Discussion Questions – ‘The Forbidden Queen’ by Anne O’Brien

'The Forbidden Queen' by Anne O'Brien
‘The Forbidden Queen’ by Anne O’Brien

1) What do you think of Katherine? What appeals to you about her and what doesn’t?

I quite liked Katherine, and I grew to like her more and more as the novel went on. The progress of her personality and actions was inspiring, and it was good to see her develop through so much – three relationships, two marriages, crowning of her son as king, leaving her home and family for a strange land, and the restrictions placed on her during her widowhood. I thought that at the beginning Katherine was a little naïve and hopeful. She didn’t really understand the court and hadn’t been brought up that way. She was still a child at heart. After she was widowed she had no choice but to grow up. What appeals about her is her freeness with herself, particularly in her relationships, though I can understand why in the Middle Ages it was frowned upon. I also appreciated her zest for life when with Edmund Beaufort, and how she carried it through to her relationship with Owen Tudor. What doesn’t appeal about Katherine is her naivety – she must have realised that she was a prize to be won when Edmund Beaufort was courting her.

2) Apart from Katherine, who is your favourite character in the book and why?

Aside from Katherine, I think my favourite character in this novel is Owen Tudor, because he seems to be one of the more genuine characters. I like the contradictions of Warwick’s personality, however, as well. Nevertheless, Owen is still my favourite. I love the contradictions within his character and his heritage. I’ve never really read any Welsh history so this was interesting to me, and I am definitely more interested in that side of things now. Owen as a person was interesting to me because he embodied the best of Katherine as well, and I loved to see her development over the novel. Partly I think that is what drew me to Owen. I loved the way that he eventually was ready to own up to his heritage and fight for it, and for his children, openly. I think he was real in his affections, and ready to give up everything for Katherine. I think that he and Katherine were both similar in this way, and perhaps that is what drew me to Owen, as well as Katherine.

3) What influence did Katherine’s childhood have on her as a young adult? To what extent do you consider our adult characters to be informed in these earliest years?

I think that everyone is informed a lot by their childhood – by what works and doesn’t work, and the people that are involved. Katherine’s childhood seems to have been rather wild for a French princess. No doubt that was a result of her parents separated marriage. Her mother’s history is well-known, and her father’s, too. Her childhood meant that she became close to her sister, but never really had a good relationship with her parents. I think that this informed the way she wanted to be with her children. She didn’t have a choice with Henry because he became king at such a young age. However, her children with Owen she wanted to keep close and in the end gave them up because it was what was best for them. Owen Tudor was very informed by his whole heritage, not just his parents. Henry V seems to have been informed by his absent father, who taught him what it meant to be king, but not really what it meant to be a father.

Anne O'Brien
Anne O’Brien

4) Katherine was described as ‘tall, fair and beautiful’. Yet history has written her off as the archetypal ‘dumb blonde’. Do you, from the decisions she made and the way she responded to influences at the English court, think this does justice to Katherine?

I don’t think that Katherine was a “dumb blonde” because she made a lot of difficult decisions through the years, particularly with reference to her romantic relationships. Women in history are often written off as being typically dumb, just because they were generally uneducated, and even if they were educated, it wasn’t in the same way as men. I think that Katherine was initially naïve and a little silly, but she learnt from her mistakes, and moved on. She learnt from Edmund Beaufort what it means to love, and to lose. She learnt that you cannot deal with people like Gloucester in a kind-hearted and caring way, you have to be firm, which she eventually learnt to do when the livelihood of her children was in the balance. It doesn’t do Katherine justice because she was a strong woman, and she founded a dynasty with her second husband, which feeds directly into the current royal family, through her eldest son, Edmund, who married Margaret Beaufort, and fathered the future Henry VII.

5) After Henry’s death, Katherine is left with no role to play, her part in the childhood of her son is restricted by those placed in authority over him and her. How does Katherine react? What would you have done in similar circumstances?

Katherine’s reaction to Henry’s death, and her loss of influence over her son, is a natural mother’s reaction. It happened a lot in the early modern period when children were removed early from their parents’ jurisdiction, especially in royal and noble families. Children were put under the care of a nursemaid or governess rather than their parents. Katherine’s reaction may seem underplayed to us, but no doubt she half-expected it. Nevertheless, it was an over-reaction for the time, because women (particularly royals) were expected to live apart from their children, particularly the heir to the throne. In similar circumstances I can bet I would have shouted and railed, hoping that someone would relent just to make me shut up. But I’ve never had children, so I don’t know how strong the urge is to protect them, but I can imagine it is overwhelming.

6) Shakespeare wrote a wonderful love scene for Katherine with King Henry. Do you think that the evidence merits it? If not, why did he do it? Can we forgive authors for writing their own version of history?

The evidence doesn’t really merit it, but then Shakespeare does tend to over-exaggerate. In his ‘Henry VIII’, he fails to deal with the controversial issue of Anne Boleyn’s downfall. She is seen merely as the mother of the great Elizabeth, though of course he writes with hindsight, knowing what Elizabeth would become. I think that Shakespeare did something similar here. There are very few records of truly loving royal marriages, so it does seem very unlikely. It seems particularly unlikely that they had a very loving marriage because Katherine seemed to be so desperate for love. She had been deprived of it by her parents, and then by her husband, and so it is likely that she saw Edmund and then Owen as a way to fill that gap. In a way we can forgive authors for writing their own version of history because there are always gaps in the story. What can’t be forgiven is when they change established people or events. But filling in gaps is okay, as long as the difference between fact and fiction is made clear.

Katherine of Valois from the National Portrait Gallery
Katherine of Valois from the National Portrait Gallery

7) What is your feeling about Henry V’s relationship with Katherine? Could she have done anything to improve it?

Henry V’s relationship with Katherine was really a typically medieval royal marriage. There was no love involved, only political alliance and dynastic responsibility. Today it seems unusual, but back then it was normal in royal and noble families to have a marriage based purely on responsibility rather than love. In the beginning, Katherine was naïve and expected more than what it was. She couldn’t have done anything to improve it, because Henry V didn’t want to improve it. He married Katherine because she brought with her the inheritance of the crown of France, and she was capable of bearing children to carry on the dynasty, as she eventually did. Katherine should have accepted her position sooner, and settled for a loveless marriage, because she only hurt herself more by expecting more from it. The relationship couldn’t have changed because it was never meant to be that way, it was never expected.

8) Katherine lived through a period of bloody warfare and yet seems untouched by it. Can we excuse her for this, even when the war is between two sides of her family, English against French? Would we expect her to have more sympathy with her disinherited brother?

Bloody warfare seemed to be an almost natural state in the medieval period. Many people were in fact touched by it, and lost family and friends, but they showed no outside trace of it because it was weakness, and it gave others control over you. If Katherine had been shown to sympathise with her brother then it would have put her own loyalty to the English crown in jeopardy. In this sense, she was safer with her son on the throne, as she would be very unlikely to jeopardise having her family rule England as well as France. She probably was feeling at all inside, but royals and nobles are very good at hiding their emotions. It is their way of surviving. It seems that Katherine was never very close to her brother, and so it probably seemed like it was happening so far away and unrelated to her. We would possibly expect more sympathy, but royal families were never very close, and so it doesn’t seem all that unusual, particularly as families were also constantly at war with each other, and even within themselves.

9) Katherine’s relationship with Edmund Beaufort was at best foolhardy, at worst politically dangerous. Can we have any compassion for her? Is her falling in love with Owen Tudor just as foolish and lacking in judgement?

I think that Katherine dallied with Edmund Beaufort because she wanted the freedom that he represented. Katherine had been restricted for too long – by her father, then her husband the king, and then by her son’s council. Edmund Beaufort was the first step towards Katherine’s freedom, and I think that it was her relationship with Edmund Beaufort that pushed her into the relationship with Owen Tudor. She had got a taste of the freedom, and wanted so much more. It wasn’t politically dangerous for her, because she intended nothing more from it. Edmund Beaufort himself would have made the marriage dangerous, because he wanted the influence and power that would come with marrying the Dowager Queen. We can have compassion because she was taken in by him as others were. Falling in love isn’t a choice so we cannot see her love for Owen Tudor as foolish and lacking in judgement because it wasn’t a choice at all.

Henry V 1413-1422 from the National Portrait Gallery.
Henry V 1413-1422 from the National Portrait Gallery.

10) Do you consider that Katherine deserved the punishment and restrictions inflicted on her by the Duke of Gloucester and the Royal Council?

I don’t think that Katherine deserved the treatment meted out to her by the Duke of Gloucester and the Royal Council. I think it was meted out because she was French, and the English were at war with the French. I think that, in a way, it was a punishment for her brother’s actions rather than her own. I think Gloucester in particular saw it as a way to take control of the infant king. If Katherine was out of the way then Gloucester and the Council had control of the king, and effectively ruled the country. I think the punishments were disproportionate to the crime (not existent). Her blood was her crime, not her actions. The indictment about not letting her marry was over the top, although of course there wasn’t really a precedent for it. Kings were likely to outlive queens rather than the other way around. Not allowing her to live at her dower properties was also over the top, as it was probably more dangerous to keep her around the court.

11) In what manner does Katherine’s character develop when she falls in love with Owen Tudor? Is she a better or worse person? Does your reaction to her change throughout the novel?

Katherine becomes a better person when she falls in love with Owen Tudor. She develops as a character because she is more aware of herself and her own happiness, rather than just the wants and needs of the people around her. She begins to think of herself, which she hadn’t really before. Her character changes further because she realises that she can be happy, and that completely changes the way she thinks about herself and what she wants out of life. She is definitely a better person. Even though she seems to be more selfish, it means that she is very focused instead on her family, and her wants and needs. Katherine understands more when she is in love – she sees the wider picture rather than just the confines of the court. My reaction to her did change. At the beginning I thought she was rather spoilt and naïve, and didn’t really like her. However, by the end I thought she was very selfless and loving and kind. I did really like her by the end, especially as she realised that court wasn’t what she thought it was, and she pushed for her husband’s rights.

12) What do you think of Owen Tudor? Is he hero or villain? Did he fall irrevocably in love with Katherine, or merely use her to improve his own lot in life?

I really liked Owen Tudor right from the beginning. Although he initially seemed very aloof and uncaring, it was merely a strategy to conceal his own feelings, and for his own protection. By the end we could see the real him. He was very caring and focused on his family and his lineage, and how best to protect them both from the machinations of the court. I think Owen Tudor was a hero, because he rescued Katherine from a boring and constricting life, and gave her the children she so desperately wanted. At least, that is what this novel suggests of his life and intentions. I think that he did truly love her. He couldn’t have expected much from Katherine, as he knew that any man who married her would lose anything. However, it is possible that Owen didn’t care because he had nothing to lose, he could only gain, which he eventually did. I think there was a bit of both in there. He hoped that she would give him something, but I think he would have married her anyway, even without what she eventually gave him.

13) At the end, faced with impossible pressures, Katherine retires to Bermondsey Abbey. Could you have done the same in similar circumstances?

When Katherine retires to Bermondsey Abbey it is because she fears turning into her father or her mother. She senses her father’s madness in her, and has always been worried about inheriting her mother’s “condition” of loving unconditionally, and lusting. She does love unconditionally, but overcomes her mother’s penchant for lust and silliness. I think it would have been difficult for me to do the same in similar circumstances. I am far too close to my family, and rely on them, and they on me. Katherine loved her family a lot, and it was this which drove her to pull away from her family – to protect them from herself. I couldn’t have done the same; no doubt I would have done the opposite and clung on even tighter. I admire Katherine for it, because she put everyone else first, but I think in similar circumstances I would have chosen to be selfish instead. It would have been too difficult to leave behind everyone I knew and loved.

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