As a work of alternate history, The Boleyn King plays with the lives and events of real people, imagining what might have happened in each of their lives if Anne Boleyn had given birth to a son in 1536. But the number one question I have been asked is "What really happened in these people's lives?" Of course there are any number of books and websites to research Tudor history—I offer simply a brief overview of actual life events of historical characters who appear in my book.
Boleyn, Anne: c. 1501-19 May 1536
Anne was the daughter of an English gentleman and his Howard wife. She was largely educated at the court of France, as a companion to Queen Claude. Anne first came to the English court as a maid of honour to Henry's VIII queen, Catherine of Aragon. In 1527, Henry became enamored of Anne, a passion that drove him for six years in his attempts to annul his marriage to Catherine. Henry and Anne were married in secret in January 1533; she was crowned queen in June. In September, she gave birth to the future Elizabeth I. Though Henry's passion had split the English church from Rome's control, it did not survive the miscarriages that followed Elizabeth's birth nor the machinations by powerful men who disliked Anne and her family. In May 1536, Anne was accused of adultery and treason. She died at the Tower of London on May 19.
Boleyn, George: c. 1503/04-17 May 1536
Anne Boleyn's only brother, George was highly intelligent, highly charming, and highly ambitious. Given great opportunities at a young age because of his sister's standing with Henry, George proved himself a talented diplomat at the French court. Named Viscount Rochford when his father became the Earl of Wiltshire, George was not a favorite of other powerful men at court. They were only too glad to accuse him of incestuous adultery with the hated Queen Anne and thus condemn him. George died at the Tower of London two days before his sister, on May 17, 1536.
Boleyn, Jane Parker: c. 1505-13 February 1542
Jane was born into a wealthy, intellectual, and politically active family with connections to the king. She became an attendant to Queen Catherine of Aragon in her early teens. In 1525, she married George Boleyn (before Anne had caught the king's eye.) Jane gave evidence against her husband and sister-in-law that implied they had been lovers. She survived the Boleyn downfall and was a chief attendant to Henry's fifth queen, Katherine Howard. Jane could not survive Katherine's own flagrant adultery and, accused of having helped the young queen, Jane herself was arrested. While in the Tower, Jane appears to have suffered a complete breakdown. Henry passed an act allowing for the execution of the insane and Jane Boleyn died just before Queen Katherine Howard at the Tower on February 13, 1542.
Catherine of Aragon: 16 December 1485-7 January 1536
Catherine was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and came to England in 1501 to marry Prince Arthur, heir to the English throne. Arthur died five months later, but Catherine remained in England and in 1509 married Arthur's younger brother, the newly crowned King Henry VIII. Catherine was an intelligent, pious, and much-loved queen, but she failed to give Henry the son and heir he wanted. She was pregnant at least six times, but only one child lived longer than six weeks—Mary, who in 1553 became England's first queen regnant. When Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn, Catherine refused to divorce him. Although he separated her from Mary and banished her from court, Henry could not convince his wife to retire silently. Catherine died in January 1536, certain of her place as Henry's true wife. Anne did not long survive her, for on the very day of Catherine's funeral, Anne miscarried a baby boy when she was four or five month's pregnant. Anne was executed just four months after Catherine's death.
Cranmer, Thomas (Archbishop of Canterbury): 2 July 1489-21 March 1556
Named Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry VIII, Cranmer helped create a favorable case for Henry's divorce from Catherine and supported the principle of Royal Supremacy by which Henry became head of the Church of England and thus broke from Rome. Cranmer was an ardent Protestant and reformer who, during the reign of Henry's young son Edward, wrote the first Book of Common Prayer and created the doctrinal foundations of the new Church of England. When the Catholic Mary I came to the throne, Cranmer was tried for treason and heresy. He was burnt at the stake as a martyr in 1556.
Dudley, John (1st Duke of Northumberland): 1504-22 August 1553
John 'Black Jack' Dudley was a consummate Tudor crown servant and talented soldier of great ability and ambition. He and his wife, Jane, were famously devoted to one another and she bore him thirteen living children. Northumberland was named a member of the privy council during the minority reign of Edward VI, where he clashed often with Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, Edward's uncle and Lord Protector. But Somerset grew increasingly autocratic and disliked, and in 1549 he was executed for treason and Northumberland ruled England in all but name. Devoutly Protestant, Northumberland maneuvered for the dying boy king to name his cousin, Jane Grey, next in line to the throne over his sister, the strongly Catholic Mary Tudor. Northumberland married his son Guildford to Jane, forced her to take the throne upon Edward's death, and sent armed troops to arrest Mary. But he had not counted on the outraged sense of justice of the English people and Mary came to the throne with less bloodshed than had been feared. Northumberland, Guildford, and Jane were all executed for treason.
Dudley, Robert: 24 June 1532/33-4 September 1588
The fifth son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, Robert was educated (as were all his siblings) in Renaissance humanism and science. Friends with Elizabeth Tudor since childhood, the two were imprisoned at the same time in the Tower of London (after Mary's accession to the throne). He was accorded brilliant by his tutors, a master horseman, an able statesman, and a committed Protestant. Robert was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth all his life; upon his first wife's death in 1560, many wondered if the queen would go so far as to marry him. But rumours about the nature of his wife's death (ruled an accident by the coroner) plagued him and so he remained all his life Elizabeth's favorite but not her husband. His second marriage, in 1578, was never favoured by the queen. Robert left no living children.
Elisabeth de France (or Elisabeth of Valois): 2 April 1545-3 October 1568
The daughter of Henri II of France and Catherine de Medici, Elisabeth in childhood shared her bedroom with her future sister-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots. In 1559, at the age of 14, she married Phillip II of Spain. Though he was eighteen years older—and she had originally been betrothed to his stepson—Phillip was so enchanted with his young bride that he even gave up his mistress. Though she gave Phillip two daughters, Elisabeth died in childbirth at twenty-three, along with her newborn son.
Elizabeth Tudor: 7 September 1533-24 March 1603
Henry VIII's second daughter, Elizabeth was not quite three years old when her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed. Precocious, she learned at an early age to be wary of the world in which she could be a princess one day and a mere 'lady' the next. Though her father was very fond of all his children, his death when she was thirteen left her in a precarious position. Her younger half-brother died when Elizabeth was not quite twenty and the accession of her Catholic half-sister, Mary, left her in danger of death. Many Catholics would have welcomed the execution of Anne Boleyn's child, but Mary was stubbornly clannish, refusing even to remove Elizabeth as her legal heir. Upon Mary's death in 1558, Elizabeth became queen at the age of twenty-five. According to legend, she is reported to have said in Latin: "This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes." The people of England (mostly) agreed. Elizabeth reigned for forty-five years, made England a great naval power and diplomatic power, and presided over an age that is known today by her name.
Henri II, King of France: 31 March 1519-10 July 1559
The second son of King Francis I, Henri became heir apparent at the age of seventeen, upon the death of his older brother and became king at the age of twenty-eight. He married Catherine de Medici when they were both fourteen years old; within two years of his marriage Henri began a lifelong affair with Diane de Poitiers, a widow twenty years older. Though their marriage was not happy, it was (eventually) fruitful: Catherine gave birth to ten children, six of whom survived childhood. Henri's reign was marked by continuous conflict with the Hapsburgs and an alliance with Scotland marked by Mary, Queen of Scots, being raised at the French court as a wife for Henri's heir. Henri died after contracting septicemia from a jousting accident to celebrate the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis.
Henry VIII: 28 June 1491-28 January 1547
The second son of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, Henry VIII became Prince of Wales at the age of ten upon the death of his brother, Arthur (who left as his widow Catherine of Aragon.) Henry became king just two months before his eighteenth birthday and married his brother's widow shortly after. Henry was a clever, devout, and popular king who earned the papal title "Defender of the Faith" for his refutation of Martin Luther's heresies. But it is for his personal life that Henry is most remembered. After twenty years of marriage, Catherine was past the age of childbearing having given Henry only one surviving daughter, Mary. Henry had an illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, who some thought he would try to legitimize in order to succeed him. But when Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn, the idea of a divorce became paramount. Over a period of six years, ministers and churchmen fell trying to accomplish Henry's wishes within the church—when that proved impossible, the Act of Supremacy severed the English church from papal control and thus began the Protestant faith in England. Unfortunately for Anne, her only living child was also a daughter and her unpopularity led to her downfall and execution just three years after her marriage. Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour, had the good grace to not only bear Henry a son that survived, but to die in so doing, thus ensuring she would always be remembered fondly. Henry subsequently married Anne of Cleves (the marriage was quickly annulled), Katherine Howard (a cousin of Anne Boleyn who was executed for adultery), and lastly Catherine Parr who proved a steady and kind companion in his last years and a wise and affectionate stepmother to all three of Henry's children. Henry died at the age of fifty-five at the Palace of Whitehall.
Howard, Thomas (3rd Duke of Norfolk): 1473-25 August 1554
A long-lived and prominent Tudor noble, Norfolk was uncle to two of Henry VIII's wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard—coincidence that these were the two wives to be executed? Norfolk's father and grandfather both fought for Richard III at Bosworth, but the canny Norfolk married advantageously and rose to power under Henry VII. But the conservative and Catholic duke was increasingly isolated at a reformist court and in 1546 he was arrested for 'concealing treason' when his son and heir provocatively displayed the royal insignia in his coat of arms. His son was executed; Norfolk himself survived only because Henry VIII died on the very day of Norfolk's planned execution. When the Catholic Mary I came to the throne, she pardoned Norfolk and restored him to the dukedom. He died at the age of eighty-one, leaving his grandson to inherit his estates and titles.
Howard, Thomas (Earl of Surrey & 4th Duke of Norfolk): 10 March 1536-2 June 1572
Grandson of the 3rd Duke of Norfolk and son of the executed Earl of Surrey, the younger Thomas Howard inherited the dukedom at the age of eighteen. Despite his family's Catholicism, Surrey was raised as a Protestant and educated by John Foxe. A second cousin to Elizabeth I, Surrey was trusted with high office including Earl Marshal of England. In 1569, he was imprisoned by Elizabeth for plotting to marry the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots. After his release, he was accused of participating in the Ridolfi plot to put the Scots Queen on the English throne and restore Catholicism to England. He was executed in 1572.
Mary Tudor: 18 February 1516-17 November 1558
The eldest child of Henry VIII, she was the only child of Catherine of Aragon to survive infancy. Mary was a clever and well-educated child, reading and writing Latin by the age of nine. In 1525, she was given her own court at the Welsh castle of Ludlow and was recognized, though never invested with the title, as Princess of Wales. Mary suffered greatly through her mother's downfall. She was seventeen when her half-sister, Elizabeth, was born and Mary not only lost her position as Henry's heir but was sent to serve the infant princess. At Henry's death, the crown passed to his son, Edward, born to Henry's third wife, and the strongly Protestant nature of the English court was a constant threat to Mary's safety and peace of mind. When Edward died in 1553, the Protestant Duke of Northumberland maneuvered to put Jane Grey on the throne, but Mary's partisans flocked to her banner and she became England's first ruling queen. During the five years of her reign she attempted to restore Catholicism through force, thus earning the name 'Bloody Mary' and her marriage to King Phillip of Spain was deeply unpopular. Mary died in 1558, refusing at the end to disinherit her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth.
And last, but never least, I offer apologies to the one character I erased from history completely: Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. If Henry had never married Jane, then clearly Edward would not have been born and become king. But he did, and though his reign was short (from the ages of nine to sixteen) it was an important time in the development of the English church and English government. Requiescat in pace, Edward.
An incomplete list of books and websites I've found useful and/or entertaining
The Six Wives of Henry VIII
The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir
The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn by Retha Warnicke
To the Queen's Taste: Elizabethan feasts and recipes by Lorna J. Sass
Documents of the English Reformation ed. by Gerald Bray
Primary source documents
The Anne Boleyn Files
A whimsical letter from Elizabeth I