Discussion Questions – Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

'Queen's Gambit' by Elizabeth Fremantle (2013)
‘Queen’s Gambit’ by Elizabeth Fremantle (2013)

1. Elizabeth Wilhide has praised Queen’s Gambit, saying, “Fremantle…sheds an intriguing new light on Katherine Parr, one of history’s great survivors.” Aside from surviving her marriage to Henry VIII, in what ways is Katherine Parr a survivor? What do you think her greatest act of survival is? Why?

Katherine Parr survives not only a marriage to Henry VIII, but two earlier marriages and a later one. Parr’s second husband, Lord Latymer, was involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace. She manages to survive without a stain on her reputation, although Fremantle’s novel suggests that she was raped, along with her step-daughter, Meg. Katherine survives this experience and learns from it. She solidifies her belief in god through the actions of that time in Snape. Katherine also survived a marriage to Thomas Seymour, who betrayed her with her step-daughter, Elizabeth, if rumours were true and the story is how Fremantle told it. Seymour was later arrested and executed, so it seems like Katherine had a close shave. Katherine Parr’s greatest act of survival is probably surviving a marriage to Henry VIII, particularly taking into account how close she came to arrest and almost certain death. Other wives were not so lucky – Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard.

  1. Neither Katherine nor Meg will talk about what happened at Snape. How have the events affected each of the women? Do you agree with Dot’s decision to keep Meg’s secret? Why does Dot finally tell Katherine the truth about what Meg endured at Snape?

The events at Snape have affected both women in different ways. Katherine Parr believes that she saved Meg from the same thing that happened to her. This keeps her going for a long time. Katherine is almost ashamed of what happened, because her second husband, Lord Latymer, also knew about it. I think she felt she had to be strong for Meg. With the events in Snape, Meg felt that she had to keep it secret from Katherine; because it would compromise the latter’s strength. Meg shrinks from any physical contact, as can be seen with her aversion to marriage. I think Dot’s decision to keep Meg’s secret was right, after all, it wasn’t her secret to tell at all. However, I also think that it was right for her to tell Katherine after Dot’s death. I think that Katherine needed strength at the time when Dot tells the secret. For Katherine, hearing about how Meg endured what she did gave her the strength she needed to carry on.

  1. Clothing is important throughout Queen’s Gambit. The first time we encounter Henry, he is “absurd in his minstrel garb.” (p. 25) How does this color your impression of him? Why does Henry wear this costume? Katherine, too, places a lot of importance on her jewels. She “insists on wearing her finest things, the most bejeweled of her dresses, her heaviest hoods, in spite of the cloying heat,” and, although she tells Dot that she would give up all of her jewels, “still she insists on wearing them.” (p. 218) Why do you think Katherine adamant about wearing her heavy clothing and jewels? Do you believe her when she says that jewels mean nothing to her?
Katherine Parr at the National Portrait Gallery.
Katherine Parr at the National Portrait Gallery.

I think that because the first time we see Henry he truly believes himself to be invisible, one among many, it means that we understand his sense of self and his confidence in himself right from the beginning. He is convinced that he is right, and the rest of the court goes along with it, because not to do so could be dangerous. Henry wears this costume because he likes to believe that he is as he used to be, as handsome and athletic as when he first came to the throne. He tries to reclaim his youth. I think that Katherine is adamant about wearing her best clothes and jewels because it is a part of her status as queen. She knows that many people are grouped against her, and this is her way of fortifying herself against them – if she looks and acts like a queen it gives her confidence. I think that Katherine’s jewels don’t really matter to her after Henry’s death because they remind her of a time that she wishes never happened.

  1. The first time we encounter Henry, he invites Katherine to play against him in a game of chess. When she makes her first play, she employs the queen’s gambit. Henry accepts the play and tells her “You mean to route me at the centre of the board.” (p. 28) How does this game foreshadow Katherine’s relationship with Henry? Why do you think that Fremantle has chosen Queen’s Gambit as the book’s title?

Katherine often seems to think ahead, particularly regarding Henry, because she knows it is safer that way. She knows what has happened to Henry’s previous wives – two executed, one lost in child bed, and two divorced, one of whom died in exile. Katherine doesn’t support Henry in a lot of ways; she goes around him on matters of religion, and has a huge influence on his children, definitely Edward and Elizabeth, who are educated in the new faith. I think that Fremantle chooses the title Queen’s Gambit for the book, because it is all about the risks that Katherine takes in her marriages. These include debating whether to poison Henry’s leg in order to speed his death, risking bringing in heretical materials to the palace, risking the lives of her servants in delivering said books, killing Latymer at his own request, and giving herself to her captors in Snape in order to save her step-daughter from the same fate.

  1. When Katherine becomes regent, she thinks “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” (p. 145) In what ways do you see this sentiment playing out in the Tudor court? Are there any allegiances that were surprising to you? Which ones?
Elizabeth Fremantle
Elizabeth Fremantle

If an enemy of your enemy wants your support, you can work together to bring down the mutual enemy, or protect yourselves against the mutual enemy. However, once the mutual enemy is destroyed, your enemy’s enemy would likely then turn on you. The Tudor court is a slippery place, and you can never really trust anyone who will have the slightest chance of power. There was always an advantage to be won in the court by bringing other people down, or currying favour with the right people. I found the allegiance between Katherine and Huicke to be strange, as surely he reminded her of the difficulties with her second husband at Snape, a time she wouldn’t want to remember. I also thought that the friendship between Meg Latymer and Princess Elizabeth was strange, because I thought they were so different. Nevertheless, I can understand Elizabeth’s attraction to Meg, but not the other way around.

  1. Although Huicke is originally sent to care for the dying Lord Latymer in order to gather information about Katherine for Henry, the two forge an close friendship. Why do you think that Huicke reveals the true purpose of his visits to Katherine? When back at court, Huicke will not tell his peers “of his genuine fondness for her. The air is too thin for friendship at court, so this is precious to him.” (p. 149) How does their friendship evolve as Katherine’s favour with the King ebbs and flows? Why is the friendship so valuable to both Katherine and Huicke?

I think that Huicke reveals the true purpose of his visits to Katherine because he truly likes her and doesn’t want to hide things from her anymore. He appears to have really thought the ramifications of his decision through, knowing that Katherine would be angry, but also knowing that she would have been angrier had he not told her and she had found out another way. More than anything, I think that Huicke really values his friendship with Katherine, and understands how crucial that could be to both of them. You can tell that Huicke really values his friendship with Katherine, as he stands by her in the difficult times, and works for her. Their friendship evolves as Katherine sees that Huicke supports her and loves her, even after his initial spying activities. The friendship is so valuable to both of them because they know each other even better than they know themselves. Huicke knows when Katherine means what she says and vice versa.

  1. The power of the written word is a major conceit throughout the novel. While the papers, containing the last testimony of Anne Askew, that are found on Dorothy’s person lead to her imprisonment, it is her ability to read them that saves her. In what other instances does the written word prove dangerous? How does the book that Elwyn gives Dorothy while she is imprisoned cause her to rethink Anne Askew’s actions?
Burning of Anne Askew at Smithfield 1546
Burning of Anne Askew at Smithfield 1546

The written word proves especially dangerous for Katherine Parr, as she is caught out and almost arrested and tried on heresy charges. Heretical books were found in her chambers, and those of her sister, Anne Herbert, as well as others of her ladies. If Katherine had been more careful then she could have saved herself the worry and fear. The written word proves dangerous for Stephen Gardiner and others who plotted to bring Katherine down. The dropped warrant for her arrest allows her to take steps to protect herself. The book that Elwyn gives Dorothy prompts her into further thought. When Askew is arrested and executed I think that in some ways Dot is still a little naïve and doesn’t realised the implications of what Askew believes. The book shows Dot that there are several different sets of beliefs, and that it seems silly to die for one when there is no proof that the belief is the right one.

  1. Elizabeth Tudor tells Jane Grey, “Think of the power. I would like the feeling of that, to have all the women in the world do your bidding. I would make a good man I think.” (p. 323) What do you think she means when she says, “I would make a good man”? What sort of power do the men in the Tudor court wield over the women? Do they abuse their power?

Elizabeth wishes she had been born a man because then her father might not have become as mean as he did, and her mother would not have died a horrible death. Elizabeth would have been brought up as heir to the throne if she was a man, she would have been pampered. However, she would not have learnt the lessons that she did in order for her to be the great queen she was. Everything happens for a reason. Men in the Tudor court have all of the power. They control the crown, the finance, the business and even the women and children. The women do not get a choice in their husband and are bound to serve and obey him, give him children, and if necessary die in the process. It was a lucky woman who got a loving marriage. Men did abuse their power because she just took what they wanted from women and assumed that they would do their duty – give them sons, raise their children, look after their home, and stay loyal, whereas men can do exactly what they want.

  1. When Dot visits her mother after being married, she “felt distant from her, as if she was a foreigner and a great ocean separated them.” (p. 295) In what ways has Dot changed? Why is Dot’s mother unwilling to meet William? Do you agree with her decision?

Dot has changed because she has experienced a wider world than her parents ever did. She has been to court and experienced the exhilaration and the danger therein. Dot has educated herself and understands more of the world than her mother did. However, I think she also feels out of place, not because she is ashamed of her background, but because she doesn’t fit into it anymore. She can’t remember what it was like to fit into it, because she is so far from it. I think that Dot’s mother refuses to meet William, because she believes that he will be ashamed of where his wife came from, and that it could adversely affect Dot. I think that she also worries that she won’t think him good enough for her daughter, and she would rather believe him the best he could be than find out otherwise and not be able to return to the dream. I do agree with her decision because she would inevitably be disappointed in one way or another, and feeling ashamed wouldn’t do her daughter or herself any favours at all.

  1. Both Katherine and Dot “had married for love. A daft thing to do really”. (p. 319) Why is marrying for love seen as folly in the Tudor Court? Compare and contrast Katherine’s and Dot’s marriages. Do your opinions of Thomas Seymour and William Savage change throughout the course of the book? In what ways?
Thomas Seymour at the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London.
Thomas Seymour at the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London.

Marriages within the court environment were supposed to be for political or dynastic advantage. It was very unusual for people to marry for love, especially in the higher classes. It was more usual for Dot than for Katherine, but when people of Dot’s class entered the court they tended to aim up, which I suppose Dot did, though it was for love rather than advantage. Marrying for love was seen as folly in the early modern court because it was an obvious weakness that others could exploit. Katherine had always been happy with Thomas Seymour until they were married and the chase was up. Dot and William had an up and down relationship in the beginning, but a very solid marriage. The essential differences in their marriages were that their husbands were very different people – William was at heart loyal and kind, but Thomas was the opposite. My opinion of William Savage improved, and by contrast my opinion of Thomas Seymour declined. William proved himself to be a good man, but Thomas only proved himself to be the opposite.

  1. When Katherine ultimately marries Thomas Seymour, she does so without the blessing of the king although she could be charged with treason for doing so. Why do you think that she agrees to go along with the clandestine wedding? Why do you think that Seymour delays asking the king for permission?

I think that Katherine wants so much to be loved and adored, and she likes the feeling that Seymour provokes in her. She can’t stand the idea of being apart from him. With the clandestine aspect, I think it is because she has always been the sensible one who did exactly what was expected of her – she married twice at the behest of her family, and nursed both to their deaths, then she married the king because she didn’t really have a choice. Her fourth marriage was her choice and her rebellion. Katherine sees the clandestine marriage as her teenage years, as she never really got a rebellious phase. Seymour delays asking the king for permission for the marriage because the king could refuse permission, and then he and Katherine would be stuck. If they married before getting the permission then it was already done, and couldn’t be undone. Seymour also doesn’t ask for permission because he wants to defy his brother, Hertford.

  1. Although Katherine is committed to religious reform, when Henry dies, she stops the archbishop from praying over him in English, asking that instead that they pray “In Latin. He would have liked that.” (p. 285) Why do you think she does so? Although Katherine’s beliefs remain, her “dreams of bearing the torch are gone.” (p. 307) What do you think precipitated this change in her?

Katherine is well aware of Henry’s true feelings about religion – he is truly Catholic, but wants no one, not a Pope or a god, set above him. Perhaps Katherine is even secretly more Catholic then she believes herself to be. Perhaps she isn’t really religious at all, just believes in the symbolism and the principles of religion; though I don’t really believe that. I can’t imagine that she would have written what she did if she didn’t truly believe it. Perhaps it was more about self-preservation than anything else. I think the change in Katherine came from her close shave with death. I don’t think that she truly believed that Henry would kill her, even though he had executed two previous wives, not until she saw the warrant for her own arrest. Katherine seemed to realise that it was more important to live, particularly in a position of power from where she could influence others to what she saw as the “true religion”.

  1. Family is particularly important to Katherine. When Huicke suggests that Elizabeth be sent away after it seems she’s gotten too close with Seymour, Katherine will not because “that would mean breaking up her fragile family and she will not do that.” (p. 306) Why does Katherine ultimately sent Elizabeth away? Do you think that she is justified in doing so? Compare Katherine’s views on family to that of her brother Will who “has never really thought of [Katherine’s] happiness.” (p. 287)
Elizabeth I c.1546 by William Scrots
Elizabeth I c.1546 by William Scrots

Katherine has never really had a true family – she wasn’t very close with her parents or siblings until they were much older, because she left the family home so young to marry her first husband. Her “fragile family” isn’t really a family at all, just a motley collection of people who really have no one else. Katherine looks after Elizabeth as a mother would because Elizabeth never knew her mother. In a way, she is a mother to Jane Grey as well, as she wasn’t very close to her mother, and Thomas Seymour is estranged from his brother. So they try to make a family together. Katherine sends Elizabeth away for her own protection, and the protection of her name. Katherine is justified because Elizabeth’s reputation could have been seriously damaged by Seymour’s dalliance. Will is a standard courtier in many ways, because he thinks more of power and influence then about love and emotions. Katherine is more modern, and puts happiness before anything else, or tries to at least. Will sees Katherine as a route to further influence and power.

  1. Before Katherine sends Elizabeth to Lord Denny’s house at Chestnut, Katherine tells Elizabeth, “There are events in life from which we learn our most profound lessons and sometimes those events are the ones of which we are most ashamed.” (p. 317) Do you agree with Katherine? What shameful things has Katherine done throughout the course of her life? Do you think that she’s learned any lessons as a result? If so, what sort of lessons has she learned?

Yes, I do agree with Katherine. It is often the events of which we are most ashamed which then teach us our greatest lessons, because it is often from them that we have the most to learn anyway. Katherine, according to this novel, killed her second husband in order to help him from his suffering, and tried to kill her third husband to stop him from killing her. I think that the time that shaped Katherine the most was at Snape when she gave herself to the rebels to stop them taking her stepdaughter and her maid. When Katherine later learns that they took her stepdaughter as well, it nearly pushed her over the edge. Katherine has learnt that happiness is never what you expect it to be. She marries Thomas Seymour in the end, expecting it to be her happy ending, but it isn’t. Nothing is as you expect it to be. Meg learnt that, through her relationship with Elizabeth, and realised that Dot was her true friend. Katherine also learnt the importance of discretion, particularly in religion and her writings.

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