Discussion Questions – ‘The Queen’s Fool’ by Philippa Gregory

  • What kind of tone does the novel’s opening scene instantly set, and what does it tell us up front about Hannah’s and Elizabeth’s characters? If you’ve read other fictional accounts of Elizabeth’s life, how does this portrayal of her compare?
Philippa Gregory's 'The Queen's Fool' (2004).
Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Queen’s Fool’ (2004).

I think the opening of the novel shows both Hannah and Elizabeth as very strong characters, but both have their secrets. It’s an interesting opening to contrast a very real person in Elizabeth I, whose life is so well-known, and an entirely fictional one, Hannah. Somehow their lives seem to seamlessly intertwine which is quite clever. I’ve read many other fictional accounts of Elizabeth’s life, but as she doesn’t play a very important role in the developing story in The Queen’s Fool, it’s difficult to compare, because in most stories she appears in she is the main character.

  • In public, Hannah plays the fool to Mary’s queen, but in private their bond is more intimate. Why is the relationship valuable to each of them, both personally and politically? How is Hannah’s connection to Elizabeth different?

I think Mary feels connected to those on the outside, as she once was. Hannah is different to those who pander to Mary and want her to give them something. Mary knows that Hannah is different and that she can relax her guard with her. I think it gives Mary a respite from the public persona that she projects. Elizabeth and Hannah’s relationship is more challenging because Elizabeth is more perceptive than Mary, and I think it challenges Hannah intellectually more than her relationship with Mary, but I think she benefits equally from both relationships in different ways.

  • Hannah is smitten with Robert Dudley from the moment she spots him in her doorway, an angel at his shoulder. How would you describe the bond that develops between them — and how does it change over time?
Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory

I think it’s a bit of hero worship on Hannah’s part, but I think that Dudley is used to attention and women fawning on him. I think it takes a while for Hannah to grasp that Dudley doesn’t like her in that way and that he is tolerant but nothing more. I think Dudley always looks at how he can use people, and Hannah is no different. I think the angel vanishes from his shoulder when Hannah realises who he really is. I think at the beginning she is swept away by his grandeur and manners, but when she gets used to the court she realises that he isn’t that different from others at the court.

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of being the queen’s fool instead of a normal courtier?

In terms of advantages Hannah has a more intimate relationship with the queen because Mary doesn’t see her as someone she has to put a show on for – Hannah can see the woman as well as the queen. I think it also gives Hannah more freedom as people don’t really care what she looks like or how she acts; she doesn’t have to adhere to the rules of the court in the same way that others do. However, I think Hannah misses out on some of the entertainments of the court because she is expected to be the entertainment rather than watch it. She also can’t interact with the courtiers on the same level as them because her position is an employee position rather than a social position.

  • Haunted by the Spanish Inquisition, Hannah describes her Judaism as “some sickness that we pass on,” claiming that Jews are condemned to “a lifetime of fear, not Chosen so much as cursed.” How do her feelings toward her faith change over the course of the story and why?

I think Hannah realises how much faith can mean to people. She sees how dedicated Mary I is to her faith and how much comfort it brings her. I think at the beginning she was focused more on the negatives than the positives of her religion. She realises that her religion isn’t a curse, it’s because other people are prejudiced towards it. It’s other people that have the problem, and she shouldn’t let other people’s opinions affect her. She comes to see her religion not as a curse but in the same way that Mary I sees her religion, just not as obsessive. She sees it as a comfort and something to link her to her family and ancestors in a religion that is fading. Mary I’s Roman Catholicism keeps her connected to her dead mother, and Hannah’s Judaism does the same for her.

  • In the grip of her Sight, Hannah delivers this prophecy: “There will be a child, but no child. There will be a king but no king. There will be a virgin queen all-forgotten. There will be a queen but no virgin….[Dudley] will die, beloved by a queen, safe in his bed.” Ultimately, how does history unravel her cryptic prediction?

Mary I claimed in 1554 that she was pregnant and about to give birth to a son and heir. Unfortunately this seems to have been a hysterical pregnancy – Mary was so desperate to get pregnant and have a child that her body imagined the symptoms – “there will be a child, but no child”. Philip II bears the title King of England for the duration of his marriage to Mary, but he has none of the powers of a king in England – “there will be a king, but no king”. Some people at the time believed that Mary’s marriage to Philip was never actually consummated, that he couldn’t do it with a woman much older than himself – “there will be a virgin-queen all forgotten”. Elizabeth I is commonly known as the Virgin Queen, but there has been debate since before she came to the throne over whether she was in fact a virgin, having had relationships with Thomas Seymour and Robert Dudley – “there will be a queen but no virgin”. Dudley does die in his bed after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, loved by Elizabeth I to the end – “Dudley will die, beloved by a queen, safe in his bed”.

  • As Mary’s marriage falters and her unhappiness grows, she becomes increasingly obsessed with restoring the glory of the Catholic Church through the fires of an English inquisition. Given that Hannah’s own mother was killed in just such a fire, how is she able to justify Mary’s bloody reign? Did you sympathise with her unswerving loyalty?
Mary I 1554 by Antonio Moro
Mary I 1554 by Antonio Moro

I think Mary I wanted two things more than anything else – a happy marriage and children, and to return the English church to Rome. She realises that she can’t have a happy marriage, because Philip doesn’t love her and she does love him, and she appears to be too old to have a child. Hence I think she turns all of her efforts towards her other great want – turning the church back to Rome. I think that Hannah tries to push aside Mary’s religious convictions, focusing instead on her kindness and loyalty. I think Hannah can forgive Mary because she suffered at the hands of her father and wants to restore the religion of her long-suffering mother, Katherine of Aragon. Hannah also feels that they have something in common as Hannah also lost her mother. I think she sees the fires as Mary’s dedication to her mother, and can’t fault that.

  • What changes in both Hannah and Daniel allow their initially contentious relationship to blossom into love? Did you agree with Hannah’s decision to leave him when she discovers another woman has borne his child?

I think that Daniel was initially uptight, and a controlling man – he wanted Hannah to live with him away from the court, but Hannah disobeyed and wanted to remain with Mary I. I think Hannah came to respect Daniel, and he came to respect her. I think they both realised that they had to make some changes in their own ways of thinking in order to get on. I think Daniel came to respect Hannah’s devotion to the queen, and Hannah came to respect Daniel’s work ethic. I think the fact that they clash means that they both have strong opinions, and although they clash, I think they have much the same opinions. I think Hannah was right to be angry with Daniel when she learned he had a child with another woman. However, I think that Hannah had to take some of the blame on herself as she pushed Daniel away – surely he must have wondered whether their proposed marriage would ever come to pass.

  • How does King Henry VIII’s dishonorable treatment of Catherine of Aragon continue to affect England even years after their deaths? Why is Mary driven to convert all of England back to Catholicism?

The people of England were always very dedicated to Katherine, even when Henry married Anne Boleyn. She was the wronged woman, and that made the people sympathise with her. The treatment of Katherine of Aragon also meant that Mary became illegitimate. I think she felt that Thomas Cranmer was to blame for the divorce which was why she took so much pleasure in publicly burning him, even after recantation. I think that Mary sees her religion as the last remaining connection to her mother – she wants to convert England back to what she firmly believes in to try and right some of the wrongs done to her mother. I also think that is why Mary acted the way she did towards Elizabeth – she felt that Elizabeth was a part of Anne Boleyn who had caused pain to her and her mother.

  • Poised to burn books that could condemn her and her father as heretics, Hannah stays her hand, explaining, “If I burned them I was no better than the Inquisition which had killed my mother. If I burned them, I became as one of those who think that ideas are dangerous and should be destroyed.” What would you have done in her place? In a world where knowledge was very dangerous, how does Hannah’s Sight make her both powerful and vulnerable?

I think the burning of the books is a turning point for Hannah. If she burned them, it would mean that she was ashamed of who she was, which I don’t think she was. But I think that she also realised the necessity of burning them, to protect herself and her father. I think that I would have burned them to protect myself and the ones I love, even if it means being a hypocrite. But perhaps I’m not as strong as Hannah is. Hannah’s sight makes her powerful because she can gain glimpses into the future, and perhaps influence events, or avoid more contentious events. Her sight also makes her vulnerable because people could attempt to use her for their own ends. Sometimes it is better not to know what is coming because it can make us behave differently or try to change it.

  • What is your estimation of Dudley’s character? Do you think he is a true friend to Hannah?
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester c.1560
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester c.1560

I think Dudley is a very complicated character. He seems to be out entirely for his own ends, and looks to use Hannah for his own ambitions. He thinks of himself first, then Elizabeth, and sees Hannah as a way to get to Mary I. However, I do think that he comes to appreciate Hannah for her gifts and her vibrant personality. We know that Dudley was attracted towards women who kept men guessing and who “sparkled”, like Elizabeth I, and unlike his wife, Amy Robsart. I think at the start he doesn’t intend to be a friend to Hannah, but I think that he does become one, either consciously or not.

  • Why does Hannah cling to the boyish dress of the fool for so long? Why is she so afraid to become a woman, and what finally inspires her transformation?

I think that Hannah is almost afraid to be noticed – most of her life she seems to have hidden away, because of her religion. I think she is so used to it that it is second nature to her. I think that she has never really felt like, or wanted to be, a woman before. I think what changes is that she finds herself attracted to men, and realises that she doesn’t need to hide herself. I think it is her developing relationship with Daniel that finally inspires her transformation, because she realises that he does find her attractive, and this changes her view of herself. Hannah comes to realise that being a woman can be a positive thing, that the clothes and etiquette aren’t as restricting as she believes them to be.

  • At the end of her life, Mary finds herself in the place she has most feared: She is a forgotten queen, cast aside by her husband and her people, overthrown in their hearts by a Boleyn girl, just as her mother was. Do you think that this end was her destiny? Are there other paths she might have chosen that would have led her to a long and happy reign?

I think that, because of the way Henry VIII got rid of Katherine of Aragon, and the depth of the changes that happened in England, Mary was bound to come up against opposition. The people of England weren’t generally as dedicated to their religion as Mary I was, and wanted a quiet life. I think that both Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I had magnetic personalities, and that people were bound to be drawn to Elizabeth, as Henry was drawn to Anne. I think because she refused to embrace change this was her destiny because she wanted to stay in the past. I think that, if Mary had kept the English church in the state it was in when Henry VIII died, and didn’t burn protestants because they had different beliefs to hers, Mary would have kept the love of her people, as she was her father’s daughter.

  • If you’re familiar with Elizabeth’s history, discuss how the events in this novel foreshadow both what is to come in her reign as queen and in her relationship with Robert Dudley.
Elizabeth I c.1546 by William Scrots
Elizabeth I c.1546 by William Scrots

I think that this novel shows a secretive and reckless side to Elizabeth’s character. She wants Dudley and does what she wants. This carries on in her reign. It was widely rumoured that Elizabeth would marry Dudley, and this was only really halted by the mysterious death of Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart, in whose death Dudley himself was suspected of having a hand. I think Elizabeth’s religious beliefs and the company she kept were bound to set her on a collision course with the beliefs of her sister. Mary was very traditional and Roman Catholic – Elizabeth wasn’t a protestant, but she didn’t believe in a lot of the idolatry of the Roman Catholic Church. She never really satisfied Catholics or Protestants. I also think that, because of this early connection with Philip of Spain, Elizabeth was on a collision course with Spain, which culminated in the Spanish Armada.

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