. Although the marriage would have made Mary happy, had Fitzroy lived longer, it was a political match on her father’s side. It would also have been a political match to marry Mary to Thomas Seymour, at the same time as Henry Howard’s children married those of Edward Seymour. This was intended to ally the two most powerful families in the land, and help the Howards in influencing the future Edward VI, the nephew of Edward Seymour. Norfolk had also at one point in the novel considered marrying Mary to Henry VIII, her father-in-law, if Catherine Parr fell from power. This would have meant that three Howard girls had sat on the throne and if Mary had failed, the Howards would have been brought to their lowest ebb. Luckily for Mary this never came to pass. This manipulation of alliances, and marrying for political opportunity wasn’t really unusual in noble families in the sixteenth century. The Boleyns were the same, trying to promote their daughters to marry well and so move the family up. Norfolk did the same with Katherine Howard. The main things which contributed to Norfolk’s vision of Mary were that she had been born a girl, and girls were only good for marrying off; she appeared to be obedient to her father, right up until he tried to marry her to Henry VIII; and she was afraid of her father, afraid of his beatings.

  1. What were, in your opinion, the three biggest turning points in the novel?

The first turning point would have been the execution of Anne Boleyn. She was Mary’s first real female role model, and her first experience of life at the English court. According to Mary, Anne seemed so alive and vibrant that it was difficult to imagine her dead at all. Mary had also seen first-hand just how much Henry VIII had loved Anne, and how his love had turned to hate. The second turning point for me would have been Mary’s affair with Cedric Dane, as Mary finally had some semblance of real love, which she could have had with Henry Fitzroy had she been allowed. It is also the love she had been denied with her father and brother. The third point would have to be the promise Mary made to Fitzroy when he was on his deathbed, at that promise guided her actions for the rest of her life. She came close to marrying Thomas Seymour twice, but ultimately it was this promise to Fitzroy that stopped her, and it was the reason why she had no children of her own and took such pleasure in her nieces and nephews.

  1. Compare and contrast Mary’s relationships with Harry, Cedric and Master Foxe. Of these three, who would you consider “the love of her life”?
Thomas Howard 3rd Duke of Norfolk by Hans Holbein c.1539
Thomas Howard 3rd Duke of Norfolk by Hans Holbein c.1539

I would consider Cedric Dane the love of Mary’s life. He honestly cares about her and wants what is best for her, without stifling her. I think Harry could have grown to be the love of her life if they were allowed to live together and consummate the marriage, because a physical relationship is also important – a physical manifestation of love. However, I do think that a “love of her life” relationship with Fitzroy would have been hard, because of the influence of his father and her father and the pressures of the court and a political life. With Cedric it seemed much easier for Mary, as she could be completely herself and not have to hide who she really was, like she did with the King and even her brother and father. In contrast, her relationship with Master Foxe was really no relationship at all. It was a crush which burnt itself out in time. Mary understood this and didn’t want to lose friendship, whereas with love you risk everything to obtain it. Mary wasn’t willing to risk losing Foxe as a tutor for her nieces and nephews and so held herself in check largely.

  1. Did your opinion of Mary’s mother change throughout the novel? If so, how?

Having read a bit around the Howard family, I wasn’t that shocked to find that Bonnette had written Elizabeth had been beaten by her husband, as there were rumours at the time. What did shock me is that it was delved out so openly and in front of the children. She appeared brave and strong, standing up to her convictions, not unlike her niece Anne Boleyn. It takes great courage to do that. I think the perception we get of Mary’s mother is one which is intended to draw comparisons between her and her husband, and draw us into believing that Mary took after her mother, more of a heroine than baddie. This opinion was only enhanced when she told the King’s advisors everything she knew about Norfolk and Surrey’s supposed treason. She sets a good example of self-preservation, and has a big heart to welcome and protect her husband’s long-term mistress into her home after everything. She was a very strong and brave woman and deserves respect, especially for the way she handled Norfolk’s violence and ambition, and tried to shield her children from it, but still stay true to her husband.

  1. Why do you think the novel was told in the first person, present tense? Is this a writing style you like?

For a novel, I think the first person, present tense is an excellent literary device. It automatically gets the reader involved in the story emotionally, because it is easier to feel emotion expressed directly from a person, rather than through a third party. I also think that with a controversial story like that of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, it is essential to feel more than just pity towards Henry VIII’s victims. The first person makes you angry on their behalf, sad, happy in places, confused, as they might be. This is effective because we only find out what that person knows, rather than what everyone knows. It keeps some things back, which means as a reader you’re always being surprised. I think Darcey Bonnette chose to write in the first person, present tense because it allows her to feel and write easier. In my experience, stories told in the first person tend to be better written because it flows like a stream-of-consciousness narrative.

  1. Why does Mary refer to her father as Norfolk throughout the novel? How does this affect her view of him?
Henry Fitzroy Duke of Richmond and Somerset c.1534 by Lucas Hornebout
Henry Fitzroy Duke of Richmond and Somerset c.1534 by Lucas Hornebout

For me, it immediately hit me that Mary always referred to her father as Norfolk, rather than ‘father’. What this suggests is that Mary didn’t really see her father as her father. A father should be caring and want what’s best for his children, but Norfolk didn’t seem to want that. He was more concerned with ambition and what his children could do for him than what they wanted and their own happiness. Hence, Mary’s marriage to Henry Fitzroy was so important, because it gave the Howards the link to the royal family, as did Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII (Norfolk’s niece). Calling a father by his name (or title) is very impersonal, and it’s almost like Mary doesn’t want to acknowledge that she’s related to him. Ashamed? Embarrassed? Probably both, as he is so ruthless and uncaring.

  1. Three themes are present in the novel: self-preservation, the rainbow, and the circlet. What is the relevance of these three themes to the story? Why do you think I chose to expound on them?

Self-preservation is a key issue in the novel, as Mary tries to protect her physical self, and her heart. Her physical self is tested by Norfolk in particular as he beats her in order to exert his own authority, power and influence. Her heart is tested by her relationships with Fitzroy, Foxe and Dane, though the latter in particular. As both Fitzroy and Dane end up dead and Foxe moves away, it tests Mary’s love / lust for them all, and her feelings. Self-preservation is also there for Norfolk. It seems to be his main personality trait. No matter what happens to his family (e.g. Anne Boleyn) he always manages to survive, until his son is indicted for treason. He is only saved by the death of Henry VIII. The rainbow is a symbol of change and happiness. It appears at the parts of the novel where Mary is at her happiest and when Norfolk has the least effect on her. Her happiness seems to coincide with the failure of Norfolk to influence her. In contrast, the circlet is most evident in the novel when Norfolk is being influential, but it is also related to the abuse of Norfolk towards Mary, but she does see it as a positive symbol as it reminded her of her marriage to Fitzroy.

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