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Roses Have Thorns

A Novel of Elizabeth I


From the acclaimed author of To Die For comes a stirring novel told through a groundbreaking point of view that sheds light on Elizabeth I and her court.

In 1565, seventeen-year-old Elin von Snakenborg leaves Sweden on a treacherous journey to England. Her fiancé has fallen in love with her sister and her dowry money has been gambled away, but ahead of her lies an adventure that will take her to the dizzying heights of Tudor power. Transformed through marriage into Helena, the Marchioness of Northampton, she becomes the highest-ranking woman in Elizabeth’s circle.

But in a court that is surrounded by Catholic enemies who plot the queen’s downfall, Helena is forced to choose between her unyielding monarch and the husband she’s not sure she can trust—a choice that will provoke catastrophic consequences.

A rich, tautly woven tale of love, deception, and grace, Roses Have Thorns vividly conjures the years leading up to the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots and is a brilliant exploration of treason, both to the realm and to the heart.

This reading group guide for Roses Have Thorns includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Sandra Byrd. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


When Elin von Snakenborg visits England with a royal entourage from Sweden and decides to remain, she drastically alters the course of her life. She marries an English nobleman and becomes one of Queen Elizabeth I’s most trusted ladies in waiting, a position that draws her deep into the intrigue, danger, and treachery of the court.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. If you were Elin, would you have wanted to return to Sweden or remain in England? What factors would have influenced your decision? Would you have changed your name, as she did?
2. Helena admits that she is fond of William but not in love with him, nor is she physically attracted to him. Is this any different from other engaged, highborn women of the time; for example, her friend Anne Russell? How did the system of marrying for dynastic and financial concerns help or hinder women of the time? Is our current system of choosing husbands always better? Why or why not?
3. Right before Princess Cecelia departs for Sweden, she maliciously tells Helena that William is already married. What were William’s reasons for withholding this information from Helena until it was too late for her to change her mind? Did it damage his reputation for high integrity, or did his past marital history honestly lead him to believe this would be a quickly solved problem?
4. When Helena first enters Elizabeth’s employ, the queen is polite yet distant. How does Helena go about creating a place for herself in the royal household? What are several factors that account for the deepening of their friendship? Why does Helena commission the locket ring for Elizabeth? Was it a game-changer for their friendship?
5. Discuss the role that ladies in waiting play in the queen’s life versus servants in the lives of every highborn woman, royal or not. What is your opinion of the way Elizabeth treats the women in her household? That culture certainly believed that the perks that come with the coveted position outweigh the negatives. Would it have, for you, had you lived then?
6. How does Helena use myths and tales, such as the legend of Idun, to convey her thoughts and opinions to Elizabeth? Why does she seek to influence the queen in this manner rather than in a more direct way? How else do the ladies in waiting “persuade effectively by softer manner”?
7. When Helena shares the story of the frozen rose garden with the queen, what is she really advising her about Mary, Queen of Scots? Was Elizabeth justified in ordering her cousin’s execution? Why does Helena believe the monarch waited so long to have the deed carried out despite the evidence against Mary? Why do you believe Queen Elizabeth waited so long? Would you have acted similarly? How or how not?
8. What are the greatest threats facing Elizabeth I and the stability of the English throne? In what ways is religion—specifically religious differences—a significant factor in the unrest during her reign? What parallels can be drawn to religion in our time?
9. What is your opinion of Elizabeth I as a monarch, as seen through Helena’s eyes? What characteristics and qualities do you think made her a successful ruler? How does Sandra Byrd’s portrayal of Elizabeth I differ from those in other historical novels you’ve read or that you’ve seen in films? Are we likely to get a more complete picture of any one person by looking at him or her from different perspectives?
10. In two different instances Helena is suspicious of Eleanor, once when the other woman reveals something she could not possibly have overheard and the other when she catches a glimpse of Eleanor’s Rosary beads. Was it Helena’s history and personality that compelled her to keep quiet, or fear, or circumstance? How is Eleanor’s death a turning point for Helena personally? In what ways does it alter her association with the other ladies in waiting?
11. Why did Elizabeth allow Helena’s marriage to William but likely would have denied permission for her to wed Thomas? Were Helena and Thomas right to marry in secret? What other couples married in secret during the Elizabethan era, and what were the consequences? (Consider Mary Shelton and Bess Throckmorton, both mentioned in the book.) Helena claims she thought the queen had discreetly sanctioned the union because of a comment made during a chess game. Does she honestly believe this was the case, or is she using the incident as a way to diffuse the queen’s anger?
12. After Helena finds the Rosary ring among Thomas’s possessions, why does she take it to Sir Francis Walsingham rather than confront her husband? What were the benefits and risks to her and her children by taking it to Walsingham? What could have happened to Helena and her children if she had not gone to Walsingham, and he found out she was withholding treasonous information? Considering all that is at stake, what would you have done in her situation?
13. Helena balances serving the queen with marriage, motherhood, and managing her own household. What similarities does she share with present-day women who juggle careers and family? How is her situation different?
14. The first two books in this series were set during the tumult of the Reformation, when the protagonists were perhaps more zealous. How is faith lived out, albeit more quietly, by the protagonists in this book?
15. At one point Helena believes her relationship with Thomas is over. What accounts for the erosion of their marriage during the course of the decade? What was the turning point that allowed them to rebuild their marriage?
16. Why does Helena not act sooner on the misgivings she has about Sofia? How does the earlier betrayal of Karin and Philip factor into how she deals with her cousin and her character arc? Was she too harsh on Sofia or not harsh enough?
17. “Court language was more often unspoken than said,” writes Sandra Byrd. Why is Helena successful in navigating the intricacies of Elizabeth’s court, even more so than many of the queen’s countrymen and women? Is it more to her benefit or her detriment that she is a foreigner? What qualities are necessary to succeed in a royal court?
18. Do you feel that Elizabeth was, indeed, the capstone of the Tudor Era? Why or why not?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Buy a lavender sachet or herbal candle for each member of your club to hand out at the end of the meeting.   
2. Serve a feast using recipes in the International Cooking section on in honor of Helena’s adopted country, along with Swedish fare in a nod to her heritage (   
3. Elizabeth was well known to have loved sweets, especially marchpane, which we now call marzipan. Pitted fruits, such as plums, were also popular at court. Prepare this recipe, and serve it at your meeting for dessert:   
4. Have a look at Queen Elizabeth’s locket ring, the model for the one Helena gives her in the novel. Typically kept tucked away at the British prime minister’s country residence, it can be seen here:   
5. Pair your reading of Roses Have Thorns with one or both of Sandra Byrd’s other novels centered on royal ladies in waiting—To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn, which features Queen Anne Boleyn, mother of Elizabeth I, and The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr, which features Queen Kateryn Parr, stepmother of Elizabeth I. 6. Visit to learn more about the author, her books, and Tudor tidbits like a royal timeline.   

A Conversation with Sandra Byrd 

Q: Was it difficult to write about someone so well known, and both fiercely loved and scorned, as Queen Elizabeth I?  

A: It was certainly intimidating, challenging, and exciting. I have a large print of Queen Elizabeth I in my office and every morning she’d be there, waiting for me. Because she is so well known, people have strongly formed opinions of her and her reign, and I do, too. She lived a long, rich, complicated life, so in the span of this book I was only able to show one perspective, Helena’s point of view as I’d imagined it and drawn it from history. It was a thrill to write, and I hope I have done her justice.

Q: When you came across a mention of Helena von Snakenborg while doing research for The Secret Keeper, did you know immediately that she would be the protagonist for a novel? Why do you think the myth that Elizabeth I had no female friends has been so widely perpetuated?  

A: I did have an epiphany of sorts when I came across Helena. I’d been hoping all along to tell the story of a real lady in waiting, but one whose story had not been often told. I was grateful to uncover Helena. The fact that she served Elizabeth I for so long, and so closely, made her an excellent point-of-view character. Her May-December marriage to Parr, the mysterious gap in her child-bearing, and the fact that the queen had actually “exiled” her and thrown her second husband into the Tower made for a rich canvas upon which to imagine. Plus, the fact that Thomas Gorges actually led the party to arrest Mary, Queen of Scots, was too juicy to pass up!  

Elizabeth was known to keep tight purse strings, so when good sources indicated that she very well may have given Helena the silver from the wrecked galleon, I knew I had a lady that Elizabeth had loved.  

Elizabeth was not a woman’s woman—she couldn’t have been, or she’d not have been able to govern her kingdom in a time when women were not expected to be strong and effective rulers and John Knox was publishing his “First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” There are accounts that on the rare occasion when she did burst into tears her male councilors tended to look uncomfortably at their knuckles until it passed. The myth that she didn’t promote marriages for her maids of honor was effectively put to rest for me by one of her biographers who concluded that, had that been the case, families would have stopped advocating their daughters for that position shortly into Elizabeth’s long reign. I think she knew she could trust very few people, and so she did.  

She was jealous, I suspect, on some level, of those who had husbands and children, but she was also a lifelong flirt, something a married woman could not be. I think she had deeply loved friends, among them Katherine Carey Knollys, Anne Russell Dudley, Catherine Carey Howard, and of course Helena.

Q: “In a very real way, I controlled access to the sovereign,” muses Helena in Roses Have Thorns. How unusual was it that a foreign-born woman like Helena would become the highest-ranking of Queen Elizabeth I’s ladies in waiting?  

A: In the days of Queen Katherine of Aragon, there were many high-ranking Spanish women who had traveled to England with her, held significant positions, and also married into English nobility. One of note is Maria de Salinas, a lady in waiting to Queen Katherine of Aragon. She eventually married William Willoughby, eleventh Baron Willoughby de Eresby, and they had a child, Katherine, named for the queen. This Katherine grew up to marry Charles Brandon and became a well-known reformer who played a memorable role as the friend of Queen Kateryn Parr, and guardian of Parr’s baby Mary Seymour, in the last Ladies in Waiting book, The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr.  

However, most ladies in waiting were drawn from established English families. Rank, of course, comes from birth and marriage, so what catapulted Helena to the top of the heap, as it were, was her marriage to William Parr, Marquess of Northampton. Helena retained his title and rank throughout her life, even after her second marriage.  

Sovereigns do raise their favorites to make them more fitting for close friendship. Henry VIII raised Anne Boleyn to Marquess of Pembroke before marrying her to make her of a more suitable rank. Elizabeth I raised Robert Dudley to the peerage as Earl of Leicester, in 1564; some suspected that was so he would be of a more marriageable rank. Helena gained her rank through marriage, of course. But although she was nobly born, her position as Marchioness of Northampton made her even more fitting to be close to the queen.

Q: A vivid scene takes place early in the novel when Helena grabs a bee flying around Princess Cecelia. Why did you decide to include this in the story? What does it reveal about Helena’s character?  

A: I wanted to encapsulate Elin’s bravery and her fealty with one action, something that could be reflected upon, later, when her courage and loyalty toward Queen Elizabeth, and even Helena’s own husband, Thomas, would be questioned. Our impulse as humans is to flee danger—including stinging insects—so to show her acting against that instinct in service to another demonstrates exactly what kind of woman she was.  

Later, of course, that action is echoed in a much more dangerous situation when Helena removes the potentially poisoned pins from Elizabeth’s gowns, sticking her hand, again, in the process.

Q: The rivalry between Queen Elizabeth and her cousin Lettice Knollys was quite contentious. What happened to Lettice after Robert Dudley’s death? Did Elizabeth ever soften toward the other woman?  

A: No, Elizabeth never did soften toward the woman she called “the shewolf.” Once she married Robert Dudley, Lettice Knollys was banished from court forever. It seems that their lack of affection for each other began long before Lettice became involved with Dudley. In some senses, Dudley and Lettice are sympathetic—each should certainly have been able to marry whom they chose, especially after the queen made it clear she would not be marrying Dudley. However, the more I read about Lettice and her older children, the less likable I found them to be.  

I do have compassion toward her for the loss of her and Dudley’s child, affectionately known as The Noble Imp. I’m sure that was difficult all around. One of Lettice’s other sons, the Earl of Essex, became a favorite, and then a treasonous heartbreak, for Queen Elizabeth toward the end of her life. But that is another story!

Q: One of the most intriguing aspects of Roses Have Thorns is the view it gives of the inner workings of Elizabeth’s private chambers. How important was the role of the ladies in waiting in protecting the queen and keeping her from harm as well as in safeguarding her reputation?  

A: Sleeping arrangements in that era were nothing as private as what we would expect now, and the queen, in particular, always had a maid of honor or one of her ladies sleeping on a small bed in her room. The maid of honor would be there to serve her if the queen needed something in the night, but also to protect her: physically, if someone tried to breach the bedchamber, and from gossip that might insinuate that the virgin queen was not sleeping alone.  

I think the greater role that her ladies played was that of companionship and providing care and affection. As I mention in the Afterword, Elizabeth had no mother, no father, no siblings, no husband, no children, and all of her cousins were in some way rivals for her throne. That made for a lonely and guarded existence, and was one reason, I believe, why she could be somewhat needy and reluctant to let them go.

Q: Elizabeth allowed Catholics the freedom to worship in private. Can she be considered an early proponent of religious freedom? At one point in the story you reveal that the Papal Secretary of State sanctioned the queen’s murder, which is rather shocking. Was it routine or extreme for the Vatican to take this kind of overt action against a monarch?  

A: Elizabeth has always said she had no desire to make windows into men’s souls. In other words, she was willing to let them worship according to their own consciences and inclinations as long as it did not veer into treason. She made it clear that she was born and bred in the Church of England, but as long as her Catholic subjects remained loyal to her politically, she allowed them the freedom of choosing their own religious path. Once an action became a threat to her kingdom, it was a matter of state and not of soul, and she took action.  

The Papal Bull calling for her execution was shocking. It was a time when there were people on both “sides” with pure motivations to protect what they felt was true Christian faith, and people who used the faith issues of the time to gain political power; scratch the surface and they had no good intent. Sorting out which was which was, then as now, difficult. Q: Tell us about your travels to England. What places associated with the Tudors made the greatest impression on you?  

A: All of it felt like a pilgrimage of sorts, to be honest. I loved visiting The Tower, Hampton Court Palace, Allington Castle, and Hever Castle. I have not yet made it to Sudeley, but I will! Standing by the monument in Westminster Abbey where Queen Elizabeth I rests atop Queen Mary I, one can only hope that they are at peace with themselves, and each other, at last. Mary, Queen of Scots, by the way, is interred just down the aisle from them. Q: “They were burning my bones to get out and onto paper,” you remarked in an interview about the Ladies in Waiting stories. Do you plan to keep writing about the Tudor era, or will you venture into another historical time period?  

A: I read dozens of books while writing the Ladies in Waiting books, so for now, I feel satiated with the era. I will continue to read Tudor fiction, because I love it and there are so many skilled novelists writing good books. However, there are other eras and genres in British fiction I am itching to explore as a writer, and I am eager to begin!
Photograph © Studio B Portraits

Award-winning and bestselling author Sandra Byrd has published four dozen books in the fiction and nonfiction markets, including Mist of Midnight, Bride of a Distant Isle (A Romantic Times Book Reviews Top Pick), and her most recent, A Lady in Disguise. For nearly two decades, Sandra has shared her secrets with the many writers she edits, mentors, and coaches. She lives in the Seattle, Washington area.

"In Roses Have Thorns Sandra Byrd has given the reader another amazing heroine to tell the intimate story of England's greatest queen, Elizabeth I. What a unique point of view and deeply moving story Helena von Snakenborg provides. Byrd is especially adept at blending political and private lives. This is a timeless women's friendship novel as well as a poignant love story to cherish—both the roses and the thorns."

– Karen Harper, New York Times bestselling author of Mistress of Mourning

"There is something golden about this tale of Elin, an eager young woman in a strange land, diligent in her duty but alive to love. A tale gracefully told, even as it renders the terrors of treachery that form the crucible of Elin's hard-won wisdom. A heartfelt story of loyalty, longing, life-long friendship, and the many seasons of the heart."

– Barbara Kyle, author of The Queen’s Gamble and BloodBetween Queens

"Beautiful prose and masterful research combine to bring this fascinating tale to life, treating the reader to fully realized characters and providing an original window in which we can view Elizabeth's court. Ms. Byrd's work will stand as an unforgettable contribution to Tudor fiction."

– D.L. Bogdan, author of The Forgotten Queen

"Scandalous gossip! Court intrigue! Forbidden romance! Roses Have Thorns is addictive reading--a guilty pleasure that will transport your heart to the edge of despair and, with a sigh, to the renewal of hope."

– Serena Chase, USA Today's Happy Ever After

"The book spans nearly 24 years, and readers will be very caught up as the story unfolds and they see some of the familiar players of Elizabeth’s court through the eyes of a gentle and affectionate friend to the Queen. With this well written novel, rich in history and everyday court life during the Elizabethan period, I can now count Sandra Byrd as one of my favorite writers of historical fiction."

– Historical Novel Society

More books from this author: Sandra Byrd

More books in this series: Ladies in Waiting