Behind the Scenes with Henry the VIII's Wives: "Fatal Throne”

Erudite scholarship. Conspicuous consumption. Music. Bawdy revels. The reign of Henry VIII is known for many contradictions. But it is likely most known for the monarch’s treatment of his wives, who tell their stories in the recently released Fatal Throne.
Erudite scholarship. Conspicuous consumption and bawdy revels. The English Reformation and the ensuing creation of the Church of England. Gluttony. Humanism. Decapitation. Music. The reign of Henry VIII is known for many contradictions. But it is likely most known for the monarch’s treatment of his six wives. Last month, Schwartz and Wade published the young adult novel Fatal Throne: The Wives of Henry VIII Tell All. The first-person narrative provides readers with the opportunity to hear directly from the women, including their thoughts on the king, and, at times, one another. While the monarch plays an important role in the novel, it is his wives’ experiences and emotions that take center stage. To more authentically capture the multiple perspectives of the six women, the novel is co-authored, with Candace Fleming writing as Katharine of Aragon, Stephanie Hemphill as Anne Boleyn, Lisa Sandell as Jane Seymour, Jennifer Donnelly as Anna of Cleves, Linda Sue Park as Catherine Howard, and Deborah Hopkinson as Kateryn Parr, and M.T. Anderson writing as Henry VIII. Here, the authors who took on the personas of the queens discuss how they navigated complicated Tudor history individually and collectively while writing this novel. How did the book get started? What was the catalyst? Candace Fleming, the coordinator of the process, shares, “[t]he impulse for this book began long ago. For years, Deborah Hopkinson and I searched for a story we could write together, something with opposing viewpoints and individual perspectives. But we never landed on a good idea until…one night Stephanie Hemphill and I were talking about our mutual obsession with Henry VIII’s wives when it struck me. The wives! That was it; the story Deborah and I had been searching for. Would Steph want to join us?  She did, and straightaway she nabbed the role of her favorite queen, Anne Boleyn.” From there, the book began to take shape, with Fleming and editor Anne Schwartz bringing the other authors on board. Were there any research sources that became required reading? Any that you collectively swore off because of historical inaccuracies or dated interpretations of the historical record? “Our processes were very individual…intentionally so.  After all, one of the things that fascinated us most about this project was the idea of conflicting perspectives; the way different people interpret things differently,” notes Fleming. According to Hemphill, “I think everyone read The Six Wives of Henry VIII, by Alison Weir, but there was no required reading per se.” Fleming believes that Hopkinson was “the first to find How To Be a Tudor.  Linda Sue wrote us about John Foxe and Tudor humanism. She had questions about his interpretation. I uncovered a great online article about the royal jewelry and how certain pieces had been recycled from queen to queen.  We definitely helped each other. But we didn’t dictate what had to be read or investigated.” Did you have any conversations about your interpretations of Henry VIII and how each person would characterize him? Are there any stark contrasts that you had to wrestle with? “We purposefully did not have any group conversations about how to handle characterizations of Henry.  Again, we were really after those unique perspectives. We wanted our readers to see him through each queen’s eyes. Were there bound to be conflicting portrayals? Absolutely. That was our point,” offers Fleming. Hemphill believes that “without actually discussing it there was a consensus about how we all saw Henry, as a man who became more and more of a tyrant the longer he reigned. I worried at one point that because Henry often described an event very differently than his queen, it might undermine the women’s stories. But I was quickly persuaded that the king’s inconsistencies highlight how he saw things from his own self-serving perspective, and readers would easily make that distinction. Different versions of the same event are also often recounted in Fatal Throne by two or more queens, which we hoped would provide a more nuanced look at things.” There have been a number of television shows and movies and popular novels about Henry VIII and at least some of his wives. How did you keep misconceptions, stereotypes, or popular representations out of your head while you wrote? Showtime’s series The Tudors brought Henry VIII and his family back into popular consciousness a decade ago. Historical novels written for adults continue to tell the story of Henry’s reign, including those by British writers such as Hillary Mantel, Alison Weir, and Phillipa Gregory.  Cutting through popular misconceptions or representations could be difficult for writers seeking to create fresh characterizations of each queen. Park notes that it wasn’t difficult for her because of the responsibility she felt to Catherine Howard. “When I was immersed in the writing, I had the strong feeling that she wanted me to set the record straight: that she was not a mindless flirt or a spoiled brat as she has so often been portrayed. She was trusting me to tell the emotional truth of her story: that of a young girl put in an impossible position by her family." For both Donnelly and Sandell, the popular representations made them more aware of their own work. Donnelly reveals, “I let them rattle around in my head. They made me hungry to find the truth of my character – Anna of Cleves. To pursue her. To get her to come and sit with me awhile and tell me her truth.” For Sandell, “I just read and read as much as I could of historical record….” Hopkinson “had the benefit of several scholarly works on Kateryn Parr, including a volume of her collected letters and writings…which I returned to again and again.” In contrast, all of the popular misconceptions about Anne Boleyn fueled Hemphill's work. “I didn’t try to get those misconceptions out of my head, because even in her own time Anne was misunderstood. She was an outsider, often considered too French or too stylish or too witty or too outspoken. She often felt very alone. So the stereotypes and misconceptions actually helped me to construct Anne Boleyn as a fierce woman who faced ups and downs, who felt at times most loved by Henry and at other times confronted unfathomable discrimination and controversy. As a side note, I love to see how actors interpret and voice historical figures. I can glimpse where my understanding of a person/character departs with or intersects with someone else’s fictional representation. And because film and television are a different media, I find that the costumes and settings in motion often inform my writing. Where there any resources outside of texts or written sources that inspired you? For Donnelly, it was art. “There was Holbein. His portraits of Henry and his court are time machines–express trains to the 16th century. In them, his subjects live and breathe. They tell you who they are. Anna certainly did.” During the six years Linda Sue Park lived in England, she “visited the Tower of  London and Hampton Court; took a boat trip up the Thames; toured great manor houses like Chesworth. I enjoyed revisiting those places in my imagination as I wrote Catherine’s chapter—although of course, my boat trip was far more pleasant than the one she had to take!” “I wanted to know [Katherine of Aragon] beyond her chronology…. to understand her on a deeper, more intimate level,” notes Fleming. So I went to Spain. And that’s where my Katharine came into view. I visited the Alhambra in Granada, that fairy-tale castle captured from the Moors by her parents Isabella and Ferdinand. It was the last place she lived before traveling to England. What was it like to leave the open spaces of the Alhambra with its fountains and citrus trees and warm sunny days for the cold, gray castles of England?  How could the teenaged Katharine bear it?" Did you find yourself taking an advocacy stance for your queen? Were you hoping to find evidence of her agency, intellect, or strength as you conducted your research? From Fleming’s perspective, “[t]his project was all about agency.” And about Katharine of Aragon, the author is clear; “Sure, Katharine was limited by her gender in what she could do.  The male-dominated world she lived in suppressed and exploited her. But she still fought back in ferocious ways. She would not be persuaded from her core beliefs – that she was the “one true queen” and that her “position came from God” – despite immense pressures. And she saved Henry’s kingdom from the Scots while he was off playing warrior in France.  And she did it while pregnant. If that doesn’t prove intellect, strength and agency I don’t know what does.” About Anne Boleyn, Hemphill asserts “I would not have created intellect or strength that wasn’t there, but I did my best to discover what I anticipated would be easily found with a little research and what it seems every one of Henry’s queens possessed—agency and strength and a story of her own.” In contrast, Sandell states, “I struggled at first to find a way into Jane Seymour’s character. She seems so much a prop of various forces, from her own brothers to Thomas Cromwell to Henry himself. I very much wanted to give her a richly developed emotional life, and in the end, it was through her feelings—her loneliness and longing—that I was able to give her the strength to go after what she wanted: Henry.” “I wanted to convey to the reader the shrewdness, courage and guts Anna possessed and deployed in order to turn a dangerous situation to her advantage, notes Donnelly. “Anna of Cleves could have ended up banished, imprisoned, or beheaded. Instead, she ended up a wealthy, titled divorcee and outlived Henry and all his wives.” “Her detractors have typically portrayed [Catherine Howard] as reckless, thoughtless, heedless, but I think of her as a young and charming and high-spirited. And ultimately, her story is so very sad: Of all the queens, she was in my opinion the most hapless victim.” “ I came to have tremendous sympathy for her,” comments Park. Hopkinson notes that in Parr’s case, it is was “not difficult to find historical evidence for her intellect and accomplishments. We see this in her correspondence with Henry’s children, her own two publications, and her letters to scholars of the day.” As a writer, did you struggle with the tension between good history and good fiction, between historical reality and the fictional reality that you were creating? In writing the initial chapter in the book, Fleming admits, “I struggled a lot…. Maybe it was my nonfiction writer roots, but I did not want to stray from the established history. So the first draft was basically a chronology. It was not a story. It was also entirely too long. Anne Schwartz encouraged me to take a few liberties with the story, find new ways of telling. So did Jennifer Donnelly, who’s marvelous Anna of Cleves sees ghosts. I was struck by her imaginative telling…. So I started again. I knew I needed a device to move Katharine’s story into the future. What I mean is, I didn’t have the space to detail all twenty years of her marriage to Henry, as well as the years she was in England before their wedding. What to do? I invented a prophetess, based very loosely on the Maid of Kent (a real-life prophetess whom Henry had executed). She appears to Katharine and foretells of her future. In this way, I could begin and end my story with Katharine’s heartbreaking discovery that Henry truly loves Anne Boleyn while still letting readers know that Katharine will go down fighting.” Hemphill believes “[t]his tension is the essential struggle for a writer of historical fiction. I always start out extremely faithful to the historical record and then with great editorial guidance move in toward a story. Historical figures need to become sympathetic characters and the history needs to be shaped to tell something that is relevant now. So in a way you could say I struggled with this tension at every moment in my chapter.” In contrast, Sandell notes, “Because Jane Seymour did not leave behind any letters or a diary, we don’t have evidence of her feelings or intentions. Which means that I had the great good luck—and also the challenge—of really dreaming up most everything in Jane’s inner world, while working within the framework of fact, what is on the historical record.” For Donnelly, “the real struggle is to make sure I don’t embalm history. It has to live and breathe, to become a character in its own right. It’s important to take all those names, dates, places, acts, writs, and proclamations and show readers why they matter, how they changed or saved or doomed the lives of flesh-and-blood people.”   Dr. Mary Ann Cappiello is a Professor of Language and Literacy in the Graduate School of Education at Lesley University, chairs the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction committee, and blogs on The Classroom Bookshelf.

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