READERS GUIDEThe life of Elizabeth I, Queen of England, has captured imaginations around the globe from the time of her death in 1603 to the present day. A glittering figurehead, a passionate mistress, and a charismatic politician, the powerful and opinionated Elizabeth has been immortalized in hundreds of books, paintings, stage productions, and films, including the recent blockbuster Elizabeth, featuring Cate Blanchett in an Oscar-nominated performance. Yet never has any novel matched the scope and mesmerizing detail of Rosalind Miles’s breathtaking I, Elizabeth. From her rise to power amid the religious upheaval and political scandal left in the wake of Henry VIII, to her glorious final days as the unassailable Virgin Queen, I, Elizabeth re-creates Elizabeth’s own voice and razor-sharp wit, and re-imagines her reign in brilliant color and nuance. Miles effortlessly weaves years of research into heartstopping storytelling and arrives at an unforgettable portrait of one of history’s greatest heroines. This guide is designed to help direct your reading group’s discussion of I, Elizabeth.
IntroductionIt is the year 1546 and King Henry VIII is not long for this world. He leaves behind three young heirs from three dead wives, and decisions must be made that will ensure a smooth succession. As Princess Elizabeth leaves behind the safety of her country home and enters the King’s court—where rubies are the size of hen’s eggs, where every shadowy corner contains a spy, and where a slip of the tongue may be construed as treason and is punishable by beheading—she knows her young life will never be the same. Quickly plunged into the terrifying, exalted world of sovereign power, rife with political intrigue and deadly plots, Elizabeth must turn against her own siblings in her quest to establish a just monarch on England’s throne. Once ensconced as Queen, however, she finds the jeopardies double. Spain lurks, sniffing for war; Mary Queen of Scots challenges Elizabeth’s claim to the throne; and Rome considers Elizabeth little more than the bastard daughter of a corrupt king and his whore. Turning to her council for guidance, she finds nothing but pressure to marry and produce an heir as quickly as possible—and grumblings around her court when she resists doing so. As Elizabeth explores love at her own pace, hidden from the ever-probing public eye, she discovers that even the truest bonds of devotion can harbor betrayal and disaster. Only one man, Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and Lord Treasurer, provides her with undying loyalty. And in the end, Elizabeth betroths herself to England alone, dedicating every drop of her blood and every ounce of her strength to the nation she loves. In a sweeping, utterly fascinating journey through Elizabeth’s six decades in the spotlight of history, Miles presents the dazzling Virgin Queen as she’s never been seen before.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Both the prologue and the epilogue of the novel focus on Elizabeth’s undying love for Robert Devereux, Lord of Essex. Even when he runs amok with power and commits increasingly outrageous offenses to Elizabeth as both woman and Queen, she fails to curb this “Wild Horse.” Why do his bluster and uncontainable spirit attract her? Does she do herself a disservice by forgiving him repeatedly? Do we as readers ever fall in love with Essex? How does this affair compare to Elizabeth’s long affair with Robin?
2. Henry VIII is first described as “a married man who had tired of his wife,” then as “a man in his prime and a stranger to the word ‘no.’ ” He sculpts every angle of his environment to serve his own desires, taking on new wives, new popes, and a whole new religion when the old ones displease him. How does this trait influence Elizabeth? When do we see her emulating aspects of his personality, and when do we see her consciously choosing to do the opposite, particularly in how she runs her court? Is it accurate to describe them both as perpetually dissatisfied characters? Is Elizabeth’s refusal to marry some sort of belated rebellion against her father’s wanton attitude toward marriage?
3. As Elizabeth’s sister Queen Mary earns the nickname “Bloody Mary” for her violent enforcement of Papistry, Elizabeth’s position at court becomes more and more endangered. How and why does King Philip of Spain—also a Papist—save Elizabeth from her sister’s wrath? Why is it in Philip’s best interest to support Elizabeth for the succession to the English throne, even though she’s a Protestant, rather than her Papist cousin Mary of Scots? What lessons does Elizabeth learn from observing her sister’s public policies?
4. When Elizabeth saves Queen Katherine Parr from Henry VIII’s fury, she learns her first lesson in the power of flattery as a tool of diplomacy. She knows exactly what to say to stroke his ego, and, by her quick thinking, prevents an execution. Does this episode change the way Elizabeth thinks of her father? Does she require similar flattery later in her career as Queen, or does she simply tolerate it? Which of her subjects rely on flattering their Queen as an attempt at self-promotion?
5. Is Elizabeth serious in her plot to offer Robin to Mary of Scots as a marriage partner; is it just an excuse to shower him with land, titles and wealth to make him more suitable for herself; or is she simply being mischievous and toying with Mary? How does Mary foil the whole plot, and why does Mary’s sudden marriage to Henry Stuart, Earl of Darnley, spell disaster for Elizabeth?
6. The bane of Elizabeth’s existence is her identification as a bastard. Why does she say she is “a bastard three times over”? At what points in her life does this label reappear? When do we see her mother’s reputation as a whore haunt her? How does she finally discover the truth about her mother?
7. Elizabeth’s realization that her position in the royal lineup of successors is tenuous marks her first experience of true fear—the first of many. What gifts does her tutor Grindal give her right before she is forced to leave Hatfield by orders of the King? What does it mean? What fear compels Henry to order her to travel “enclosed and unseen” when she is summoned to court?
8. Despite Mary of Scots’s repeated attempts to overthrow her, and despite the mounting rage of the English people who “hungered for her death, thirsted for her blood, clamored for retribution,” Elizabeth refused to sign Mary’s death warrant: “She is a queen and one of God’s Anointed, she is a woman and my kinswoman, she is a Tudor, and she is my heir! And when subjects come to take the lives of kings, who knows what chaos follows?” Is Elizabeth reacting to her father’s notorious appetite for executions, protecting herself from the threat of future uprisings, or simply trying to create a more compassionate monarchy? What aspects of herself does she see in Mary? Why does Mary’s dilemma remind Elizabeth of her mother?
9. The refrain that torments Elizabeth throughout her tumultuous reign is “strike or be stricken.” Which option does she choose more often?
10. The novel traces Elizabeth’s progress from a naive, openhearted thirteen-year-old to a powerful, money-hungry, imperious old woman. Does she grow more or less likeable as her story unfolds? How does she change? What do you make of her chronic attachments to men who are either unmarriageable, unfaithful, or ungovernable? Do you blame Robin, Raleigh, and Essex for their secret marriages?
11. Why does Amy Robsart’s death reek of foul play, and thus prevent Elizabeth and Robin from uniting at last? What similar event does Mary of Scots experience in connection with her Lord Durnley? In what ways do Elizabeth and Mary handle the ensuing scandals differently?
12. Elizabeth’s true marriage partner is her country: “England, my England—how I love this land! Her rivers pour their courses through my veins, her loam makes up my flesh, her soul my soul, her proud spirit my hope, my inspiration . . . my first, last, greatest love.” It is for her duty to the State that she abandons Robin at the altar, and this moment of choice is perhaps the climax of the novel: “I lost my love, for England—to be not Robin’s bride, but England’s Queen. When the time came to choose, I chose her, and not him.” Did she do the right thing here? Do modern-day rulers face any choices as drastic as Elizabeth’s?
13. Elizabeth is a complex mix of queenly pomposity and self-deprecating cynicism about the world. Where does Miles use humor to endear us to her main character? How does Elizabeth’s banter with historical figures like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlow, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Francis Drake affect your reading of her story?