Sorry, but it has to be asked. Did she really remain the ‘Virgin’ Queen? Discussion of the men in her life. Specialist historians weigh in.
ROMANTIC LIFE AND HER FAVORITES
- Robert Dudley was the son of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, who had taken over as guide to King Edward (Elizabeth’s younger half-brother) and tried to get Lady Jane Grey crowned.
- Robert Dudley was Elizabeth’s childhood companion, fellow-prisoner in the Tower during Mary’s reign. When she was crowned, she made him her Master of the Horse. He was athletic in looks and physique. He used soft words and charm. He was flamboyant, fostering “courtly love” in her court.
- In 1560 Catherine Carey, related to Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary, was made a gentlewoman of the Privy Council, when she was barely fifteen. Elizabeth disguised herself and one of Kate’s maid so she could watch Dudley shoot at Windsor.
- In spring 1560 it was rumored that he was visiting her bedchamber night and day. These rumors were built into a scandal by foreign envoys.
- The earl’s wife, Amy Robsart Dudley, died in an accident—she fell down stone spiral stairs on 8 Sep 1560 at Cumnor Place near Oxford. She had two gashes on her skull and a broken neck. The coroner’s jury concluded it was death by “misadventure” or an accident. The jury’s foreman was once the queen’s servant. Dudley knew another juror personally. His agent Thomas Blount dined with two of them.
- Historian David Loades says that Ms. Robsart Dudley had breast cancer, so she may have fallen in her weakened state. No foul play from Dudley.
- But back then, there was no way Elizabeth could marry the earl; it would look unseemly because many believed it was no accident. He orchestrated his wife’s death, behind the scenes, even though he was not there at the time (i.e. he paid to have her bumped off.)
- But the earl and Elizabeth did continue their “indiscreet visits” (Loades 141). Catherine d’ Medici said contemptuously that Elizabeth might marry her horse master!
- In Oct 1562, when she was sick with a fever, soon diagnosed as smallpox, she believed she was about to die. She swore that as God was her witness nothing improper had passed between them. She begged the council that if she died, they would make Dudley the Protector of the realm. They promised, but would not have carried it out if she had died. But she recovered.
- Robert Dudley was created earl of Leicester in the autumn of 1564.
- He was rich. He once paid more for one suit than Shakespeare paid for a house in Stratford-on-Avon.
- At the beginning of 1572 Leicester gave her a jeweled bracelet with a miniature timepiece set it. The queen of England wore the first-ever to wear a wristwatch (Ackroyd 370).
- Marriage was a pressing issue. It came up in the House of Commons in 1559, 1566, and 1566 and the House of Lords in 1563 and 1566. When they pressed too hard, she could lose her temper in private. But in public she replied with “a speech, elegant, conciliatory and evasive” (Loades 145).
- As to her possible marriage, Elizabeth kept the council and suitors (potential marriage partners), both Catholic and Protestant, guessing, as a political tool. Delay tactics and mixed messages kept papal condemnation at bay and Protestant hopes high.
- Her brother-in-law Philip II of Spain offered to marry her, and so did Eric XIV of Sweden.
- Other offers: Archduke Charles of Austria, Henri, Duke of Anjou, and later his brother Francis, Duke of Anjou. The prospect of Elizabeth marrying a Catholic prince kept Catholic hard-liners walking carefully.
- Francis, duke of Anjou, was twenty-one years her junior, but later in her reign, things got serious. But she found him repulsive (!), his having a scarred face from smallpox. He had bandy legs and a deep, gravelly voice. She called him her “frog.” He did not mind because he wanted France, the Netherlands, and England by marriage, to counter Spain. She more often called him Monsieur. She even kissed him and gave him a ring, promising ambiguously to marry him.
- Poem titled On Monsieur’s Departure, the slashes or strokes indicating where lines end:
- I grieve and dare not show my discontent; / I love and yet am forced to seem to hate; / I do, yet dare not say I ever meant; / I seem stark mute, but inwardly do prate … / Some gentler passion slide into my mind, / For I am soft and made of melting snow … / Or let me live with some more sweet content, / Or die and so forget what love e’er meant. (qtd. in Borman, 2016, 339).
- But she turned him down after much soul-searching. In 1584, the duke died of a fever in the Netherlands after a miserable campaign.
- The queen cried for days afterwards, but she also danced a jig of joy privately. Confused
- And of course Robert Dudley was a potential match. She was the only man she loved. Her special name for him was “Eyes” or “Lids” as in eyelids. In one personal letter to him, she drew eyes, like so: ȏȏ. People saw her several times kissing him.
- But marrying him was too risky because the queen could not be shown to favor one aristocratic family over another, risking a civil war. And his wife’s suspicions made it impossible—the queen could not be sullied by scandal.
- Also, Leicester began an affair and had a son, Robert, with Lady Sheffield. And he had an affair with a real beauty of the court, the widow of Walter Devereux, the 1st earl of Essex. Her name was Lettice Knollys, ten years younger than the queen, but who looked uncannily like the queen.
- The earl of Leicester and Lettice married in Sep 1578. The queen was filled with rage and sorrow. She boxed Lettice’s ears. Kicked her out of court. “As but one sun lightened the earth, she would have but one Queen in England!” (qtd. in Borman, 2016, 337).
- But as time dragged on, she could handle the betrayal, but only if Lettice lived in the country and came nowhere near her court.
- On 4 Sep 1588 Leicester died of the ague fever, a strain of malaria. He was a casualty of the conflict in the Spanish Netherlands. Only Elizabeth shed tears for him. She kept the last letter she wrote him in a little casket. He was her “Rob” or “Sweet Robin.”
- Leicester’s death opened the door to a young man, twenty-two when the Armada was defeated (partly by a storm) or chased off in 1588.
- It was Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex, who became her favorite. He was born in 1566, the son of Walter Devereux, viscount Hereford, who was created earl of Essex in 1572. Robert took an M.A. from Trinity College, Oxford. He was intelligent—as was Elizabeth. He could keep up with her.
- He was the ward of Lord Burghley (William Cecil), who took him in when Sir Walter died in Ireland. Then the earl of Leicester married Walter’s widow (see above). So the young Devereux had a double advantage in Elizabeth’s eyes—favored by Burghley and stepson to Robert Dudley.
- He was gallant, striking poses and reviving old fashioned courtly love, to which Elizabeth responded well. Flirtatious. She enjoyed it.
- But he lacked character. Essex lost his temper several times in front of the queen. Once, she boxed his ears for doing so, and he reached for this sword hilt, a capital offense. He was dragged out of her presence. He muttered loud enough for her to hear: “Her conditions were as crooked as her carcass.” Insulting the queen’s appearance? A big no-no. He was arrogant and unstable.
- Incompetence: In Normandy, Essex was there to help French King Henri IV, but Essex was a bad military leader. Yet he flattered and wheedled his way back into her grace. He went on other failed military expeditions in search of glory.
- Essex implicated the queen’s doctor, Rodrigo Lopez, a Jew, in a poison plot, but she did not believe the earl at first. But he badgered the good doctor and presented some evidence—false though it was—and the doctor was executed, proclaiming his innocence and his love for the queen.
- Leicester went to the Netherlands, but only after Elizabeth wavered, to accept the title of Lieutenant-General.
- While there, he accepted the title of Governor-General, without the queen’s permission. This embroiled her into the conflict more deeply than she wanted. She was angry and sued for peace with Spain.
- In 1585 Dudley sent her the intimate gift of a nightgown of tawny velvet lined with carnation unshorn velvet. This would keep her warm at night, if he couldn’t.
- Dudley wrote her a brief note, referring to himself as “your poor old servant.” He thanked her medicine she had sent him, asking for her health in return. It ends with “I humbly kiss your foot” (qtd. in Borman, 2016, 351).
- In 1596-97 the aging queen pummeled two sexually precocious maids of honor, Bess Brydges and Bess Russell, who sneaked through the private galleries to secretly watch the earl of Essex play tennis. The queen may have believed they took a “physic” (medicine) or precoital suppository contraceptives with them. She showered them “with words and blows of anger.” (Never mind that she disguised herself as a maid to watch Leicester shoot at Windsor in 1560. Queens can do what they like.)
- In 1597 the queen elevated Essex to Earl Marshal, which put him in charge of the College of Arms. He was the chief officer of organizing royal coronations, marriages, christenings and funerals. He did not need to supervise any of those things, but the position gave him seating precedence over the earl of Nottingham in the seating arrangements in the House of Lords.
- In Mar 1599 the earl went to Ireland with 16,000 men to crush Tyrone’s revolt (see below). He disobeyed the queen’s orders. On 24 Sep he sailed back to England, when the queen ordered him to stay with his men. He knighted various men, when the queen believed she alone had the authority to do that.
- One day the earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, burst into her private room, when she was not yet dressed and without makeup, which her women applied to disguise the wrinkles and blemishes of old age. She did not have her wig on, but wispy gray hair hung around her face. Essex or any man was never meant to see her like that. He kneeled and kissed her hand. But was it a coup, she wondered? Apparently not.
- As to her appearance, when Essex barged in, some speculate that the reason the queen favored the huge collars that covered her neck is that the blemishes there were particularly visible.
- In any case, the rift between queen and earl was growing. The council called him to account for all his foolishness. Essex was even placed under house arrest supposedly for treason or at least lese-majesty. He was put on trial in the court of Star Chamber on 13 Feb 1600.
- Meanwhile his rival Robert Cecil went on running the country. Growing up, both of them had been wards of Lord Burghley. While Essex was more athletic and outdoorsy than diminutive Cecil, the latter outsmarted him politically.
- She released Essex shortly after the trial began, but she canceled his sweet wine monopoly, when it was due for its ten-year renewal in that year.
- She banished him from her court. They never saw each other again. Now he was desperate, for he was in huge debt.
- Cecil would not stop there. He looked for evidence against him. It was not hard to find. He ignored calls to appear before the queen’s council. He believed he might be murdered on the way there by another rival, Sir Walter Ralegh, who had risen fast in Elizabeth’s court.
- In late 1600 and early 1601, his paranoia and desperation grew. He finally threw the dice. He revolted, shouting, “England is sold to Spain!” He tried to stir up London to join him.
- His men ordered that Shakespeare’s play Richard II be performed, which shows Henry Bolingbroke deposing corrupt King Richard II.
- Sometime in the rapid-moving events Elizabeth is reported to have said, “I am Richard II! Know ye not that?” She added: “He that will forget God will also forget his benefactors; this tragedy was forty times played in open streets and houses!”
- “He” refers to Essex, and “benefactors” refers to Elizabeth, who had benefited and raised him up for a long time. But most Londoners did not follow his summons to help him.
- He was arrested and executed six days later on 25 Feb 1601. She reportedly sat in the dark, “shedding tears to bewail Essex” (qtd. Woodbridge and James 251).
- Essex was responsible for his own death, but Elizabeth played him and provoked him and indulged his extravagances and instability. He was not like Dudley, who was stable. She should have recognized Essex’s childishness.
MODERN HISTORIANS AND SEX
- David Starkey on her and Robert Dudley and sex: “Did Elizabeth surrender and have sexual relations? She denied it absolutely—just as she denied it with [Thomas] Seymour [her stepfather]. On the other hand, powerful rumor accused her. Perhaps a Clintonesque formula will square the circle. Dudley had sex with her, but she did not have it with him” (Starkey 315, who published his book in 2000, so Clinton’s White House affair was fresh on people’s minds).
- Historian David Loades on whether Elizabeth and Leicester (Robert Dudley) ever had sex: “It was almost certainly never consummated” (p. xiv).Then he writes: “The queen resumed her indiscreet visits” (141) after Robert Dudley was thought to be responsible for his wife’s death.
- John Guy on sex with Dudley: “And there can be no doubts about Elizabeth’s romantic feelings for him. She was several times seen kissing him, and when she had invested him as Earl of Leicester, in 1564, the French and Scottish ambassadors had caught her tickling his chin” (48).
- Guy again: When she thought she was dying of small pox, she declared that although she “had always loved Lord Robert dearly, as God was her witness, nothing improper had ever passed between them” (45). Guy says that very few were convinced in her day.
- Tracy Borman: “But while Elizabeth may have enjoyed some physical intimacy with her new favorite, the likelihood of her having risked full sexual intercourse is remote. Elizabeth had fought too hard for her throne to throw it away on the discovery of an illicit affair or, worse, an unwanted pregnancy. Her authority would never have recovered from such a scandal, particularly as she was already battling against the slur of illegitimacy” (2016, 279). Ms. Borman points out other reasons, notably that Elizabeth was surrounded by ladies-in-waiting and attendants, some of whom slept right near the door to her bedchamber and even in her chamber. If she had been having an affair, surely it would have leaked out. It never did.
- In her chapter regina intacta, Anna Whitelock affirms the claims of the courtiers that she never had sex (344-48).
- Susan Doran doubts she had sex: “Most serious historians today think it is most unlikely that Elizabeth and Leicester had a full sexual relationship. The two certainly flirted and may have gone further, but intercourse was far too dangerous for Elizabeth to contemplate” (p. 142).
- Helen Castor proclaims the queen’s virginity: “Now, in her mid-fifties, with the last of her courtships a receding memory and all thought of marriage gone, her virginity was no longer contingent but permanent. Now, she was not a virgin queen, but the Virgin Queen” (82, emphasis original).
ARTICLES IN THE TUDORS SERIES
Henry VIII, Part 1: Divorce from Catherine of Aragon
Henry VIII, Part 2: Marriages after His Divorce
Henry VIII, Part 3: Reformation and National Policies
Henry VIII, Part 4: International Policies
Henry VIII, Part 5: Personal Life, Death and Conclusions
Jane Grey, Queen of Nine Days
Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen
Elizabeth, Part 1: The Early Years
Elizabeth, Part 2: Sibling Rivalry with Queen Mary
Elizabeth I, Part 3: The Coronation
Elizabeth I, Part 4: Mary Queen of Scots
Elizabeth I, Part 5: Reformation and International Policies
Elizabeth I, Part 6: Personal Life
Elizabeth I, Part 7: Her Male Favorites
Elizabeth I, Part 8: Summary and Passing
Peter Ackroyd, Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I (New York: Thomas Dunne / St. Martin’s, 2012).
Stephen Alford, Edward VI: The Last Boy King, Penguin Monarch Series (Allen Lane / Penguin, 2014).
Tracy Borman, The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secret’s of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty (New York: Grover P, 2016).
—, Elizabeth’s Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen (Bantam 2009).
Gerald Bray, ed. Documents of the English Reformation, (Fortress, 1994)
Helen Castor, She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth (Harper Collins, 2011).
John Cooper, The Queen’s Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England (Pegasus, 2012).
Ian Crofton, The Kings and Queens of England (New York: Metro Books, 2006).
Susan Doran, Elizabeth I and Her Circle (Oxford UP, 2015).
—, Elizabeth I and Foreign, 1558-1603 (Routledge, 2000).
—, Elizabeth and Religion, 1558-1603 (Routledge 1993).
J.. D. Douglas, “Elizabethan Settlement (1559),” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J. D. Douglas (Zondervan, 1974).
John Edwards, Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen (New Haven, Yale UP, 2011).
—, Mary I: The Daughter of Time, Penguin Monarch Series (Allen Lane / Penguin, 2016).
John Guy, Henry VIII: The Quest for Fame, Penguin Monarch Series (Allen Lane / Penguin, 2014).
—, Elizabeth: The Later Years (Penguin, 2016)
Christopher Haigh, Elizabeth I: Profiles in Power, 2nd ed. (Pearson Education, 1998).
Judith John, A Dark History: Tudors: Murder, Adultery, Incest, Witchcraft, Wars, Religious Persecution, Piracy (Metro, 2014).
Jennifer Loach, Edward VI, edited by George Bernard and Penry Williams, Yale English Monarchs (New Haven: Yale UP, 1999).
David Loades, Elizabeth I (New York: Hambledon, 2006).
—, Chronicle of the Tudor Queens (Sutton 2002).
Stephen J. Lee, The Reign of Elizabeth I, 1558-1603 (Routledge 2007).
G.. J. Meyer, The Tudors: The Most Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty (Bantam, 2011).
P.. W. Petty, “Elizabeth I (1533-1603),” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J. D. Douglas (Zondervan, 1974).
Charles Philips, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Royal Britain (New York: Metro Books, 2009).
J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, new edition, Yale English Monarchs (New Haven: Yale UP, 1997).
Ian Sellers, “Uniformity, Acts of,” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J. D. Douglas (Zondervan, 1974).
David Starkey, Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne (New York: Harper Collins, 2001 [in England in 2000]).
Anna Whitelock, Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court (Bloomsbury 2013).
John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James, Church History from Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: the Rise and the Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual and Political Context, vol. 2, (Zondervan, 2013).