ELIZABETH I–THE VIRGIN QUEEN?
by Alison Weir
She was one of the most famous flirts in history–men were attracted to her like moths to a flame, not only because of who she was, but also because of her undoubted personal charisma. Yet Elizabeth I, who was Queen of England from 1558 to 1603, was celebrated in her own time, and is remembered today, as the Virgin Queen, an image she consciously promoted.
She was one of the greatest rulers that England has ever had, and certainly one of the best loved. She deliberately set out to court the goodwill and affection of her subjects, asserting that she was the careful mother of her people. Despite all the vicissitudes of fortune, she retained their good opinions, and at the end of her reign was able to say to Parliament, ‘Though God hath raised me high, this I account the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves.’
I have studied the history of the British monarchy for over thirty years now, and at least ten of those years have been spent in researching Elizabeth I and trying to discover what she was really like as a person. Certainly, over time, she did come to life very vividly for me, and it was easy to forget that she had been in her grave for nearly four hundred years. She is easily the most fascinating and charismatic woman I have ever had the good fortune to write about.
Happily, the publication of my book, The Life of Elizabeth I, coincided–by accident rather than design–with a revival of interest in Elizabeth and her age, which was largely due to the issue of two films, the splendid Shakespeare in Love and the highly controversial Elizabeth. These prompted the reprinting of several older biographies and a major television series.
Many people have in their minds images of Elizabeth of which she would have heartily approved: the royal icon of the Armada years, or the Virgin Queen of the poets who presided over the England of Shakespeare and Raleigh. Yet there was far more to her than this, as I discovered to my delight, for as my researches progressed, a very different human being emerged. Elizabeth was a strong-minded, intelligent, flirtatious and sexy woman with a wickedly mischievous streak. She drove men mad, in every sense.
Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII by his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who was executed in 1536 after having been accused, probably falsely, of plotting the death of the King and committing adultery with five men, one her own brother. Elizabeth was not quite three at the time, and we know nothing of when or how she found out what had happened to her mother. Post-Freudian historians have endlessly speculated as to the extent of the psychological damage this discovery must have caused, even going so far as to suggest that this was the reason why Elizabeth never married, but in fact there is hardly any contemporary evidence to support these theories and we should be careful not to rely on them too heavily.
Elizabeth never did take a husband. She played what became known as ‘the marriage game’ with shrewdness and prevarication, keeping her many suitors, both political and personal, in a permanent state of high expectations. This was of supreme benefit to her realm, since foreign princes, who might have otherwise been aggressive, remained friendly in anticipation of a marriage alliance. Yet, almost always at the last minute, the Queen would find some good excuse for wriggling out of the arrangement. Some of these matrimonial negotiations dragged on for years: Elizabeth kept a French duke and the Archduke Charles of Austria on a string for over a decade in each case, blowing repeatedly hot and cold, to the great exasperation of her male advisers, who all understood the desperate need for a male heir to safeguard the continuation of the Tudor line.
On a personal level, the evidence strongly suggests that Elizabeth had an aversion to marriage for three reasons. Firstly, having witnessed the bitter and tangled breakdowns of several marriages within her own family, she did not see wedlock as a secure state; furthermore, she feared the factional controversy it might provoke
Secondly, as she told Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the man who she probably loved more than any other, she had no intention of sharing sovereign power: ‘I will have but one mistress here and no master!’ Many women today will sympathise with her determination to retain full control over her life and her desire to have relationships with men without subsuming herself to them in marriage. We may draw a parallel between the modern woman’s pursuit of a career and Elizabeth’s jealous guarding of the autonomy of her position: queenship was her ‘career’. She took it enormously seriously, and was not prepared to relinquish any vestige of her power for the sake of a man, however much she might love him. Nor did she wish to interrupt it to bear children. In many ways, hers was a very modern dilemma.
Thirdly, and most important of all, we must remember that in Tudor times, monarchs were regarded as holding supreme dominion over the state and their subjects. Yet at the same time, a husband was deemed to hold supreme dominion over his wife. A queen regnant was still a novelty in England, and her position was virtually irreconcilable with the married state. Elizabeth’s own sister, Mary I, had made a disastrous and unpopular marriage with Philip II of Spain, who, expecting to play the traditional superior role as her husband, had chafed against his wife’s attempts to assert her regal authority. Elizabeth had no intention of embroiling herself in such a difficult relationship.
‘I am already married to an husband, and that is the kingdom of England,’ she was fond of declaring. She solved the dilemma over her marital future by taking a courageous decision, revolutionary for her time, not to marry or have heirs of her body. Nevertheless, as ‘the best match in her parish’, she dissembled brilliantly over this issue and exploited to the full her marriageability, using it as a political weapon to the best advantage of her realm.
Elizabeth never married, but was she the Virgin Queen she claimed to be? This question was being asked soon after her accession, and scurrilous rumours were rife throughout her reign, fuelled by Elizabeth’s own behaviour, which was often condemned by her own subjects as scandalous. She would allow Leicester to enter her bedchamber to hand her her shift while her maids were dressing her. She was espied at her window in a state of undress on at least one occasion, and in old age, wearing a low-cut gown that exposed her wrinkled body almost to the navel, she had a French ambassador squirming with embarrassment for two hours during a private audience. The poor man afterwards declared that he had not known where to look.
Yet many ambassadors, at the behest of prospective foreign husbands, made exhaustive inquiries as to whether or not the Queen was chaste, and in every case they concluded that she was. She herself could not understand why there should be so many racy tales about her or claims that she had borne bastard children, some of which are still, amazingly, believed today.
‘I do not live in a corner,’ she told a Spanish envoy. ‘A thousand eyes see all I do, and calumny will not fasten on me for ever.’ A French ambassador who knew her well claimed that the rumours were ‘sheer inventions of the malicious to put off those who would have found an alliance with her useful’. Perhaps most tellingly of all, in 1562, when Elizabeth believed she was dying of smallpox and was about to face Divine Judgement, she spoke of her notorious relationship with Robert Dudley, and swore before witnesses that nothing improper had ever passed between them. Given the religious convictions of the sixteenth century, which are hard for our modern secular society to comprehend, it is unlikely that anyone would have jeopardised their immortal soul by telling such a lie at such a time.
Rumour, however, accused Elizabeth of worse than fornication. In 1560, at a time when Dudley’s affair with the Queen was becoming notorious, his wife, Amy Robsart, was found dead, her neck broken, at the foot of a flight of stairs in a remote country house. Dudley was away at court at the time, but the finger of suspicion pointed at both him and the Queen.
The modern theory is that Amy’s death resulted, not from murder, but from a spontaneous fracture that can occur in someone in the advanced stages of breast cancer. The fact remains, however, that her death was all too convenient. Not for Dudley, who realised immediately that it had put paid to his hopes of ever marrying the Queen, for rumour had long accused him of plotting his wife’s demise, and he knew very well that Elizabeth would not dare risk proclaiming herself guilty by association by marrying him, for to do so might well cost her her insecure throne.
Nor, certainly, was Amy’s death convenient for Elizabeth, who seems to have been dismayed to realise that her lover was now a free man. In fact, the only person who benefited personally was someone else very close to the throne, who may well have felt that Amy’s death was necessary for Elizabeth’s security–and his own. This was William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, who served the Queen faithfully for over forty years, and of whom it was said, ‘No prince in Europe had such a counsellor.’
Cecil, who had begun the reign as Elizabeth’s most trusted adviser, had recently been ousted from her confidence by the ascendant Dudley, a man whose influence Cecil regarded as pernicious. Cecil’s behaviour in the days before Amy Dudley’s death was suspiciously uncharacteristic. The Queen had confided, probably correctly, to the Spanish ambassador that Amy was dying, but Cecil made it his business to take the ambassador aside and deny this, asserting that Dudley was plotting to do away with his wife. Immediately after the murder, when Dudley, the object of widespread accusations and gossip, was banished from court pending the outcome of the inquest that would clear his name, Cecil was restored to high favour. Elizabeth had been saved from contemplating a disastrous marriage. The evidence for Cecil’s involvement in Amy’s death is purely circumstantial, but it is not inconceivable that he was behind a government attempt to frame the favourite.
For many years afterwards, people speculated that Elizabeth really would marry Dudley. She was closer to him than to any other man, and their relationship endured for over thirty years, when it was cruelly ended by his death, which plunged Elizabeth into grief during her hour of triumph after the vanquishing of the Spanish Armada. Undoubtedly, Dudley was the great love of Elizabeth’s life, despite the fact that he made two secret marriages with other women during the course of their relationship.
Dudley aside, Elizabeth had many other suitors. She was courted not only by Imperial Princes but also by the Kings of France and Sweden; the King of Denmark’s ambassador went about her court wearing a heart embroidered on his doublet, while English noblemen vied for her favour, lavishing ruinous sums on great houses in which to entertain her and magnificent suits of clothing in which to dazzle her. The sexy French Duke of Anjou came to England twice in the hope of winning the Queen’s love; his presence at court was supposed to be a secret, and he was obliged to observe a ball from behind a curtain, but since Elizabeth danced with outrageous abandon and kept waving in his direction, few were deceived. Tongues would have wagged more furiously had it been known that she had visited the Duke’s bedchamber and brought him breakfast in bed. Like her other courtships, it all ended, of course, in disappointment. Anjou was so ardent and determined that the Queen had to pay him to go away. She was in her late forties by then, and wept publicly in Council, knowing that she had given up her last chance of marriage and motherhood.
Towards the end of her life, she enjoyed a curious and volatile relationship with the dashing and headstrong Earl of Essex, who was thirty years her junior. She may, in part, have looked on him as the son she never had, although he, like Leicester and many others before him, played the adoring lover. But soon the adoration turned to contempt for his elderly inamorata, and when, in 1601, the jealous, power-hungry Essex led a revolt against the Queen’s ministers, she did not hesitate to have him executed.
She was not so decisive when it came to her cousin and life-long rival, Mary, Queen of Scots. The beautiful Mary, who had been deposed by her own subjects and unwisely sought aid in England, was instead kept a prisoner by Elizabeth for nineteen years. Acknowledged by Catholic Europe to be the true Queen of England, while Elizabeth, who had re-established the Protestant Anglican Church, was seen as an illegitimate and heretical observer, Mary spent her time in captivity plotting against her cousin’s life and throne. Yet Elizabeth consistently refused to heed the pleas of her advisers to put Mary to death. Mary, she was aware, was an anointed sovereign, like herself: to execute her would set a dangerous precedent. Yet when, finally, Mary’s undeniably sinister intentions towards her were exposed with the uncovering of the Babington Plot in 1586, Elizabeth’s hand was forced, although she agonised for weeks before signing the death warrant, and after Mary’s execution claimed that she had not authorised its issue. Her distress was terrible to witness, and in her desperate need to exonerate herself from blame, she punished her councillors. Her secretary was sent to the Tower of London.
We know a great deal about Elizabeth as a person. She was formidably intelligent and well-educated, and left behind a vast amount of letters, poems and speeches, all composed by herself. She was a fine orator. There are hundreds of surviving portraits of her, although most conform to the official image painted when the Queen was in her early thirties, which flatteringly depicts her as an eternally young woman. It is therefore hard to assess what she looked like as she grew older.
She was passionate about hunting, dancing, music and walks in the fresh air. She was also excessively vain, and owned three thousand dresses, many richly embroidered and bejewelled. She had, unusually for her time, bathrooms with piped water and mirrored walls in most of her palaces, as well as portable travelling baths, which all suggests that she had far more than the three or four baths a year with which historians usually credit her. She also had one of the first modern water closets installed at Richmond Palace towards the end of her reign.
The Queen had a wicked sense of humor. At Robert Dudley’s solemn creation as Earl of Leicester, she mischievously tickled his neck as she fastened on his mantle of nobility. On the other hand, her rages were terrible: one councillor declared he would have preferred to fight the King of Spain than face the Queen in a temper. This temper was famously evident when Puritan preachers dared to rebuke her for swearing or sartorial extravagance, or when the text of a sermon was not to her liking. It was not beyond her to stamp out of the chapel in a rage.
Her indomitable spirit carried her into old age. At sixty-seven, ‘the Head of the Church of England was to be seen dancing three or four galliards’ each morning. When, at the same age, she suggested another royal progress, following on from earlier long journeys travelling through her kingdom to be seen and entertained by her subjects, there were groans of protest from her courtiers, so she blithely declared that the old could stay behind whilst the younger courtiers came with her. She had a terror of being regarded as aged and infirm, fearing that her authority and position as queen might thereby be undermined.
Elizabeth’s physicians and others were of the opinion that her death at the age of sixty-nine was avoidable. Her final illness began with what were probably ulcers in her throat and deteriorated into perhaps either tonsillitis or influenza, but she steadfastly refused to take any medicines or even, for days on end, to go to bed, obstinately remaining on cushions on the floor, sunk in a deep depression. She had told her people, ‘It is not my desire to live nor reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good.’ It seems she had made a conscious decision that it was time for her to depart. Even to the end, she put the needs of her people first.
The most fitting epitaph to this extraordinary woman is to be found in the pages of William Camden’s biography, written soon after her death: ‘No oblivion shall ever bury the glory of her name: for her happy and renowned memory still liveth and shall for ever live in the minds of men.’
And it is still living today.