Discussion Questions – ‘The Lady Elizabeth’ by Alison Weir


'The Lady Elizabeth' by Alison Weir (2008)
‘The Lady Elizabeth’ by Alison Weir (2008)

1. Alison Weir talks about balancing the duties of novelist and historian. What kind of obligation do you think a historical novelist has to the facts of history? Should a writer let facts stand in the way of telling a good story? Are there parts of The Lady Elizabeth where you felt that Weir erred on one side or the other?

In my opinion, a historical novelist should stick to the facts of history as far as possible, and this is what Weir tries to do. At the end of the novel, she adds a section making clear which sections were her own imagination. You can tell that she has done her research. A historical novelist should adhere to history, but use imagination to fill in any gaps. In history based on fact, like the life of Elizabeth I, the facts should come first, before the telling of a good story. History shouldn’t be twisted to make a good story. It should be told as it is. I think that the main part of The Lady Elizabeth which I questioned was Elizabeth’s relationship with Thomas Seymour. There are rumours in the historical world about the nature of that relationship, but I think that Weir over-emphasised Elizabeth’s emotional involvement in the affair. I don’t think she was as emotionally involved as Weir portrays because she would have been too aware of her position, and the possibility of her acceding to the throne (unlikely in the reign of Edward VI but still possible). I also think that Elizabeth’s awareness about her mother, Anne Boleyn, was probably exaggerated, as I doubt that she was told much, particularly by her father or her half-sister, Mary.

2. How does Elizabeth’s girlhood determine the woman she grows up to be? What are some of the events that shape the kind of queen she will become?

With hindsight these events probably mean a lot more than they did to her at the time. I think that the main event which shaped Elizabeth’s later life was the execution of her mother when she was just two years old in 1536. It meant that she grew up with stepmothers, one of whom died in childbirth, one was divorced and one beheaded, the latter her own relative. No doubt this showed Elizabeth the perils of marriage, particularly within the monarchy. It no doubt drove her decision not to marry, even with the succession at risk. She realised that if she married a foreigner England would be under the power of a foreign country, and if she married an Englishman, the factions at court would be at war with each other. Another incident was no doubt her ‘relationship’ with Thomas Seymour. She came very close to completely losing her reputation, and there were rumours when she was Queen, that she was no virgin. Elizabeth’s girlhood decided that woman she became because she learnt very early on that life was hard, and that she would have to use all her wits to survive the court. She was also shaped by her incarceration in the Tower of London under her sister, Mary I. No doubt it reminded her of the fate of her mother, as well as Lady Jane Grey, aged just seventeen, a few years earlier. She feared for her life and wanted nothing more than her freedom. At this time she was also aware that if Mary didn’t have a child (likely) then she herself would become Queen of England.

3. Although Weir relies on unproven assertions in her portrayal of Elizabeth’s relationship with Thomas Seymour, some of the most shocking episodes, such as the scene where Elizabeth’s clothes are cut away, are recorded events. How could the two women charged with supervising Elizabeth, Kat Astley and Katherine Parr, allow these sorts of “games” to go on, and even participate in them? Do you think that this sort of abuse was a relic of less-civilized times, or is it something that could still happen today?

I think that Kat Ashley in particular did try to stop Thomas Seymour playing these ‘games’ with Elizabeth. It has been recorded that she spoke with Katherine Parr about Seymour. Katherine Parr could have believed that joining in with her husband playing with her ward might put some control into the situation, and stop Seymour coming onto Elizabeth sexually. It didn’t work, however, and there were rumours of a sexual relationship. Whether or not this was true it did dent Elizabeth’s reputation and there were rumours of it even when she was Queen. There were even some rumours that Elizabeth had been pregnant with Seymour’s child. If their relationship was sexual, then whether Katherine Parr knew the extent or not then she guessed something was going on between them. Allegedly the atmosphere when Elizabeth left Parr’s household was frosty, due to the Seymour situation. I think it is indeed something that could still happen today, and was not just a ‘relic of less-civilised times’. It would probably happen under slightly different circumstances but there have been instances of sex right under a guardian’s nose.

4. How do Elizabeth’s views on religion change over the course of the novel, and what contributes to those changes? Compare her religious beliefs with those of her society; is she typical of her times?

With the middle of the sixteenth century came the ‘mid-Tudor crisis’ where there were so many changes in religion that the people couldn’t keep up. I think, in general, that the people of England didn’t really care about religion by the time that Elizabeth I came to the throne. They had worshipped as Protestants under Edward VI (1547-1553) then as Catholics under Mary I (1553-1558). It was only the very serious about religion that got into any trouble – the severe Protestants under Mary who were burnt at the stake. Elizabeth begins as a Protestant, remains as a Protestant but becomes more tolerant of Catholics. When she becomes Queen she wants peace more than to push religion through. Katherine Parr wanted to bring Elizabeth up in the Protestant faith of her mother, Anne Boleyn, hence Elizabeth was most comfortable in the reign of her brother, Edward, rather than her sister, Mary. Elizabeth respected the views of Lady Jane Grey on religion, but knew that if Mary didn’t succeed to the throne then she wouldn’t either. She wasn’t very typical of her times – reading religious and theological texts, and developing her own opinions, encouraged by Katherine Parr. Most people just went along with what the monarch decreed.

5. In the accompanying interview, Weir writes about Edward VI: “Had he lived, I am convinced that he would have been as fanatical a Protestant as Mary Tudor was a Catholic, and that he would have been another autocratic king like his father.” Do you agree or disagree?

I think Edward VI was brought up to admire and respect his father, and like most young children, he looked up to an autocratic and almost overbearing figure. I don’t think that Edward would have been as bad as his father was, but I think that he could have been had he not had the guidance of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. I think that they kept him in order once his father died. I do believe that Edward would have been as fanatically Protestant as Mary was Catholic because his Protectors both staunchly believed in the Protestant religion, and he admired both of his Protectors. A lot of his advisors were also Protestant, including Archbishop Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and a lot of the nobles on his advisory council. I think he would have been autocratic about religion, encouraged by his Protectors, because that was how he’d been brought up, but I don’t think he would have been so autocratic about marriage and succession and the like, because he wasn’t surrounded by the mess that was Henry VIII’s divorce.

6. Do you share Weir’s sympathy for Henry VIII? Why or why not?

I think that people don’t tend to feel sympathetic towards Henry VIII, where really he does deserve at least some sympathy. Not in his treatment of his wives, in general, as he did execute two of them. However, his childhood cannot have been easy, growing up in the shadow of his brother, Arthur, and not having the advantages that he did. When Arthur died, Henry became the focus of attention and lost a lot of the freedom that he did have until that time. There was a lot of pressure on him to be a good king, to marry well, and to secure the succession. I don’t think that he was properly drilled in the ways of kingship, because until seven years before his father died, he was never intended for the throne. Even when he became king he let his advisors do everything. I think that it was Henry’s first years that deserve our sympathy rather than his later ones. It wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t sire a son, which must have been very difficult for him, with all the pressure from his father, and the Wars of the Roses still within living memory. In a lot of ways, however, Henry VIII doesn’t deserve sympathy because he took advantage of his position, and was a very selfish man – if he wanted a woman he got her, and if she didn’t live up to expectations he got rid of her. However, this wasn’t really an unusual attitude towards women at the time, and I doubt Henry was alone in his feelings.

Mary I 1554 by Hans Eworth
Mary I 1554 by Hans Eworth

7. Torture plays a significant part in The Lady Elizabeth. The threat of it is omnipresent, and it is used almost as a matter of course by a government intent on eliciting the answers it requires from its citizens. How effective is torture for Henry’s government as a political strategy, regardless of any moral considerations?

Torture is a constant threat for people in England at this time, particularly under Henry VIII and Mary I. Heretics were the ones most likely to be tortured for a confession, although people were also tortured in cases of suspected treason. At the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution, it was alleged that one of her so-called ‘lovers’, Mark Smeaton, was tortured into confessing (he was the only one who did so). Anne Askew, the Protestant martyr burnt at the stake in the 1540s was supposedly racked in order to get her to name others who shared her faith. I think Askew in particular shows the lengths to which the monarchs were willing to go in order to protect their thrones. People imprisoned within the Tower were constantly aware of the threat of torture if they didn’t confess what their captors wanted them to confess, hence many did. Elizabeth herself, when imprisoned in the Tower by her sister, is aware of the constant threat of torture and even execution, imprisoned in the same place her mother was twenty years before. It is a political strategy in order to protect the throne, and morality definitely comes second to the Tudor monarchs.

8. In what ways can Elizabeth be seen as a kind of proto-feminist? Would she have viewed herself in the kinds of terms that contemporary feminists might?

Feminism didn’t exist at that time. A lot of women wanted equal rights to men, but they didn’t know how to get them, and didn’t believe it possible. I think Elizabeth manages spectacularly well to become Queen and make use of her femininity. Mary manages less well as she relies on her husband to guide her in matters of state and family. Elizabeth sees this as Mary’s downfall and is careful not to fall into the same trap as her sister. Elizabeth appears to be one of the first feminists because she stands up for her own beliefs, even though it may result in her own downfall. She is more free with her sexuality (as seen in the case with Thomas Seymour), and uses it to her advantage. Being herself possibly ensures her survival, as Philip II of Spain is much taken with the flame-haired and outspoken Elizabeth when he first meets her, and even from just hearing stories of her. He is so taken with her that he offers her marriage after her sister’s death in 1558. She wouldn’t have viewed herself as a feminist in the same way as people today would, because such a thing didn’t exist. She was probably seen as outspoken and a little strange, possibly ‘loose’, but not as a feminist.

9. Twice in the novel, Elizabeth encounters what she believes to be the ghost of her executed mother, Anne Boleyn. Does Weir want us to believe that she has really seen her mother’s spirit? What other explanations might there be?

I think that the significance of Elizabeth seeing Anne Boleyn is that she is haunted by her past, particularly by the actions of her father and the possibility of her mother’s guilt. I think Weir wants us to think about Anne Boleyn and her place in Elizabeth’s life as she is growing up, and then as queen. It is well-known that Elizabeth never spoke publicly of her mother, but that she did wear a ring with her picture in it. Possibly Elizabeth knew that bringing up her mother’s ghost would cause too much controversy, and could jeopardise her own claim to the English throne (if her mother wasn’t really married to Henry VIII then she herself would be illegitimate). She never legitimised her mother’s marriage, as Mary did with her mother. I think Anne is there to remind Elizabeth where she came from. I think Elizabeth truly did think she saw her mother’s spirit because she wanted to. The people we love never leave us, and I think Elizabeth must have asked about her mother at some point, possibly to someone who knew her personally, and heard stories. I think Elizabeth enhanced the characteristics that reminded her of her mother, and that attracted her mother’s spirit to her. I don’t think there are any other explanations.

10. How do Mary’s feelings toward Elizabeth change over the course of her life, especially once she becomes queen? Why do you think these changes occur?

Elizabeth I coronation portrait c.1610 copy of a lost original
Elizabeth I coronation portrait c.1610 copy of a lost original

I think when Elizabeth is first born that Mary feels usurped. She knows that Elizabeth will eventually take her place as Princess of Wales. However, she still forms a bond with Elizabeth. It is well-known that Mary was incredibly maternal, although she never had children of her own. I think, particularly after Elizabeth was also bastardized, that Mary took the place of a mother to Elizabeth, being twenty at Anne Boleyn’s death. Mary was about the right age to be married herself and bearing her own children. Elizabeth was probably a surrogate child, particularly as their father didn’t really seem interested in their welfare. Once Mary becomes Queen these feelings change, as Elizabeth becomes more and more Protestant (against Mary’s own Catholicism) and she refuses to attend Mass, making every excuse under the sun. I think this religion is the main bone between the sisters. However, Mary also understood that Elizabeth could be a focus of opposition to her own reign (as was seen in Wyatt’s rebellion of 1554). I think this worry was what drove Elizabeth’s imprisonment in Mary’s reign, although Elizabeth herself may not have been involved in the rebellion. I think Mary’s haughty attitude as Queen, and her push to find Elizabeth a Catholic husband may have driven Elizabeth from her, although I don’t believe Elizabeth ever loved Mary as much as Mary loved her. I think Elizabeth may also have pulled away from Mary because of the issue of the succession – Mary was Catholic and didn’t want Elizabeth to succeed. She flaunted her ‘pregnancies’ (which turned out to be phantom) and made Elizabeth’s life a misery. Mary and Elizabeth are just too different to get on well together, and were brought up completely differently – Mary was spoilt most of her life.

11. Queen Mary is advised by many to imprison or even execute Elizabeth. Do you think that she is too lenient toward her younger sister? Does she allow her personal feelings to trump her duties as head of state? What would you have done in Mary’s position?

I think that family ties are more important than anything else. I don’t think Elizabeth herself was truly a threat to Mary’s throne; rather it was the people who would use her name to unseat Mary who were a threat. Elizabeth was biding her time – soon after Mary’s first phantom pregnancy Elizabeth realised that the chances of her succeeding to the throne were good – as long as she was still alive. She isn’t too lenient – in fact, I think she is too harsh. She should have trusted her sister, but I suppose Mary’s hatred of anything related to Anne Boleyn (who replaced her mother, Katherine of Aragon, on the throne) was much stronger than familial loyalty. I think deep down she did know that Elizabeth herself wasn’t a threat, but she needed to make a show of putting Elizabeth down to her councillors. I think as head of state Mary needs to make the right call, and I think in allowing Elizabeth to live she did just that, particularly as Elizabeth was next in line to the throne. If Mary had executed Elizabeth then I think that she would have been facing a country-wide rebellion as Elizabeth was popular, much more so than Mary, particularly towards the end of her reign. In Mary’s position, I think I would have sent Elizabeth to the country with a guardian loyal to myself to keep an eye on her, but I don’t think Mary’s locking her in the Tower actually did any good, because there were still rebellions raised in Elizabeth’s name, even when it was certain that she herself wasn’t involved in them.

12. When Elizabeth learns of the plots against Mary, why doesn’t she alert her sister? Is she right to hold her tongue?

Alison Weir
Alison Weir

I think that when Elizabeth found out about the rebellions against Mary, she should have informed her sister, as it made her look guiltier, and she should have known that they couldn’t have succeeded. However, I think that Elizabeth was also worried about the welfare of the people, probably knowing how her sister would react to news of a rebellion. I think Elizabeth doesn’t tell Mary because part of her hopes that the rebels will succeed (although she wouldn’t admit it), and she doesn’t want to admit she knew about it, because that would cast aspersions on her own innocence vs. guilt. If Elizabeth admitted that she knew about the risings, then it would be fairly obvious that she was contacted about them. Her life would have relied on the trust her sister had in her (evidentially not much). It is understandable, as admitting to it would probably have landed her in even bigger trouble. I think the main thing to understand about Elizabeth is that she has spent most of her life out of favour with her father and then her sister – she has come to understand the importance of self-preservation and I think it is that, more than anything, which drives her actions through those dangerous times. Elizabeth firmly believes that one day she will become Queen, and make England a country at peace, but to do that she needs to be alive.

13. What lessons do you think Elizabeth learns from Henry and Mary about how to rule, and about how not to rule?

Elizabeth has seen three reigns before her own. Her father, Henry VIII, ruled with an autocratic hand and expected to be obeyed. He didn’t let anybody rule him, particularly in his later years, and he knew exactly what to do when and how to let himself be heard. Edward VI started to take after his father, but there wasn’t enough time for him to develop his own style of rule before he died, and he had only been under Protectors. Mary I had to wrest her throne from Jane Grey and the Dudley family. Mary began by being forgiving and merciful, but as her love for her husband developed she began to kill, starting with Jane Grey (probably relatively innocent, didn’t want the throne at all) and moving onto her religious fanaticism. I think that it was probably Mary’s reign which imbibed Elizabeth with the desire for peace and tolerance. Religion wasn’t pushed like it was under Mary, and even to an extent under Henry VIII and Edward VI. She learnt from her sister not to let her heart become engaged because it was too dangerous, and England would have come under a foreign power, or erupted in civil war. She knew she needed to be firm, and unlike her sister, relied on her feminine wiles and maidenly reluctance to get what she wanted.

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