Queen Elizabeth I of England realised that staying single would allow her to be a true queen and preserve her nation, rather than sharing her life with a man who would seek to usurp her power. She could see as a child how her sister, Queen Mary I, and her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, had ruined their chances at power by marrying men with their own agendas.

As a young girl, Elizabeth must have learnt that childbirth in 15th-century England was perilous, and that marriage, like her father King Henry VIII’s, was both dangerous and humiliating.

But how could a passionate young queen, 25 at the time of her accession to the English throne and drawn to appealing, handsome men, resist the need to get to know a man and enjoy his pleasures?

Despite this, the queen had connections with men, the most famous of which was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who has been the subject of numerous books, novels, plays, and films over the years. However, there is no solid evidence that she was sexually involved with them.

So, in the course of this article, we’ll see if one of England’s greatest queens truly lived and died as a virgin. You can watch the video here.

Elizabeth I’s Reign

As a young woman of only 25 years old, Elizabeth I took the throne on November 17, 1558. By the time Elizabeth gave her first speech to Parliament in early 1559, she had decided that it would be enough for her to “live and die a virgin.”

elizabeth I
Elizabeth I (September 7, 1533 – March 24, 1603) was Queen of England and Ireland from November 17, 1558, until her death on March 24, 1603. Sometimes called the Virgin Queen, Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor/Wikipedia.

Elizabeth did, in fact, die in this manner on March 24, 1603. She was 69 years old at the time. We’ll look at several major events leading up to Elizabeth’s succession to see why a young lady of 25 could make such a bold statement just months after becoming queen, especially since her very responsibility as a female monarch was to marry and produce an heir.

Elizabeth’s Understanding of Marriage

To truly comprehend Elizabeth’s perspective on marriage, it’s probably best to start with her immediate family’s example.

King Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, married a total of six wives, all of whom were divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, and survived.

Elizabeth’s own mother, Anne Boleyn, was killed for treason and adultery on May 19, 1536, when Elizabeth was two years and three months old.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, was fully aware of her stepmother Catherine Howard’s execution on February 13, 1542, while being too young to comprehend the “speed and gravity of Queen Anne’s demise.” She was eight years old at the time.

Catherine’s father “refused even to let her plead in her own defense” after she was arrested. Two of Elizabeth’s four other stepmothers were divorced and abandoned, one died in childbirth, and the other barely lived due to an insinuation of suspected heresy months before her own father, King Henry VIII died.

As a result, Elizabeth’s feelings on marriage in relation to her father’s marriages can only be linked to dissatisfaction or death, whether through childbirth or beheading.

Mary I, Elizabeth’s older half-sister, fared a little better in her own marriage to the future Philip II of Spain, whom she married on July 25, 1554.

Felipe_of_Spain_and_MariaTudor
Mary I and Philip, during whose reign Elizabeth was heir presumptive/Wikimedia Commons.

Despite this, the marriage did not work out, because “despite Mary’s strong love for Philip, he found her repulsive.”

Despite Mary’s anticipatory hopes during her phantom pregnancies that she would give birth to the longed-for Catholic heir, the union produced no offspring. Mary never saw Philip again after he returned to Spain.

Elizabeth I: Love Life and Suitors

When Elizabeth succeeded Mary on November 17, 1558, Philip was the first to propose his hand in marriage, despite the fact that Elizabeth would have needed a dispensation to marry her late sister’s husband.

However, Elizabeth was wary of repeating her sister’s tragic error of marrying a Catholic foreign prince.

By the time of Elizabeth’s accession, the country had been impoverished by Spain’s rash wars and humiliated by the loss of Calais, resulting in an almost empty Treasury.

It was for this reason that Elizabeth’s councillors argued in 1579 when she considered marrying Frances, Duke of Alencon, a Catholic French prince.

The English were always distrustful of foreign males and their Continental ways, therefore their xenophobic fears were widely shared inside the country.

Elizabeth’s first love affair did not endear her to the state of matrimony either. Following her father’s death on January 28, 1547, and the accession of the nine-year-old boy king Edward VI, Elizabeth was given to her stepmother, Catherine Parr, where she quickly attracted the interest of her stepmother’s new husband, Thomas Seymour.

Elizabeth was dutifully sent away when the very pregnant Catherine Parr became aware of her husband and stepdaughter’s amorous behavior in early 1548.

edward vi
Edward VI (12 October 12, 1537 – July 6, 1553) was the King of England and Ireland from January 28, 1547, until his death on July 6, 1553. He was crowned on February 20, 1547, at the age of nine/Wikimedia Commons.

Catherine died in childbirth just a few months later, on September 5, 1548, and Thomas was free to marry the 15-year-old princess.

However, Thomas was quickly embroiled in a power struggle with his brother, Lord Protector Edward Seymour, and on March 20, 1549, he was condemned to death on charges of treason.

No evidence was produced against Elizabeth and her servants regarding their participation with Thomas Seymour and his purported plan to marry her. Elizabeth saw this early brush with love and flirtation, as well as all the perils that came with it, as a warning sign that marriage could lead to self-destruction.

Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley

Of course, Elizabeth I had multiple opportunities to marry during her reign, the most notable of which was to her great favorite, Robert Dudley.

On September 8, 1560, however, the strange murder of Robert’s wife, Amy Robsart, essentially put a stop to this idea.

Because it was widely believed that Dudley had “instigated the death of his troublesome wife,” Elizabeth was a competent enough politician to know that if she married him, her people would revolt.

Seven years later, Mary, Queen of Scots married James, 4th Earl of Bothwell, whom the Scots suspected of murdering her second husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, only weeks before.

Henry_VIII_and_Anne_Boleyn
Elizabeth’s parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Anne was executed within three years of Elizabeth’s birth/Wikimedia Commons.

As a result, the Scots revolted, forcing Mary to abdicate and hand over the throne to her 13-month-old son, now James VI. Despite their closeness, Elizabeth’s judgment in not marrying Robert Dudley in 1560 is demonstrated by this dramatic chain of events in Scotland.

Reign as a Virgin Queen

Rumours of Elizabeth’s romance with Robert Dudley, her “dear Robin” whom she had known since infancy, began to circulate early in her reign. Elizabeth appointed Dudley as master of the horse within days after her accession, a position that guaranteed virtually daily contact.

The pair’s affinity to one another drew a lot of attention, and their flirty behavior surprised many people.

When Amy Robsart, Robert Dudley’s wife, was discovered with her neck broken at the bottom of a staircase in 1560, gossip about the queen and her favourite was rife.

Their close relationship remained in the years that followed, but any hopes of a future marriage were abandoned.

Elizabeth’s counselors were adamant about finding her a suitable husband, both to strengthen England’s status in Europe and to create an heir to succeed her.

Elizabeth_I_in_coronation_robes
Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, patterned with Tudor roses and trimmed with ermine, painted c.1600/Wikimedia Commons.

There were many suitors, including Philip II of Spain, Erik XIV of Sweden, and the Archdukes Ferdinand and Charles of Austria, but none of them were able to gain the queen’s favour or the unanimous support of her council.

While international negotiations were ongoing, Elizabeth I was courted by young male courtiers such as Thomas Heneage, Christopher Hatton, and Walter Raleigh, as well as later Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who all charmed their way into the queen’s favor.

However, Robert Dudley remained the queen’s first and most likely only and last love.

Elizabeth I and Francois, Duke of Anjou

Following Dudley’s marriage to Lettice Devereux, dowager countess of Essex in the autumn of 1578, Elizabeth brought Francois, duke of Anjou, brother of the king of France, to the English court to file his application for marriage the following year, in 1579.

It wasn’t a perfect match. Anjou was a Catholic in his twenties who was generally suspected of being a transvestite, or what we now call a crossdresser.

Nonetheless, Elizabeth I had always wished to be courted in person by one of her distinguished suitors, and for a time, she appeared sincere in her feelings for Anjou, whom she affectionately referred to as her “frog.”

Anjou returned to France after a few weeks, and discussions looked to stutter in the face of public resistance to the match; nonetheless, Anjou returned to England in October 1581.

Princess Elizabeth
A rare portrait of Elizabeth prior to her accession, attributed to William Scrots. It was painted for her father c.1546/Wikimedia Commons.

He had continued to write love letters to the queen since his previous visit, in which he conveyed his wishes.

Elizabeth I was fascinated and enraptured by Anjou’s presence upon his arrival in London, and on November 22, 1581, when the court gathered at Whitehall to celebrate Accession Day festivities, the queen stated in public that she wished to marry him.

She then gave him her ring and kissed him on the lips. Elizabeth, on the other hand, had second thoughts overnight and stated the following day that she would not marry Anjou.

The collapse of the French match put an end to Elizabeth’s ambitions of marrying, but she continued to seek the attention of her male courtiers as she grew older and more solitary.

Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux

Elizabeth’s final major fling was with Robert Devereux, the youthful Earl of Essex and stepson of Robert Dudley.

Despite their age difference, the nature of their connection was once again questioned. He became a master of the horse quickly and moved into his stepfather’s court apartments.

This was, however, a different kind of connection than Elizabeth’s with Dudley, and it was more about an ageing woman’s wish to be made to feel youthful and desirable by a handsome young courtier.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I
The Pelican Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard. The pelican was thought to nourish its young with its own blood and served to depict Elizabeth I as the “mother of the Church of England”/Wikimedia Commons.

Elizabeth I, on the other hand, was never so overcome by emotion that she lost sight of political reality. She ordered Essex’s execution in 1601, after what she perceived to be an attempted coup against her.

Elizabeth I: A Life

Elizabeth I died unmarried in 1603, at the age of nearly 70, and was hailed as England’s famous Virgin Queen. Her death, on the other hand, simply helped to fuel rumours about her personal life. In the years that followed, there was a growing perception that Elizabeth’s private feelings had endangered the integrity of her rule, and the questioning of her virginity was no longer isolated to hostile Catholic debate.

In life, Elizabeth and the ladies of the bedchamber had fought hard to maintain her body’s chastity in order to protect her reputation and crown. Even after her death, the notion that she was not chaste continues to captivate, ensuring Elizabeth’s popularity and attraction.

In summary, because of the different marriage experiences she had already had within her close family, Elizabeth had already decided on her succession that she would live and die a virgin.

Early in her reign, her flirtations with Robert Dudley, her true love, were tainted by the strange murder of his own wife.

This acted as a stark reminder to Elizabeth of the perils of love, particularly after her youthful brush with Thomas Seymour.

The unfortunate choice of husbands made by Mary, Queen of Scots, and the loss of her crown and freedom, as a result, showed Elizabeth that a ruler, especially a female ruler, ought to be more cautious in her consort selection.

Elizabeth I had to demonstrate that a female monarch could rule efficiently, despite the claims of contemporaries like John Knox that female monarchy was immoral, wicked, and evil.

Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait)
Portrait commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada depicted in the background. Elizabeth’s hand rests on the globe, symbolising her international power. One of three known versions of the “Armada Portrait”/Wikimedia Commons.

These occurrences during Elizabeth’s reign most likely reinforced her decision not to marry and to support her earlier decision, made in 1559 as a new, young queen, that it was wisest to live and die as a virgin.

Elizabeth I: A Virgin Queen

It would be pure guesswork to say whether Queen Elizabeth I of England was a virgin queen or not. Because a physical examination is obviously not an option, that type of conclusive evidence is not available.

Elizabeth claimed to be a virgin, although there have been rumors over the centuries, especially among her critics, that she was not. Speculations, on the other hand, are not proof of this enduring question.

Funeral of Elizabeth I of England
Elizabeth I’s funeral cortège, 1603, with banners of her royal ancestors/Wikimedia Commons.

If anyone else knew, they were discreet and capable of keeping a secret. Even if we had a contemporaneous assertion that she was not a virgin, the question of whether we could believe that source and what incentives they might have had for lying about it would remain.

It’s been more than 400 years since the queen died. So, does her virginity make a difference now?

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Sources

HistoryExtra, (2020, September 7). 7 things you (probably) didn’t know about Elizabeth I. Retrieved from https://www.historyextra.com/period/elizabethan/7-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-elizabeth-i/

HistoryExtra, (2019, January 31). Elizabeth I’s love life: was she really a ‘Virgin Queen’? Retrieved from https://www.historyextra.com/period/elizabethan/elizabeth-i-love-life-was-she-virgin-queen-robert-dudley-earl-essex/

HistoryIsNowMagazine, (n.d). Queen Elizabeth I of England: Was she Really the ‘Virgin Queen’? Retrieved from http://www.historyisnowmagazine.com/blog/2020/5/11/queen-elizabeth-i-of-england-was-she-really-the-virgin-queen#.YUrJS7hKhPY=

Newport, S. (n.d). The Love Life of Queen Elizabeth I. Retrieved from https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Love-Life-of-the-Virgin-Queen/

Royal Museums Greenwich, (n.d). Queen Elizabeth I facts and myths. Retrieved from https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/queen-elizabeth-i-facts-myths

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