Discussion Questions – ‘The Other Queen’ by Philippa Gregory

  1. Bess describes George and herself as newlyweds happy and in love. On page 2, she says, “Only my newly wedded husband is so dotingly fond of me that he is safe under the same roof as such a temptress.” What is it that first makes Bess uneasy about her husband’s feelings towards Queen Mary?
Philippa Gregory's 'The Other Queen' (2008).
Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Other Queen’ (2008).

I think it is the fact that Mary is so unusual and attractive. Bess of Hardwick was unusual but Mary was in a different league. I think it is the time that Shrewsbury spends talking to Mary that makes Bess uneasy. I think she wonders whether Mary is converting her husband to Catholicism and rebellion against the queen, which would threaten her own position. Shrewsbury turns into more than Mary’s captor; he becomes a kind of friend and protector.

  1. Authors often challenge themselves by writing from the point of view of characters of the opposite sex. Do you think Gregory does a convincing job of creating her main male character, George Talbot? Do you think he is more or less realistic than the women in this novel, such as his wife, Bess, or Queens Mary and Elizabeth?

I think George is quite a weak character. Bess comes across more strongly in my opinion. Possibly it is difficult for a modern female to get into the mind-set of a medieval man. I don’t think he is entirely realistic, as I don’t believe that Shrewsbury was, in reality, so easily taken in by Mary, otherwise he would doubtless have been removed as her gaoler. I think Bess and Mary come across the most strongly as the story revolves most obviously around those two. Elizabeth is a background character but you can still sense her presence and influence across the events of the novel.

  1. George and Bess marry for choice and admiration. Identify how they describe one another early in the novel, and discuss how their opinions change over the course of the story. Do you think they ever really knew one another, or do you think their affection is just another casualty of Mary and Elizabeth’s treacherous conflict?

I think at first they both are behind a pink haze and can’t see anything wrong with each other. Throughout the novel I think that this changes as Shrewsbury realises that Mary is plotting beneath his nose and undermining his authority – I think he comes to respect and understand Bess more as a result. I think that, throughout the conflict with Mary Queen of Scots, they come to understand each other better, and realise that the other person isn’t who they thought they were. I think that the destruction of the affection that was between them at the beginning of the marriage was destroyed by the Mary Queen of Scots issue because Shrewsbury became attached to Mary rather than paying attention to his wife.

  1. On page 55, George compares Elizabeth and Mary. He says, “My queen Elizabeth is a most solid being, as earthy as a man. But this is a queen who is all air and angels. She is a queen of fire and smoke.” How else are the two queens compared throughout the novel by different characters? How do they describe themselves in comparison to each other?

I think that Elizabeth is much grounded in reality as a result of her mother’s execution at the hands of her father and her spell in the Tower of London in the reign of her sister, Mary I. On the other hand, Mary Queen of Scots is used to being treated as a queen and getting her own way – she doesn’t struggle in the same way Elizabeth does, and doesn’t have the same worries weighing her down. Some see Elizabeth as the saviour of England (generally protestants) and others see Mary as the saviour (generally catholics), and this affects the views of different characters, depending on what they believe. Both see themselves as the rightful Queen of England, and the best choice for the English people.

  1. George holds tightly to a noble, genteel way of life that has all but slipped away in England under Elizabeth’s rule. How do you feel about his devotion to Queen Elizabeth given the circumstances of the times? Do you think Bess ultimately betrays her husband, or does she save him from himself? How might you deal with your own spouse if your fundamental beliefs and loyalties rested on opposite sides?
Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575
Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575

I think that George’s devotion to his queen is admirable as, although his preferred way of life is vanishing, he seems willing to embrace change and move England in a more modern direction, helped along by his more modern wife, Bess of Hardwick. I think Bess saves her husband from himself because he seemed too in thrall to Mary to be able to extract himself from her clutches. I think that Bess and Shrewsbury needed to talk more, rather than grow apart from each other; maybe then they would have understood each other better and their marriage would have rested on a better footing.

  1. Examine both Mary’s reasoning for her belief that her cousin Elizabeth must naturally support her as the heir to the English throne and restore her to the Scottish throne, and Elizabeth’s reasoning for the actions she takes to keep Mary subordinated and under a watchful eye. With whom do you sympathize most, and why?

I think that Mary believes Elizabeth is threatened by her because it’s obvious that the people support her (some of the more vocal ones anyway), and she believes she will have the full backing of the English people to succeed Elizabeth on the throne. However, I think that Elizabeth is also threatened by Mary because Mary and Elizabeth hold contrary beliefs on religion, and Mary was also brought up in France and so has different views on monarchy. I think Mary’s views on marriage are also damaging and Elizabeth wants someone who will put the country first. I sympathise more with Elizabeth because she is completely focused on what is best for England, but she also doesn’t want to compromise relations with Scotland.

  1. At the heart of the conflict between Queens Elizabeth and Mary is a power struggle between the “new ways” of Protestant England and the “old ways” of Catholicism. How has the transition to Protestantism changed England as portrayed in this novel? In what ways do George and Bess serve as representatives of these two Englands’?

George is ‘old England’ as he represents the old feudal order, and still believes in the catholic ways of worship, which probably also explains why he is so drawn to Mary Queen of Scots, as she shares many of his beliefs. Bess is ‘new England’ – she believes in the protestant ways of worship and is the symbol of a new and modern woman in the 16th century. She doesn’t come from a noble family, but worked her way up the hierarchy. She also favours new forms of building, such as her creation at Hardwick Hall “more window than wall”. Bess agrees with Elizabeth generally on how England should be, and how it should develop, whereas George and Mary in a way want things to remain the same.

  1. Set in a religious time period, God naturally played an important role in all aspects of these characters’ lives. Compare and contrast the various characters’ interpretation of religion and their relationship to God with respect to their Papist or Protestant sensibilities. How do the characters differ in their use of God as justification and enlightenment?

I think God plays a particularly important role for Mary Queen of Scots. She believes she is God’s anointed to supplant Elizabeth and return Catholicism to England. Elizabeth is equally fervent in her belief that a tolerant England is the way forward – that it doesn’t really matter how you worship God, as long as you do. She personally takes parts of Catholicism and Protestantism in her worship, and joins them. Bess hopes that God will enlighten her about what the future holds for her and George, and Mary Queen of Scots. Shrewsbury worships in much the same way.

  1. Bess thinks George is a great fool. Mary finds him entirely honourable, and yet she relates to her rapist and captor, Bothwell, more powerfully. What do you think of these men? How do these two men compare to other significant male characters in the novel such as Cecil, Hastings, the Duke of Norfolk, and Ralph Sadler?
Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots after François Clouet, c. 1559.
Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots after François Clouet, c. 1559.

I think that Mary relates more powerfully to very influential and powerful men because she was raised under such men from her infancy. She became Queen of Scotland when just a baby and never really knew another life. I think George is too sensitive and weak for Mary, because he allows a woman to think her own thoughts and doesn’t thrust his own upon her. I think a childhood can hugely influence your outlook and I think that this is Mary’s downfall. Perhaps being around men like Shrewsbury during her youth would have changed her relationships with men like Bothwell. Cecil is a powerful man, but knows when to stop, which is a quality that I think Bothwell lacks. Norfolk seems to dote on Mary which feeds her obvious vanity, where Cecil doesn’t do that. These are the main men that Mary tends towards. The others aren’t in control and don’t wield true power, so I think Mary sees them as being beyond her attention.

  1. Throughout the novel, George and Bess are constantly in opposition. George fears and detests the “new England” that he believes Cecil has created, while Bess sees Cecil’s reforms as part of a golden dawn for England and for all Protestants. Who has the stronger character? Which side do you think you’d choose?

I think that Bess is an incredibly strong character. She sticks to her beliefs and puts them forward shamelessly. I think that George is, in a way, more intelligent. He doesn’t press his ideas forward, but continues to believe in them all the same. Both stick to their beliefs no matter what pressure is put on them. However, I don’t think that George is strong necessarily in his beliefs, but because he fears the change that comes with Protestantism. I think I would side with Bess because you need change, sometimes radical, in order to move forward and achieve more. Otherwise the world would still be in the Stone Age.

  1. On page 225, Bothwell tells Mary, “The magic of royalty is an illusion that can be shattered by a man without a conscience.” What significance does this observation have for the novel and for this time in history? Using examples from the novel to support your opinion, explain why you either agree or disagree.

Royalty is an illusion – monarchs aren’t made immortal or godly at their coronation. Elizabeth I believed that, by authorising the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 she was demonstrating that the divine right of monarchy is a lie – that a monarch can be killed. This is further hammered home in the next century by the execution of Charles I, possibly enhanced by the execution of Mary at the hands of Elizabeth. I think Elizabeth’s image of the Virgin Queen is damaged by her close relationship with Robert Dudley, and that makes the myth of monarchy more of an illusion.

  1. What understanding do Bess and Mary finally come to about one another? Do you think either can truly understand the other’s perspective, given such wildly different upbringings?
Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory

I don’t think that Bess and Mary could ever truly understand one another because of their different beliefs. Neither can quite understand why the other believes as she does. Nevertheless, they do have a lot in common – they both have strong religious beliefs, and both have struggled in their relationships with men to be who they want to be. I think they also both realise that there is no reason to be fighting and quarrelling with each other – they are both intelligent women with quite a lot in common, and nothing could be achieved by pitting themselves against each other.

  1. In the end, George is utterly heartbroken to learn that Mary has lied to him and to most everyone else. In her defence, Mary explains that she cannot possibly give her “true word” while under duress and imprisoned. Do you think this is just an excuse? Why or why not?

I think that Mary knows that telling the truth is a definite way to secure her own death. However, she wants to appear as a martyr and, knowing that the council want her death, she would rather appear innocent and die as a victim rather than someone who plotted the death of a queen, which is treason. I think Mary is thinking more about her own image in death than she is about the truth and justice of her case. Perhaps Mary is also hoping for a last chance to escape to freedom, although this seems less likely. I think it is an excuse to project her own image. She knows that catholic Europe will see her as a martyr if she plays the victim, and so it turned out.

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