Discussion Questions – ‘The Boleyn King’ by Laura Anderson

'The Boleyn King' by Laura Anderson (2013).
‘The Boleyn King’ by Laura Anderson (2013).

1. If “History is written by the victors”, what do you think is the biggest impact of changing a story?

The biggest impact of changing a set story, particularly one where it was written by the winners, is that you can show it from a different point of view – what would have happened if the losers had in fact won? That is what is shown in this story – what if Anne Boleyn hadn’t been executed and had a son to become King? In changing history for fictional purposes it opens up a new realm of thought and possibility, and opens up more avenues for discussion and debate. ‘What ifs’ are a huge part of history. What if Germany had won the Second World War? What if Prince Arthur hadn’t died in 1502? What if the Princes in the Tower hadn’t been murdered and Edward V had ruled? All of these and more are unanswered questions that historians have tried to explore. But we will never know the answers, because the events didn’t happen. There is infinite possibility to explore, but it offers little insight into the history that did happen.

2. William says “I will be the best because I’ve earned it. I don’t need you to hand me my victories.” (page 12) Do you think this is true? Is William a self-made man? Does your opinion change of him by the end of the book?

I think at the point in the novel at which he says it, it isn’t true because he hasn’t even entered his majority, and the decisions are still largely made by the Lord Protector (Rochford) and the regency council. However, I think that by the end of the novel he has more than proven himself with his knowledge of his sister, Elizabeth, and her capabilities, his promise in battle, and in making difficult decisions about his mother and the possibility of him being illegitimate. However, I also think that he is a little naive still, particularly when it comes to Minuette and Dominic. William assumes that everything will be handed to him on a plate because of his position and who his father was. He isn’t a self-made man because he was made by his father, his uncle Rochford and the regency council. He was subject to their decisions until he turned eighteen, and it’s difficult to break away from that.

3. Why do you think their reputation within the court is so important to people like William and Elizabeth? Why are even conjecture and rumour dangerous? Do you think Minuette and Dominic feel the same way?

I think to act in the way that Minuette and Dominic did over the Penitent’s Confession demonstrates that they understand the importance of rumour and conjecture, not only to individuals but even to a powerful force like the monarchy, which shouldn’t be easily overthrown. I think that, to William and Elizabeth, their reputation is so important because it affects the entire country – how the people see them both, and how negotiations are conducted on their behalves and their wider family. It also affects foreign affairs. Within international diplomatic treaties the monarch has to be seen as trustworthy and honest, and if rumour belittles this trust then they don’t have the strength to bargain any further. The monarch is at the centre of the country with the royal family, and it is the fact that William is his mother’s son that makes it difficult in some ways for him to be trusted. Conjecture and rumour are dangerous because, even if they can’t be proven, they can still irrevocably damage the monarchy, the nobility, and those who depend upon it. If rumours can’t be disproven then there is always a possibility that they could be true. The importance in this novel of the Penitent’s Confession (‘proving’ that William was in fact illegitimate and not fit to rule) demonstrates the importance of rumour. Even if the Confession was just a rumour, it can’t be disproven. Even just the idea that a document like that is out there could be damaging.

Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575
Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575

4. William and Elizabeth are of royal parentage. Dominic is the son of a supposed traitor. Minuette is the daughter of a trusted servant and confidante. How much do you think parentage matters to these characters? Where does it affect them most in life? How have they each overcome the generation before them?

Because William and Elizabeth are of royal parentage they automatically have a higher place in life, regardless of how they actually are. In contrast, Minuette, and particularly Dominic, have had to work much harder to get where they are. You could say more than William and Elizabeth that Dominic and Minuette have earned their places in the world. William would have been the golden child – the boy that Anne Boleyn gave birth to after the divorce and for Henry VIII after 27 years on the throne, when the dynasty should have already been secured. Elizabeth was the disappointing first child, being a girl. Nevertheless, both her and her brother were brought up to have whatever they wanted. Minuette is trusted as her mother was before her, but Dominic’s relationship with William comes from William’s love and his own service, it is fragile, but he has earned it. When they are together away from the centre of the court I don’t think it really matters to them, but they must always be aware that William is the King and will never be truly alone. I think those kinds of relationships were rare in the sixteenth century. It affects them most in their private dealings with each other, as they have to be aware of their surroundings. In public they can be distant, as that is what is expected of them. To overcome the generation before them they have had to change and mould to the times. Dominic has had to overcome the taint of treason and William has had to secure his rule and escape from under the ruling thumb of his mother, Anne, and uncle, George. Minuette has had to sustain her mother’s position at court and her friendship with Elizabeth will juggling Elizabeth’s household and royal service.

5. The rift between Protestants and Catholics is a huge divide in The Boleyn King. Compare and contrast it to today’s societal divisions.

There are many types of divisions in society today, as there was then. In the early modern period, there weren’t just religious divisions, but also within the ranks of society – the king was at the top, followed by dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, barons and knights, and then the general population. That was another form of societal division, not unlike today, although the rift in today’s society doesn’t always seem as obvious as it was then. In America today, there are societal divisions between Republicans and Democrats (with a generalised north-south divide). This north-south divide was also evident in the early modern period, with the north being a much more volatile place, with the south much closer to the centre of power, and therefore more easily controlled. What we have now, which wasn’t evident in the early modern period is an urban-rural divide, with people in the cities being closer to shops, which has brought about a new shopping culture.

6. In tweaking history for this story, the author opens up a world of possibilities. What historical event do you think would have the greatest impact if changed? What would that impact be?

Really, I think that Katherine of Aragon having a living son would have changed the course of history. Firstly, it would have halted the Reformation, as Henry VIII wouldn’t have had the option to break with Rome. Because he was pushed to it by Anne Boleyn, or at least by the prospect of his marriage to her, he did it to get what he wanted, but realistically, he remained devoted to Catholicism. The break would have happened eventually, but not at this critical moment. We might not remember Henry VIII the way that we do – with six wives, and his quest for a male heir. It may just have been one wife for all we know. If Anne Boleyn hadn’t married Henry VIII (which wouldn’t have happened had Katherine of Aragon borne a son) then we wouldn’t have everything that Elizabeth I gave to us, because she wouldn’t have been born. We may not have had the importance placed on the arts, or the religious divisions, or the success of the Spanish Armada, or the execution of Mary Queen of Scots which paved the way for Great Britain, and the union of England and Scotland. We will, quite obviously, never know what would have happened had Katherine of Aragon borne a son, but no doubt we wouldn’t have had ‘Bloody Mary’ or Elizabeth I and England would have stayed faithful to Rome, at least for probably a century longer.

7. In the context of this story, what qualities do you think make for an ideal servant? An ideal ruler?

An ideal servant has to be able to take orders and not balk at them. I think that is the key. However, to be truly useful, no matter what the peril, you have to tell the truth to a degree, whether a decision is bad or good. An ideal servant should be dedicated to whomever they serve, and be willing to die to save them. An ideal servant is someone who is also a friend, and who is not afraid to speak their mind. An ideal servant should also be unfailingly loyal and determined to serve to the best of their ability. An ideal ruler should, in contrast, be fair and loyal to the country as a whole. They should be willing to uphold the laws of the land and dispense justice fairly. They should also be fair to those who are below them, and kind to their family and those within the court. The difference between a servant and a ruler is that a servant is supposed to follow and a ruler is supposed to lead.

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

8. In an age where social standing is of the utmost importance, what do you think is the most important reason for a person to be married? Why? Does your opinion change for royalty versus commoners?

My personal opinion is that people should always marry for love. However, in early modern Europe, that was rare, particularly among royalty and the nobility. I think in the early modern period, the most important reason for a person to be married was for country or familial alliances, as Katherine of Aragon did, first with Prince Arthur, and second with Henry VIII, to cement an English alliance with Spain. It is what the heir to the Earldom of Northumberland was expected to do – Henry Percy married Mary Talbot, the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. It is what Anne Boleyn was supposed to do in the proposed marriage alliance with James Butler, the heir to the Earl of Ormond. Alliances like these meant that powerful families could join together to share wealth or pass on titles to a friend if they only have a daughter. Other reasons include wealth or titles or power, popular throughout the ages as a reason for marriage. I think that there was more pressure on royalty to marry right because of the international repercussions. Commoners were freer to choose their own husbands or wives because there were no real reasons for them not to. On the other hand, royalty tended to have to marry a foreign prince or princess because it meant that alliances were being forged which would unite the main powers, and stop wars from breaking out. Examples of this include the marriages of Katherine of Aragon, or the marriage of Mary I to Philip II of Spain or the marriage of Juana the Mad of Spain to Philip the Handsome.

9. Do you think members of royalty can have friends? What about someone like a present-day world leader? Could you be friends with your boss, or your employees, the way William and Dominic are friends?

I think it is very difficult for people in a position of power to have friends, true friends, anyway. This is because there will always be a gulf of some sort, an awareness that one person is placed above the rest, no matter how hard you try. The person in power may think they have true friends, but those below the leader on the social scale may feel very differently. I think modern-day royalty can have friends, because the distance between royalty and the common people has decreased since the early modern period. This is largely due to the wedding of Prince William of Wales and Catherine Middleton, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011. A present-day world leader is in a similar position. Another thing about these people in high places and the difficulties with friendship is that common people will strive to take advantage from them, and manipulate them. This is a constant problem for people in positions of authority. It’s difficult to be friends with a boss, or with employees, because there is always a distance between people. That is why the friendship between William and Dominic is so important to the story, and so unusual at the same time. It shows the changes that resulted from the changed reign of Henry VIII and William.

10. Compare and contrast how each of the four main characters deal with the idea of castle intrigue.

I think that William and Elizabeth accept castle intrigue because they are so used to it. Elizabeth, in particular, must have understood how close her mother came to losing her life, although this is said with hindsight, and may not in fact be true. I think that Elizabeth is slightly less into intrigue than William is because he needs it more than she does. I think that Elizabeth sometimes feels as if she is being watched, and that puts her off doing the same to someone else. However, she does also understand the need for it, to keep corruption to a minimum. William needs spies and intrigue in order to keep people loyal to him, and he accepts the need for it, even if he doesn’t entirely approve of it. On the other hand, Dominic and Minuette were not brought up in the world of the court from birth, and so they probably understand less the need for intrigue and the lack of loyalty, as they are both very loyal people. However, I think that as they adjust to the court and life within it, they admit that there is a need for intrigue, particularly in relation to the succession, and the possibility that at least some of the population see Mary as the rightful heir instead of William.

11. What would be the most unnerving secret message that you could receive? In what manner?

I think that the most unnerving secret message I could receive in the early modern period would be one which related to the king, and could be construed as treason, like the one that Kat sees taped to the bottom of Anne’s stool in her chamber from Thomas Wyatt in The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper. I can’t keep secrets anyway, so something of that calibre would probably kill a lot of people. I would also be incredibly unnerved if I got a secret message about myself – that would make me incredibly paranoid. The method doesn’t really bother me – I think any secret message would be unnerving, no matter how it was received. If it’s important enough to be sent in secret then it’s unnerving anyway. Probably discovering a secret message that I’m not supposed to see would unnerve me the most – knowing a secret I’m not supposed to, which would unnerve me more than a secret someone wanted me to know.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540

12. Compare and contrast what is deemed public in this novel versus what is deemed private. How does that compare in today’s internet culture?

I’m going to start this with the obvious – in today’s internet culture nothing is deemed private anymore, because anything at all you put online can inevitably be seen by other people. Today, we seem to be a society where we’re not that interested in having a private life – we tend to put everything in the public sphere. However, I think this is at least partly due to the ‘Big Brother’ style society we live in, with the government constantly worried about terrorism and the like. In Anderson’s novel, the royal family has nothing private, as they are in the public eye twenty-four hours a day. However, servants like Dominic and Minuette would have some privacy, although this would be limited because they live within the court, surrounded by others. Private matters for servants include matters of the heart, unless they want marriage, as well as family, unless they are overly ambitious on their behalf. The only things royalty have which are secret are the thoughts in their heads, and what they feel. In a lot of ways we do have more private today, because at least we can decide ourselves what goes into the public sphere, even if rumours abound as much today as they did 500 years ago.

13. What is said in letters in this novel versus what is said out loud? Which do you think has more impact? Which method of communication is more important to you?

Letters say more in many ways than speaking out loud does, because letters people tend to reveal more, hoping that they won’t be intercepted, whereas people, particularly at court, tend to keep their own counsel. I think that Minuette is more forthcoming than others at the court, both in speech and in writing. She writes what she feels in her diary, believing that it will never be seen. But it does offer a clear insight into her mind and the inner workings of the court. The most important and affecting writing in the novel is the account signed by Marie Hilaire Wyatt Howard, saying that Anne Boleyn had been unfaithful to Henry VIII and that William wasn’t in fact that king’s son. It could turn the monarchy on its head. What is important about written accounts over spoken ones, is that written ones have more chance to survive than spoken ones, as the latter are only passed on by word of mouth, whereas written ones can last forever. In that vein, written accounts have more impact long-term, but short-term spoken accounts have more impact as they can destroy a reputation, or even a king.

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