‘Mary and Elizabeth’ by Emily Purdy – Discussion Questions

Emily Purdy's 'Mary and Elizabeth' (2011).
Emily Purdy’s ‘Mary and Elizabeth’ (2011).

1. Discuss the childhoods of Mary and Elizabeth. How were they different? How were they alike? How did their relationships with their parents, the loss of their mothers, the alternating periods of being in and out of their father’s favour, and their father’s multiple marriages affect and influence the women they grew up to be?

Mary and Elizabeth had very different childhoods. Their mothers definitely affected them differently. For one, Mary was old enough to understand what was happening when her mother and father split when Henry was courting Anne Boleyn. When Anne fell from favour, Elizabeth wasn’t really old enough to understand what was happening. This created differences in how Mary and Elizabeth each treated their stepmothers. Elizabeth was more accepting, being younger and more easily influenced. Mary was very set in her ways, having been under her mother’s wing for her whole life, until they were forcibly split apart. Their childhoods were alike in that they were both raised in the royal court, but Mary was raised until she was a teenager in believing she was legitimate and would one day be Queen, whereas by the time Elizabeth was old enough to understand she was already illegitimate. The multiple marriages of Henry VIII affected Elizabeth more than Mary. It is my belief that Elizabeth’s experiences with her mother and stepmothers were a key reason why she didn’t marry.

2. Discuss Elizabeth’s dalliance with Thomas Seymour. What did she learn from it? Did it strengthen or weaken her? Did it make her wiser or leave her emotionally damaged? What do you think of Tom Seymour and his method of wooing women? Would you have fallen for him?

I certainly wouldn’t have fallen for Thomas Seymour. I am too suspicious of anyone who is (supposedly) so handsome and charming. It often gives them a high opinion of themselves. However, you can understand why Elizabeth did fall for him. She had no experience of love, romance or sex, and was relatively innocent. She had no hopes of a good marriage and didn’t really want one. If she didn’t intend to marry, what harm could it do? Of course, we don’t know when Elizabeth decided not to marry, or what her thoughts about Thomas Seymour were, or whether she actually contemplated a relationship with him. I think that her supposed relationship with Seymour actually strengthened her because she had the experience and knew how damaging rumour could be. It was probably around the time of the rumours that Elizabeth started adopting the virginal white and pearls as part of her dress. It symbolised her innocence and purity. Even from a young age, Elizabeth realised just how important image was. It made her wiser, although at the time it probably also damaged her, because it meant that she wasn’t untouchable and she needed to realise that.

3. If Edward VI had survived, how would Tudor England have been different? What would have happened to Mary and Elizabeth? Would they still be remembered today, or would they have been virtually forgotten, their names known only to serious historians of the period? And would Edward have spent his entire life imitating his father, or would he have eventually discovered himself and become his own person?

If Edward VI had survived, England would have been a very different place. It wouldn’t have been Catholic, as it was under Mary I for a start. I think because Edward was so young he was very influenced by his father and the Protectors Northumberland and Somerset, and because they were all Protestant, there was no way that Edward wouldn’t be. The main difference had Edward VI survived would have been the reign of Elizabeth probably wouldn’t have happened. It was because of Elizabeth that England became a cultural centre, and overcame the power of the Spanish. Mary and Elizabeth probably would never have succeeded to the throne, as Edward would have married and hopefully produced an heir. I think that Mary and Elizabeth would only be remembered by serious historians of the period, and Anne Boleyn would also have been consigned to a less prominent position in English history. Although both young women deserve to be studied in their own right, regardless of whether or not they were Queens or not, a lot of people wouldn’t have bothered, particularly not until the mid-twentieth century when history moved away from the political.

Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575
Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575

4. Discuss the role virginity plays in Elizabeth’s life. What does it mean to her? Why does she emphasize it by adopting white dresses and pearls? Is it symbolic, psychological, or propaganda, or are the boundaries blurred among all three?

Virginity is a major part of Elizabeth’s life. Her whole image as Queen was based around the idea of virginity because she never married, and it formed a kind of ‘cult’ of Gloriana. There were also rumours, around the time that she was staying with Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour, that she and Seymour had a kind of relationship, although of course no evidence survives. Possibly this idea of virginity was conceived to cover up misdemeanours from when she was younger, although I don’t personally support this idea. I think that Elizabeth’s following of virginity came from her own personal experiences with her mother (executed) and her stepmothers (died in childbed, divorced, executed, and nearly executed). Childbed was a part of marriage no matter your station and Elizabeth must have realised that if she became pregnant, her husband would take her place at the reins of government, and if she died in childbed, her child would be at the mercy of protectors and there could easily be a civil war. I think her emphasis on virginity through her jewels and clothing was to scotch rumours of an affair, not just the Seymour affair but also later with Robert Dudley, and I think it was also a way for Elizabeth to assure herself of her position, and her marriage to the country rather than a man.

5. Discuss the role Catholicism plays in Mary’s life. Why does she cling to her faith as a drowning person would do to a life preserver? And why does she try to force her religion on her subjects even when they resist? She believes herself to be God’s instrument and that her life has been preserved to do His work; is this a sign of a delusional and unstable mind, or is she a sincerely devout person who means well but repeatedly makes bad decisions?

Catholicism was, if it’s possible, more important to Mary than virginity was to Elizabeth’s image. Mary clings to her faith so hard because it was the faith of her mother, Katherine of Aragon, who was so wronged by Henry VIII. Mary took her mother’s side, and they were separated for the last four years of Katherine’s life. Perhaps Mary saw her faith as a way of being close to her mother, and it was how she was brought up. She couldn’t understand how her father could so readily change his beliefs. She tried to force her religion on her subjects because she truly believed that it was right and God’s will. With divine right, the monarch believes that their wishes are God’s wishes. Mary truly believed that her beliefs (Roman Catholicism) were right and proper and that the Pope has authority over the Church in England. Mary followed her beliefs because she believed they were right, but I think that it was also partly in remembrance of her mother, who she loved dearly and had been very close to in her childhood. In my opinion, what made her more devout was her father’s opposition to the Pope and Roman Catholicism. It made her cling harder to what she knew. I don’t think she was delusional or unstable. She just had a lot of faith, which is something not easily grasped in England in the twenty-first century. Back then people were willing to die for what they believed in. There is no danger of that now so people aren’t as forceful. I think her religion meant that Mary made a lot of bad decisions, but she meant well. She thought she was doing what was best for her subjects, even if they didn’t want it themselves. She didn’t understand that people had formed their own beliefs in the tumultuous times of the reigns of her father Henry VIII and half-brother Edward VI.

6. Discuss Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship with each other and how it changes over the years. How are they alike and how are they different? Discuss the sources of friction in their relationship. Was there any way they could have got along and been loving sisters and friends, or were they doomed rom the start to be rivals and adversaries?

Mary and Elizabeth were brought up in very different times. Up until Mary was about twelve she was spoiled by both of her parents, and knew that there was a good chance she would inherit the English throne one day. Then one day, she was informed that her mother and father’s marriage was incestuous, making her illegitimate and her whole world changed. Elizabeth spent the first two years of her life as the adored of her parents, but with a lot of the population secretly questioning her legitimacy. When Mary came to the throne there was a lot of celebration because she was her mother’s daughter, and considered legitimate. Mary assumed she would have the people’s favour because she was the true heir, but her actions switched support to Elizabeth, cemented when the latter promoted religious tolerance. After Elizabeth loses her mother in 1536, Mary sees her as a lost child, as she once was when separated from her mother. Mary has a lot of maternal feelings and uses Elizabeth as an outlet for them. Later, she realises just how much of a challenge Elizabeth poses to her throne and so they become rivals more than friends, but they still love each other until the end.

7. Discuss Mary’s relationship with her ardently Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey. Why does Mary condemn her to death? Do you think she was right to do so?

As Mary let Jane live as long as she did after her incarceration it could easily be said that Mary had decided to let Jane live. Jane made no move to join the rebels rising in her cause, and even condemned them. It could not be said that she encouraged them at all. So why did Mary execute her after the rebellion of 1554? Because it was demanded of her in order for her to marry Philip of Spain. That was the only reason why Mary signed Jane’s death warrant. She was more eager to marry a man she’d never met than she was to preserve the life of an innocent, wronged and intelligent young woman who just wanted to study and learn. One of the reasons I believe the Spanish ambassador gave to Mary was Jane’s Protestant religion. Mary allegedly claimed that if Jane became Catholic then she would be allowed to live. I don’t know if I believe that because surely Philip would want to vanquish any other claim on his wife-to-be’s throne. Mary had been friendly to Jane when their paths crossed at court during the reign of Edward VI. Mary would have been unlikely to want Jane’s death unless it threatened something she held very dear – like the country, or her marriage.

Mary I 1544 by Master John.
Mary I 1544 by Master John.

8. Discuss Mary and Elizabeth’s beliefs about and experiences with love, sex, marriage and childbirth. Are the decisions they make about these things the right ones? Why do they make the choices they do?

Mary and Elizabeth have very different views on love, sex, marriage and childbirth. Mary wants all of these things while Elizabeth doesn’t appear to want any of them. Elizabeth’s decisions were influenced by the fate of her mother, Anne Boleyn, who was executed on the orders of her father, Henry VIII. Elizabeth was too young to understand when her mother was killed, and her fate and the fates of her stepmothers no doubt influenced her own views on the subject. On the other hand, Mary had seen a happy marriage – her parents, before Anne Boleyn came on the scene. Her father had rescued her mother from poverty and they were definitely affectionate towards one another. When that was taken from Mary she wanted another relationship to fill the gap – a marriage. There is no doubt that Mary understood the perils of sex and childbed, but hoped that it would be worth it when she had a son to follow her and displace her half-sister Elizabeth. Mary wanted love, but didn’t get it and it destroyed her. However, Elizabeth was a stronger ruler because she had no personal connections and allowed nothing to get in the way of the good of the country. They made the choices they did because of the influence of their parents and the circumstances of their respective childhoods.

9. Mary sees Philip as a dream come true – but is he? Discuss Philip’s character. Is the man himself as pretty as his picture? Despite her subjects’ heated protests, Mary marries him anyway; was this a good decision personally or politically? Is the marriage what Mary expected it would be? How does it affect her emotionally and mentally?

I think Mary fell in love with an idealised version of Philip of Spain rather than the real thing. She didn’t even meet him until their wedding day so she couldn’t know who he really was. Philip is a pretty selfish and vain man who knows that he can get whatever woman he wants, but he doesn’t respect them. He believes that Mary cannot rule on her own, and he has to guide England back to the Pope. Although Mary admires Philip’s picture that is obviously very different to the character and personality, which is really what she’s married; he’s selfish, vain, devout, handsome and very powerful and wealthy and these characteristics add up to a man who is used to getting what he wants. He doesn’t want a wife who clings and is so obviously in love with him, like Mary is. It probably appeared a good political match, as the support of the Spanish was very important, but it also isolated most of the people and opened England up to come under the power of a foreign ruler, like Spain. Personally, it opened Mary up to heartbreak, as she hadn’t had an overwhelming amount of love so she hoped to get that from her marriage, but was disappointed, and failed to have any children into the deal. Generally the marriage was a disappointment both personally and politically. Mary breaks down when Philip leaves and impairs her ability to rule.

10. Why does Elizabeth carry on a flirtation with Philip when she knows this will hurt and provoke her sister? Is there a genuinely amorous element to it, or is it a purely calculated act of self-preservation?

I don’t think Elizabeth consciously carried on a flirtation with Philip of Spain because she was all too aware of her sister. I think she appealed to Philip because she knew that Mary would have her locked up, and maybe executed, in order to protect her throne, but Mary would do whatever Philip ordered her, in the hope that he would stay longer and show her some love. It made sense for Elizabeth to appeal to Philip to protect herself. I don’t think there was an amorous element to it, as after Mary’s death Philip proposed himself as a possible husband for Elizabeth, and she declined. I think if she had genuinely been in love with him, or compromised herself with him, she would have had no choice but to marry him. I think it was a calculated act of self-preservation, because Elizabeth could see no other way to protect herself, particularly having already spent time in the Tower, and having her mother’s example in front of her. I don’t think Elizabeth wanted to hurt her sister, but saw the flirtation as the lesser of two evils – it was either upset her sister or lose her freedom, possibly her head.

11. By the book’s end Mary has either lost or failed at everything that matters to her and dies a lonely, broken woman. Do you pity her or do you believe she got what she deserved? What, if anything, could or should she have done differently to avert this tragedy?

Mary’s reign was disastrous, largely because of her devotedly Catholic beliefs. She tried to force her beliefs onto the people who had been pushed from Catholic to Protestant and back again and just wanted peace, the like of which was provided under Elizabeth I. Mary always wanted to be married and have children. She probably would have been much earlier, if Anne Boleyn hadn’t been so influential, and pushed the claims of Elizabeth first. Because Mary was declared illegitimate, her value on the international marriage market declined, and so she failed to have a son and heir to succeed her because she married too late, and clung to her husband too much. To avert the crisis of religion, she should have been more tolerant, recognising that the people should be allowed to choose their own religion; that it wouldn’t necessarily affect her political or marital plans. She could have been less clingy with her husband, but I don’t think there was anything she could have done about the issue of children, unless her father had married her off earlier on. She was too old to have a child by the time of her marriage.

Streatham Portrait of Jane Grey, copy of a lost original.
Streatham Portrait of Jane Grey, copy of a lost original.

12. At their last meeting, Mary realises that Elizabeth is the phoenix that will rise from the ashes of her disastrous reign. What qualities do you think made Elizabeth England’s greatest monarch? Why did she succeed and Mary fail?

What helped Elizabeth to succeed where Mary had failed, was precisely Mary’s failure. Because Mary had failed in such spectacular fashion, it gave Elizabeth the space to implement peace and encourage the Golden Age to take off. I think what cemented Elizabeth’s success was that she didn’t marry. Although that ended the Tudor dynasty, it made England a cultural centre, with theatre, art and literature being a key part of the court. Her lack of a marriage and family meant that she really could be married to England, and allowed her to focus on the good of the people rather than her own personal problems. The cult of Gloriana and the Virgin Queen made Elizabeth untouchable, and her defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 meant that she was undefeated, and showed her strength as a ruler. Elizabeth’s experiences with her mother and stepmothers cemented her idea that marriage was bad, and that childbed was a very dangerous place, particularly for a reigning monarch. She succeeded because of her strength of character and her devotion to the people and country she ruled. Mary didn’t want what was best for the country, but wanted things for herself and her religion. The key thing was because Mary failed, Elizabeth could succeed. Elizabeth really was the phoenix rising from the ashes of Mary’s reign. The country had changed and Mary didn’t move with it – Elizabeth did.

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