Discussion Questions – The Boleyn Bride by Emily Purdy


  1. Elizabeth Boleyn readily admits that she is a vain woman. What do you think of her vanity and pride and the way they affect her thoughts and actions? Do you agree that she was raised to be this way or do you regard this as an excuse and her attitude as more of a personal failing? Does she remain you of the Tudor era equivalent of the mean, pretty, snobby girls everyone encounters in high school? What do you think of the way she treats people, like her maid Matilda, her husband, children, and the men she has affairs with? Near the end of this novel she describes her husband’s attitude toward people as “use and then lose” – he discards them when they are of no further profitable use to him. Though, as far as we know, no one has ever died as a result of Elizabeth’s behaviour, is this a case of the pot calling the kettle black?
The Boleyn Bride by Emily Purdy

I think that Elizabeth was raised to be vain and spoilt – she was a daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, one of the greatest and most powerful nobles in England, and she would have been raised to know and understand this. However, I think that you can change the way you were brought up, but Elizabeth shows no desire to do so. It is one of her failings that she sees the only improvement she can make to herself to be social improvement – she can’t see any personal improvement being necessary. I think she treats people more as stepping stones to advancement rather than people in their own right – except her husband, who she initially sees as a block to her social advancement. She sees Thomas Boleyn as not being good enough for the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. I think Elizabeth and Thomas do treat people very similarly – Elizabeth uses people to help her social advancement and then discards them when they are of no use, in the same way that Thomas does.

  1. Discuss the marriage and relationship between Elizabeth and Thomas Boleyn. Do you believe he deserves the contempt Elizabeth treats him with? She regards herself as superior, sneers when he changes the spelling of his name from Bullen to Boleyn, and rubs his family’s mercantile origins in his face whenever she has the chance. She glories in cheating on him with men of an even lower social status. What do you think of all this? How would you react, if you were in Thomas Bullen’s shoes, to a wife like Elizabeth?

I think that Thomas Boleyn was the archetypical man aiming for a higher social status – the Tudor court was full of them, and even outside the court, people were always aiming to better themselves. However, I think that, because Elizabeth was born into a well to-do family she was one of those who saw social advancement of the low classes (as she saw Thomas) to be silly. She believed, as many of the nobility did, that the country should be ruled by them and not by the “new men”, raised to the nobility by the likes of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Elizabeth enjoys rubbing Thomas’s nose in his origins I think because it establishes her as the primary partner in the relationship – she is of higher origins so should take the lead. I think she enjoys cheating on him with men of lower status because it emphasises Thomas’s own humble origins, and how far Elizabeth has to go to find someone lower than him. I think Thomas saw Elizabeth as his stepping stone to greater power. I think that, as long as she didn’t take lovers in public he didn’t really mind all that much.

  1. Elizabeth Boleyn views her life as that of a broodmare, though one of a Tudor era wife’s primary responsibilities was to provide her husband with heirs. She endures numerous pregnancies as many women did, many of which end in miscarriages, stillbirths, or the death of the baby soon afterward. In the prologue where she describes her poison garden and later when she advises Mary that “there are other teas”, she shows she has knowledge of contraception and abortifacients; do you think, though she never directly tells the reader so, that Elizabeth has resorted to either, or both, of these measures? She appears to regret the effects pregnancy has on her body more than she does the loss of these little lives. Do you think, reading between the lines, that she directly caused some of these miscarriages? Discuss Elizabeth’s attitude towards pregnancy. In your opinion, is it natural or unnatural? Do you think she is one of those women who is devoid of maternal feeling?

I think that, in the story, the implication is there that Elizabeth resorted to measures to stop herself falling pregnant at times. I think she was so vain and fond of her looks that she would take what measures she could to stop her body becoming bloated, fat and scarred, as many women’s did with multiple pregnancies. I think it is quite possible that Elizabeth herself caused some of her miscarriages, as she doesn’t seem to particularly dote on her children and doesn’t seem to mind when they die as babies. I don’t think Elizabeth is devoid of maternal feeling, but I do think that she has, what she sees as, more important things on her mind, like her looks and social advancement. She recognises what her children can do for her, and does show some love for Mary in particular, but I think it is a little unnatural, especially at a time when women were expected to have children and to be almost consistently pregnant.

  1. Thomas Boleyn tells his wife and children, “if you doubt you can succeed why even bother to try? Never invite failure into your life if you can possibly help it”. This is one of the very few things that husband and wife agree upon. Elizabeth believes this is true and good advice. Do you? He also urges them to always be on the winning side, that this is the only side that matters. Do you agree?

I think it is always worth trying because you might achieve or succeed at something that you never thought you could. You learn from mistakes and grow into a better person, and you can’t make a mistake if you don’t give yourself the chance to make them. I don’t think that winning is the only thing that matters either – what matters more is that you’re happy and not ashamed of anything you’ve done. Mary Boleyn ultimately makes the right choice because she marries a man who loves her completely, and lives a long and happy life. Anne and George Boleyn are executed because they lost and were too close to the throne. Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn died early probably because of the loss of their children, and the loss of the wealth, power and prestige that went with their daughter being Queen of England.

  1. Discuss Elizabeth’s relationship with the doll maker, Remi Jouet. He’s the man she claims is the love of her life, yet she continues her casual dalliances with other men, and throughout the story he remains something of an enigma, a soft-spoken man of so few words that Elizabeth and the reader never really truly know what he is thinking. What does each of them gain from this relationship? Despite being adulterous, is it a good healthy relationship or are they merely using each other? Is Elizabeth, as she sometimes worries, holding Remi back from having a normal life with a wife and children? What do you think this man really wants out of life, and does he get it? The reader never sees his life, except in the moments he shares with Elizabeth; what do you think it is like when she is not there? Do you think Elizabeth has grounds to be jealous that he has affairs with other women who come to his shop?
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

I think that Elizabeth fantasises about Remi being the love of her life. I can’t imagine Elizabeth, in the way she is portrayed in this story, believing in having a love of her life. I think she feels safe with Remi and knows that she is cuckolding her husband, which seems to make her proud. I think they both gain a sense of happiness – what life could be like without social restrictions. I think Remi is in the relationship because, for some reason, Elizabeth makes him happy, where Elizabeth is mainly in the relationship for the thrill of being with someone socially inferior and cuckolding her husband at the same time. I think Remi wants to be happy, and Elizabeth and his toy shop makes him happy. I think that’s all the lower social stratas could have hoped for in Tudor England. I don’t think Elizabeth has grounds to be jealous, not with all of the men she has slept with to cuckold her husband.

  1. Since time began, women have been on a quest to keep young and beautiful, sometimes going to outlandish and dangerous lengths. Today you can’t turn on a TV or open a magazine without seeing an advertisement for the latest and greatest miracle cream. In this novel, Elizabeth Boleyn mentions some of the methods she tries to maintain her complexion, colour her hair, and whiten her teeth, even going so far as to brush them with the urine of a Portuguese sailor and trusting her mouth to quacks with none too pleasant results. Discuss the lengths that women, past and present, go to, to preserve or enhance their beauty. Is it worth the fight, and submitting to expensive treatments that are sometimes risky or even fraudulent, or is it better to grow old naturally and gracefully?

It is inevitable that women will age and grow up unless you die young, which was a distinct possibility when you consider some of the anti-aging and beauty treatments in Tudor England! It’s better to grow old naturally and gracefully – then you avoid the pain and worry about how you look, and in Tudor times you might well have lived longer and with more of your teeth! Perhaps that’s just me, as I know that many women of all ages try the latest beauty and anti-aging treatments, but what’s the point in worrying unnecessarily to the exclusion of all else?

  1. Elizabeth Boleyn has many affairs with younger men. She says, “I relished the role of instructress. Or perhaps I just liked being the first, the one they would always remember no matter how many others came after.” What do you think about this? It contradicts what she says about forgetting her casual dalliances and wanting to be forgotten too. Why does Elizabeth have so many affairs with men of all ages from all walks of life? Is it really just to appease boredom and, in the case of those of lower station, to spite her husband, or is something missing from her life? If so, what do you think that is? And despite these many affairs, she spurns the ultimate paramour, the king. Why do you think she does this? Do you believe the reasons she gives?

I think Elizabeth likes the power that it gives her to be the first for so many men, and I don’t think she does want to be forgotten – on the contrary I think she is desperate to be remembered, and not as the wife of Thomas Boleyn, but as a woman in her own right. She wants to be remembered as beautiful and clever and that’s why she chooses men younger than her – she can teach and would seem to be in the prime of her life when a lot of the younger men were just starting out. I think Elizabeth also craves love and adulation, which she doesn’t get from her husband, but seems to from her lovers. But I think a part of her does have affairs with younger men to spite her husband and try and make him realise how lucky he is to have her – make him appreciate her more. I think Elizabeth spurns the king’s bed because she knows that affair would become very public, and mistresses of kings don’t tend to last; affairs tend to be short lived and the woman is left soiled with her reputation in tatters. At least if she has affairs with men far below her they are unlikely to become the talk of the court.

  1. Discuss Elizabeth’s relationships with her three surviving children – Mary, George and Anne. She admits she has been an emotionally as well as a physically absent and distant mother who always put herself and her own pleasures before her children’s wellbeing. She knows this, even as she is doing it, in the early years when there would still have been time to make a change for the better, yet she never does. Do you think Elizabeth had it in her to ever be a good mother? Discuss how having Elizabeth for a mother affects each of her children. Does her indifference and neglect help or hurt them? Does it make them weaker or stronger? Two of them, George and Mary, grow up to be somewhat promiscuous; do you see Elizabeth’s influence in this? Do you see Anne’s transformation from ugly duckling to black swan as a result of Elizabeth’s treatment of her as a child?
Thomas Boleyn by Hans Holbein
Thomas Boleyn by Hans Holbein

I think it would have taken enormous will power for her to change her ways. She was already very set in what she was doing, and I don’t think she was what one would call a natural mother – she enjoys her own pleasures too much to give them up, even for her children. I think that Elizabeth’s treatment of Mary makes Mary believe that she can have what she wants, as her mother does. I think Anne takes the opposite tack to her mother and doesn’t have affairs or give away favours lightly, and that is how she becomes Queen of England. I think that George would likely not have seen much of his mother, even if she had doted on him, because boys were often tutored away from home and then went straight to court – girls were taught womanly skills at home, so perhaps Anne and Mary were sent away to foreign courts because their mother wasn’t teaching them what they needed to know. I can definitely see Elizabeth’s input in Mary, but I think Anne sees her mother’s actions as a warning and is determined to transform herself and make something of herself.

  1. Elizabeth is driven, by her disappointment in Anne’s appearance as well as her incessant crying, to attempt to murder her daughter in the cradle. If George had not appeared, do you think she would have done it? Do you think Elizabeth Boleyn was suffering from postpartum depression, or were her actions cold-blooded? How would history have been different if Anne Boleyn had died or if, as Elizabeth ponders near the novel’s end, she had never transformed herself? How would Anne’s life have been different if she had remained an ugly duckling and never captivated a king or had the nerve to refuse him and hold out for marriage and a crown, or if she had gone into a convent? It might have been a longer life, but would it have been a happy, or happier one? If Elizabeth had loved Anne from the start, the way she did Mary, how do you think this would have affected Anne and the woman she became? Would she have turned out better, worse, or the same?

I think Elizabeth could have done it, whether she would or not is another question. I think she was so afraid that Anne’s appearance would reflect badly on her, who was so vain and proud, and she wasn’t a natural mother anyway, so I think it was natural, for her, to feel like she needed to kill her child. I think there was also a bit of depression – how could there not be when she didn’t seem to want children in the first place? It probably added to her depression that she, who thought herself beautiful and perfect, had given birth to a child who wasn’t either. If Anne hadn’t transformed herself she wouldn’t have caught the eye of Henry VIII and English history would have been very different. Would Anne have been happy? I don’t know if, with parents like hers, she could have kept out of the limelight. Had Anne been loved from the start perhaps she would have been less driven to prove herself and have ended up more like Mary. English history would be very different if she had.

  1. Mary Boleyn is deemed a failure by her whole family. Over the course of the novel she goes from adored golden girl to pariah. She repeatedly fails to make the most of the opportunities she is given, to reap a profit from the amorous attentions of powerful men, like the kings of England and France. Her own mother thinks she would be a failure even as a halfpenny whore. She incurs only anger and disgrace when she marries a poor man who loves her for herself. What do you think of Mary, the choices she made, and the way her family regards and treats her? Is she really the Boleyn girl who got it right in the end?

I think that Mary was the luckiest of the Boleyns – she found a man who loved her for herself and who she loved in return. George and Anne were both executed, and her mother and father died in quick succession, probably from the shock of the executions of George and Anne. Mary knew from the start that she wasn’t meant to be in power; she loved too easily and didn’t have the ambition that the rest of her family did. In the end she was probably happier than any other member of her family, away from the court and the dangers surrounding it. I think in the end Mary made the right choice in marrying the man she loves, even though he wasn’t of the same social status. Her family are unfair to her because they see ambition as the leading feeling in life, whereas Mary chooses love instead – her family can’t understand. She is the Boleyn girl who got it right in the end – she married the man she loved, lived away from the court, and lived longer and probably happier than the rest of her family.

  1. After years of leading the broodmare life, Elizabeth’s dream of going to court and serving the queen finally comes true. Discuss her relationship with Katherine of Aragon. Is it a real friendship or merely a noblewoman proud of her privileged position and of having the confidence of the queen? When her husband orders her to give up her position as a lady-in-waiting because it does not look right for her to serve Anne’s rival, she does so without argument, though she claims to remain loyal to Katherine in her heart. Do you believe this is true? If so, why? Does Elizabeth Boleyn really love anyone but herself? When she says that she would have fought for the lives of George and Anne, do you believe her?

I don’t think that the relationship between Elizabeth and Katherine of Aragon was a real friendship – I think Elizabeth saw herself being a noblewoman proud of her privileged position and at finally being away from the broodmare life she was used to. Katherine must have known that it was rare to find true friends at court when so many were out for themselves. Elizabeth didn’t stick by Katherine as some of her true supporters did when her daughter, Anne, was on the rise. I can’t imagine Elizabeth being a true supporter of Katherine if she gave up so easily, it doesn’t feel right. I don’t think in this story that Elizabeth does love anyone but herself – she doesn’t seem to care about her children and seems to hate her husband, so why would she care about a queen who she doesn’t know and who stands in the way of her daughter’s rise? I don’t know whether Elizabeth would have fought for the lives of George and Anne because I’m not convinced by the story that she loved them or saw them more as stepping stones to better things. Even in history there is no evidence that either Elizabeth or Thomas attempted to save their children, and Thomas actually sat on trial against the men Anne was accused with.

  1. Discuss the close bond between Anne and George. Do you believe it is in any way incestuous as George’s wife alleges, or that it is the innocent love of a brother and sister who are best friends as well as siblings? Do you see George’s drinking and many affairs, and his dissatisfaction with his lovers, as proof of incestuous longings, as his drunken confession to his mother might suggest, or was he merely talking in his wine cup? Do you think there was any way George could have shaken off his dark moods and led a happy life? Do you believe he suffered from some form of depression?

I don’t think that Anne and George would have been so reckless as to have an incestuous affair, even to produce a child. It was a common belief in the Tudor period that incest meant you would go straight to hell, and Anne at least believed in her faith. I think they were best friends, in the way a lot of siblings are today, but which was unusual in the Tudor period. Brothers and sisters were often brought up apart, so the relationship between Anne and George does seem closer than that of most siblings of the period, and certainly closer than Mary’s relationship with her sister or brother. I think George’s mumblings were the drink talking and perhaps a longing to be with a woman similar to his sister, as the two get on so well. I think it was merely a man expressing dissatisfaction with his wife, as few marriages were made for love in the 16th century upper classes. I don’t think that George suffered from depression – I think he longed for the times he spent with Anne as a sibling, and he hoped to get away from his wife whom he hated.

  1. Discuss the role the lute player Mark Smeaton plays in the Boleyn saga as depicted in this novel. Do you believe his affairs with George and Elizabeth Boleyn and their treatment of him in any way motivated his confession? Is Smeaton right to resent the way the Boleyns have treated him or do you think he brought it on himself? Do you believe, as Elizabeth wonders in the prologue, that someone might have seen her in a compromising position with Smeaton and mistaken her for Anne?
Romanticised image of Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London by Edouard Cibot 19th century.
Romanticised image of Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London by Edouard Cibot 19th century.

It seems quite popular to portray George and Mark Smeaton as lovers, but for me it doesn’t quite ring true. By all accounts George was a ladies’ man and, just because he didn’t seem to like his wife, doesn’t automatically mean that he was gay. Perhaps she was a shrew, as some historians suggest, and perhaps she didn’t satisfy him in bed – who’s to know? I don’t really believe that Mark had an affair with Elizabeth Boleyn either, as I think she was getting old at this point, and doubtless there would have been other women who Mark Smeaton could have attracted as, from all reports, he was quite a handsome young man. I don’t think the Boleyns’ treatment of him in any way motivated his confession. I think Smeaton brought it on himself – I think perhaps he wanted to be considered a part of the royal circle, so pretended that he was. It is quite possible he was deluded in some way. I don’t think that the adultery charges against Anne came from a case of mistaken identity, or even someone believing they had seen Anne committing adultery – it was a plot to bring her down so that Henry VIII could remarry and get a son and heir.

  1. Near the end of the book, Elizabeth says, “if only I had known then what I know now … it might all have been a different story”. Do you believe this? What do you think she would have done differently if she were magically given the chance to live her life all over again?

I think that Elizabeth, being who she was, would have made exactly the same decisions because it is who she was – perhaps she would have tried to save her children, regretting the earlier decision not to engage with them as children, and perhaps for trying to kill Anne as a baby. I think it is difficult to make changes to your life if you were given the chance, because how do you know it wouldn’t turn out even worse? I think it’s built into her DNA to flirt and be with several men, especially when she is forced to marry the commoner Thomas Boleyn – she feels the need to punish him for taking away the life she wanted.

  1. With her parting words, Elizabeth leaves her memoir for her daughter Mary. Do you think Mary will forgive her mother after she reads it? If you were in Mary’s shoes, would you? Does Elizabeth deserve forgiveness?

I think Elizabeth made her own choices and led her own life – a lot of upper class women at the time were committing adultery, and even more men, so I don’t think she needs to apologise for that. I think, however, that she does need to apologise for the way she has treated her children, particularly Mary, as she was the doted-on child and probably felt more keenly the loss of her mother’s love and adoration. Anne was side-lined from the first and that probably affected the woman she became. I think Mary would forgive her mother after reading the memoir for some things – like the way she treated her children when they were young. But I don’t think she could forgive her mother for not at least trying to save Anne and George. I don’t think Elizabeth deserves forgiveness for the latter – all children, whatever age, should be able to rely on the support and protection of their parents.

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