Discussion Questions – ‘The Virgin’s Lover’ by Philippa Gregory

  1. Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley were childhood playmates and also have in common the experience of being accused of treason and locked in the tower. How does Dudley use this shared history to influence Elizabeth? Is he successful?
'The Virgin's Lover' by Philippa Gregory (2004).
‘The Virgin’s Lover’ by Philippa Gregory (2004).

I think Dudley was quite manipulative in a way. He used what he knew was Elizabeth’s weakness to get close to her, and make her almost dependent on him. He tried to ingratiate with her when she was vulnerable and alone. I think there were so few people who had things in common with Elizabeth that she was automatically drawn to someone who shared one of the most important experiences of her life and that shaped her into the monarch she was. I think there was also an element that no one really treated Elizabeth as a normal person apart from Dudley – everyone else saw her either as a bastard or a queen. I think he is successful at first, but that, as Elizabeth settles more into her role, she realizes how dangerous it could be and changes her approach to him, at least in public.

  1. What is your opinion of Amy? She says about Dudley, “In his heart I know that he is still the young man that I fell in love with who wanted nothing more than some good pasture land to breed beautiful horses” (105). Has Amy completely misjudged her husband, particularly how ambitious a man he is?

I think that Dudley knew that he could never have that life, even if he wanted it, and I think that when he and Amy married he wasn’t so attached to Elizabeth. His father was on his way up, but not yet at the height of his power. He must have known that his future was at court. I think that Amy was blinded by her love for him, and assumed that he and she wanted the same kind of life. It was inevitable with who his father was that Dudley was destined for a life at court rather than in the country, and I don’t think that he really wanted any other kind of life. I don’t think Amy really understood Dudley, or his love for the court, because she had never been there, and I think it was difficult to understand the allure without having experienced it yourself.

  1. Elizabeth appoints Dudley Master of the Horse and later awards him the Order of the Garter. Why doesn’t she appoint him to a position of political power, such as a member of the Privy Council? Dudley and William Cecil each want to be the more favored advisor to the queen. How does each man go about trying to accomplish this? Would you say they are rivals?

I don’t think that Dudley and Cecil are rivals in the same sense of the word. I don’t think Dudley would cope well with political power as I think he is too rash and ambitious, whereas Cecil seems more level-headed and logical. Dudley looking after the stables and arranging entertainments seems to suit his personality, and gives him more time to spend with Elizabeth, whereas Cecil is constantly working. I think Dudley had also alienated too many people to really be a success politically, and his relationship with the Queen was common knowledge fairly quickly, which compromised him politically. Dudley plays on his personal relationship with Elizabeth while Cecil uses his wealth of knowledge and his hard-working personality. Because of their different attempts to gain power they are appointed to different positions.

  1. In many ways the politics of the court is like a dangerous game, fueled by rampant corruption and scheming families angling for wealth and favors from the queen. Cite some examples that illustrate this, including the people who are closest to Elizabeth.

Robert Dudley tries to use his personal relationship with Elizabeth to gain more power, and he uses his position with the queen to angle for wealth and favours, and he also tries to persuade her to marry him. The Grey family caused some problems for Elizabeth – Katherine Grey uses her position close to the throne to carry on a dalliance with the young Earl of Hertford. As Katherine is so close to the throne this is a dangerous game, particularly as some see Katherine as Elizabeth’s heir until she marries and produces a child of her own. I don’t think she angles for wealth or power but is naïve and doesn’t think of the political consequences. The Mary Queen of Scots situation causes deep divisions within England – the Duke of Norfolk angles for her wealth and favours and so incurs the fury of Elizabeth and loses his head for it.

  1. It is Cecil’s “deep-rooted belief that the intelligence of a woman, even one as formidably educated as [Elizabeth], could not carry the burden of too much information, and the temperament of a woman, especially this one, was not strong enough to take decisions” (93). Is Cecil underestimating Elizabeth? Discuss the way the men of the court and the Privy Council view women in general and Elizabeth, as the monarch, in particular.
Elizabeth I coronation portrait c.1610 copy of a lost original
Elizabeth I coronation portrait c.1610 copy of a lost original

I think men generally did underestimate women at this time. It was assumed that women couldn’t make their own decisions, and certainly couldn’t rule, which is why Henry VIII had gone to so much trouble to get a male heir. I think Elizabeth in particular was in a good place to rule, as she had suffered under her sister and father, and knew the pitfalls to look out for, particularly with regards to the succession. She knew how the heir presumptive could be used to incite rebellion. Men saw women as objects to own and order as they saw fit. Even Elizabeth struggled to break this mould at the beginning of her reign. It was only as she began to assert herself, and prove that she could make decisions, that this really changed. I think much of the old nobility believed that a woman needed a man and saw Elizabeth’s decision to remain unmarried as unnatural, and didn’t think she could rule. Even when she proved herself, some still believed she couldn’t rule.

  1. Elizabeth, believing she is being pursued by an assassin, runs to the Diary House at Kew to seek safety with Dudley. How does this encounter mark a turning point in their relationship?

I think Elizabeth realizes where she truly feels safe, and it’s not at the court, but with the one man with whom she has shared so much, including danger. It also makes Dudley realise how much of a hold he has on Elizabeth – he is the one she will run to when in danger, and I think he realises that he can use it to his advantage. However, I think it is also revealing for Elizabeth, as she realises how important Dudley is to her, and tries to pull away. I think it marks a turning point in their relationship because Elizabeth realises what could happen if she died – civil war. Her relationship with Dudley demonstrated the dangers that her close relationship with him could have. Others were trying to use it as a reason to kill her.

  1. Dudley remarks to Cecil about the Earl of Arran, “If it’s not one damned opportunity seeker, it is another. To what end?” (226). Can the same be said of him? Does he truly care about Elizabeth, or is his courtship of her to satisfy his own ambition?

I think in his own way Dudley did care about Elizabeth. He wouldn’t have put up with her constantly changing her mind and procrastinating if he didn’t. Even ambition has a limit. I think this is demonstrated by the fact that he eventually married Elizabeth’s cousin, Lettice (Laeticia) Knollys. He realised the folly of waiting for Elizabeth, realising she would never make up her mind and commit. Others of Elizabeth’s suitors also gave up, sick of being messed around. I think when Elizabeth was looking for a husband, anyone was willing to try their hand and see if they could succeed, because she was pushing away so many suitors. I can’t decide whether he loves her truly, or just fancies her, or even just feels as a friend. This feeling would demonstrate whether his courtship of her is to satisfy his own ambition. Even if he loved her, no doubt there was at least an element of ambition, as many men at court and abroad wanted to be King of England.

  1. Elizabeth says to Dudley, “I have to play myself like a piece in a chess game….I have to keep the Spanish on our side, I have to frighten the French, I have to persuade Arran to get himself up to Scotland and claim his own, and I have nothing to bring to bear on any of these but my own weight. All I can promise any of them is myself” (228). How does Elizabeth use the marriage game to her advantage as a political manoeuver?

I think Elizabeth uses the question of her marriage to try and keep all foreign powers on her side. The various men vying for her hand came from across Europe and Elizabeth was trying to keep them all in the balance to get the best for England. I don’t think she ever intended to marry, but intended to keep the question open to get the best advantage she could from it. Elizabeth uses all of her feminine wiles and her intuition to keep the scales carefully balanced. I think that she also uses the marriage game to control the nobility within England, because most of them are in favour of one or another of the candidates, but by keeping them all dangling, Elizabeth also stops a permanent split within the nobility.

  1. When Dudley visits Amy at Hayes Court, he finds his wife changed and is at a loss about “how to manage this strange new Amy” (258). How do their conversations — while they are out riding and later in their chamber — show how Amy has changed? If you were in Amy’s position, would you have allowed Dudley to walk away from the marriage?
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester c.1560
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester c.1560

I think at this point that Amy was coming to realise that she couldn’t have the marriage she had dreamed of with Dudley. He was too ambitious and too engaged with Elizabeth to spare a thought for her. She wouldn’t have done well at court and so Dudley felt a little ashamed of her, perhaps regretting his marriage to her. I think Amy changed because she didn’t feel worthy of Dudley when he was going places at court, and she felt like an outsider because she didn’t fit in at court and wasn’t raised to be a part of court life, as Dudley was. I think in a way Amy wished for a way out of the marriage, but I don’t think she regretted it. I think she regretted that she couldn’t be the wife that Robert wanted, and I think that difference soured the relationship. I think I would have let Dudley walk away because it was best for all concerned; it was making Dudley and Amy unhappy, and sometimes you have to think of yourself.

  1. Compare Robert’s feelings for Elizabeth and Amy. Amy says to her stepmother, “He loved me once, but everyone thought he condescended to the marriage, and it was always true that he thought very highly of himself. But with her it is different. He is a man transformed. She is his lover but still his queen, he admires her as well as desires her….He aspires to love her, whereas I was always an easy love” (279). Is Amy right?

I think Dudley’s later opinion of his marriage was influenced by those who thought he had condescended to the marriage, so he came to believe it as well. I think Amy was easy to love because she wanted Dudley and nothing more, whereas Elizabeth always wants or expects more, and was in no way predictable, as I think Amy was. Everything Dudley did for Amy got her excited and every time he visited her she got excited. On the other hand, Elizabeth saw his gifts and visits almost as a right, and I think the touch of ambition in Dudley also influenced his feelings for Elizabeth. I think Elizabeth was more complicated than Amy and so it enhanced Dudley’s desire for her. I think Amy was beginning to bore him, to be honest. Her easy manner and country ways wore on him – he craved the glamour and unpredictability of the court. To sum up, I think Amy is right – she was easier to love but Elizabeth was more exciting.

  1. When does Elizabeth begin to realize that she cannot marry Dudley and also remain on the throne? Why is there such hostility toward Robert Dudley from the members of the Privy Council and other nobility, as well as from the commoners? Is it justified? In numerous instances Elizabeth says that she cannot live without Robert or rule without him by her side. Why, then, does she ultimately decide giving him up is the right course of action?

I think Elizabeth always knew deep down that she couldn’t marry Dudley and keep the throne – the nobles would have revolted, and probably so would the people, as I don’t believe Dudley was particularly popular, especially after the mysterious death of his wife. I think it was Amy’s mysterious death that clinched the issue for Elizabeth, as many people believed Dudley had Amy murdered in order to marry Elizabeth. I don’t believe Dudley murdered Amy, but I do think that it would have been suicidal for Elizabeth to marry him after that. She probably would have lost her life as well as the throne. Elizabeth always claimed that she was married to England, and everything she did was for England, including giving up Dudley. She believed that she could do good for England, but not with Dudley by her side, as she probably wouldn’t have been given the chance. Elizabeth seems to have given up her chance at love to be the best for England.

  1. In reference to Mary of Guise, the regent of Scotland, Cecil says to Elizabeth, “I have no objection in theory to assassination as an act of state. It could be a great saver of life and a guarantee of safety for others” (314). Applying this same logic to Amy, can Cecil justify her death as “a great saver of life and a guarantee of safety for others”? Do you think Elizabeth knew Cecil was referring to Amy when he told her that if he carried out his plan to prevent her from marrying Dudley, one person would die?
Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory

I don’t think that Cecil could guarantee that Amy’s death would scupper Elizabeth’s plan to marry Dudley. And if Elizabeth had married Dudley and Cecil had Amy assassinated, Cecil could quite easily have been responsible for Elizabeth’s overthrow and possible death. I think Elizabeth must have known who Cecil was referring to in his claim that one person would die if he carried out his plan to prevent her marrying Dudley. Who else could it have been? I don’t think Cecil would have dared to kill Dudley, knowing the retribution that he would get from Elizabeth – probably the loss of his head – and killing the queen was treason. As far as we know, no one else was involved. I don’t think Elizabeth particularly cared about Amy as a person – she was so far away and of no consequence to her, but surely she must have grasped the consequences if Amy was seen to have been murdered – Dudley would inevitably get the blame.

  1. When Elizabeth asks if he is bothered by Amy’s death, Dudley replies, “She was my wife of eleven years. Of course I grieve for her” (417). Do you believe Dudley is truly remorseful that Amy is dead, or is it more about the circumstances of her death and what it means for his political ambitions?

I think Dudley grieves for the beginning of his marriage, when he was relatively innocent and everything was the way he wanted it to be. I think his period in the Tower changed him, as it inevitably would, being under suspicion of treason and not knowing whether you would leave the Tower alive. I think he saw Amy as part of that life before the Tower, and Elizabeth was the sun that made his life brighter after the treason charges. I think it was the method of Amy’s death that affected Dudley the most, because it did affect his political ambitions. He must have known that Elizabeth would balk at marrying him when he was suspected of involvement in his wife’s death, specifically in order to marry the queen. It becomes more obvious that it is Dudley’s political ambitions that played a part in Amy’s death when he realises Elizabeth had a hand in it. I think it really shows that Elizabeth would do anything – she knew that she wouldn’t be able to marry him when he was suspected of his wife’s murder.

  1. When Dudley finds his signet ring among Amy’s possessions, he knows Elizabeth had a part in what happened. What conclusions does he come to about why Elizabeth might have done this? Ultimately, does Dudley reconcile himself to not being the king of England?

I think he realises for certain that Elizabeth never meant to actually marry him. She wanted to create a definite way to break with him, but also keep him for herself. I think Elizabeth also believed in a possibility that Amy’s death would mean she could marry Dudley, but I think that was a very slim hope. I don’t think she’d really made up her mind until Amy was actually dead and she had seen the consequences. I think Dudley does eventually reconcile himself to not being King of England. I think he realises it’s not going to happen when Amy dies and he realises Elizabeth was involved. However, I don’t think he reconciles himself to it completely until he marries Lettice (Laeticia) Knollys, as then he knows that he couldn’t marry Elizabeth, even if she asks him. He is off the market, so to speak.

  1. The Author’s Note reveals several significant pieces of information: 1) Dudley wrote a letter to Elizabeth on his deathbed, which she then had with her when she died, 2) Dudley married Laetitia Knollys, and 3) historical records verify Elizabeth made incriminating remarks to the Spanish ambassador prior to Amy’s death. Did finding out these things change your view of any aspects of the story? Do you believe Amy Dudley was murdered?
Portrait miniature of an unknown lady, possibly Amy Robsart on the occasion of her wedding, 1550.
Portrait of an unknown lady, possibly Amy Dudley (nee Robsart) on the eve of her wedding

I don’t want to believe that Amy was murdered, but several pieces of evidence wouldn’t make sense any other way. However, I definitely don’t think that Dudley was the culprit, as all evidence suggests that he was completely shocked when he was told of Amy’s death, and surely understood the consequences to his ambitions of marrying the queen as well. I think it is quite obvious that Elizabeth was in love with Dudley – you don’t keep the letter of a man who died over 10 years previously with you on your deathbed unless there is a compelling reason: love. I think the fact that Dudley goes on to marry Laeticia Knollys demonstrates the fact that he had given up on marrying Elizabeth by this time. Amy’s death had changed things between them and, like any man, Dudley wanted a son to grow up and pass on his family name, and for that he needed a wife. Perhaps Elizabeth’s incriminating comments to the Spanish ambassador were hopeful rather than truthful, though it does seem to be in poor taste, and it does suggest that perhaps Elizabeth had something to do with the murder, or at least knew about it. Sifting through the evidence, it does seem as though Amy was murdered.

  1. History has remembered Elizabeth as one of England’s greatest rulers. What is your opinion of Elizabeth as a monarch, as this book depicts her in the first years of her reign? From what you learned about her in The Virgin’s Lover, what characteristics and qualities do you think made her a successful ruler?

I think for Elizabeth the first years of her reign were that heady period of relaxation after a stifled period, afraid for her own life and the lives of the people around her. I think she wanted the freedom to do exactly what she wanted, and it went slightly to her head. I think she grew into the position after a few years, and getting used to the power and freedom, and I think she did become a great monarch. I think the fact that Elizabeth was willing to put aside personal feelings, as she did with Dudley, and do what was best for England was probably her best quality. It meant that she was wholly focused on England, rather than dividing her attention between her personal and public lives. I also think that her past was hugely influential on her – she had lived through the execution of her mother by her father, and being imprisoned, accused of treason, by her half-sister. No doubt these events influenced her feelings on personal connections.

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