The setting of Gregory's novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, is sixteenth-century England, beginning in 1521, with the reunion of the Boleyn sisters in King Henry the VIII's court and ending in 1536 with the beheading of Anne Boleyn.
This was a tumultuous time in British history. Henry VIII came to power at the beginning of this century in 1509. Four years later, Earl of Surrey, Thomas Howard (of the powerful Howard-Boleyn family in this novel) defeated the Scots who attempted to invade Britain. In 1517, Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church, which in turn, influenced Henry VIII's bold move to claim that he, not the pope, was the head of the church in England. In 1533, when Henry marries Anne Boleyn, he is excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
On other political fronts, Queen Katherine, Henry's first wife, lost favor not only because she did not bear a son for Henry but also because her nephew, Charles, who became Emperor Charles V of Spain, turned against King Henry by not supporting British forces in Henry's bid to take over France. Henry wanted to be king of both England and France and was led to believe that Charles would help him in this move. However, as it turned out, Charles was interested in expanding his own power. He captured the northern portion of France and Italy instead and claimed himself emperor.
Other signs of trouble for the king occurred after Henry defied the pope, divorced and exiled his then-wife Queen Katherine, and then married Anne Boleyn. Local citizens, who loved Queen Katherine, decried Henry's decisions and began terrorizing Anne whenever she went out into the public realm. The citizens referred to Anne as a "whore" and emotionally wrought mobs threatened to do Anne bodily harm.
Readers should also understand that this time in history was not very favorable for women. There had never been a female monarch at this time in England, for instance. Women were taught they were inferior to men and in some cases, women were considered the instruments of the devil. From an early age, women were taught to obey their parents without question. This belief was carried into marriage, where women would do the same with their husbands. It was rare that a woman received an education. Jane Seymour, whom King Henry married after Anne Boleyn, could barely read, though Anne Boleyn was highly educated. In terms of marriage, it was rare that a woman of noble birth would choose her own husband. Marriages in the nobility were based on political or economic gain for the woman's family. Royal marriages were largely arranged for political and military power. Often kings and queens did not see one another until their wedding day. Because of the lower ranking of women, a male heir was the only assurance of passing titles and family wealth from one generation to the other. Thus the crazed need, as perceived by Henry, for a son.