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The Secret Keeper

A Novel of Kateryn Parr


With a secret threatening to escape her lips at any moment, Juliana St. John is caught between love and honor as she takes on her new life as a mistress to household of Sir Thomas Seymour in the second novel of the Ladies in Waiting series.

What she sees in secret, she may not tell.

Mistress Juliana St. John is the lovely, forthright daughter of a prosperous knight’s family. Though all expect her to marry the son of her late father’s business partner, time and chance interrupt, sending her to the sumptuous but deceptive court of Henry VIII.

Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Queen Jane, returns to Wiltshire to conclude his affairs with Juliana’s father’s estate and chances upon her reading as lector in the local church. He sees instantly that she would fit into the household of the woman he loves and wants most to please, Kateryn Parr. Juliana’s mother agrees to have her placed with Parr for a season and Juliana goes, though reluctantly.

For she keeps a secret.

Juliana has been given the gift of prophecy, and in one vibrant vision she has seen Sir Thomas shredding the dress of a highly born young woman, while it was still on her body, to perilous consequence.

As Juliana accompanies Kateryn Parr to court, Henry’s devout sixth queen raises the stakes for all reformers. Support of firebrand Anne Askew puts the queen and her ladies in life-threatening jeopardy, as does the queen’s desire to influence her husband’s—and the realm’s—direction and beliefs.

Later, without Henry’s strong arm, the court devolves to competition, duplicity, and betrayal. The risks could not be higher as Juliana must choose between love and honor, personal fulfillment and sacrifice. Ultimately, her course is driven by a final kept secret, one that undoes everything she thought she knew.

This reading group guide for The Secret Keeper includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Sandra Byrd. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. People sometimes say that, with historical fiction, we insert twenty-first–century values like “girl power” into the world of sixteenth-century women. But could that be a bit dismissive? How were women such as Kateryn Parr, Anne Askew, and Juliana St. John empowered in ways similar to and also different from contemporary women?

2. Two of the charges against both Askew and Calthorpe is that they were unnatural and unkind, mainly because they continued to use their given names in some capacity and for their forthright speech, especially where the exercise of their spiritual gifts was involved. Has that changed with, for example, women such as Anne Graham Lotz, or is there still a sense of that today?

3. Juliana felt social pressure to remain quiet about her sexual abuse, as there were messages, both overt and subtle, that she was “damaged goods” after having been assaulted and that those in power could twist the circumstances to harm her reputation as well as bring trouble to those she loved. Are today’s women equally pressured to “keep quiet” due to the shaming of society, with messages that the way they act, dress, or speak encourages rape? Or are young women today likely to speak up?

4. Why do you think most women are drawn to “bad boys” at one time or another?

5. Have you ever learned a secret that changed your life or the life of someone you know? What was it?

6. Although we come to understand why Frances St. John acted so dismissively toward her daughter, it did not undo the longing Juliana had felt her entire life. Kateryn Parr stepped in, as she did with so many others, as mother and mentor. Do you have a female mentor, or have you had a good mentor? What role did she/does she play in your life that is different from or the same as that of a mother?

7. When Kateryn Parr was mothering Juliana, she had no idea she was teaching her how to be a mother. That kindness was repaid in a way Kate could never have imagined, as Juliana then mothered Kate’s daughter, Mary. Have you known of a circumstance in which you or someone you know has given to another only to be rewarded unexpectedly in kind?

8. Juliana let her pride—her concern that Jamie would view her as unlovely if he knew the circumstances of her life—play a role in her silence. Are there issues today that women are reluctant to be forthcoming about, worried that others would view them badly, when in fact, the truth would set them free? What are some of those common issues?

9. Do you believe that prophecy is an active spiritual gift in today’s world? Why or why not?

10. In the end, the haughty Lady Seymour was reduced, herself, to begging on bended knee for the life of her husband. In the end, Juliana got the man she loved and her own child, though perhaps not the way she expected it to happen. Do you believe that people eventually “get what they deserve”?

A Conversation with Sandra Byrd

In the opening of the novel, we learn that Juliana occasionally has prophetic dreams, and her mother suspects of her being a witch. Indeed, many meaningful dreams end up coming into play in the novel. Why did you choose to use these as a medium?

I had a few reasons, all of which fused in the novel. “Seers” often appear in the Tudor genre, perhaps because spirituality was such an overt part of many peoples’ lives then, or they more readily recognized it. I like keeping some traditional elements of a genre in the books I write, as long as I can do them a little differently. I hadn’t seen it utilized and explained as a gift of the Spirit as explained in the Bible’s book of 1 Corinthians, and so I decided to do that.

Much of this book is about women overcoming the roadblocks they faced, partly in the expression of their spirituality. Various women in the book have the gifts of teaching, of preaching, of giving, of prophecy, and one is called to martyrdom. I wanted to show women publicly exercising their spiritual gifts in an era which did not readily accept anything outside the norm—therefore, dangerous. And then there is that document that historian Zahl says was dropped and then found, warning Parr that accusations which would threaten her life were coming. I believe that was no accident, but was providentially arranged. My plot illustrates one way that could have happened.

Both The Secret Keeper and To Die For tell a story from the perspective of a friend. Do you think it is easier or more difficult to write from this perspective? How would you write differently if you were writing in the voice of Kateryn Parr?

I think it’s easier to write from the position of a friend, because a friend sees things a bit more objectively than we might see ourselves and is able to report thusly. A friend sees our good moments, and our bad moments, and loves us anyway. Telling the story from the position of a friend gives access that, for example, telling it from the position of a servant would not allow. I don’t know that it is easier to write this way; I think it depends on what you want to put across. In this series, I’m seeking an insight into the queens’ hearts.

I never considered writing as Parr, because it was important to me to tell a projection of Mary Seymour’s story too. If I had written as Parr, I would not have had the relative outsider’s viewpoint. Juliana was less protected, less studied in the ways of court, and less noticeable, with more freedom. It gives a different point of view than had it been from someone of great power. It was important to me to show the vulnerability of those at court.

Is there a reason you chose this particular moment in the Reformation as your background? What kind of research did you do for this novel? What was it like to write a fictional account of this monumental moment in British history?

I’ve always been enamored of Tudor England, so setting the books during that era was bliss. The English Reformation was transforming the nation during those years; religion played a major role in every sixteenth-century English reign and even those which closely followed thereafter. It is an angle which I felt was underexplored in historical fiction, but was a huge part of the everyday lives of Tudor-era women. Kateryn Parr was an on-fire reformer, perhaps much stronger than I’ve even put across in the novel.

To research, I read her biographies, I read her own written works, I researched what was happening in the world around her, and I read how she’d influenced others. I did a study of the rise of gentry during these years and also of the development of the Church of England. So much has been written, and will yet be written, about this amazing era; I simply hope that whatever books I contribute bring a new shading or nuance to the genre.

Juliana is raped by a man at court, John. Some of John’s excuses seemed all too familiar to the modern reader. Was this a difficult scene for you to write?

Sadly, I believe the self-justification and excuses for rape are as old as humanity, and they haven’t changed. It was a terribly difficult scene to write, and I didn’t add it to the story line gratuitously. I wanted to show the real dangers women faced, and face, because of the lack of access to power and protection. Women then and now face significant emotional, physical, and social repercussions from rape. Wrongly ascribed shame and the physical damage persist long after the attack. Women today are still shamed into silence, though, thankfully, there are now legal consequences and help available in many countries. But it hasn’t changed the numbers.

Up to half of all women still suffer sexual trauma of some kind during their lives. I wanted to acknowledge that, while also encouraging them that they, too, can still have a happily ever after, and to remind them that God sees all and promises to repay.

Anne Askew is another woman to face a horrible fate. As she burns at the stake, her religious convictions remain strong. Do you think that same level of conviction remains today? Or has it faded? What role does faith play in your life?

My Christian faith is central to my life, though as in any long-lasting relationship, there are times when God and I are close, times when I feel distant from Him, questions I wrestle with that aren’t quickly or even ever answered, times I feel like I’m deeply in love, and times when I am angry with Him. When I work through things with God honestly (He’s said, “Come, let us reason together,” right?) our relationship grows deeper and more intimate. I don’t feel the need to have a tidy, easily boxed-up relationship.

I think Askew’s convictions remained strong because she had that certainty, that intimacy with the Lord, conviction, and the courage to stand. There are definitely people today with that kind of strength, but I don’t think you’ll find many where the living is easy! And if you do, once they begin to stand apart, the living won’t be easy anymore. What it will be though, is deeply rewarding in a way that an easy faith, or an easy life, is not.

How you imagine the fate of Lady Mary Seymour is a lovely answer to the long-standing mystery. Did you think of the ending before you wrote the novel? During? After?

I knew before I began the novel that I wanted Mary to live. There is no record that Mary Seymour died, and even the hints are ambiguous. I admire Kateryn Parr, I feel deep affection for her, if I may, and I wanted to give her daughter a life. The book is, at its heart, about mothering: the mothers we are born to, the ones we choose, the people we mother unofficially, and how important good mothering is. How we crave it. There is no doubt that Kateryn Parr mothered the Tudor children well. I think she had a gift for mothering. She mothered Juliana. And in a way she could not have expected, she reaped what she’d sown, in teaching Juliana how to mother Mary.

On your website,, the first line of your biography states: “After earning her first rejection at the age of thirteen, bestselling author Sandra Byrd persevered and has now published more than three dozen books.” Was this the first story you ever wrote? What was it about?

Actually, it was a poem. And in my innocent naïeveté, I sent it off to a publisher and thought, well that is that, now I’ll be published. I am forever grateful to the intern who took the time to send a rejection postcard to me. I think the first full story I ever wrote, as a teen, was about star-crossed lovers who were magnetically, tragically, melodramatically, attracted to one another, although they were from opposite poles, North and South. You can see why that didn’t get published, either. But writers learn by writing and reading, and by being edited, so I expect it helped somewhere along the line, because here I am, published!

You offer your services as a writing coach on your website. If you had one piece of advice to give to an aspiring writer, what would it be?

I’d echo author Jane Kirkpatrick, whose work I admire:

My best advice is to silence the harpies, those negative voices that say “who told you that you could write?” or “what makes you think your book will get published?” Just write the story of your heart and put duct tape on those harpies.

Sometimes the harpies are inside your head, sometimes they’re other people. Find people who will nurture both you and your story, who help you protect your talent all the while insisting that you grow in your craft. And trust yourself.
Photograph © Studio B Portraits

Award-winning and bestselling author Sandra Byrd has published four dozen books in the fiction and nonfiction markets, including Mist of Midnight, Bride of a Distant Isle (A Romantic Times Book Reviews Top Pick), and her most recent, A Lady in Disguise. For nearly two decades, Sandra has shared her secrets with the many writers she edits, mentors, and coaches. She lives in the Seattle, Washington area.

“Rich in historical detail, full of intrigue, and starring a memorable heroine—Juliana St. John—who grows in both character and faith, Sandra Byrd’s The Secret Keeper kept me completely engrossed in the tumultuous court of Henry VIII. I felt a part of the times, thanks to the author’s skillful storytelling, vivid descriptions, and inspiring characters. Readers are in for a special treat with this remarkable novel.”

– Francine Rivers, New York Times bestselling author

"'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,' wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning long years after the Tudor period of Sandra Byrd's remarkable book, The Secret Keeper. But the poet's words come to mind often as I count the myriad ways I love this story. Exquisite attention to detail of time, language, and place. A deft creation of character voice that invites the reader in and never lets her go. A delicate suspense that keeps pages turning. And throughout, the evidence of a remarkable storyteller who moves emotions in ways that both inspire and satisfy. I fell in love with Juliana St. John and with her heart, and hope she and her secrets find the widest possible audience."

– Jane Kirkpatrick, New York Times bestselling author of Where Lilacs Still Bloom

"A young woman with the gift of prophecy becomes entangled in Henry VIII’s court in this engaging novel. [. . .] Byrd (To Die For) crafts a well-researched historical novel that engrosses readers in Juliana’s world and the juicy details of the Tudor court. [. . .] Anglophiles and history buffs alike will surely enjoy this bird’s-eye view into royal politics, love, and scandal."

– Publishers Weekly

"Juliana’s character as the main protagonist is both surprisingly fresh and perfectly presented. There is much more to her than a lady’s maid, and finding out her secrets as the story unfolds is a great pleasure. Unlike many novels of this kind — which portray a fictional character in the lead — this one works very well. A female’s place in society is expanded upon, but not so much as to become monotonous and spoil the historical theme."

– Historical Novel Society

"The Secret Keeper emulates the fast-paced tension of a great romantic suspense novel but relies entirely upon court intrigue to accomplish that pulse-pounding feat. Anchored by the proper but down-to-earth voice of Juliana St. John, the reader remains lip-bitingly engaged in the story and its characters even through the most mundane activities in which they take part. [...] Like its predecessor, The Secret Keeper illumines roles the royals played in the ebb and flow of the English Reformation Movement, but does so in such a suspenseful, romantic fashion that the reader is every bit as entertained as she is educated. [...] I'd be willing to wager that, come December, The Secret Keeper will find a firm ranking on many bloggers' Best Books of 2012 lists — including mine. The Secret Keeper is simply superb. It grabbed me from the start and never let go. [...] Even readers who shy away from the well-researched historical will get wrapped up in the Tudor trickery and lovely romance within this story. Byrd's tightly woven plot is laced with ever-splicing threads of intrigue that worm their way into your imagination and all but tie the book to your hands. Read it!"

– USA Today

"The Secret Keeper is a beautifully crafted story of heartache, love and loyalty. The reader is gifted with glimpses into the lives of many of the key characters of that day: Kateryn Parr, Thomas Seymour, and the young Elizabeth Tudor. The heroine's secrets are compelling, but the biggest secret others have kept from her changes her life. However, it is no secret that Sandra Byrd writes compelling fiction on women's trials and triumphs. Enjoy, but keep a handkerchief nearby."

– Karen Harper, New York Times bestselling author of Mistress of Mourning

"Atmospheric, dramatic and full of twists, this second title in Byrd’s 'Ladies in Waiting' series (after To Die For) is a sure bet for fans of Deborah Vogts and Tudor fiction."

– Library Journal

More books from this author: Sandra Byrd

More books in this series: Ladies in Waiting