Interview with Natalie Grueninger

Natalie Grueninger is the co-author, with Dr Sarah Morris, of In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn and the just published In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII. Natalie also runs the very popular website

We met in the beautiful surroundings of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, Natalie’s home town, and our location gave rise to the first question:

TT: As an Australian born and bred, how did you become interested in British history and, particularly, the Tudors?

NG: We were always interested in the past during my childhood – lots of antiques around and I’ve always loved visiting old places. Then my sister, Karina, gave me a novel, ‘The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn’ by Robin Maxwell, such a fascinating story. A visit to the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace in 2000 sealed my fate. I was hooked. I love the earlier periods of history too, especially the mediaeval period. I think that to really understand the Tudors, we need to know what they knew and how they saw history.

TT: What do you think is the perennial fascination of the Tudors?

NG: It is such a remarkable story, full of drama and larger than life characters. Begins with a Crown won on a battlefield and ends with a Virgin Queen. You just couldn’t make this stuff up! And thanks to the growing popularity of portraiture during this period, for the first time, we can see what they looked like. This helps us connect with them. Not only can we gaze upon their portraits, we can read their correspondence and state papers and hold in our hands artefacts from the time – we are intrigued and dazzled by them in equal measure. In some ways they were like us, and in others they were so different. This makes the period endlessly fascinating. One of the hardest things for me to really understand is their ambition. Anybody who was anywhere near the Crown was just so unbelievably ambitious!

TT: Anne Boleyn was the subject of your first book, together with Dr Sarah Morris. How did you come to collaborate?

NG: Sarah tweeted about a novel she was writing about Anne, Le Temps Viendra, and I was interested to learn more about her work, so I got in touch with her. We very quickly realised that we not only shared a passion for Anne, but also for the buildings and locations associated with the Tudors – one thing led to another and we decided to collaborate to write In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn. We have just finished our second book in the series, In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII.

TT: How do you manage the collaboration? Does one of you do all the research and the other write?

NG: No, we split it all up and each focus on different sections – both researching and writing. For example, for our latest book, Sarah researched the European locations associated with Anne of Cleves, and because of my Spanish speaking background, I concentrated on the Spanish locations for the chapter on Katharine of Aragon. We then spent a lot of time reading and commenting on each other’s work so we have a consistent voice. It’s fantastic to have someone to share my passion with – and bounce ideas off.

TT: What gave you the idea for the books?

NG: The books came about because of our shared passion for the buildings that remain to tell the stories of those who’ve since gone. I’ve always had a really strong sense of place. I went to the Tower of London in 2000 and stood where the memorial now is on Tower Green – it used to be just a simple plaque. It ignited something in me and made me even more interested in Anne and the Tudors. By going to the locations and seeing what they saw you get fresh insights and understand what you have read. It’s so powerful. A good example is contrasting the Alhambra, in Katharine of Aragon’s native Spain, with Ludlow, where she spent the first few months of her married life. Ludlow is beautiful and magical, but it is so different to Granada, and so you get a sense of just how dislocated and homesick Katherine must have felt.

TT: Given that many of the places the women lived in were the same, how have you avoided repetition?

NG: That’s a very good question. We decided that the best way to tackle this was to have a section at the beginning of the book dedicated to the principal royal residences, where a general history of each location is accompanied by a timeline listing the major events associated with each wife. As for the chapters on each Queen, it was difficult to come up with an individual list for Jane Seymour because so little is known about her movements before she came to court, and as Queen, she had no time to go on an extensive royal progress. We’re very excited, though, to present to a wider audience the very recent research by historian Graham Bathe into the appearance of Wolfhall, the Seymour ancestral home.

TT:Anne Boleyn was the Queen that most interested you originally. Do you feel any differently after you had finished this book?

NG: No – she was an amazing woman and I still feel most connected to her but I also greatly admire Katharine of Aragon and Katherine Parr, both remarkable women, whose personalities shine through despite the passing of time. I’ve really enjoyed learning more about Anne of Cleves and Katheryn Howard too, however, I’ve found Jane Seymour the hardest to get a handle on. Anne of Cleves comes across as a really lovely woman – amiable, and so eager to please, and everybody, except Henry, seems to have instantly liked her.

TT: Do you think Cromwell was the primary cause of Anne Boleyn’s death?

NG: I don’t think it’s quite so straight forward. In Cromwell’s ‘remembrances’ he constantly uses the phrase ‘To know the King’s Pleasure’. It’s pretty clear that he saw his job as knowing what the King wanted, even before Henry knew it himself. So, I think Cromwell acted on what he knew the King desired but also, Cromwell knew that having quarrelled with Anne, he had to eliminate her or he would end up dead himself. The important thing with Henry was access. If you could get to him, you could influence him. Cromwell had to make sure that anyone who would speak for Anne was removed – that’s why it was so important to involve Henry Norris in the charges – as the King’s Groom of the Stool, he controlled access to the King.

TT: There isn’t much written about Katheryn Howard – what places are associated with her?

NG: Some of the locations for the Northern Progress she took with Henry in 1541 are really interesting – Grimsthorpe, Lincoln, Pontefract and, of course, York. It is hard to imagine what Katheryn can have been thinking – she was getting her ladies to search out the back entrances at many of these places, so she could meet Culpepper. It is extraordinary to think that with the example of Anne Boleyn’s execution, that she and Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, her chief gentlewoman, took such risks.

TT: Perhaps Katheryn just didn’t believe that Henry could turn on her.

NG: Perhaps. He had the gift of making the person he was with feel incredibly important and secure if he wanted to. He would walk with his arm around your shoulder, saying everything would be fine, then the next moment he could turn on you completely. I recently read a theory that attributed this to memory problems caused by a series of head traumas – an example the author gave was when Henry ordered the arrest of Katherine Parr, then the next day shouted at the soldiers who came to fetch her – but I think it was just part of his personality – Henry being Henry, manipulative and controlling. Also, what saved Katherine was the fact that she was able to plead her case with the King in person. Access to Henry was paramount.

TT: Tell us more about the Spanish locations.

NG: In many ways, the Spanish court was different to the English. Katharine and her sisters grew up close to their parents, particularly Isabella. Katherine was the youngest, and the last to leave the nest. It must have been hard – that family endured so much heartbreak. When you visit places like Katherine’s birthplace in Alcala de Henares, it dawns on you that these were real people, not just characters in a book. I spoke with a local historian who has spent years studying the Archbishop’s palace where Katherine was born – he was so willing to share his research and we have been lucky enough to be able to incorporate a reconstruction of the layout of the palace in our book. Medina del Campo, where the English ambassadors first laid eyes on a three-year-old Katharine is another of the Spanish locations featured, as is the beautiful Alcazar of Seville, where I believe Katherine spent her 14th birthday.

TT: So far as discoveries are concerned, have you made any in the new book?

NG: Yes, we have made a fantastic discovery to do with some panels linked to Anne of Cleves. I don’t want to give too much away at this stage, as Sarah will be speaking more about this during our book tour, so do follow along!

TT: Which of the places do you recommend visiting?

NG: That’s so difficult, all of them, if possible! Acton Court is one of my English favourites. Nicholas Poyntz built an entire new wing to house Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn during the 1535 summer progress, and this wing forms much of what is left of Acton Court today. The grand state apartments at first-floor level give you a real sense of the transition from public to private space – the presence chamber, the privy chamber and bedchamber and there’s even a surviving guarderobe (w.c.)! The rooms are more or less bare of furniture and so you are free to imagine them as they were in Tudor times. There is an exquisite mural, thought to have been designed by Holbein, in what would have been the Privy chamber and it is amazing when you stand and look at it to think that Henry and Anne would have done the same. Visiting is limited and may be reduced in future – so go if you can.

Then, of course, there is the Alhambra. It is a place of incredible beauty. You have to see it to believe it. Only around a third of the buildings and palaces survive from Katherine’s day – it was the main location for the last two years of her life in Spain. It was designed as a vision of Paradise, with the Islamic use of water and fountains. There is water everywhere, and the smell of the citrus fruits that move through the spaces as it was designed for air to flow through. I am sure when Katherine was nearing the end of her days and confined to Kimbolton that she dreamed of the Alhambra.

TT: Are you planning a new work?

NG: Yes, still in the planning stages at present, but it will be about the Tudors, and places will be important.

TT: How do you manage writing together with running the website, your role as a teacher and having a family?

NG: It’s not always easy! I think being organised really helps. I’ve also reduced my teaching load, which means that I can spend the days when I’m not working writing and this doesn’t interfere with family life, as my children are at school. I’ve kept the website vibrant by publishing lots of great guest articles and interviews – I am really interested in promoting other people’s research and sharing great content.

TT: We can’t wait to read the new book. When is it published?

NG: Publication dates are 15 March 2016 for the UK and 19 May 2016 for the US.

TT: Will you be attending any events where our readers could meet you and hear you speak?

NG: I’m hoping to be in London in April researching a new book and promoting ‘In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII’ with Sarah. We will publish details of any events on our websites and Facebook pages.

TT: Thank you so much for talking to Tudor Times, and sharing your enthusiasm for Tudor places.