Discussion Questions – ‘The Virgin Queen’s Daughter’ by Ella March Chase


1. When The Virgin Queen’s Daughter begins, Nell is imprisoned in the Tower of London. How does this set the tone of the book? Compare Nell’s perception of the fortress as a child with her feelings about it upon her return. Contrast Elizabeth’s experience as a prisoner to Nell’s.

White Tower at the Tower of London
White Tower at the Tower of London

The tone is set because you know what will happen and what it is all leading to. It sets the tone because you know things before they happen. It is more hindsight than we have even with history, because it’s debatable. The tone at the beginning is a sense of sadness and inevitability. It makes you wonder and question what you thought you knew. The Tower of London as a child, Nell saw it as a place of wonder, magical and special. It is the place of the menagerie, creatures she is unlikely to have seen before. It is the environment which she doesn’t know but really wants to that makes it so special for her. As an adult, however, she returns to it as a prisoner, and sees it more as forbidding and a symbol of power. Elizabeth believes in destiny. Nell thinks of experiences in the past – Elizabeth has locked people up before (Katherine Grey had been in the Tower for several years). Elizabeth was a valuable prisoner to her sister, Mary I, whereas Nell was very disposable, unless the truth eventually came out.

  1. Parents during the Renaissance widely believed the warning of Juan Luis de Vives, a prominent educator of the time, who said: “the daughter especially shall be handled without cherishing for cherishing marreth sons, but it utterly destroyeth daughters”. Which of Nell’s parents were “right” in the way they educated Nell? From which parent does Nell learn the most valuable lessons in the end? How does Nell’s perception of her parents change during her time at court?

I think that in modern times, both were right – Nell’s father wanted education and for Nell to have a chance at a better life, but her mother wanted her to learn womanly pursuits like needlework and dealing with servants. Women still needed education in the early modern period to understand a house and their husbands or fathers, or even uncles or brother-in-laws. Nell probably wouldn’t have been so eager to go to court if she hadn’t been educated because she wouldn’t really have understood the attraction. Neither was necessarily “right”, but both cared equally, though it obviously didn’t seem like that to Nell. Nell sees her parents as a source of her confusion – she doesn’t understand her mother’s objections to her being at court until it is already too late for her. Her father she sees as trying to make up for the fact that he’s not really her dad, he wants her to make her real mother proud.

  1. Nell’s father shows little discretion with her even from a very young age. Given the time, what do you think of his behaviour? Why does Nell’s mother disapprove of Nell knowing so much?

Nell’s father’s lack of discretion was part selfish. He wants someone to echo him as he has no son to carry on his legacy. It is slightly reckless, as he must have been aware that Nell’s confusion and yearning for knowledge would only push it further. Nell’s mother knows (or at least guesses) that past, and realises what that could mean for Nell. Elizabeth is dangerous in her own way, and especially to Nell, because of their blood bond. It is well-known that Elizabeth was ruthless with those who threatened her throne or the peace of her realm. Nell’s father endangered her with knowledge. Nell’s mother and father are both trying to protect her, but in different ways. Nell’s mother wants to protect her from the knowledge, believing that ignorance is bliss, but Nell’s father thinks that knowing everything will help her to defend herself. In the end, there is no right answer, but both were equally trying.

  1. Nell seems completely blindsided by the stories she learns of her mother’s time in court. Why do you think her mother never shared these stories – especially if she was so adamant about Nell staying away? How do the stories about Lady Thomasin’s time at court change your perception of Nell’s father?
Hampton Court Palace, built by Cardinal Wolsey.
Hampton Court Palace, built by Cardinal Wolsey.

Nell’s mother probably never shared these stories with Nell because it opened the door onto a past she would rather forget. If she told the stories, it would inevitably lead back to the pregnancy of Elizabeth I and what that meant for Nell’s future, and the future of England as a whole, another thing she didn’t want to think about. It also seemed that Thomasin was ashamed of who she used to be, and what she did and said. There was no doubt also a worry that she would expose to Nell to danger, conspiracy and misery, and it wouldn’t end well for her. After her arrest, Nell debated what she could have done differently to avoid the situation, and came to the conclusion that she should have listened to her mother. Nell was never close to her mother, but she was to her father – it shocked her to learn that her mother had a life. Nell’s mother was able to change Nell’s perception of her father because it was not what she expected and that inevitably changed.

  1. Throughout the novel characters tell lies and keep secrets to “protect” themselves and people they love. Consider the lies both Gabriel’s mother and Nell’s mother tell their children. Do you think their decisions are justified? If not, what would you suggest they do under those circumstances? How might the story change if Nell’s mother told the truth about why she did not want Nell to go to court?

Nell’s mother and father try to protect her – they didn’t want her too close to Elizabeth, aware of possible problems, though not entirely sure. Their worry was justified, but it was also not up to them to make decisions for Nell, they could only advise her of the best course of action. Ultimately it was up to her to make her own mistakes and learn from them. Thomasin should have come clean with Nell so that she understood the danger and could better protect herself. The story could have changed if Thomasin had told Nell the truth because Nell might not have gone to court so Eppie might not have felt the need to tell Nell the truth. On the downside, Nell wouldn’t have met Gabriel and fell in love and been happy. Gabriel’s mother needed to tell her son the truth. It is always about the truth. Perhaps if Gabriel had been told the truth he would have been instinctively kinder and less the consummate courtier. However, maybe he wouldn’t have felt the need to protect Nell, and for her to break through to his vulnerable side.

  1. In what ways does Elizabeth’s court live up to Nell’s expectations? How does it disappoint her? Was Nell’s description of court as you pictured it to be? If not, what did you expect to be different? Did you share Nell’s fascination with court, or Lady Thomasin’s repulsion? Why? Given Nell’s relationship with her mother, do you see her attraction to court as genuine, or as a form of rebellion?

Nell appreciates the intellectual prowess of Elizabeth I and her closest, like Gabriel and Robert Dudley. She meets lots of new people and has lots of new experiences, some good and some bad. Nell was disappointed in Elizabeth – she had changed since Nell saw her as a prisoner in the Tower of London. She learns that power corrupts, as seen with Elizabeth’s attitude towards her and Katherine Grey. As an imprisoned princess she would likely never have acted like that. As a queen, her priorities changed. Court is as she had expected, except in the way that it changed her completely – it was a hothouse of power, lies and corruption. You can understand the fascination, but also the repulsion, knowing the truth. Nell wants freedom and Thomasin wants to protect her. Nell’s attraction to court is genuine – a life she doesn’t know or understand – but she uses her attraction as a method of rebellion against her mother.

  1. When Elizabeth sends Nell to Dr John Dee’s home at Mortlake, Nell is delighted to reacquaint herself with her father’s brilliant friend, while Dr Dee remembers the inquisitive child who wanted to “break open his scrying ball to let all the little people out”. Dee invites Nell into his “sanctum sanctorum”, a place where he keeps his most controversial manuscripts. It is here we encounter the dangerous intersection between science and superstition during the Renaissance – where fear and grim punishments awaited those who dared to challenge the teachings of the church. In a world changing so fast, it was difficult to reconcile science and religion. Can you draw some comparisons between our time and Nell’s? Does Nell remind you of anyone you know in your personal life, in politics, or in recent history? Dr Dee talks of “destiny’s children”. What incidents in Nell’s life make her one of these? What events in Elizabeth’s life made her one?
Dr John Dee
Dr John Dee

In Nell’s time people were still very focused on religion and superstition, knowledge not come to the forefront yet. It is the next century when the Renaissance really starts in England. In our time, on the other hand, superstition has been overrun by knowledge and science. In Nell’s time, Dr Dee is really the first “scientist” who rejects many of the superstitions still flourishing. Nell herself is a reminder of Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn. Both were very intelligent and vibrant women who went for what they wanted and got it, but risked losing all in the process. Nell’s attributes for “destiny’s children” include her education and upbringing, her relationship with her father, and her multitude of experiences at court with Elizabeth I, Mary Grey and Gabriel Wyatt. Elizabeth’s attributes for the same include her mother’s execution, her own imprisonment in the reign of her sister, and the comparisons made between her and her sister and predecessor, Mary I. In a lot of ways their experiences are similar – both have suffered imprisonment in the Tower of London, neither really knew their mothers (but for very different reasons), and both fell recklessly in love, though it was only really out-of-bounds for one of them.

  1. At Mortlake, Gabriel and Nell argue about the precepts of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. What are the differences in their beliefs? How do their visions change as their relationship grows? Recalling Nell’s conversation with her father about Sir Thomas More’s controversial life outside of his fictionalised Utopia, do you think this could have been Sir John de Lacey’s subtle way of warning Nell against the world she would face as an adult? Does Nell’s conversation with Gabriel bear any similarities to her conversation with her father? What attributes do Gabriel and Sir John de Lacey share?

At Mortlake, Nell is still essentially a child – she is naïve and still believes in a perfect world, she has yet to experience the corruption and lies within the court. On the other hand, Gabriel is experienced and almost world-weary. He has had several brushes with death, and has seen good and bad – no longer believes in a perfect world. Nell has been a lot more sheltered than Gabriel has. Nell still believes in the ideas of Utopia, whereas Gabriel sees them more as guiding principles on which to base your own life and behaviour. Nell becomes less naïve and more understanding of other people’s behaviour as she begins to understand the way the court works, and the power of ambition for some. She comes to share more of Gabriel’s views, which is possibly why their relationship works as well as it does. Nell was naïve and so a warning of her perilous situation would have been politic. Gabriel Wyatt and John de Lacey were more alike than Nell realised – both were dedicated to Nell’s own safety and happiness above all else, and wanted to protect her from harm.

  1. The author weaves the tale of Nell’s birth from an account recorded during Elizabeth’s reign of a midwife who claimed to deliver a baby to a “very fair young lady” she believed was the princess. Explore Nell’s reaction to Eppie’s story. When do you think she actually begins to believe it might be true? When Thomasin tells her part of the tale, including the origin of the scar on Nell’s hand, how does this change Nell’s perception of her mother? Why do you think Nell doesn’t destroy the piece of bed curtain Eppie gives her?

At first Nell is dumbstruck. She doesn’t really believe Eppie’s story until she talks to her mother when the latter arrives at court. It isn’t until Eppie is arrested that she fully understands the implications of the secret of her birth – it doesn’t only affect her, but also her family and people who knew the secret, Elizabeth, and the country at large (anything to do with Elizabeth could affect the succession, hence why the matter of her marriage was so important). Nell didn’t realise at the beginning of the story just how much her mother cared, but it was only when the whole story came to light that her caring side did as well. Nell sees how much her mother was willing to do to protect her. Nell doesn’t destroy the piece of bed curtain that Eppie gives her because she doesn’t want to believe at first, and then she seems to want to keep it as a symbol of what destruction it wrought and the cost of the truth, and a memory of Eppie.

  1. Explore Elizabeth’s moral dilemmas in the book as a fourteen-year-old and as a queen. What effect does Seymour’s seduction have on Elizabeth? What about her betrayal of the stepmother who is the only mother she’s ever known? Do you believe that such emotional trauma could wipe away the memory of childbirth from the mind of a frightened fourteen-year-old?
Elizabeth I coronation portrait c.1610 copy of a lost original
Elizabeth I coronation portrait c.1610 copy of a lost original

Elizabeth as a fourteen-year-old has moral dilemmas as a result of relationships, love, lust and sex which causes rumours about her conduct (personal dilemmas). Elizabeth as queen as a wider range of dilemmas that affect the country at large. She has to worry most about the protection of the crown and keeping the peace. Thomas Seymour, and the whole mystery over whether they did or didn’t do it teaches Elizabeth the danger of men, and of falling in love. That is probably why she is so wary of forming a relationship with Robert Dudley. If she really did want to marry him, no one could have stopped her. A similar lesson was learned much earlier with the fate of her mother, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth’s betrayal of her stepmother was one of the defining moments of Elizabeth’s life because she never really knew her real mother, and Katherine Parr was the closest she got. She was the step-mother that Elizabeth knew for the longest time and shared a lot in common with. I don’t think anything could wipe childbirth from the mind of a vulnerable girl. I think that Elizabeth worked very hard to block it out, hence why she was so angry when the story of Nell’s parentage was brought up. She truly believed her child had died.

  1. Discuss Gabriel’s transformation from the consummate courtier to a man willing to sacrifice his hand to save Nell and the baby. How do you feel about his decision to continue seeing his mistress even after he and Nell are married? How does his decision to ask for Nell’s favour at the tournament demonstrate the change in him? Is Nell justified when she believes he will betray her secret when Walsingham threatens to cut off his hand?

Gabriel changes from a consummate courtier to a devoted husband and father. Nell teaches Gabriel how to love and care, and what that means for life. The courtier in Gabriel becomes a façade, an act, to protect them and their unborn child from Elizabeth’s wrath. I think that sacrificing his hand was Gabriel’s way of showing Nell and Elizabeth just how much his marriage to Nell means – perhaps he was hoping to shock Elizabeth into showing mercy. It worked, if that was his intent, particularly as Elizabeth said afterwards that she regretted her decision to allow them to take his hand. Gabriel’s decision to continue seeing his mistress was another act of self-preservation – things had to be seen to be going on as they always had. If Gabriel had stopped going to his mistress, alarm bells would have rung, and there would no doubt have been an investigation. Gabriel was trying to protect Nell in the best way he knew how. It was necessary to preserve the façade but you can understand Nell’s aversion. Asking for Nell’s favour at the tournament marks a change in the state of their relationship. Gabriel is starting to inch it out into the open, possibly to soften the blow when they do eventually break the news of their secret marriage. It is a statement of intent. Nell truly believes that Gabriel will protect himself above all others – his natural instinct – but she underestimated the change in him, for her.

  1. Elizabeth warns Nell that “curiosity can bring any world tumbling down”. Later she says, “wise enough to know sometimes there are no right answers. Better to let the questions remain”. How would Nell’s life be different if she abided by this? How would her mother’s life have been different? What did you think about their uneasy truce?

If Nell hadn’t been so curious about the court, and about her own past and Eppie’s confession, Gabriel wouldn’t have seen the need to protect her through their marriage, and Elizabeth might not have seen Nell as a threat. I don’t think that Elizabeth would have explored the truth if Nell hadn’t set events in motion. If Nell hadn’t pushed the question of her birth after Eppie’s revelation then Eppie would probably have lived, but Nell wouldn’t have grown closer to either her mother, or to Gabriel. Was the end result worth the price paid? Thomasin de Lacey wouldn’t have gained the love and understanding of her daughter without Nell’s curiosity, because I doubt she would have revealed her suspicions merely for the sake of it. Nell, however, was still a little resentful. Thomasin gets embroiled where she doesn’t want to. The truce between them leads to something stronger – a bond that cannot be broken. Understanding is a powerful thing, and means that people who may not like each other at least respect each other. Nell grows to respect her mother for the danger she put herself in to protect her daughter. I don’t think she can forgive her mother for letting Eppie go, but she understands the reasons behind it, even if the wrong decision was made.

  1. Both Nell and Elizabeth face difficult choices that place their hearts and intellects in conflict. To what lengths should a queen go to protect her throne? Is it acceptable to take one innocent life in order to assure the people of a country? If Elizabeth had had Nell executed, what would have been the emotional cost for the queen? If the tale of Nell’s birth had been revealed in the ensuing years, what would have been the consequences? What do you think truly meant more to Elizabeth – love or power? Do you see her aversion to marriage and love as a weakness or a strength?
Sir Francis Walsingham by John De Critz the Elder c.1585.
Sir Francis Walsingham by John De Critz the Elder c.1585.

A queen should project the image of “going to any lengths to protect the throne”, but should also know and understand the value of mercy, and how to win the approval of the people. Elizabeth I had the approval of the people, and in this novel dealing with Nell, in the end she does show mercy. Monarchs shouldn’t threaten people who aren’t a threat (like Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More or Mary I and Jane Grey). You shouldn’t need to take an innocent life in order to protect and strengthen a country – mercy shows more power and strength. If Elizabeth had executed Nell, people would want to know the reason; the birth situation would become public knowledge. She would have killed her own kin, reminiscent of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – perhaps that is what drove her to mercy. If revealed, the secret would mean the destruction of Elizabeth’s entire image, and possibly her reign. If Elizabeth was not queen, I think love would mean more, but she has to put the country first. Her aversion to love is a weakness, but her lack of a marriage is a strength.

  1. In the account Nell is writing for her own daughter at the end of the book, she says “Never forget that we weathered the storm captured in these pages not by the strength of men, brave as your father was. Women made certain you came to be. Hepzibah Jones, your grandmother Thomasin de Lacey, and me. And perhaps her the greatest queen England may ever know, the woman who ruled all but her heart. Remember this, your legacy as you face the world and its many dangers. We women, whether linked by blood or just by circumstance, whatever names history chooses to call us – Jones or de Lacey, Wyatt, Boleyn, or Tudor. We are survivors, all.” Compare and contrast the relationships between the mothers and daughters featured in The Virgin Queen’s Daughter: Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth; Katherine Parr and Elizabeth; Elizabeth and Nell; Thomasin and Nell. How did the mothers shape the women their daughters would become?

Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother, Anne Boleyn, was really non-existent. Anne was executed before Elizabeth turned three years old, and so she never really knew her. Anne was a figurehead to Elizabeth, and an example of what power and love can do. Elizabeth and Anne are compared to each other through the eyes of others, and Elizabeth still keeps her close (portrait ring). Katherine Parr and Elizabeth had a tenuous relationship. They were very close, as Elizabeth never really knew her own mother, and so Katherine Parr was there for her and encouraged her in her education, and looked after her after her father’s death. The betrayal with Thomas Seymour damaged the trust Katherine had in Elizabeth, but not the love they shared. Elizabeth and Nell’s relationship isn’t really a mother and daughter relationship – they’re never entirely sure in this novel that they are mother and daughter. It’s an ambiguous relationship – one is a danger to the other, and not with comfortable comparisons. Thomasin and Nell’s relationship is probably the most interesting. They have a modern kind of relationship with clashes and secrets, and a mother trying to protect her daughter from the wider world. The mothers shaped their daughters because the daughters learned from the mother’s mistakes, and absence often shapes them more than the presence. Negative feelings tend to be dominant.

  1. Do you think Chase makes a believable case that Nell is Elizabeth’s daughter? What are the most convincing arguments, both for and against? Why is it so vital that Elizabeth be “the Virgin Queen”?

The case of Elizabeth being Nell’s mother is often murky throughout the novel, hidden, with no explicit connection made – it is very effective in allowing the reader to make their own mind up. The novel itself does make a convincing argument for Nell’s parentage. I think more exploration could have been made into the father, although the timing makes it likely that Thomas Seymour would be the one, if Elizabeth was the mother. However, I do not think that in real life Elizabeth had a child. I think she was more aware of her own importance in the line of succession, and I think she believed in her destiny to be Queen of England. Arguments for the parentage include Elizabeth’s own reaction to the rumours, Eppie and the piece of bed curtain, and Gabriel’s research into the subject. Main arguments against are the fact that most of it is rumour, no certainty or concrete evidence, and no real way of proving it. However, rumour nearly always has a basis in fact. The image of the virgin queen is important because it is the foundation of the golden age, it shapes foreign opinion, views on marriage, and the problem with succession.

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