To what extent was Elizabeth I’s decision not to marry a political decision, rather than a personal one?
‘Hard as it is to look into the heart of this supreme deceiver, there seems to have been a genuine - and pathetic - desire for marriage and a child.’
J. E. NEALE
In 1558, when the young Elizabeth came to the throne, ‘The Golden Age’ of the ‘Virgin Queen’ sounded like fantasy, as Wernham explains: ‘Tudor England was in 1558 at its lowest ebb of weakness and demoralization. Its time of greatness seemed over and there was little hint of the ‘spacious days’ that were to come. ’ Her sister, Mary, had died leaving the country as easy prey to France and Spain. Her husband, Philip II of Spain, had drained the English treasury to fund his own foreign wars, making the marriage incredibly unpopular at home. The religious question, settled in Henry VIII’s reign and then defined by Edward VI, lay in ruins following Mary’s attempt to return England to Catholicism. The greatest question at Elizabeth’s accession was what she would do next. A proud, but not devout, Protestant Elizabeth had to tread carefully. She depended on the support of the Protestant lobby at home, but could not afford to upset her widowed brother-in-law, who wished to see England delivered from heresy.
The marriage question would dominate her reign – an issue fuelled by potential political alliances and staggered, occasionally, by her own personal desires. Tudor England was still under the spectre of the Wars of the Roses – Elizabeth was loath to name a successor, merely to provide her opposition a focus with which to gather around, ‘Mayhem, rebellion and deposition of kings were all factors likely to encourage the unruly and over-mighty noble to expand his power at the king’s expense … that noble could exploit the possibility of rival claims to the throne to enhance that power. ’ Rival claims to the throne there were in abundance – chiefly, her two cousins: Mary, Queen of Scots – a Catholic, and Lady Katherine Grey - a Protestant. The former was especially dangerous, and Elizabeth’s religious settlement, of 1559, could have provoked a French invasion, from the Scottish border. A marriage to Elizabeth’s widowed brother-in-law, Philip, would protect England from this threat, but it would also have gone hand in hand with a full restoration of England to Catholicism. On the other hand, a marriage to an Englishman, such as Lord Robert Dudley, may have been a PR coup amongst some at home – but it would not have sat well with the rest of predominantly Catholic Europe, and was likely to have created warring factions at home. Therefore, while this, and many other problems, could have been solved by Elizabeth’s marriage, and the birth of an heir – as Sir Williams Cecil persisted in telling her – it could equally have provoked a split at court or even a foreign invasion.
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The evidence is simply not there to support the notion that Elizabeth failed to marry for personal reasons. There is little in her character that would suggest a lack of disposition towards marriage. She was neurotic, quick tempered and prone to panic attacks and emotional paralysis. However, she was also compelling and charismatic, what Simon Schama calls, ‘an authentic Tudor. ’ It would certainly be fair to say that Elizabeth was a ‘career woman’, and she was unlikely to make the same mistake as her sister, Mary. As Joel Hurstfield says, ‘Marriage and motherhood would deprive her temporarily – perhaps permanently – of the authority and power to rule. ’ However, Elizabeth was surely sensible enough to realise that this need not be an obstacle if she were to find a man who would understand the importance to her of governing, a soul mate perhaps – and such a man was Lord Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. His relationship with the Queen, which many felt could easily have resulted in marriage, is a constant problem for those who argue that Elizabeth failed to marry for personal reasons.
There are those who claim that Elizabeth decided against marriage from the start, aware that some disease made Henry VIII’s children sick or sterile. While this would not prevent her from using the European marriage market in her foreign policy negotiations, it would, ultimately, prevent her marriage. This evidence is only really supported by the writings of one of her contemporaries, Sir John Melville, who wrote that when Elizabeth heard of the birth of Mary, Queen of Scots’ son, James, ‘she sank down disconsolately, bursting out to some of her ladies that the Queen of Scots was a mother of a fair son, while she was but a barren stock.’ It is certainly possible that, with the high maternal mortality rates of the time, Elizabeth chose not to marry out of fear of childbirth. However, the Queen’s physician is recorded as saying that nothing should have prevented Elizabeth giving birth to ten or more children.
The view that Elizabeth was turned against marriage by her childhood experiences has the greatest credence. Hurstfield states that, ‘there was nothing in the marital experiences of Elizabeth’s father, mother, stepmothers or sisters to encourage an unduly optimistic view of matrimony. ’ The Thomas Seymour affair may also have added to an already large psychological barrier to marriage. Following Henry VIII’s death, Katherine Parr married Seymour, and Elizabeth lived with the couple as she was still under her stepmother’s protection. Often, while Elizabeth was in bed, Seymour would indulge in a bit of ‘slap-and-tickle’ with the young princess. It is unclear how far the relationship went, and David Starkey even suggests that it was sexual abuse. Either way, Seymour was sent to the block when Elizabeth was aged 15. Whether the relationship was consenting or not, ‘It is possible that these events so traumatised her that she could only equate marriage with death. She herself told a Scots envoy in 1561 that certain events in her youth made it impossible for her to regard marriage with equanimity. ’
However, by far the most convincing explanation is that Elizabeth decided against marriage, largely, for political reasons. It was, by and large, advantageous for Elizabeth to remain single, at least in the early part of her reign. Mary’s unhappy marriage had exposed the dangers of marrying a foreign prince. While he could protect England, he could also drain her treasury in wars of his own. Equally, her potential marriage was a foreign affairs tactic with a potentially limited life, ‘Elizabeth’s marriage was the most tempting diplomatic prize in Europe, but was a weapon like a bee’s sting, which could only be used once. ’ Roger Ascham was one of many who voiced the hope that Elizabeth would marry an Englishman, as opposed to a foreigner. However, the young Queen was well aware that this could lead to dangerous rivalries at court, similar to those that had led to the Wars of the Roses. Woodward is right when he says that, ‘Ambitious, flattering, intriguing courtiers abounded ,’ and as Elizabeth’s less astute cousin, Mary, proved – a young ruler was prey for such men.
Therefore, one can only reject the evidence that Elizabeth was against marriage for personal reasons. While the wild speculation appears plausible, the evidence is simply not there to support such a view. It is certainly true that Elizabeth was wary of marriage. Whether this is because of her childhood experiences, or for fear of repeating her sister’s mistake is unclear. It is probably a combination of the two. Equally, Elizabeth appears to have been a rare breed of her time – while she was astute enough to play the marriage game in foreign affairs, her refusal to marry anyone she had not seen or met suggests a woman looking for love as much as a Queen seeking an alliance. Simon Schama is convinced that Elizabeth would have married had the right candidate come along: a man with high station, pragmatic in confession, impeccable lineage and massive wealth. It is tempting to agree with him that some of the evidence has been fabricated, such as her apparent response to Parliament’s marriage response of 1559, in order to fuel the myth of the ‘Virgin Queen’, It was surely part of the propaganda of the later part of her reign, when the Queen’s perpetual virginity was turned from a liability into a patriotic cult. ’ Therefore, we need to examine the role of her foreign policy and her relationship with Parliament to better understand Elizabeth’s decision not to marry – without forgetting, also, the closeness of her relationship with Robert Dudley.
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Elizabeth’s foreign courtships were often mere pretence: ‘they provided the pretexts for straightforwardly diplomatic negotiations. ’ This was especially true of Philip’s suit. Elizabeth needed to maintain Philip’s friendship at her accession, merely for security, but neither was she prepared to make the same mistake as her sister, ‘of marrying a prince whose ambition and religion would damage, rather than sustain, the interests of England. ’ Therefore, Elizabeth protracted negotiations for as long as she decently could, ‘to keep him quiet during the critical first months, ’ before, finally, turning him down. She also considered and dismissed: Erik of Sweden; Adolphus, Duke of Holstein; Charles XI of France; and his younger brother – the Duke of Anjou, who later became Henry III. The question of her marriage and successor was also made all the more potent by the constant threat of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. As early as the Treaty of Edinburgh, Sir William Cecil made the unofficial suggestion that it might be possible to recognise Mary Stuart as presumptive heir to the throne, should Elizabeth remain unmarried and childless. Such an idea was, however, unthinkable – it would merely provide a focus for her Catholic enemies, both at home and abroad, who believed that, ‘Elizabeth was unfit to rule. She was a woman, unmarried, a heretic, a bastard, and challenged to her title and right of succession to the English throne by Mary Stuart. ’ Therefore, a foreign marriage to Elizabeth was a means to a political end: while Mary was married to the French king, Elizabeth would seek favour at the Spanish court; if Mary sought an alliance with Spain, Elizabeth would court the French.
One of Elizabeth’s most serious forays into the European marriage market was her negotiation with Archduke Charles, of Austria. However, even this appears to have been nothing more than an attempt to keep his cousin, Philip, on side. Elizabeth could not dare to marry a devout Catholic, as it would tear apart her, already delicately balanced, religious settlement. However, it was obvious from the first that Charles had little interest in practicing his faith in private, and even less in leaving the Catholic church altogether. Needless to say, this did not prevent the negotiations being revived on several occasions, usually when Elizabeth became anxious about continuing French aggression. The greatest obstacle to the marriage was Elizabeth’s insistence that she would only marry someone whom she had met, and for diplomatic reasons this was impossible. It is unclear why Elizabeth was so firm on this point. It is possible that the memory of Philip cursing his portrait painters on his first meeting with Mary was fresh in her mind. However, it is equally plausible that Elizabeth – apparently very much a romantic at heart – harboured desires to marry as much for love as an alliance. Therefore, Charles’ suit was rejected on 10th December 1567, due to the insurmountable obstacles of his religious conviction and Elizabeth’s desire to meet her future partner, ‘The Archduke Charles she had not seen, and she could not bring herself, either on grounds of political prudence or personal inclination, to wed the unknown. ’
Equally, marriage negotiations with the French appear to have been motivated by the considerable cooling of relations with Spain. Elizabeth considered, momentarily, marriage to the French king, Charles XI, and his younger brother, Henry, but rejected them both – infuriating Cecil to such an extent that he warned her, ‘There are decrees of danger. If you would marry, it should be less; whilst you do not, it will increase … ’ However, Catherine de Medici’s youngest son, Hercules-Francis, Duke of Alencon, was a different matter. Elizabeth’s ambassador in Paris, Sir Thomas Smith declared, ‘… I do not see where she shall marry so well.’ Alencon’s faith appeared to be of little obstacle, and he agreed to visit in 1579. Reports suggest that there was a strong sexual chemistry between the pair, Elizabeth even nicknaming him her ‘Frog’, in the same way that she named Dudley her ‘eyes’. However, it appears that all of this was a charade, as Alison Weir states that the proposal was ‘moribund’ as early as the spring of 1576. Public opinion had always been strongly opposed to the marriage – so much so that the Spanish ambassador even talked of revolution. Therefore, the one foreign match, which may have been agreeable to Elizabeth, was rejected due to the political consequences, ‘… whatever Elizabeth’s immediate reaction might be, her instinct was too sound to proceed in face of divided Council and hostile people. ’
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Despite all the uncertainty surrounding this topic ‘of one thing we can be reasonably certain: Elizabeth wanted to marry Dudley, ’ and this is a perennial problem for all historians who claim that Elizabeth was diametrically opposed to marriage. The closeness of their relationship was the source of much court gossip, with wild speculation that Dudley had fathered Elizabeth several bastard children, while foreign ambassadors reported to their masters that their suits were unlikely to meet with approval at a time when the Queen was so obviously smitten with Dudley. The man ‘was all soft words and whirlwind charm, ’ of the right doctrine and nationality. However, he was also below her, in terms of social stature; the son of a traitor; a source of hatred amongst members of her court; and, most importantly of all, married.
These were insurmountable obstacles in the eyes of her Council – and almost certainly prevented her marrying the only man she ever really loved. Some have suggested that Elizabeth’s infatuation with Dudley was fuelled by the knowledge that he was married, and hence was unobtainable. However, this ignores the intensity of their relationship, post Amy Robsart. Both de Feria and de Quadra referred to rumours of Dudley’s wife suffering from a ‘malady in her breast’. Modern day opinion has suggested that she was suffering from breast cancer. On Saturday 7th September 1560, she was dead – having fallen down the stairs at Dudley’s residence, Cumnor Place. While suspicion immediately suggested foul play, it is now thought more likely that she either fell, in her weakened state, or took her own life. Elizabeth, realising her subjects’ likely reaction, ordered an inquest on the 11th September. The coroner pronounced a verdict of accidental death, but the damage had been done. Elizabeth could not risk the ridicule, not to mention the public outcry that a marriage to Dudley would now precipitate – as illustrated by Mary Stuart’s comment: ‘So the Queen of England is to marry her horse keeper, who has killed his wife to make room for her !’
Equally problematic was Dudley’s relationship with those at court. The Duke of Norfolk, Dudley’s chief enemy, the Earl of Sussex and Thomas Howard are all reported to have seen Dudley’s constant presence as an obstacle to the successful conclusion of any marriage negotiations, abroad. Elizabeth must have been aware of the potential danger of factions forming within her court, ‘a divided court could temporarily unite, and even intrigue with a foreign ambassador, to thwart so baleful a match. ’ This risk was very real, as Norfolk, equal in ambition to Dudley, attempted to marry himself off to Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth forgave him the first time, but on the second attempt he was sent to the block. Another factor was Elizabeth’s awareness of public opinion. She ‘very badly wanted, even in 1560, to be a sovereign loved by her people. And a marriage with a suspected accomplice to murder guaranteed (as the history of Mary, of Scotland, would demonstrate) a public relations disaster. ’ There were times when members of her Council, in sheer desperation, considered the possibility of the Queen marrying Dudley, but they were also aware that such a marriage ‘would utterly destroy the queen’s prestige among her own people. ’ Therefore, Elizabeth had to reject the prospect of a marriage to the man she really loved. It simply was not prudent, politically: she feared the creation of factions at court; anger amongst her Catholic neighbours and an outcry from her people at the thought of her marrying a man who had murdered his own wife. However, ‘the suggestion that she was unwilling to marry on principle is contradicted by the fact that she came so close to marrying Robert Dudley. ’
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Elizabeth’s decisions on marriage were heavily influenced by the actions of her Parliament, ‘The people and council all took for granted the fact that Elizabeth would marry. ’ As far as Parliament was concerned, it was a question of whom she would marry, not if. This related to the on-going question of who would succeed Elizabeth in the event of her early death. As early as February 1559, the Commons petitioned the Queen, asking her to marry as soon as possible. Elizabeth was typically frosty, avoiding the issue and stated, ‘I am already bound unto a husband, which is the kingdom of England. ’ The matter was raised again, in 1566, as the Commons refused to vote her the allowance she had requested without the matter being resolved, and this time they were joined by the Lords. Elizabeth reacted angrily, cowing the Lords with her fury before delivering a powerful speech to the Commons. She had successfully dodged the issue again.
The issue of greatest significance for Parliament, however, was the succession, as, ‘the Tudors were not a fertile family and there was a dearth of suitable heirs to replace the Queen should she die childless. ’ Under Henry VIII’s 1544 Act, the nearest to succeed her were the daughters of the late king’s younger sister, Mary: Lady Katherine and Lady Mary Grey – the sisters of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey. However, Elizabeth was loath to name a successor, as William Cecil observed in 1560, ‘the English run after the heir to the Crown more than the present wearer of it. ’ Elizabeth was aware of this herself, having been swamped by lords, in her sister’s reign, urging her to endeavour to obtain the crown. G. R. Elton attaches greater importance, however, to Elizabeth’s profound dislike of the two chief candidates likely to succeed her, ‘The fact that she disliked both Mary Stuart and Catherine Grey played its part in Elizabeth’s refusal to contemplate the determination of the succession. ’ The matter was made all the more pressing, in the winter of 1562, when Elizabeth fell gravely ill with small pox. Her doctors were convinced that she would die, and her council were panicked at the prospect of civil war, as the succession question remained unresolved. Surprisingly, Elizabeth commanded her councillors that Dudley should be appointed Lord Protector, with the grand salary of £20,000 p.a. in the event of her death. Needless to say, she recovered, but the spectre was raised once again, in March 1572, when Elizabeth fell ill with gastro-enteritis, ‘… if the Queen were to die now, England would be lost to foreign predators who would force Catholicism on its people. ’
It is, therefore, hard to understand why Elizabeth did not get married, in the face of such support from Parliament. However, on closer inspection the answer becomes clear. The suits that Parliament favoured were those of Archduke Charles and the Duke of Anjou, neither of which took Elizabeth’s fancy. In fact, the only candidates Elizabeth was prepared to consider, herself, were of such abhorrence to her council and Parliament that she risked a court split, and even civil war: these were the suits of Robert Dudley and the Duke of Alencon. So, while the question of her husband remained unanswered, Parliament would turn to the question of her successor. But as I have examined, Elizabeth was astute enough to realise that in such a fractured kingdom, naming her successor would be folly, and this policy appears to have remained intact right up to her death, in 1603, ‘Whether she finally acknowledged James VI of Scotland as her rightful successor will never be known for certain. ’
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In conclusion, while there are plenty of plausible reasons why Elizabeth rejected marriage on personal grounds, none of them stands up to scrutiny. To Elizabeth, marriage was a useful weapon in foreign policy, and we can be certain that in all but one case, that is all it was. The exception was Elizabeth’s relationship with the Duke of Alencon, but even that could be seen as just part of the diplomatic game in an attempt to secure French entente. Robert Dudley was the only genuine candidate to marry the Queen, and it is almost certain that he would have done, ‘if the evil results of the step had not been obvious. ’ But against all of this, one must not forget that in 1558 Elizabeth inherited a splintered kingdom. In Scotland, Mary Stuart believed herself to be the rightful Queen of England; while at home Lady Katherine Grey, married and with two sons, was seen by some Protestants as the more acceptable monarch. Elizabeth could not risk infuriating either the Catholic or Protestant faction, both at home and abroad. Her marriage, to any candidate, would have carried certain risks, and of that Elizabeth was well aware. Had she been free to choose, she would have certainly have married Dudley, but Elizabeth was well aware that, ‘as far as many of her subjects were concerned her body natural and her body politic were one and the same, and she was not free to do with either what her heart desired. ’
(1) ‘Tudor Foreign Policy’ by P. S. Crowson,
(2) ‘England under the Tudors: Third Edition’ by G. R. Elton, Routledge, 1991
(3) ‘The Tudors’ by John Guy, Oxford University Press, 2000
(4) ‘Elizabeth I’ by S. Houston, Blackie & Son, 1979
(5) ‘Elizabeth I and the Unity of England’ by Joel Hurstfield, Pelican 1971
(6) ‘The Tudors’ by Christopher Morris, B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1955
(7) ‘Queen Elizabeth I’ by J. E. Neale, Jonathan Cape, 1934
(8) ‘The Crisis of Parliaments, English History 1509-1660’ by Conrad Russell, Oxford University Press, 1971
(9) ‘A History of Britain 3000BC-AD1603’ by Simon Schama, BBC Worldwide Ltd, 2000
(10) ‘Elizabeth’ by David Starkey, Vintage, 2001
(11) ‘The Wars of the Roses and the Yorkist Kings’ by John Warren, Hodder and Stoughton, 1995
(12) ‘Elizabeth the Queen’ by Alison Weir, Pimlico, 1998
(13) ‘The Growth of English Foreign Policy 1485-1588’ by R. B. Wernham, Jonathan Cape, 1966
(14) ‘Reformation and Resurgence’ by G. W. O. Woodward, Blandford Press Ltd, 1963
This was written as a piece of History Coursework in 2002.