Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Taming of the Queen includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Philippa Gregory. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Kateryn Parr, a thirty-year-old widow in a secret affair with a new lover, has no choice when a man old enough to be her father who has buried four wives—King Henry VIII—commands her to marry him. She has no doubt about the danger she faces: the previous queen lasted sixteen months, the one before barely half a year. But Henry adores his new bride and Kateryn’s trust in him grows as she unites the royal family, creates a radical study circle at the heart of the court, and rules the kingdom as regent.
But is this enough to keep her safe? A leader of religious reform and the first woman to publish under her own name in England, Kateryn stands out as an independent woman with a mind of her own. But she cannot save the Protestants, under threat for their faith, and Henry’s dangerous gaze turns on her. The traditional churchmen and rivals for power accuse her of heresy—the punishment is death by fire and the king’s name is on the warrant.
From an author who has illustrated all of Henry’s queens comes a deeply intimate portrayal of the last: a woman who longed for passion, power, and education at the court of a medieval killer.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the novel’s titlein relation Kateryn. Several at the Tudor court feel that she is in need of taming, including her husband. Why do they feel this way? Do you think they are right?
2. When Kateryn becomes queen, she must choose a motto. What is the significance of the queen’s mottoes? Do you agree with Kateryn that her motto, “To be Useful in All that I Do,” is “‘not very inspiring’”? Why or why not? Do the mottoes of Henry’s previous queens give you any insight into their personalities and reigns? If so, how?
3. Of her relationship with Henry, Kateryn tells Thomas Cranmer, “‘When we first married I feared him, but I have come to trust him.’” Do you think that Kateryn should trust Henry? Why or why not? How does their relationship evolve? Do you think that Kateryn is a good wife? Why or why not?
4. Kateryn thinks, “Sometimes I shock my sophisticated London-bred sister with my ignorance. I am a country lady—worse even than that—a lady from the North of England, far from all the gossip.” Compare and contrast Kateryn and Nan. Do you agree that Nan is more sophisticated? Why or why not? How has life at court affected Nan? How does she use her experiences to help Kateryn navigate her new role as queen?
5. Henry tells Kateryn, “‘It is not enough to be a queen, you have to look like one.’” What does he mean? Kateryn and her ladies-in-waiting choose her clothing with a great deal of care. Discuss Kateryn’s outfits, giving examples of how they help her accomplish her goals. Why are appearances so important in the Tudor court?
6. Edward Seymour praises Kateryn for being able to manage Henry, calling her “‘a formidable diplomat.’” How is Kateryn able to cope with Henry’s volatile temperament? What compromises, if any, is she forced to make? Is Kateryn a successful diplomat outside her marriage? Give examples.
7. Henry says, “This is the way to rule kingdom, Kateryn. . . . First you appoint one man, then you appoint another, his rival. You give one a task—you praise him to the skies, then you give an opposite task, a complete contradiction, to his greatest enemy.’” Why does Henry think this is an effective method of governing? What problems, if any, does this create?
8. Kateryn has great respect for Anne Askew, thinking her a woman who “has not been cut down to fit her circumstances.” How does meeting Anne affect Kateryn? Do you agree with Kateryn that Anne deserves admiration? If so, why? How are Anne’s views revolutionary—and even heretical—in Tudor England?
9. Although Will Somers says he is “‘just a fool,’” Kateryn believes him to be wiser than he appears. Do you agree? How has he managed to be “a long-term survivor of this knife-edge court”? What role does the Fool play?
10. Discuss the Nicholas de Vent portrait that Henry commissions. How does each member of the royal family react when they first see it? Do their reactions give you any insight into their personalities? Explain your answer. Why does the portrait upset Kateryn?
11. Nan tells Kateryn, “‘Sometimes, at court, a woman has to do anything to survive. Anything.’” Do you agree? Does Kateryn make any desperate choices in order to survive? Did you find any of the choices that others (for example, the Howards) made particularly shocking? Which ones and why?
12. Anne Askew complains that “‘the law does not recognize a woman except when she is alone in the world.’” Discuss the place of women in the Tudor court. When Lady Elizabeth observes Kateryn as Regent of England, she tells her, “‘I didn’t know that a woman could rule.’” Why is this so surprising to Elizabeth? In what ways is Kateryn’s reign instructive to Elizabeth?
13. Henry tells Kateryn that he “‘guard[s Edward] as my only treasure.’” Describe Henry’s relationship with his three children. Why do you think these relationships are so complicated? How is Kateryn able to help Henry appreciate his children? Do you think she is a good stepmother to them?
14. When Thomas Seymour tells Kateryn that her only chance of safety is “‘in [Henry’s] love for you,’” she replies that she does not know whether “‘he has ever loved anyone. I don’t know that he can.’” Do you think that Henry is capable of love? Why or why not?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Kateryn dreams that she is Tryphine, “married against my will to a dangerous man.” Research the legend of Saint Tryphine as well as the story of Bluebeard and discuss them with your book club. Do you see any parallels between Kateryn’s marriage to Henry VIII and Tryphine’s story? What are they?
2. Get a sense of Tudor England by researching Hampton Court, the Tower of London, and Snape Castle, where Kateryn lived with her second husband, John Neville Baron Latimer.
3. Philippa Gregory is the author of several bestselling novels, including The Other Boleyn Girl and the Cousins’ War novels, which are basis of the critically acclaimed TV miniseries The White Queen. Read some of her other works and watch the adaptations, then discuss them with your book club. Which were your favorites and why? What did you think of the adaptations?
4. To learn more about Philippa Gregory, read about her research, and see a Tudor family tree, visit www.philippagregory.com. You can also follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PhilippaGregoryOfficialFanPage or on Twitter @PhilippaGBooks, for regular updates about her research.
A Conversation with Philippa Gregory
Lady Mary tells Kateryn “‘If you are a reader, you are already halfway to being a writer.’” Do you agree? How did you decide to become a writer? Is your career the result of your love of reading?
I became a writer rather by default—I was hoping to get a post teaching history in a university when the cuts in university funding meant there were no openings. While I was applying, and waiting, I started my first novel, Wideacre, and found that I loved writing. It was a huge success and I have been a full-time professional writer ever since. My love of writing comes directly from my joy in reading. I don’t think you can write unless you have read widely and deeply.
As a bestselling novelist, do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Is there anything you wish you had been told at the start of your writing career?
I wish someone had told me that it would get easier—you learn your craft as you write and you solve all sorts of technical difficulties as you go along. It becomes more and more enjoyable too, and it’s really important to go with your heart—a novel comes because of a sort of inspiration and you should follow it, however surprising and unlikely. It’s a gift, not a conscript.
Booklist has praised your writing, saying, “Nobody does dynastic history like Gregory.” Can you tell us how you research your novels? In the course of researching Kateryn Parr, did you learn anything surprising that you incorporated into The Taming of the Queen? If so, can you tell us about it?
I read extensively, everything that is newly published and all the older histories, many of them now forgotten and ignored. Then I bring to the story what I have learned from other research—how to locate the women when they are not mentioned in the histories, how to reconstruct their lives from a few clues, what some of the clues mean—the clothes they draw from the wardrobe, their place at court. Kateryn Parr’s scholarship was a real surprise to me. I knew that she published, but I had no idea how significant her scholarly work was, nor that she was such a pioneer in women’s writing. I have tried to make that clear in The Taming of the Queen. Her study of theology and her commitment to religious reform is not especially interesting to the modern reader, but it is a key part of her character that I felt I must show.
You’ve written extensively about Henry VIII’s wives. What first interested you in Kateryn Parr? Was writing about her different than writing about any of Henry’s other wives? In what ways?
As one of the wives she’s well known and well recorded, unlike one of the mistresses, which makes it easier to re-create her days. But she was involved in meetings with the Lutheran and antipapist preachers, and in plots with others of the court to draw the king towards reform, so a lot of her work was secret and hidden. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs tells us a lot about this part of her work but he is, of course, very much on the side of reform, so he is biased. I suspect that she was in love with Thomas Seymour when she married the king, but her feelings about him (or about being married to such a physically repellent older man) are completely secret and still unknown.
Kateryn Parr is known as the first English queen to publish under her own name. As an author yourself, did you feel any kinship with her?
I had to restrain myself from assumptions of kinship! She was a far greater scholar than I, a linguist and a woman of deep and regular religious practice. I understand, I think, her love of words and I describe that drawing on my own experience, and I know, as she did, the joy of publishing something that starts its life as a wordless idea in your mind, and then becomes pages and goes out to other people to put ideas in their heads. This is thrilling work that we both have done. But Kateryn Parr was an independently thinking woman when it was dangerous to be a woman like that, publishing anonymously at first, studying in secret. She is a real heroine, while I have all the privileges of the Western women of the twenty-first century—there’s no comparison.
Kirkus Reviews lauds your novels, saying, “Gregory manages to keep us in suspense as to what will befall her characters. . . . Under [her] spell, we keep hoping history won’t repeat itself.” How do you address the challenge that comes with writing a story where the ending is already well known?
I have experienced this challenge since The Other Boleyn Girl and I found, since then, that by writing the book in first person present tense I get an immediacy and a point of view which is that of the character and which obscures the knowledge of what is going to happen. If the reader can come with me into the here and now of the Tudor world, then they will know only the here and now and not the hindsight of history, which sucks drama and jeopardy from the story.
Many of your novels center around the role that “powerless” women have, and The Taming of the Queen is no exception. Kateryn and Anne Askew are powerful figures in their own right, although they are discounted by many in the Tudor court. Why is it important for you to explore this theme?
I didn’t realize at the start of my career that this would become a theme for me—it’s grown out of the research. So many of the women that we think are “powerless”—following the views of the early historians, all of them men, all of them mainly interested in men and male power—were in fact in continual dialogue with power: gaining ground and losing it. In this novel we see Kateryn become Regent of England, the most powerful person in England, and also in danger of losing her life for thinking independently. I think all women in this period (and probably in all periods) make gains in their personal and political lives and lose them, regain power and experience danger. This is the story of women’s history—not one of unbroken oppression and passivity, not one of victimhood. I am drawn to write it because I am a radical historian, a woman, and because I believe it to be the truth—or at any rate a more accurate account than the view of women as inactive victims of male power.
Kateryn has been seen as a divisive figure in the Tudor court because of her interest in religious reform. Do you think that she is remembered fairly by historians? Why or why not?
I don’t think she’s given true credit for her work as a scholar and reformer, because the big move to Protestantism comes with her stepson, Edward; the movement goes the other way with his heir Mary; and then Elizabeth brings in the Protestant settlement and gets the credit for it. Kateryn is not recognized for her revolutionary religious views because there is less interest in religion now. I think she is largely dismissed by historians as the “last” wife, of Henry’s declining years, and Victorian historians mistook her for his nurse. I would be very pleased if my novels contributed to a revision of all the wives of Henry. Kateryn is one of six very interesting, very diverse women, who were themselves part of a community of women who were constantly making progress and losing ground in their freedom. They were not feminists in the sense that they argued for women’s rights; but they were part of a self-aware community of women whose education and religion persuaded them that they were spiritually and intellectually the equal of men. Once a woman is free to speak to God directly, and not soley through a priest (a male, celibate priest), she sees that her soul is equal to that of a man and then—hurrah—the cat is out of the bag.
Several of your bestselling works have been adapted into films and television series. What has the experience of seeing the adaptations been like? While you were writing The Taming of the Queen, were there any scenes that you found particularly cinematic? Can you tell us about them?
I never think about filming when I am writing a novel—the task of writing a novel is too absorbing to admit any diversions to other media. It’s always a pleasure when someone takes such an interest in the story that I have told that they want to retell it in another form, and it’s always a challenge to let it go fully into that other form and be reinterpreted. Some adaptations I like better than others—like most people who are readers more than they are viewers, I tend to like novels best.
What would you like your readers who are interested in the English monarchy to take away from The Taming of the Queen?
I should like them to be aware of the wealth of talent and interest that women brought to English life and expressed in the ways that they were allowed. There are our foremothers and our heroines; they show what can be done in an oppressive world and their lives suggest what we might do even in our own, easier circumstances.
Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
I am working on a new book set in the Tudor period. More than that I can’t say, as I don’t yet know!