Discussion Questions – ‘The Boleyn Inheritance’ by Philippa Gregory

  • What reasons do Jane Boleyn, Katherine Howard, and Anne of Cleves each have for seeking a place in Henry VIII’s court? Do any of them believe it might be dangerous to be a part of the royal circle, or is it a risk they’re willing to take? Does your opinion of each woman change over the course of the novel?
Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory

I don’t think Anne of Cleves had much of a choice in the end. She was a pawn in the arena of international politics. I don’t think she sought it; so much as it was thrust on her by her father and brother. No doubt she was excited about the prospect of becoming queen, but she must have also heard the stories about Henry VIII’s treatment of his previous wives, which no doubt made her a bit nervous. I think that Katherine Howard sought a place at court because it was expected of her. She was brought up to know that, as a Howard, she was important. I think she wanted the pretty dresses and jewels and the male attention. I don’t believe she had any deigns on being the king’s wife. Jane Boleyn was more complicated. She had been at court in the years when Henry VIII was still a golden prince with his whole reign ahead of him. She saw the divorce and the break with Rome – she was at court because it was expected for a noble lady. I think Katherine and Anne must have known that it was dangerous to be around the king from the start, but I don’t think Jane truly knew it until Henry VIII executed her sister-in-law and husband. After that point, I think Jane saw it as a risk she was willing to take. I actually grew to like Jane less and less over the course of the novel. She made her own fate.I liked Anne more and more, as she survived and came out of her marriage well-off. My opinion of Katherine didn’t really change – she was silly and naive but ultimately a victim. For me, she was the character that didn’t really come fully to life – she was a shadow compared to Jane and Anne.

  • Why does Anne of Cleves believe it is a matter of need for her to escape the house of her brother and mother? How does the advice Anne’s mother gives her-to be demure, to wear chaste clothing-actually work against Anne in her relationship with Henry?

I think Anne felt like she was being kept under lock and key by her mother and brother. The German court, from all accounts, was a very strict and formal place, with little in the way of entertainments. No doubt it was quite a dull life. Perhaps Anne felt the need to gain some freedom, where she could have her own household and choose how she wanted to spend her own leisure time. I think she was stifled, and couldn’t do what she wanted to do, which is why the prospect of queenship was possibly so appealing to her. Henry VIII liked beautiful and bold women – Katherine of Aragon was intelligent, could hold a conversation and was also passionate. Anne Boleyn was perhaps too vibrant and passionate, witty and intelligent. In the end it was her undoing. Jane Seymour was a foil for Anne Boleyn, though doesn’t appear to have been particularly witty or pretty. Anne of Cleves didn’t seem to have anything special about her. She could have been anyone at all, and Henry didn’t like that. English fashions were very revealing with the bust and very tailored, whereas German fashions in comparison were lumpen and covered the woman from head to toe. I also think that Henry was perhaps too tired to put so much effort into sex and pursuing women by the time he married Anne – perhaps he hoped she would do the work for him, but her mother had told her to be demure and not encourage him. Anne’s upbringing turned Henry VIII against her because Henry liked his women to be forward and have opinions, and Anne was brought up in a very different way, to believe different things.

  • When Anne arrives in England, the courtiers “judge her harshly for her shyness and her lack of speech. They blame her for her clothes and they laugh at her for not being able to dance or sing” (75). Why do the members of the court refuse to give Anne a chance? How significant are the language and cultural barriers that hinder Anne when she first comes to England?
Philippa Gregory 'The Boleyn Inheritance'
Philippa Gregory ‘The Boleyn Inheritance

I think the courtiers by 1540 were used to having accomplished women on the throne, English or nearly so. Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour were born and bred in England. Katherine of Aragon was Spanish, but she had been in England since the age of 15 to marry Henry’s brother, Arthur. She had time to adjust to the ways of the English pretty much in privacy after Arthur’s death in 1502. Spain was also an accomplished country, and was becoming one of the foremost powers in the world. In comparison, Germany was divided into several duchies, of which Cleves was just one minor one. There was little to be gained by an alliance with Cleves, and I think that their fashions and manners and lack of accomplishments made the Germans a bit of a laughing stock at the English court. People in England generally spoke English, possibly French, Spanish or Latin, but German wasn’t one of the popular languages in the 16th century. Anne and her servants would have been the only ones who spoke German, and she didn’t speak English or even Latin. Her lack of education or accomplishments also gave her no way to share something with her English ladies, no way of forming a link with her new country.

  • Compare the way the court initially treats Anne to how they treat her during the Christmas festivities at Hampton Court after the dissolution of her marriage to Henry. In what ways has she re-made herself? What is the single greatest factor in Anne’s transformation?

I think after the dissolution of her marriage, Anne spends time indulging herself in past times like embroidery and reading, and begins to wear English fashions. I think that Henry VIII and the rest of the court begin to see her in a different light, and begin to think that maybe she could have been a good Queen of England after all. She’s turned herself more into an English lady than a German one. Anne was initially treated as a foreigner, but as she begins to meld into the English court and adjust to the English way of the life she becomes more accepted in court circles, perhaps because it is easier for the courtiers to relate to her and talk to her when she has begun to learn the language and looks more like them. It’s not that different from today – people who look different or talk differently are often pushed out and spend their lives on the side-lines, but if you look and talk the right way then you are more likely to be included. The greatest factor in Anne’s transformation was how she enjoyed herself, because I don’t think she really had the luxury before to do what she wanted when she wanted, and she was quite happy living on the fringes of the court with her own property, household and money. I think it’s a life a lot of women would have wanted at the time, but knew they couldn’t have.

  • Discuss the encounter in which the king comes to Anne of Cleves in disguise, and she rejects his advances. Why does this incident have such an impact on Henry’s mental state? How is this incident a turning point for both Anne and for Katherine?
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540

I think that the disguise incident has such an impact on Henry’s mental state because for the first time he saw himself as he really was – as aging, fat man with an oozing leg, and he is repulsed by himself. Because Anne wasn’t aware of who Henry was when he was disguised she showed her disgust on her face and Henry was shocked by the reaction. Henry liked to believe that he was going to be forever young, and this is the moment when he realises that his youth is gone. This incident is the beginning of the end for Anne, because Henry knows what she truly thinks of him, and I don’t think his ego would allow him to remain married to her knowing her true feelings, and others also witnessed what happened. This becomes an important moment for Katherine because Henry wants someone young to make him feel young again, and Katherine fits the bill. She’s young, pretty, probably fertile, and very vibrant and playful, perhaps reminding him of a young Katherine of Aragon, when Henry really was young and athletic. He wants to recapture his youth, and he sees Katherine as the way to do it.

  • Does Jane realize the implications of having given evidence against her husband, George, and sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn? Did she do it to save George and Anne, or did she do it out of spite and jealousy? Why is Jane so eager to return to Henry’s court given what happened the last time she was there?

I think that Jane loved George, and she wanted to save him from Anne’s influence. I think she thought that, if she got rid of Anne, George would be free to love her. I think Jane testified against Anne, not George, and hoped that the king would spare her husband from sharing Anne’s fate. I think she was jealous of Anne’s relationship with George – he loved Anne more than he loved Jane. I don’t know if Jane truly believed that Anne and George were lovers. Perhaps she saw a convenient way to bring Anne down. I think Jane was so eager to return to court because she enjoyed intrigue and meddling, like she did in the fall of Anne Boleyn, and she wanted to be back in that environment. I think she really enjoyed the court, and no doubt rusticating in the country after George’s death was boring, particularly with the taint of treason hanging over her from her husband.

  • Jane is reluctant to give false evidence against Anne of Cleves, as she’s ordered to do by the Duke of Norfolk. Why then does she go ahead with it? Does Katherine Howard, who has a friendly relationship with Anne, feel any remorse about usurping Anne’s place as queen? Why or why not?

I think that Jane is reluctant to testify against Anne of Cleves because of what her evidence did to her husband when she accused him of incest with his sister, Anne Boleyn. I think she does feel some guilt for her husband’s death, which is why she is reluctant to testify against Anne. However, I think Jane goes ahead with it because it isn’t an accusation of treason, or anything that could be construed as treason. The worst that would happen would be, if she refused to accept it, she would be shunted into retirement with a reduced household and little money like Katherine of Aragon was. Perhaps Jane believed that Anne wanted out of the marriage as much as Henry did, so would accept it with good grace. I don’t think Katherine feels any remorse at usurping Anne’s place, because I don’t think she feels like a queen – she is just a spoilt child, and doesn’t have any of the responsibilities of queenship. I think she also saw Anne as dull, and longed for something more exciting. I think Katherine was induced by gifts of jewels and clothes and property and couldn’t imagine anything more exciting.

  • What are Henry’s motivations for setting Anne of Cleves aside? Is his decision not to have her executed a political one or a personal one?
Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein 1539
Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein 1539

I think Henry couldn’t ever reconcile himself to a relationship with Anne, either sexual or emotional, because of her first reaction to him when he appeared in disguise. He saw what Anne truly thought of him, and realised that his youth and athleticism really were behind him. I also think that Henry wasn’t attracted to Anne in the flesh. Her clothes were nothing like the English dresses, she didn’t speak English and she couldn’t debate theology or philosophy with the king, or sing or dance. In short, they had nothing in common. I think that, because he couldn’t reconcile himself to a sexual relationship with her, Henry knew that she wouldn’t give him any more children. Yes, Henry had a son, but one wasn’t enough to make the throne secure – Henry’s own elder brother, Arthur, had died 7 years before Henry himself succeeded to the throne. I don’t think that Henry VIII executed people unnecessarily. He only killed people who posed a threat to him and what he wanted. Anne Boleyn couldn’t give him a son and wouldn’t step aside to allow the king to remarry. Thomas More and Bishop Fisher wouldn’t accept Henry VIII’s dominion over the church. Edward Stafford allegedly plotted against the king to take the throne for himself. I also don’t think that Henry had any problem with Anne per ce, he just didn’t want to be married to her.

  • Why does Anne prefer to remain in England rather than return to Cleves? Ultimately, is she satisfied with her life as a single woman?

I think in a way that Anne is quite relieved that her marriage to the king doesn’t work out. She wanted to escape her family in Cleves, but I don’t think she wanted to be in another dominating relationship. I don’t think she really makes a very good princess or queen because she doesn’t seem to really enjoy attention or want to be in the spotlight, or even really have a husband. From all accounts, she seemed happier after the end of her marriage. I think she preferred to stay in England after the end of her marriage because she could run her own household and have control of her own life, which she never had before. I also think that she didn’t want to marry again. No doubt if she’d gone home to Cleves her brother would have arranged another marriage for her. I think she much prefers her life as a single woman to her married life because of the freedom it gives her.

  • How does the Duke of Norfolk use Jane and Katherine to further his own political advancement? Is Jane a willing participant or more of a pawn in the duke’s schemes? How much responsibility does Katherine, who is fourteen years old when she first goes to Henry’s court, bear for her actions?

I think Norfolk uses anyone who can advance his position. He used Anne Boleyn to try and boost his own position, but Anne wasn’t easily controllable. He uses Katherine in exactly the same way and, in the end she shares the same fate as her cousin. It was well known from the experiences of Anne Boleyn that Norfolk didn’t really care who he manipulated to gain him wealth and power and rid himself of his enemies. He used Katherine and Jane in the same way. He knows that the relatives of queens gain land and titles, from Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. I think Jane began as a pawn in Norfolk’s schemes, but grew to enjoy the importance of her position in manipulating life and death, and knowing secrets about people. I think Katherine was manipulated and naive, but she must have understood when she took Culpeper to her bed what a bad idea it was and what would happen to her if she was found out. She bears the responsibility for her actions then, and does Jane, though perhaps not for her marriage in the first place.

  • When Jane is locked in the Tower awaiting sentencing, she decides to act crazy in order to avoid the executioner’s block. Is Jane truly mad or merely a good actress?
Katherine Howard miniature by Hans Holbein.
Katherine Howard miniature by Hans Holbein.

I think that Jane Boleyn truly was mad, though not in that crazy obvious way. I think she must have been mad in the first place to do what she did to Anne and George Boleyn. How could she have done that to her husband and sister-in-law? I think she was also mad in that she was determined to return to the court even after her husband’s death. Why couldn’t she be happy in the country away from the backbiting and manipulation? However, I think she enjoyed the manipulation too much to give it up. I think she played up the madness, not knowing that she was in fact truly mad. I think she had to have been mad to pretend madness. Even the young Katherine Howard went to her death calmly and died a good death. We couldn’t say the same for Jane, though they died together. Perhaps Jane’s own internal madness drove her completely mad.

  • The Duke of Norfolk tells Jane that she is “a byword for malice, jealousy and twisted love” and that she is “an evil woman” (457). What empathy, if any, do you feel for Jane? Does Jane possess any positive traits? If so, what are they?

I do feel empathy for Jane as she has been forced into a marriage with a man who didn’t love her by her own father, then she serves the family with Anne Boleyn’s rise, and testifies against her. After this point her actions are her own, and I begin to lack empathy for her after 1536. I don’t think Jane is evil per ce, but I do think that she is jealous of Anne and George’s close relationship, and I think that her love for George Boleyn became twisted up with her hatred for Anne. I think she loved George right until the end, and it was her twisted love which led to their demise. If rumours are true, it was Jane who gave the evidence which condemned George in particular. I do think she had some redeeming qualities – she was obviously capable of great love and devotion, even if it did become twisted in the end. I think she needed to feel loved, and in the end it drove her mad.

  • In what ways does the memory of Anne Boleyn haunt Jane, Anne, and Katherine? What is each woman’s “Boleyn inheritance”?

I think that the memory of Anne Boleyn haunts Jane Boleyn because she was one who contributed to Anne’s death with her accusations of incest, accused falsely because of her own jealousy of the relationship between Anne and George. Jane’s Boleyn inheritance was to share the same fate as her sister-in-law and die under the axe. The memory of Anne haunts Anne of Cleves as she had no doubt heard the stories of what had happened to the other Anne who married Henry VIII. Anne of Cleves’s Boleyn inheritance was the lesson that if you give in to the king he may be merciful, but go against him and displease him and the consequences could be severe. Katherine doesn’t seem to think much about Anne, remembering only that she was her cousin and that she was executed. I don’t think she truly understood the significance of what happened to Anne, and how she wasn’t completely safe as the king’s wife, and she couldn’t do exactly what she wanted. Katherine’s Boleyn inheritance was to share in her cousin’s fate because she didn’t truly understand the consequences of her actions. Generally, the Boleyn inheritance doesn’t seem to have been a positive one. After Henry VIII’s death, however, the Boleyn daughter became Queen of England, and her cousins became ladies of the court, so the cursed Boleyn inheritance didn’t last long.

  • Did reading The Boleyn Inheritance give you an understanding of the inner workings of a 16th-century royal court? How so? Discuss the social and political realities of the time-particularly the roles of women-as they apply to the circumstances of Jane, Anne, and Katherine.

I think that ‘The Boleyn Inheritance’ does give an idea of court life, though one generally limited to the royal circle, rather than the wider court. It definitely gives an idea of the backbiting and manipulation that went on behind the glamour; and of the emotional turmoil within the royal family during Henry VIII’s later reign. I think it also demonstrates the faction fighting within the court as different groups vied for the king’s attention, particularly by placing their women in his way, and using them to find out what went on in the queen’s chambers. It definitely demonstrates also that there were no secrets within the royal court. Women were seen as second-class citizens – they had no place in the political or religious life of the court, or England in general. Anne Boleyn was probably the exception and she died for it. Women weren’t supposed to have opinions or express them. They were supposed to believe whatever their father or husband believed. Women couldn’t own property, unless they were royal, and they couldn’t get involved in political life.

  • Have you read Philippa Gregory’sThe Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen’s Fool, The Virgin’s Lover,and The Constant Princess, all of which deal with Tudor-era figures? If so, how did The Boleyn Inheritance compare to these novels?
Philippa Gregory's 'The Other Boleyn Girl' (2001).
Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’

I have read all of Philippa Gregory’s other Tudor-era novels. My favourite is The Other Boleyn Girl. However, I also really enjoyed this one and The Constant Princess. I think that her early Tudor-era novels are better in general than her later ones. I think that The Boleyn Inheritance is unique because it tells the story from three different points of view rather than just one – The Other Boleyn Girl and The Constant Princess tell the story from the points of view of Mary Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon respectively. However, I do think that The Boleyn Inheritance did lack some of the excitement and emotion of some of Gregory’s other books – Jane and Katherine came across as quite unemotional, which I suppose fits the author’s portrayal of Jane, but not of Katherine. It lets it down a bit.

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