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The Secret Keeper
Spring: Year of Our Lord 1542
St. Peter’s Church, Marlborough
Hungerford House, Marlborough
Brighton Manor, Marlborough
I entered the church on a May morn and allowed my eyes to adjust to the dim light and my body to the chill of the stone-cooled air. I sought Father Gregory, who caught my glance and smiled. I tried to return it in kind but my lips quivered. I waited in the back till he finished lighting the candles before the morning service.
Once he joined me, he immediately asked, “Daughter, what ails you?”
My face had betrayed my qualms. No others were around us so I answered him frankly as was my habit. “My mother believes I am a witch. And I fear that she is right.”
Father Gregory reflexively drew back a little and for the first time I tasted dread. If this man, who knew me well and trusted me to read aloud in his church, might consider the possibility that I was a sorceress, all was lost. All would be lost, whether it were true or not, if my mother had whispered her accusation to any but myself.
“’Tis not so,” he said soothingly, and then as he was about to say more the rough townsfolk began to pool in the church’s nave like motes on a ray of light. Father Gregory’s face registered surprise, and then humility, and then perhaps a tint of fear. I turned toward the door to look upon whom he’d fixed his gaze: a well-dressed man, the most finely dressed man I had ever seen. The man nodded and approached us.
Who was he? Was I to curtsey? Cast down my gaze? Take my leave? Before I could decide, the man was upon us and introductions begun.
Father Gregory bowed. “Sir Thomas Seymour, please allow me to present Mistress Juliana St. John.”
I decided, quickly, on a short curtsey and a brief, modest dip of the head. This pleased Seymour, who held out his right hand toward me. I took it and he did not wait afore softly kissing my slightly bent knuckles before speaking.
“I am well pleased to meet you, Mistress Juliana.” His deep brown eyes held my gaze with immoderate affection and I turned away from it. All knew that the Seymour family was the highest, richest, and most powerful family perhaps in the entire realm. Prince Edward, the long-awaited heir to King Henry, was also the son of their sister Jane, the lamented queen who had not lived long enough to enjoy the rewards of her greatest achievement. They flew high and we dared not offend.
“Mistress Juliana is one of our lectors. Her father, Sir Hugh St. John, God rest his soul, was a great benefactor of the church and also ensured that his children were well educated.” Father Gregory turned toward me. “Sir Thomas was an occasional associate and, er, friend, of your father.” He pointed toward the front of the church. “You’d best prepare for this morning’s reading, Mistress Juliana.”
I nodded toward Sir Thomas. “I am greatly pleased to make your acquaintance, Sir Thomas.”
“As am I,” he said, and then bowed toward me, a maiden not yet eighteen, who was well beneath his standing. I gathered my skirts and my courage and made my way to the front, where the chained Great Bible, which had been secured to the altar to forestall its being stolen, was already open.
Once I began to read out the Acts of the Apostles, I quit, for the moment, of my fears and lost myself in the resonant words of Saint Paul and the upturned faces of the crofters, the millers, and the goodwives, breathing heavily in their mean woolen garb. Sir Thomas remained for the reading but left before the townsfolk did. Afterward, Father Gregory called me back to a quiet closet shut off from hungry eyes and thirsty ears.
“And now, Juliana. Unburden yourself.”
I spoke immediately. “You know of my dream.”
He nodded. “I know a little. Would you like to share its entirety?”
“About a year ago, shortly after my father died, I began to have a dream. ’Twas not an ordinary dream, but it was powerful and left me in a sweat and fever with my senses vexed,” I said. “My maid, Lucy, would calm me afterward, though she was frightened too.” I forced my hands from twisting ropes of my fine skirts and continued.
“I saw a barn, a large barn, filled with wheat and livestock of all kinds. And of course the husbandmen and others who tended the flocks and fields. At night, something kindled within the barn and within minutes it was aflame. The livestock and grains were all burnt and the building was too.”
“Yes?” His voice was gentle but prodded me to continue.
“At first I had the dream only once, and then six months later it came back. Then after a month, and then a week. Each time the dream would grow more fervent. The heat peeled my skin like parchment and my ears could not refuse the desperate bleating of the animals and the screams of men. One night, I noticed that the doors to the barn looked exactly like the doors to my father’s warehouses. And then, ’twas pressed upon my heart, For this reason you have been shown the fire. After some nights I knew I must tell my mother. It was not a choice but a compulsion.”
He grimaced, as though swallowing bitter ale. “And she ...”
“Disbelieved me at first. But I was insistent. As you know I am wont to be.”
We smiled together at that.
“At some point she said she would approach Sir Matthias about having the warehouses cleaned and sorted and the goods removed to temporary holdings for inventory. She did so. And then I came and told you that was her plan. Within weeks the goods in my father’s warehouses had been moved, and shortly thereafter those warehouses burnt down but the goods were saved.” I met his gaze. “She has had little to say to me since.”
“She had little to say to you before,” Father Gregory pointed out kindly, but bluntly. “The townsfolk said the inventory came at the right time because your blessed father had been a good man and this was our Lord’s way of taking care of his family.” He cleared his throat. “Sir Matthias said what of it?”
“He said nothing at all, which was disturbing. My lady mother has said no more. But lately, I ... dreamt. And I know she heard me call out, though my maid sought to wake and still me as soon as she heard my unrest.”
“Is this another of the same kind of dream?”
“Have you told your mother?”
“I have told no one.” My voice made it clear that I would not be forthcoming, even to him, with the contents of this dream. “But she came to my chamber and saw my countenance. After my maid had left us she declared me a witch.” I swallowed roughly. “Is it true? Am I a witch?”
I looked at my hands, not wanting to see his face, nor how he might now view me, afore I heard his answer. I desperately wanted to keep his good opinion of me.
“No,” he said gently. “You are not a witch. Do not let that trouble you again.”
I sighed with relief, perhaps too soon, and looked up as he spoke. “But others could claim that you are one if they hear of your dreams or do not like the content of them. The penalty for witchcraft is death and forfeiture of all material wealth, no matter how highly born. Wait here.” He rose and left the room, his long black clerical robes sweeping the fine dust beneath them whilst I tried to quiet the worries that beset me.
When he returned, he handed me a book. “Tyndale,” I said, tracing my finger over the lettering.
He nodded. “’Twas in the warehouse afore it burnt. Your father was a good, honest man, importing cloth and rugs and tapestries from the Orient and transporting them to England. He also smuggled books.”
I looked agog at Father Gregory, as though he had suddenly started speaking a strange tongue. “My father? A smuggler?”
“Not for earthly profit, mistress; he had plenty of that. And he had friends in high places to protect him.”
My mind went to Thomas Seymour.
Father Gregory nodded toward the book he’d just handed me. “I knew these were hidden in the warehouses, and after you shared your dream with me I had them removed to the church. A new law will soon make them illegal. It will also make it illegal for women to teach or read Scripture publicly.”
I shook my head. “So the king reverses himself again?”
Father Gregory nodded. “Alas, yes. ’Tis never safe to act on what he says today, for that may be heresy tomorrow. I have already distributed the rest of these. A few I’ve held back, and this one seems intended for you.”
He took the book from me and opened it up to the Acts of the Apostles, just a few pages on from that morning’s reading. “It shall be in the last days, saith God: I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. And on my servants, and on my handmaidens I will pour out my spirit in those days and they shall prophesy.”
We sat there, time marked by a hundred quiet breaths. Then he took the book from me and slipped threads that he pulled from his vestments between various of the pages before handing it back to me.
“My dreams ... they are prophecy?” I whispered, suddenly understanding why he’d chosen that passage.
“’Tis your gift.” His drawn face showed me that he knew it to be a heavy burden.
I stood up. “An unsolicited gift! An unwarranted trouble!” I pushed my hair back from my head and when I took my hand away it was wet with the evidence of fear and despair.
“Woe to the pot who tells the potter how she should be fashioned,” he rebuked me.
I sat down again, shamed. “I know it well. I am afraid.”
“God has specially chosen you, and He will be with you, Juliana.”
“And you, too? You will advise me?” I asked.
“I am returning to Ireland. ’Tis not difficult to disappear back into the fens, where we are free to minister as we like, well out of the reach and even the sight of His Majesty, whom I cannot refer to as Defender of the Faith. God loves no false oath. I shall serve the simple people I’ve come from and serve in the manner I long have.”
“What of me?” Cold seeped from the church walls and into my bones, which now felt very like those buried in the plot outside must feel.
“You must take care. There are laws against prophecies, too, if those who are in power or are noble or highborn are not pleased with the predicted outcome. The prophet or prophetess may be thrown into the Tower for such—and worse.”
He took my hand in his own again and I readily yielded it. “God Himself has opened your eyes. Many of the things you foresee shall be difficult and unwelcome, and the temptation will be to remain silent or run away. Some you must act upon in faith but may not learn the reason why during this lifetime. I shall pray for you,” he said gravely, “that you may be able to resist in the evil days that will surely come. And to stand.”
My servant waited for me outside of St. Peter’s, horses ready to transport us to Sir Matthias’s home to sup. Our estate was at one end of the town, and Sir Matthias, who had been my father’s business partner, lived at the other. On the way I grieved over the forthcoming departure of Father Gregory, who had been a comfort and guide to me all of my life. I then ruminated in fear over my gift. When shall it next appear? To whom will I be compelled to speak, and of what? I’d drawn near to our Lord as I’d read from the Great Bible and had felt that naught could come between Him and me. Now I rather shamefully felt as if, given the right circumstance, I could easily imitate Saint Peter and deny Him thrice if it meant saving my life.
I urged my horse on, as I did not want Matthias’s family to delay the meal on my behalf. Lady Hurworth was always quick to find fault with me, though why she was I knew not, as I was always overly solicitous to her. I suspected she took her cues from my mother.
I urged my horse through the town, trying to ignore the stench and slick and muck, the smooth bits of bladder and spleen that had spilled into the roadway outside of the butcher’s as we passed. Children and adults alike stood aside as we rode through. “Godspeed, mistress,” they called out. We were not lords, but my father had been knighted and gentrified, and in our town that counted for much. His business employed many folk and they then had a bit more coin to spend on better bread and cloth because of his generosity. I smiled with true affection at those who caught my eye, knowing their goodwill was not based only on position but upon genuine fondness.
We arrived at Hungerford House, and while the horses were stabled I made my way up the set of smoothly polished stone steps toward the doors. My father had been the merchant traveler, sailing to foreign lands to barter for and buy tapestries, rugs, and other Eastern treasures coveted in the West. Sir Matthias had stayed in England and taken care of financial matters. As the great wooden doors opened up toward a grand and fine hall, paneled with oak and floored with marble, I wondered not for the first time if the accounts had been balanced in Sir Matthias’s favor.
“Juliana.” Sir Matthias’s son, also named Matthias, came into the hall to greet me. He was a fine man, soft as a cushion, but mostly kindly. He took my hand and placed it in the crook of his arm before leading me into the dining chamber. “You look lovely,” he said. “As you always do.”
I ducked my head to hide a grin as a picture came, unbidden, from a story my father had told me before his untimely death. The franklin, a good man who ate well and constantly, was a lavish host who berated his cooks if the sauces were not fine enough or the fowl not fat enough. This franklin was a rich landowner who was well thought of in his town but had little desire to venture beyond it. Perhaps this franklin had been named Matthias?
“You are amused?” Matthias asked with a smile, but behind the smile, a sheathed demand that an answer should be forthcoming.
“Nay,” I said. “I am glad of your company.” Which was partially true. I took his arm and smiled sweetly, which allowed me to conceal my amusement and please him at the same time.
That appeased him and we sat at a table laden with everything that the franklin could have imagined and some foodstuffs I was certain he could not, like eels baked in pies and custard dishes spiced four or five ways. We then discussed the town.
“Sir Thomas Seymour is in Marlborough,” I stated. “He was at church this morning whilst I read as lector.”
All set down their knives. Matthias looked at me disapprovingly and his father cleared his throat before glaring. I sighed deeply. I should have waited for Sir Matthias to bring up important news, after which I could comment approvingly.
Matthias grunted and threw another greasy bone under the table upon one of the fine carpets my father had conveyed back from Constantinople. “’Tis not proper for a woman to read aloud in church.”
“Father Gregory told me that the king will be changing the law soon. Mayhap next time Parliament sits. Women will no longer be allowed to lector nor teach Scripture even to their servants.”
“Good King Harry.” Sir Matthias tucked some partridge roasted with herbs into his mouth. “That is how it should have been all along.” He was either unaware that he had reprimanded me or had meant to. Young Matthias said nothing, but sat with a self-satisfied smile. He had oft voiced to me that he did not like my reading, or overeducating my mind, or speaking it. Poor qualities in a mother, he’d said. Mother of his children, he’d meant, though we’d never spoken of it, but that had softened me some because I loved children. My own mother would like as not begin negotiations soon, as Sir Matthias was now aware of the great dowry my father had left for me. My father had wanted different for me and had resisted that arrangement whilst he lived, but there were no other matches of consequence in our town and my mother rarely ventured out from Marlborough.
“Sir Thomas has already been to see me to check on our mutual accounts,” Sir Matthias said with a superior look in my direction. “We established some business together this year with his shipping interests now that, well ...”
Now that my father was dead, he meant. I lost my hunger. I’d not yet recovered completely from the loss.
Lady Martha stopped chewing and spoke up with unexpected and unnerving news. “I too knew that Sir Thomas was about. Your lady mother sent a servant earlier, for fruit, which she knows my confectioner prepares to perfection. She will be entertaining Sir Thomas and his retinue at Brighton Manor tonight upon his request.”
“Here, then, mistress. Some of the kohl tha’ your father had brought back from the far lands,” Lucy said, and brought to me a stick of kohl from a cupboard on the far side of my chamber.
I took it and then edged the tiniest amount of it round the frame of my eyes and at the base of my lashes. I had not worn kohl before, being young, and also because I knew Matthias would not approve. In any case, we rarely entertained.
Lucy helped me into a gown of deep green that set off my dark hair and eyes. She laced up the back and helped me into my slippers afore assisting with my hair. She had not been trained to be a lady maid but she had learned as I’d grown; her own mother had served my mother for many years—and my mother’s standards were exacting. At the last minute, Lucy fastened a small gold bracelet with an emerald around my wrist. It had been a New Year’s gift the year before my father died.
“You look beautiful,” Lucy said.
I grinned at her faithfulness in spite of the fact that my mother had made it very clear that I was nothing special to look upon. “I shall not have a maid who speaks untruths. Even one who is well regarded.”
She grinned with me, curtseyed, and left my chambers. A few minutes later I arrived at the sitting hall that was ablaze with beeswax candles—no stench of tallow in this household. My younger brother, Hugh, sat, uneasy in his finery, in an overstuffed chair covered with damask, driving his boots into the floor to avoid slipping off of it. “I’d rather be jousting or hunting or even cleaning stables,” he muttered. “Rather than be sitting here trussed up like a partridge.” A beard of the finest blond hairs was beginning to poke through his cleft chin, which was losing its padding.
“What are those?” I asked, gently running my finger along his chin.
“Those are my beard! Have you not seen a beard before, mistress?” he blustered.
“I have indeed, young sir, but not upon your face.” I squeezed his shoulders and he warmed beneath my touch. Our mother was not given to physical affection, though Hugh and I had both thirsted for it since our father’s demise.
“I’m sure we can arrange for some stable cleaning,” I teased. “If that’s your pleasure.” We continued talking for a moment and then walked over to where my mother stood conversing with Sir Thomas and several of his men. I was shocked to find her face in high pink and her manner almost flirtatious. “Sir Thomas, my daughter, Juliana,” she said. She looked worried. Had my mother finally found someone who daunted even her?
“We are acquainted.” Sir Thomas took my hand in his again and explained to all how he’d listened to me read in church that morning. He introduced me to the other courtiers around him, all finely garbed, and I had the opportunity to show, by my manners, my learning, and my use of language, that my mother had brought me up well. One or two gazed upon me admiringly and that pleased my mother not at all, but it made me feel young and desirable and hopeful for the first time in many years. Within a few minutes the musicians stopped playing and my mother’s chamberlain led us into the dining hall.
After a fine meal of roast chicken with honey and almonds, several of Sir Thomas’s retinue begged their leave, and we four—my mother; Sir Thomas; my brother, Hugh; and myself—were left at table. I kept waiting for my mother to dismiss my brother and me but she did not. And then, Sir Thomas made an announcement.
“Mistress Juliana,” he said, looking at me. “I have a proposal for Lady Frances’s consideration.”
I felt a flush up the back of my neck and my mother looked alarmingly from Sir Thomas to me and back again. ’Twas clear she had not anticipated this.
“Indeed, Sir Thomas?” I asked demurely.
“My friend Lord Latimer’s lady, Kateryn Parr, is a fine woman who loves reading, and Scripture, and cultivating young women of good birth in her household. It is seemly for every maiden to spend some time in a good household, besides her own, of course, to further her education and polish.”
I could sense that my mother was about to object when he said, “You were a companion to my sister Jane, were you not, Lady Frances?”
“I was indeed,” my mother admitted. “Afore I married Sir Hugh.” There were familiar shards in the tone of her voice at his rebuke, so I did not voice my incredulity that my mother had once known a queen. The servants, recognizing her tone, too, melted into the background. “But, Sir Thomas, it had been my husband’s understanding that you were going to take our son, Hugh, and place him with a household, so that he may learn better the ways of the world. And make connections that will help him when he assumes his father’s business.”
“All in good time, lady,” Sir Thomas said. “He is young.” I looked at Hugh, who seemed crestfallen that he would not be leaving Marlborough immediately. “After hearing Mistress Juliana read today, I knew that Lady Latimer would immediately take her to heart and it is now my wish to see her placed there. Unless you object?”
His voice was a challenge and the room grew quiet. I thought it bold that Sir Thomas could speak so confidently about placing me in another man’s household and wondered exactly what his ties were with Lord and Lady Latimer.
My mother did not answer directly. She preferred Hugh above all others, and I suspected she was unwilling to let him leave yet anyway.
“Not at all ... if Juliana wishes it,” my mother said, forfeiting.
“Good!” Sir Thomas grew jovial again. “I have reason to believe that soon enough there will be a place for Master Hugh in one or another fine household. And now, young Hugh, whilst I get my horses from your stable, shall I teach you a sea song that we sailors sing when no ladies are present?”
Hugh broke out in delighted laughter and Sir Thomas thanked my mother profusely for her hospitality.
I had noticed something alarming about Sir Thomas, though, and I knew I had to ask my mother one question before I could consider Sir Thomas’s offer. I knocked gently on her chamber door.
“Yes?” she called out as she sat at her dressing table while Lucy’s mother unwound my mother’s hair. I went in and stood next to her.
“If I leave with Sir Thomas, will I be safe? I mean, is he safe? With me?”
My mother barked out a laugh. “Even Sir Thomas would not stoop that low,” she said, waving me away with nary a glance in my direction. “He has the pick of the realm.”
“Thank you, lady,” I said as I withdrew, crushed, but keeping a steady look upon my face so she wouldn’t realize my pain, if she looked up to glance at me, that was. If I hadn’t suspected already that she found me unlovely, I knew it now.
Late that night, I visited Hugh in his chamber. “Will you go to London with Sir Thomas?” he asked.
“Yes I will. I will miss you greatly, Hugh, and home. Truth be told, I am a bit afraid of what I may find in London, especially as I shall be alone but for Lucy in a household that is mighty and grand and well beyond what we’ve ever experienced.” I thought back upon my vision, and the timing of my discussion with Father Gregory, who had urged me to be faithful to my gift, and Sir Thomas’s appearance in Marlborough. “But I believe that going is the right thing to do.” I smoothed the coverlet at the foot of his bed. “And so I must.”
“Sir Thomas liked our wolfhounds,” Hugh said approvingly. Then he asked, “Will you come back to marry Matthias? You do not wish it, do you?”
“Nay,” I said, my heart and voice resigned. “But I believe that is what our lady mother wants and therefore that is what I shall do. But there is time.” Time for our Lord to fulfill this prophecy and bring no more, I thought hopefully.
“I shall miss you,” Hugh said. “We’ve not ever been apart.”
“God forbid that we be apart for long,” I quietly replied. Hugh was all I had. “Shall I tell you about the knight Saint George?” He was really too old for such fooleries. But he nodded and I began to recount a story our father had oft told us when we were children because it comforted us both, then and now.
“Now this knight was heroic, and chivalrous; he lived by truth and honor and justice, having won great esteem in his lord’s wars, and was well liked in both Christian and heathen lands,” I began.
“Like our father,” Hugh said sleepily, half-man, half-boy. I agreed and continued the story.
Later, I returned to my chambers in darkness, after Lucy had also retired to her own room nearby. I lay in bed stark awake. It was not in fear of another dream but of something yet more dreadful in the present reality, the knowledge of which I wrestled with.
At dinner I had noted, with apprehension, that Sir Thomas wore a gold and black onyx signet ring on his left small finger. He was, without a doubt, the man with the dagger, slashing the maiden’s black dress, in my prophetic dream.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for To Die For includes a discussion questions and a Q&A with author Sandra Byrd. 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.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The book opens with a glimpse of the friendship between Meg and Anne as teenagers and follows them through courtship and marriage, treachery and setbacks, childbearing and childlessness, immense riches, and a final difficult plummet to death. How is the evolution of women’s friendships in the twenty-first century similar to, and different from, women’s friendships in the sixteenth century?
2. A major theme in the book is the balance of love versus duty. Each has its own rewards and costs. In which situations must the women in the book balance love and duty? Does one character have a better grasp on the balance than the other? What kinds of love-versus-duty conflicts do women today face?
3. Tudor women, even and perhaps especially the highborn, had extreme social limits on their autonomy, and yet they did have some personal and community power. How is that illustrated in the book? Which characters use their power only for personal gain, and which use their power for the good of others, and how? Did/do women have certain types of power that were/are unavailable to men?
4. Discuss the concept of small personal sacrifices for the greater gain of a group. Cranmer, in particular, would have felt that he was sacrificing Anne for a greater good. Do the ends ever justify the means?
5. Readers often have clear preferences on first- vs. third-person narration. Did the first-person narration of To Die For influence your feelings about the book, about Meg, about Anne? Since the author made a clear choice to present this in the first person, what would have been gained or lost by a third-person point of view?
6. Although the book is set nearly five hundred years ago, how are the women and men in it like people you know—your sister, your mother, a person who knifes you in the back at work? How are the men and women in this book different from people in your world? Which is better . . . and why?
7. There is a quality-control concept that says you never know the temper of a metal until it is tested. Testing alone proves strength—and character. How is that played out for Meg? For Anne? For George Boleyn and Jane Rochford as well as others in the book? How has testing improved the quality of your relationships and your life?
8. Early in the book Meg laments that she is always the setting, never the stone. Later, at Westminster Abbey, she has an epiphany that while that is still true, she has been viewing it all wrong. In which arenas in life are you the stone, and in which the setting? Do you prefer one over another?
9. Books written about the Tudor court seem to be perennial favorites. Why do you think this period, more than many others, captures readers’ hearts? What does that say about human nature?
10. During the Tudor years, and many years thereafter, a person’s position in his or her family dictated affection, career, marriage, and financial wellbeing. Is that still true in any way? How?
11. Is Anne Boleyn, as depicted in this book, anything like the Anne Boleyn of common knowledge? Has reading this book informed or changed your opinion on Anne Boleyn in any way, and if so, how?
A CONVERSATION WITH SANDRA BYRD
Though many men in this novel are conniving and cruel, Meg’s father is particularly vicious and abusive. In your mind, why is he so angry? What prompted you to imagine him this way?
Very little is known about the real Henry Wyatt. We do know that he was imprisoned, and most likely tortured, for two years during the reign of Richard III for his support of Henry VII in an early revolt. Some research indicates he had a daughter the year he was released, in 1485 to 1486, with his first wife, who presumably died. He did not remarry or have another child for nearly fifteen more years.
Men were certainly allowed to beat their wives and children during this time period. It’s a possible application of the phrase “rule of thumb”; a man could beat them with a stick no thicker than his thumb. I wanted to show a common threat to women. Although it was abusive and harmful, most women developed the resilience to prevail and cope to the best of their abilities and resources. Meg certainly did.
Although he cherished his second, younger wife, I believe that Henry Wyatt’s cruelty manifested itself as a result of his own torture in the Tower. Some people overcome poor treatment and become better people because of newfound empathy and resilience; others absorb the cruelty into their spirit and it becomes a part of them. In my rendition, Henry Wyatt represented the latter, as did his second son, Edmund.
Many books and movie scripts have been written about the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and the Church of England. What drew you to this historical period and to these characters?
Books and movies are condensed drama; therefore, the most engaging stories take place during extraordinary times. Because the stakes were so high during the Tudor years, there is always excitement and change. Love, lust, hatred, murder, good versus evil, self-sacrifice, gluttony and greed, envy, spiritual birth or renewal, spiritual deception, friendship and betrayal, family that remains true and family who backstabs you out of selfishness—these are all elements of human life. The Tudor Court had them in abundance. Everything we undergo today they underwent too, only writ large, with bigger stakes than most of us have. So we both identify with them and are, maybe, a little in awe too.
Amazing gowns, huge castles, and precious jewelry don’t hurt to write and read about, either! The time period is, simply, enchanting on all levels.
After Will declares his intentions to become a priest, Meg gives Anne her book of hours, claiming that she has no use of it, or of God. This scene feels as though it could take place at any point in history, including the present. What do you think is so relatable about this scene?
There’s a point in each person’s spiritual journey where he or she has to cross from immaturity (Why are you doing this to me?) to maturity (Not my will, but yours be done).
When we reject God because He is not forcing things to work out the way we want, we’re acting out of a sense of entitlement common to everyone in the human race. Each of us, on the way to spiritual adulthood, eventually has to acquiesce to God’s greater knowledge and better purpose.
Meg voices the frustration and hurt we each feel from time to time. Hopefully, by reading about someone just like us, we can see that while it doesn’t always happen on our timetable, as life unfolds, it eventually make sense.
Meg often worries how living at court will change her. Indeed, the royal court of Henry VIII is a bizarre contradiction, full of people so religious and yet so wicked and deceitful. Does this remind you of any modern equivalents? Do you think a moral person can truly survive such an environment and escape with his or her morals fully intact?
Bad company corrupts good character, of course. The trick, then as now, is to become discerning about who is truly motivated by good, though they be fallible, and who is in it for politics or personal gain and will harm any who stand in their way, no matter if they claim piety or not.
I do believe that people can tangle with evil and corruption and come out with their morals intact and perhaps with stronger resolve. But I believe all such will be permanently changed by seeing people as they really are, good and bad and a blend of both. Naïveté is not an option anymore; with much wisdom comes much sorrow. But wisdom is to be sought after and is necessary for a purposeful life.
On page 64, Anne argues with Meg, “You blame God for the deeds of men, I blame the men themselves.” In To Die For, there seems to be a delicate balance between believing that God is all-powerful and that men have the free will to do good or evil. We often struggle to understand why God allows bad things to happen. Did you use your characters to work through some of your own conflicting feelings on this subject?
Yes. I, like everyone else, have had misfortune knock at my door from time to time. Mostly it was nothing I’d anticipated: the situations were shocking and unsettling to my worldview and faith. When we’re surprised by hardship or calamity, it knocks us off of our feet, and I wanted someone to “fix” it and questioned how a loving parent could even allow that to happen.
There are those who blame God for every trial, trouble, or adversity, and then there are those who call upon Him as their best resource during a crisis or loss. I learned from the latter and grew as I unclenched my tight grasp on life. Meg did, too. In Tudor times, as now, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Anne was a strong woman, and as far as my research goes, she never questioned God’s justice. God is in the business of producing adults to “be strong and courageous,” not mollycoddling our weaknesses. But He is always a very present help in times of trouble.
Though he eventually goes on to reveal his capricious nature and disregard for true godliness, Henry at first makes a valid argument: since Scripture dictates a man shouldn’t marry his brother’s wife, the pope himself doesn’t have the authority to permit the marriage. Do you think the whole situation began with a good intention, or was it an exercise in twisting religion to fit the will of man from the get-go with Henry?
Henry was well educated in both secular and spiritual matters and was able to intelligently grapple with and argue both—which made him believable no matter his motivation. I think he zeroed in on a point of contention that was bubbling up at the time, sola scriptura, and figured out how he could capitalize on it for his own intentions. It was a valid argument and an important part of the Reformation. But had the pope granted Henry his divorce, Henry’s conscience would not have been troubled by this Scripture. It certainly wasn’t when he sought dispensation for having slept with Mary Boleyn before marrying Anne.
As I said in the book, God often uses the strongest beast, not the gentlest beast, to plow the hardest fields. Henry was indubitably strong. The changes that came about as a result of those turbulent years encouraged healthy refinement within the Roman Catholic Church besides founding the English Reformation and the Church of England, providing accessibility to Scripture for the common man, and birthing whole branches of Protestantism, which still thrive today. What might have been intended for selfishness or evil, and certainly did cause considerable pain to those involved, eventually yielded a harvest of goodness.
The latest research argues that Henry seemed very sincere in his belief that he and Katherine were wrongly married and thus God cursed them by denying him an heir. In To Die For, he also seems very convinced of this truth. On page 124, Meg ponders the situation: “If a queen could not lie, could God’s anointed king? Surely one of them must have.” What do you think?
Through my research I came to believe that Henry had narcissistic personality disorder. It can be mild early in life, but grows to become darker, more controlling, more punishing, and capricious as life goes on and the narcissist senses that his good looks, charm, and powers are fading. Henry was worried about his legacy. This may explain why Henry grew from a golden prince to a “tyrant,” the label assigned by historian David Starkey.
Like all narcissists, Henry was unable to ever admit, even to himself, that he was wrong. So he constantly rewrote history to his benefit and interpreted circumstances to support his self-righteousness and self-pity, both of which he had in spades. Narcissists change things first in their own minds, overwriting the file of what actually transpired. And then they place unshakable faith in the new rendition; the old version exists no more. This allowed Henry to believe, without a doubt, that how he saw and remembered events was black-and-white certainty. Narcissists then convince others, by their unwavering belief and genuineness, that they are telling the truth. We want to believe them. Till we can’t.
There’s a wealth of information available about Tudor England and Anne Boleyn and dozens of versions of the story in print and film. What kind of research did you do in preparation for writing this novel? Do you have any favorite resources, either in the academic or entertainment arenas?
Eric Ives is the most famous of Anne’s biographers, and justifiably so for his impeccable, credible research and thoroughness. I am certainly a fan. I read perhaps another dozen nonfiction books that covered Anne’s life and the English and French courts during her interactions with them. I read, and am still reading, Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament. Although I whetted my love of Anne on historical fiction, I avoided it for several years before writing this book and throughout the writing of this series, so as not to commingle someone else’s historical fiction extrapolations with my own. When I finish writing my own Tudor books, I will dive right back into the genre and begin happily reading Tudor fiction again.
I also engaged a historical researcher, Lauren Mackay, who has a degree in Tudor study and is also a lifelong Tudorphile. She was not only an invaluable source of historical truths but helped me to discern whether motives, dialogue, and consequences as I’d envisioned them were true to the characters and the time.
Of course, I visited England. I stood in Anne and Mary’s bedroom at Hever, and prayed in front of Anne’s book of hours. I wandered Hampton Court to gather a sense of her life there, too. I stood in front of Whitehall and imagined Meg there. It was to die for.
When Meg finds God again, it’s because of a passage from Isaiah that she finds written in Henry and Anne’s shared book of hours: “He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Meg feels she hears God speaking directly to her, telling her that He also has suffered and thus knows her suffering. What does this Bible passage mean to you? Do you have a favorite piece of Scripture as well?
My favorite piece of Scripture at any given time is whichever one God is using to speak to me at the moment, because when He does, I know He is attentive to my concerns and hears and loves me in both hopeful and ashen circumstances. He has already prepared a plan and a way.
I think this is why that passage was so effective for Meg. She felt like she had undergone a lot—beatings by her father, loss of the love of her life, putting aside her own hopes and dreams for a life of meaning and serving her friend, who seemed to have it all. When she sees Christ suffering, she understands that He relates in every way to her sorrow on a human level and she opens up to Him. She also sees Him as God, knowing that He has already prepared a plan and a way, and she begins to trust. When she does, her life of excitement truly begins.
The first epistle of Saint Peter the Apostle, as Meg reads it aloud to Anne in her Tower prison, instructs men to submit to their kings and other rulers as they are sent by God Himself. Throughout this story, however, we’re shown the evils a ruler can visit upon his people when he believes he is, and is treated by all as, God’s anointed sovereign. Do you think this belief gives the power hungry a terrible license? At what point do you think a person must violate this instruction? Or do you agree with the rest of the epistle that encourages the faithful to endure wrongful suffering?
I don’t think the power-hungry need a license from others; they ascribe it to themselves and eventually are beyond all correction from the voice of reason. What we as individuals must do at any given time is discern what our role is in “such a time as this.” Are we to stand up to evil, publicly, as Bonhoeffer did? Or are we to keep a low cover and do good under the surface, as the Ten Booms did? Both responded to Nazi power in appropriate ways for the paths their lives were to take and the good they were to do while on them. One thing we do know for certain: it’s never God’s will to call evil good or good evil, so we are not to, either.
As you say in your Author’s Note, Anne Boleyn has been portrayed and perceived as a harlot, witch, schemer, brilliant strategist, friend to the Reformation, and singularly intelligent and strong woman. After writing this book, what is your opinion of her? Why do you think she still evokes such controversy?
I think Anne was a complex woman who has, for too long, been denied the shading of any mortal life. She was certainly groomed and encouraged to push herself and her family as far along the road to success as she could take them and did so willingly, even sought out those opportunities.
And yet that is no different from the expectation any family of that time would have had for their daughters and sons. She was witty but could be sharp, too. She had charm and allure and wasn’t afraid to use them on her own behalf, but she was also a loyal friend who used her power, almost without fail, to help others and especially the nascent reformed church in England.
It’s easy to pick up a touchy fact that makes all of us married women a bit angry—she was the other woman in a divorce case—without realizing the complexity of the times. Many believed Henry’s marriage to his brother’s wife had been wrong; it had indeed required the pope to dispense of that fact. They believed that England could come to ruin, or be gobbled by the Spanish, without a male heir. They understood that other queens had quietly retired to abbeys when they’d been unable to “do their duty.” Normally, royal marriages were not love matches. They existed to purpose and that purpose must be fulfilled.
Anne evokes emotion because she was, and always will remain, larger than life. And because she died in such a great and terrible way at the hand of the man pledged to love and protect her.
Besides the fascinating machinations of Henry VIII and his noble contemporaries, Henry’s reign was an important period in the history and evolution of Christianity. In your opinion, what are some of the most profound, lasting changes that resulted from the Henry/Anne/Katherine triangle?
It was the time when men truly began to reason from Scripture itself for themselves—as Henry and those he employed did to ascertain the validity of his marriage. By the end of Henry’s reign there were Bibles in English in every church in England. God was now on His way to being at home in both the cathedral and the croft.