The Rose Without a Thorn Teacher’s Guide

By Jean Plaidy

The Rose Without a Thorn by Jean Plaidy


In the court of Henry VIII, no woman is beyond the King’s notice, and no queen is beyond his wrath. In the span of just seven years, Queen Catherine of Aragon is discarded in boredom; Queen Anne Boleyn is beheaded on trumped-up charges of infidelity; Queen Jane Seymour has the good fortune to die from childbirth just as the King begins to lose interest in her; and Queen Anne of Cleves is rejected for being ugly. It’s beginning to seem that the sovereign is incorrigible in matters of the heart. But when a self-proclaimed charming bimbo with no wealth, no gift for conversation, and no head for the intricacies of politics strikes the King’s fancy, her family will do backflips to grease the works toward a fifth royal wedding, despite the King’s track record. With a pretty singing voice and a penchant for giggling, Katherine Howard unwittingly woos the most powerful man in England, and suddenly finds herself in a position both glamorous and deadly. For Katherine’s past is speckled with improprieties, and the court is full of schemers who could ruin her with a whispered secret. In The Rose Without a Thorn, Jean Plaidy, the grande dame of historical fiction, weaves a spellbinding story of how a king’s affection for a young girl turns from a fairy-tale-come-true, to a bitter chokehold that will kill her.

In Katherine Howard’s fresh, unforgettable voice, The Rose Without a Thorn explores the frantic posturing and jostling for power that defines sixteenth century life in the English court and the subtle series of events that leads to Katherine’s demise. Her fall from naï veté is sudden and shocking. After a childhood of poverty and blissful ignorance in a ramshackle house full of children, her transformation to lady-in-waiting—and her subsequent initiation into the carefree joys of sex—seems effortless and entertaining. Katherine is suited for love, and moves easily from one passionate paramour to the next, with no inkling that her actions could threaten her reputation. But when a chance encounter endears her to King Henry VIII, it becomes clear that her destiny is not her own. Between the brash politicking of her ruthless uncle and the magnetism of her own gentle personality, Katherine is caught in an inescapable relationship with His Majesty that will force her to forsake the one man she truly loves. She must play a role, and play it well, or she and her entire family will face destruction. But Katherine’s past catches up with her before she learns the rules of the game, and no amount of love or loyalty will conjure the mercy she needs to stay alive. In elegant, spare prose, Jean Plaidy takes a fascinating look at one woman’s brief but dazzling fame.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Who is the scribe? What is the significance of these bookends to the novel? Why does Katherine want her tale put down in writing?

2. In her statement, “The road is laid before us and we must pass along it, and, through ourselves, come to salvation—or damnation,” Katherine seems to suggest that our fate is decided for us, but that our reactions to that fate determine our ultimate reward. Where in the novel do you see a tension between fate and personal determination? How much free will does Katherine actually have in her situation? Does she exercise it?

3. What series of events does Katherine’s mother’s death set in motion that leads to Katherine being moved to Horsham? If her mother had stayed alive, what do you think would have happened to Katherine?

4. When Katherine joins the household at Horsham, she becomes the butt of constant jokes about the Howard family, and the fact that the Duchess puts on airs about the family name. Why doesn’t Katherine mind their teasing? Why does she put up with her manipulative, sometimes even cruel new friends, like Isabel? Is she desperate to fit in, or is she just an idiot?

5. Why do things begin to unravel for Katherine’s cousin Anne? What event brings on her miscarriage? How does Henry manage to drum up an adultery charge against her? What immediate effect do these events have on the Howard family? Why does Uncle Norfolk join those who condemn Anne?

6. Katherine describes her aunt this way: “The Duchess was a lady who would make herself believe what she wanted to—particularly if the alternative was too unpleasant to contemplate.” Which other characters in the novel use this coping mechanism? Does it serve them well or ill?

7. Katherine describes gloom in the Howard house after Henry announces his betrothal to Anne of Cleves: “Anne of Cleves, with her Protestant upbringing, was certainly not what the Howards were looking for.” How much does Katherine understand of the religious/political nuances and implications surrounding Henry’s decisions? How does Plaidy convey these to her readers even when her narrator doesn’t understand them?

8. What is Thomas Cromwell’s dire mistake regarding Anne of Cleves, and what is the reaction of his colleagues? What stand does Katherine take in this issue? What role does the Duke of Norfolk play in Cromwell’s demise? Does Katherine absorb any new information after watching this unfold?

9. By their third flirtatious visit, Katherine describes herself as “completely disarmed” by the king’s playfulness. Even when he bruises her, she says, “I giggled inwardly, asking myself if it were an honour to be bruised by the King.” Is she truly clueless as to what’s going on? What is her first hint that Henry is volatile, even with her?

10. What does Katherine call the “one sphere in which I was not ignorant.” Is it useful to her?

11. Why does Joan Bulmer’s letter spook Katherine? What does Joan want? How does Katherine talk herself out of seeing the letter as a warning signal?

12. Who sends word to King Francis of France about the mess Katherine finds herself in? Why? What would have been different if this step had not been taken?

13. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, visits Katherine in the Tower and offers her a possible stay of execution. What are the terms of his offer? Why does she refuse this opportunity? If she had accepted Cranmer’s offer, do you think Henry would have taken her back? Why or why not?

14. After the Duchess discovers Katherine rolling on the floor with Derham, Katherine stoically observes, “People often vented their rage on those who were the victims of their neglect because they were in truth blaming themselves.” In what ways does Katherine suspect her aunt blames herself? Where else in the novel do you recognize the theme of blaming the victim?

15. How does public opinion change as a result of Katherine’s death?

16. Concerning Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth wife, the scribe closes with: “It was not a case of choosing, but being chosen.” Is it fair to call this the theme of the novel?

About this Author

JEAN PLAIDY is the pen name of the late English author E. A. Hibbert, who also wrote under the names Philippa Carr and Victoria Holt. Born in London in 1906, Hibbert began writing in 1947 and eventually published more than 200 novels under her three pseudonyms. The Jean Plaidy books—90 in all—are works of historical fiction about the famous and infamous women of English and European history, from medieval times to the Victorian era. Many were bestsellers in the United States and abroad, although they are currently out of print. At the time of Hibbert’s death in 1993, the Jean Plaidy novels had sold more thanr 14 million copies worldwide.
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