Discussion Questions – ‘A Court Affair’ by Emily Purdy

  1. Discuss the marriage of Robert Dudley and Amy Robsart. They married very young; both were only seventeen. Was their marriage doomed from the start? What, if anything, coujld they have done to save their marriage? Though our modern-day concept of domestic abuse did not exist in Tudor times, do you think Robert Dudley, as depicted in this novel, was an abusive husband? If you were a marriage counsellor and this couple were seated on your couch, what would you tell them?
'A Court Affair' by Emily Purdy (2012)
‘A Court Affair’ by Emily Purdy (2012)

I think that Robert and Amy’s marriage was doomed from the start because Robert’s love wasn’t love at all, but lust, whereas Amy’s was real. They were too young to really understand what they wanted and what it would mean in the long term. Amy was bound to get hurt as Robert’s ambition took control over his feelings. I think what would have been needed to save the marriage was a lack of ambition or an acceptance that marriages were generally not love matches, though the second was less likely. I think Robert Dudley was abusive towards Amy Robsart in an emotional way, not really physically. He pushed her aside and made it quite clear that he preferred someone else. I’d say that they needed to communicate more and come clear about their feelings and wants and needs, Amy in particular. I would also tell them that marriage should be for life and that even if you discover that you aren’t as well connected as you should be that there is always a way around it and that they shouldn’t give up too easily, as Robert does in this novel.

  1. Today Amy Robsart Dudley is mainly remembered because of the way she died, not how she lived. Very little is actually known about her, and the woman herself often emerges as a nonentity in both novels and nonfiction books; sometimes she is little more than just a name upon a page. How does the woman depicted in this novel compare with your previously formed ideas about the real Amy? Do you like or dislike her? Discuss her personality. What are her good qualities and flaws? How does marriage to Robert Dudley change her? How does her illness change her? How is the Amy of seventeen different from the Amy of twenty-eight?

This novel portrays Amy for me as rather accurate. Most of the time I see her as a little naive, but also as a woman who knows her own mind, but isn’t always willing to express it because of the fear of what other people, particularly Robert, might say or do because of what she truly thinks rather than what he feels she should. I actually really like her, but not Robert or Elizabeth in this book really. Amy’s main weakness is definitely her naivety, but she also has a tendency to cling too tightly and so push people away. I think that perhaps her cancer was caused by a broken heart from the moment that she realised that her husband’s rejection was final and he had no notion of coming back to her. Her good qualities are her trust and love because they make her so unlike the entire English court. Marriage to Robert Dudley changed her because it destroyed her preconceptions about marriage and love. It destroyed her dreams and her trust and hope. This is also the difference between Amy at seventeen and Amy at twenty-eight. Her illness changed her because it was the physical manifestation of her heartbreak. Every time she looked down she was reminded of it and her husband’s feelings for her. It was pushed in her face, and it was no wonder that it changed her in the end.

  1. Discuss Elizabeth’s feelings about romance, sex, and marriage. How were these ideas formed? Her desire for passion without the commitment and compromise, the give-and-take of marriage sounds very modern, and it even leads her to consider an affair with a married man as a safe way to find what she is seeking. What do you think, about this? Every time Elizabeth lets Robert kiss and caress her, she stops him before he goes too far, leaving him frustrated. Do you think she is emotionally incapable of a sexual relationship because of her past?
Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575
Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575

Elizabeth’s ideas about sex, love, romance and marriage were formed through her experiences, mainly her mother’s execution and her relationship with Thomas Seymour. The former taught her how dangerous marriage and love could be. The latter taught her the dangers of sex and love. Her sister, Mary I, also taught her the dangers of love. She was so in love with her husband that when he left to return to Spain she just fell apart, and became obsessed. I think Elizabeth sees Robert as attractive, and as he so blatantly wants her, and finds it easy to get drawn in. I think Elizabeth did find it difficult to get emotionally involved, but I’m not sure about sexual. There is no evidence that Elizabeth I had a sexual encounter with either Thomas Seymour or Robert Dudley, and we won’t ever know. Sex for Elizabeth was worry about an illegitimate child. Emotion was a worry about getting too close and getting hurt, or losing her mind and the power of the throne. She was worried about the example her mother had left behind.

  1. Discuss Robert’s relationship with Elizabeth. If she had not been queen, would he still have loved her? How great a role does his ambition play in their romance? Why is it so hard for Elizabeth, even when she knows what Robert is really like, to give him up?

I think that at least half of Robert’s “love” for Elizabeth was due to ambition. He wouldn’t have loved her as much if she hadn’t been queen, or in line for the throne. His love seemed to grow as Elizabeth’s power grew. His attraction to her seemed to grow during her sister’s reign, as it became clear that Mary I wouldn’t bear a child and Elizabeth would inherit the throne. Before that he seemed to be hedging his bets a little, fighting for Jane Grey, which would disinherit Elizabeth. Ambition is what pushes Robert to do what he does – cast off his wife and make a fool of himself with the Queen, rather like Henry VIII did with Anne Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon twenty years earlier. Elizabeth uses Robert like a drug – he makes her feel loved and adored, which was lacking in her childhood. He also makes her feel important. For Elizabeth, this is completely different to love. She uses him and then discards him when he gets too mighty and ambitious. She doesn’t really love him in my opinion. She’s too aware of his ambition to fall in love with him and works to undo him when he gets too mighty.

  1. Discuss the tale of Patient Griselda and its theme of wifely obedience. Robert orders tapestries illustrating the story, reads it aloud to Amy, orders her to repeatedly copy it out, and even stages a play based on it for Elizabeth. Why is he such a fan of this story? What does it mean to him? And what do you, as a modern woman or man compared to a Tudor-era one, think of it?
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester c.1560
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester c.1560

I think for Robert, the story of Patient Griselda illustrates what he wants from Amy. He wants Amy to relent like Griselda did, and give him what he wants. Basically it’s his excuse for his actions. He feels that if Amy gives in then he can marry Elizabeth and be king, but I don’t believe Elizabeth would have actually married him. He seems to try and use it to soften Amy up before asking her for a divorce. He likes the story because, in a way, it allows him an out from a regretted mistake. In a modern era, the story seems very outdated. Women have equal rights with men now, and it could apply to either sex, rather than just women. Amy recognises the significance of the story, but feels it shouldn’t apply to her situation because she’s in love, but the problem is that he doesn’t love her in return. Griselda was supposed to represent an ideal, not a reality.

  1. Do you think Amy would have had a happier life if she had given Robert a divorce when he asked her to? How would her life have been different? What do you think of the manner in which he asked her, the reasons her gave, and his suggestion that Amy might still be his mistress? How would you have reacted if you had been in Amy’s shoes?

I think Robert would have had a happier life if he had a divorce, even if he hadn’t married Elizabeth. He felt constricted by Amy, not being comfortable having her at court or even around his family. He sees her as primitive. Amy, on the other hand, I think would have been sad either way. Amy would still have been in love, but her love would have been completely out of her hands. She would have been more upset knowing that Robert was free to remarry and do what he wanted. At least if she refused, Amy knew he couldn’t “belong” to anyone else. I think Robert got so used to people doing what he wanted at court that he didn’t think about how Amy might feel. He assumed she no longer loved him either. However, the way he asked was completely selfish and unfeeling. Being his mistress would make her position impossible with her emotions but no real claim over him. I probably would have done the same.

  1. Why does Amy dye her hair red and dress in imitation of Elizabeth? Discuss Robert’s violent reaction to this. Why does Amy try so hard in so many ways – the dyed hair, the mermaid gown, etc – to win Robert back? Is he really worth it?
Portrait miniature of an unknown lady, possibly Amy Robsart on the occasion of her wedding, 1550.
Portrait miniature of an unknown lady, possibly Amy Robsart on the occasion of her wedding, 1550.

Amy’s motives for copying Elizabeth are simple – she wants to regain her husband’s affection which she lost to Elizabeth. She can’t regain something which she never truly had. However, it is naive to think that a simple change of appearance will make him turn back to her. Amy, however, seems to be naive throughout most of the book. Robert was attracted to Elizabeth because of more than her looks, although he loves those too. A relationship with Elizabeth could enable Robert to fulfil his ambitions. His violent reaction to Amy’s efforts underline the truth of his relationship with Elizabeth – he’s in it for the power and Amy is holding him back. Amy tries so hard because she loves him, and because she naively holds onto a childhood dream of what her life could be like. Robert isn’t worth it because he so blatantly doesn’t want or care about Amy. Amy thinks that dressing and acting like the woman he wants will bring him back to her, but it sets them apart more starkly.

  1. Discuss Amy’s illness and the medical treatments of the time. Medical science and our understanding and treatment of breast cancer have come a long way since Amy’s lifetime. If this story were set in modern times, how do you think it would be different? Would Amy have still become the central figure in one of British history’s greatest unsolved mysteries? Would she have had a more positive outlook and perhaps have become one of this disease’s survivors?

Cancer wasn’t even really a word in the sixteenth century, so I doubt she really knew what was wrong with her. It was like Katherine of Aragon after her death when they found she had a black heart. It is only with hindsight that we can understand that she probably had cancer, similar to Amy. In modern times, it would likely be treatable, at least to prolong her life and make her more comfortable. It would be different because she would know what was happening and whether treatment was available. Amy probably would still be the centre of an unsolved mystery because it isn’t known whether she died because of cancer, or even if it was cancer at all. She could have fallen accidentally or on purpose, or even been pushed. Amy knew something was wrong, and that she was most likely dying. I think that Amy wouldn’t have had a more positive outlook because she didn’t want to. She had suffered too, much at her husband’s hand, to have a more positive outlook.

  1. Having breast cancer causes Amy to fear that no man will ever desire her sexually again, that their desire will turn to disgust when they see her undressed. Do you think this is a valid, realistic fear? Is this something modern-day sufferers still struggle with? What do you think would have happened if Amy had taken a lover? Should she have done so, or was she right to honour her marriage vows to Robert, even after he betrayed her?
A romanticised image of the death of Amy Robsart as imagined by Victorian artist William Frederick Yeames.
A romanticised image of the death of Amy Robsart as imagined by Victorian artist William Frederick Yeames.

I think that in the early modern period Amy’s fear about her appearance ravaged by the breast cancer was realistic. There was a solid belief that any physical deformity was either a sign of witchcraft (like Anne Boleyn’s alleged sixth finger) or displeasure from God. Amy’s probably would have been seen as the latter. Her husband, Robert Dudley, probably saw it as a sign that she should have granted him a divorce, and she was punished for not doing so. I think that it is still something sufferers today fear, but there is plastic surgery. Nowadays to rebuild and hide scars and deformities. I don’t think Amy would have taken a lover because she loved her husband too much. However, if she had taken a lover in the early modern period, he probably would have been repulsed by her because a deformity or illness was a message from God about that person. She was right to honour her marriage vows because she would have felt guilty and unhappy otherwise. It would also have been an excuse for Robert to get a divorce.

  1. While staying at Compton Verney, Amy believes that she is being poisoned, though Robert insists it is just her imagination. Both also see the master of the house, Sir Richard Verney, in remarkably different ways – in Amy’s eyes he is a dark, sinister figure, but Robert paints him as a sentimental and cowardly man. Whom do you believe – Robert or Amy?

Sir Richard Verney is probably actually somewhere in the middle of Robert and Amy’s estimations. Not a dark, sinister figure or a sentimental, cowardly man, but a man who had a person forced onto his plate, and having to give them hospitality without really getting anything in return. Amy resented being forced onto Verney, and Verney resented having her, but I don’t think he would have poisoned her, even if Robert wanted it. He would also be frustrated with having to deal with Amy, as she withdraws into herself and doesn’t really contribute anything to the household. Robert and Amy both, in a way, saw what they wanted to see in Verney. Amy believed that her husband wanted to kill her so saw Verney as the instrument to do so. Robert wanted someone to take care of Amy, or at least someone to house and feed her. I don’t really fully believe either of them fully because no one is either entirely good or entirely bad.

  1. Certain characters appear in the book who may or may not be real, such as Red Jack the highwayman and the phantom grey friar who haunts Cumnor Place. Robert insists that the man Amy identifies as Red Jack is really a spice merchant, and the grey friar is supposedly a ghost that only the dying can see or just a story the servants tell to frighten the new housemaids. Do you believe these characters are real or only figments of Amy’s imagination? What does each one represent?
Ruins of Cumnor Place, death place of Amy Robsart
Ruins of Cumnor Place, death place of Amy Robsart

I think that the fact Robert makes excuses to Amy about their identities suggests either that they’re real, or he believes them to be so. I think that the ghost of Cumnor Place is possibly what Amy sees when she knows she’s dying. There were already rumours around the house of a ghost, a story amongst the staff and related to Amy. It is possible that Amy saw the ghost because she had heard the story, knew she was dying, and linked the two, the ghost being a product of her brain. I think that Red Jack the highwayman was probably real because I can’t see Amy making something up like that in my estimation of her, or even her brain having a reason to make it up and make her see it. The ghost represents Amy’s upcoming death, while the highwayman represents the fear of her husband, and a fear of what he might do to her. She sees Robert as almost a foreign figure, unsure of what he is capable of and so far from the man she married.

  1. Robert insists that Amy take the hemlock pills he gives her even if they make her sick to the point of death. Why does he do this? Is he trying to heal her or to kill her? Is this a real remedy or a murder masquerading as medicine?

In the early modern period there were all kinds of remedies to all kinds of illnesses which seem silly to us now. Leeches were a popular one, and no doubt hemlock was also a popular one in small doses, even though it can kill as well. Robert’s motives will never be clear, but it seems unlikely that he would try so blatantly to kill Amy, more than that, to get her to technically take her own life, if that was what he intended. However, it does also seem to be the kind of thing that the Robert in this telling of the story would do that, to make it look like she took her own life. Nevertheless, Robert could be trying to keep her alive so that it can’t be said that he killed her, though this seems like a weaker reason. The way he does it sounds like he is trying to kill her, but I don’t believe that it happened in real life. It could easily be murder masquerading as medicine – it was widely known that Amy was ill, so her death wouldn’t have seemed that strange if she got gradually sicker.

  1. Discuss Elizabeth’s dream about hunting in which both of her parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, as well as Robert and Amy, appear. What does this dream mean? Why does Amy take the arrow that is intended for Elizabeth? How would Elizabeth’s life have been different if Anne Boleyn had lived and been there to give her a mother’s guidance?
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

Elizabeth’s dream seems to compare her with Anne Boleyn and Robert Dudley is Henry VIII. Amy Robsart could be compared to Katherine of Aragon. Henry VIII sidelined his wife, Katherine of Aragon, in his love for Anne Boleyn. Similarly, Robert Dudley sidelined his wife, Amy, in his love for Elizabeth. It is an interesting comparison. Is Elizabeth truly her mother’s daughter? Both are “the other woman” in a marriage. Amy takes the arrow that is intended for Elizabeth because she knew that if Elizabeth died Robert would be unhappy and blame her forever. However, if Amy died, Robert would be free. He would mourn her as convention dictated, but then would move on, as in fact happened. Even though he realised that he couldn’t marry Elizabeth, he married Lettice Knollys, supposedly an illegitimate granddaughter of Henry VIII. If Anne Boleyn had lived then Elizabeth probably wouldn’t have learnt some of her most valuable lessons – what it means to love and lose, and the importance of not relinquishing power to a man. Anne would have ensured her daughter was protected, but then Elizabeth wouldn’t have learnt what she did and suffered the hardships she did.

  1. At the end of the book, why does Elizabeth stage the ennoblement ceremony only to tear up the patent? What message is she sending to her courtiers and to Robert?

The key issue here is the succession and Elizabeth’s sex. It was believed in the early modern period that women couldn’t rule alone. Elizabeth’s successor, Mary, had to defer to her husband, Philip II of Spain, which is why there was a rebellion – Englishmen didn’t want to be at the mercy of Spain. Everyone expected Elizabeth to marry, and in this novel, Robert Dudley was pushing for Elizabeth to marry him. The ennoblement ceremony was a way for Elizabeth to assert her authority, and demonstrate that, no matter who pushed her, she would not give into male pressure unless it was in the country’s best interests. Having Robert Dudley as king, or even with too much power, or believing himself to have too much power, would make Elizabeth more vulnerable, and the other nobles more likely to revolt. Elizabeth is sending a message that no one will control her, and she is also making a public statement about Dudley’s contested rank within the court and his place in Elizabeth’s heart and bed.

  1. For 450 years speculation has run rampant about the cause of Amy Robsart Dudley’s death – was it an accident, suicide murder, or an underlying medical condition such as cancer? What do you think?
Death And The Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart (2011)
Death And The Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart (2011)

Personally, I think that it was most likely to be an underlying medical condition. Chris Skidmore in ‘Death and the Virgin’ discusses rumours that Amy had a “malady of the heart” which could mean cancer or something similar. For me this is the answer, an illness which. Made her weak and possibly caused her fall down the stairs. Nevertheless, the shortness of the flight of stairs is interesting, but maybe there is something to the story that we don’t know. I don’t think Robert or Elizabeth were desperate and stupid enough to kill her, and from the evidence Robert did seem to mourn her passing. I can’t believe that he ever truly harboured a belief that he could marry Elizabeth, for he rather quickly married Lettice Knollys. I can’t see Amy committing suicide when she fought so hard to keep Robert and then gave him the out he wanted. I think it was a medical condition which caused an accident at the top of the staircase at Cumnor Place. It’s the only thing that really makes sense.

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