Elizabeth I of England has been called everything from the “Virgin Queen” to the “Little Whore” (her mother Anne Boleyn was, of course, the “Great Whore”). As the second-born daughter of Henry VIII – and at times deemed legally illegitimate – Elizabeth was never supposed to become queen but, nonetheless, ruled England from 1558 until her death in 1603. Her rule was notable for countless reasons, but Elizabeth I’s love life, not to mention her sex life, has fascinated people for centuries.
As a powerful and influential female ruler in the 16th century, Elizabeth I the Virgin Queen remained unmarried for her entire life, using her position to maneuver through the murky political and religious waters of her day. This led to speculation about her sexuality and her gender by contemporaries, with rumors flying about her insatiable sexual appetite, her inability to procreate, and even about Elizabeth I’s love child. Through it all, Elizabeth kept her rivals at a safe distance while allowing only her favorites to get close – intimate, at times – making her personal life both a public and private affair.
She Had Long-time “Friendship” With Robert Dudley That May Have Produced A Love Child
Princess Elizabeth found great comfort in her friendship with Robert Dudley, the son of the Duke of Northumberland. The two were companions and shared a bond that only intensified when they were both imprisoned in the Tower of London by the newly installed Queen Mary in 1553. Elizabeth and Dudley spent so much time together that there was speculation about them being lovers, even though Elizabeth swore: “‘though she loved him dearly… nothing unseemly had ever passed between them.”
The uncertainty of the nature of what Elizabeth and Dudley shared, especially after she became queen in 1558, only fed into the rumors about the couple. When a young man named Arthur appeared in Madrid in 1587 and claimed to be the love child of Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, he furthered the intrigue. Arthur Dudley claimed that after his birth in 1561, he was taken into the care of Robert Southern, who raised him as his own. Arthur did not learn about his true parentage until 1583 when Southern died, confessing to his adopted son on his deathbed.
The timing of Arthur’s birth coincided with a period in Elizabeth’s life when she was not only ill and removed from the public eye, but also, according to those who did see her: ““swelling extraordinarily” and was “dropsical”.”
Had she really been pregnant? Did she actually give birth? Was it Dudley’s child? At the time, Dudley was engaged in a controversy of his own given that his wife, Amy Robsart, had died under suspicious circumstances. Historians have explored the possibility that, since a marriage between Elizabeth and Dudley wouldn’t have been feasible, this may have been the only option for a child produced out of wedlock. One of the arguments in support of the idea that Arthur was their child is that he had no reason to lie. His admission only made his life more dangerous. An argument against the notion of a secret love child is that Elizabeth would not have been able to hide a pregnancy from all of her companions, courtiers, and attendants. The truth is, only Elizabeth and Robert Dudley really ever knew the truth.
Her Step-Uncle, Thomas Seymour, May Have Tried To Force Himself On Her When She Was 14
The exact nature of Elizabeth’s relationship with Thomas Seymour, brother to Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour, is one that has raised a lot of questions over the years. Seymour was not only Elizabeth’s former uncle (Jane Seymour died soon after giving birth to the future King Edward VI in 1537), but was also married to Henry VIII’s widow, Katherine Parr.
After the death of Elizabeth’s father in 1547, Thomas Seymour was supposed to have asked Elizabeth to marry him, although she was only 14 at the time. Seymour was 25 years older than her and Elizabeth politely declined (there is some speculation that she may have been infatuated with him). He soon became engaged to Katherine Parr, the surviving wife of Henry VIII, with whom he’d previously been involved. Parr and Seymour were married in 1547 and established a household where Elizabeth spent much of her time.
That didn’t last long, however; Seymour would visit Elizabeth’s bedchamber early in the mornings, playfully spanking her on “the back or the buttocks” if she were awake or joking that he should have his way with her if she were still in bed. He tried to kiss her and tickled her on different occasions, and while there’s no evidence of Elizabeth’s reaction, the nature of his relationship with the much younger princess was deemed inappropriate. After a final incident where Parr found her husband and her step-daughter in an embrace, she sent Elizabeth away to her governess’s brother’s house in 1548. Elizabeth was secluded there, leading to speculation that she was pregnant with Seymour’s child.
There’s some evidence that Seymour’s advances were unwanted by Elizabeth. She supposedly wrote “Thou, touch me not”, then deleted it, and wrote instead, “Let him not touch me” on the outside of a letter she once sent him. It’s difficult to tell what that may have meant but after Katherine Parr died in 1548, it seemed as though a relationship between Elizabeth and Seymour may be an option. This factored into Seymour’s arrest, imprisonment, and subsequent execution for treason in 1549 (although his plot to kidnap King Edward VI didn’t help his chances for survival).
Whether Or Not Elizabeth Was Actually A Virgin Queen Remains A Mystery
With all of her suitors and rumored relationships, it’s impossible to know if the Virgin Queen remained a virgin throughout her life. She told Parliament that if she continued “in this kind of life I have begun, I doubt not but God will so direct mine own and your Counsels, that ye shall not need to doubt of a Successour which may be more beneficial to the Commonwealth than he which may be born of me, considering that the Issue of the best Princes many times degenerateth. And to me it shall be a full satisfaction, both for the memorial of my Name, and for my Glory also, if when I shall let my last breath, it be ingraven upon my Marble Tomb, Here lieth Elizabeth, which Reigned a Virgin, and died a Virgin.” She knew she’d never produce an heir and was willing to proudly be called a virgin because of it.
There has been speculation, however, that Elizabeth not only wouldn’t produce and heir but that she couldn’t have a child, much less have intercourse. Historian Allison Weir wrote “of how the playwright Ben Jonson had talked of Elizabeth having “a membrane on her which made her incapable of man”, meaning either an abnormally thick hymen or perhaps Elizabeth may have suffered from Vaginismus, a condition which affects a woman’s ability to have sex because of a tightness of the vaginal muscles.”
Elizabeth May Have Equated Sexuality With Death
In addition to having a physical reason for not engaging in sex, it’s possible that Elizabeth saw sexuality as directly related to death. Her mother, after all, had been beheaded by her father on trumped up charges of adultery, and she saw subsequent step-mothers suffer through similar experiences. As historian Allison Weir asserts, she may have had a “mental aversion” to sexuality as a whole.
The pain of childbirth alone may have been enough to prevent her from engaging in sex, especially since it could be life-threatening to the monarch. Avoiding marriage and avoiding pregnancy could do wonders for prolonging a woman’s life during the Tudor period. Elizabeth’s step-mother Jane Seymour died soon after giving birth, as did Katherine Parr.
Elizabeth I And Robert Dudley Played Flirtation Games To Make Each Other Jealous
When Elizabeth was unhappy with Robert Dudley, she certainly let him know it. When Elizabeth began flirting with Thomas Heneage, Dudley became “jealous” and confronted the queen, who dismissed him. Dudley became “melancholy” and withdrew for four days, in “deep despair that he could no longer live.” He rebounded though and took up a flirtation of his own, giving attention to Lettice Knollys, a daughter of one of Elizabeth’s attendants and her own distant cousin. Elizabeth supposedly got so jealous that she flew into “a great temper” at Dudley’s perceived betrayal.
Dudley later married Lettice in 1578, who had been widowed two years earlier. This was perhaps a reaction to the queen’s reassertion that she would never marry, crushing Dudley’s hopes of a wedding to his long-time love. After Dudley and Lettice were wed, the latter was banished from court, “stigmatized as a ‟she-wolf“ and ‟bad woman“ by the queen herself.” By all accounts, Lettice looked very much like Elizabeth, which one can’t help but notice.
Elizabeth Announced She Would Marry The Duc D’Anjou But Changed Her Mind Literally Overnight
One of Elizabeth’s last serious considerations for a possible husband was Francois, Duc d’Anjou.In 1578, 10 years after the Netherlands had revolted against Spain, Elizabeth was looking to find ways to continue her support to the Protestant cause but also wanted to prevent France from taking the Netherlands as their own in the aftermath. One option was to bring France into a matrimonial agreement that would prevent them from intervening, so she sought out a marriage to Francois, the Duc d’Anjou, brother to French King Henry III.
Elizabeth reached out to Francois and negotiations were conducted between the late 1570s and early 1580s. Elizabeth was in her 40s, Francois was only 23-years-old, but he visited London at least twice in order to win over the queen. They exchanged letters for years and there seems to have been affection between them. She called him “her frog” – a testament to his Frenchness – but there was resistance within England for her to marry a Catholic outsider.
When Francois visited London in 1581, Elizabeth met with her future husband and declared publicly that she would marry him. She gave him her ring, kissed him on the mouth, and gave every indication that she would finally go through with a betrothal. The next day, however, after apparently having second thoughts, she made another announcement – this time that the marriage would not take place.
Elizabeth Demanded Her Attendants Put Her Before Motherhood
When it came to Elizabeth I and her ladies-in-waiting, the queen insisted they put her needs over theirs, even if they were pregnant or had just given birth. The role of the mother in 16th and 17th century England was challenged by Elizabeth and her requirement that pregnant women in her service should stay with her until they no longer could and that they return to her as soon as possible after giving birth. Wet nurses and governesses existed for a reason and Elizabeth made sure her ladies used them. This actually gave her ladies more autonomy than most mothers at the time and rejected the veneration of wife and mothers above all others.
Elizabeth Pretended To Consider Marrying Phillip II Of Spain Just To Negotiate A Peace Treaty
Elizabeth’s former brother-in-law, Philip II of Spain, proposed to her in 1559. When Philip was married to Elizabeth’s sister, Queen Mary, in 1554, the Catholic alliance between the two countries unified the two kingdoms in combating Protestantism in Europe; however, the marriage never produced an heir. Philip was over a decade younger than his bride and spent very little time in England while Mary was desperate for her husband’s affection and for a child but was prone to phantom pregnancies.
Mary died in 1558, at which time her Protestant sister Elizabeth became Queen of England. This precarious situation left Spain vulnerable and Philip, who became King of Spain, the Netherlands, and all of Spain’s holdings in Italy and the Americas in 1555, wanted to remain close to England. Philip asked Elizabeth to marry him, hoping to bring her into the Catholic fold while simultaneously forming an alliance against France, and she took her time considering his offer. She used the possibility of an alliance with Spain to negotiate a peace treaty with France and to keep Catholics in England pacified long enough to move forward with her religious reforms. Ultimately, she refused his proposal, arguing that she could not marry her sister’s widower nor could she return England to Catholicism.
She Entertained A Proposal From Charles Of Austria To Placate Parliament
The issue of succession was always a concern when it came to Elizabeth and her unmarried status. Parliament was particularly concerned that Elizabeth did not have an heir and, upon her death, the throne would be in the hands of her Scottish kinsman, James. As a result of the pressure Parliament, European leaders, and society in general put upon her, the queen did her best to consider – or at least pretend to consider – marriage proposals when they arrived.
One of the many proposals she received was from Archduke Charles of Austria in 1563. She even sent negotiators to Vienna to discuss a marriage agreement after both the House of Lords and the House of Commons entreated her to marry him. Elizabeth’s men reported back to her that Charles was not deformed, although she’d heard from French diplomats seeking to undercut the alliance that he was, but that he wanted her to pay his expenses and provide her own dowry. Elizabeth considered their demands but, once Charles demanded the title of King of England, she rejected the match. The whole process lasted three years and, when all was said and done, one of Charles of Austria’s negotiators commented that the queen was so cunning and difficult that she “must have a hundred thousand devils in her body.”
Elizabeth Announced On Numerous Occasions That She Would Never Marry
Elizabeth was supposed to have told Robert Dudley when she was just eight-years-old that she would never get married. She had just seen her third step-mother, Catherine Howard, executed, and given what had happened to her mother, Anne Boleyn – the “whore” who brought about the end of her father’s first marriage and led to a break with the Catholic Church – Elizabeth probably didn’t have a lot of warm feelings toward the institution. Her own legitimacy was canceled out after her mother’s death, again skewing her view on marriage and family.
Elizabeth was surrounded by marriages that were political in nature, strategic, and managed through manipulation and death. The continued pressure she felt to get married – before becoming queen and most definitely after she took the throne – led to her playing the game, entering into marriage discussions on numerous occasions, but she most likely intended to stand by her earlier assertion. In 1559, she told Parliament that her mind was made up and famously announced that she was, in fact, married to England:
“Concerning Marriage, which ye so earnestly move me to, I have been long since perswaded, that I was sent into this world by God to think and doe those things chiefly which may tend to his Glory. Hereupon have I chosen that kind of life which is most free from the troublesome Cares of this world, that I might attend the Service of God alone. From which if either the tendred Marriages of most Potent Princes, or the danger of Death intended against me, could have removed me, I had long agone enjoyed the honour of an Husband. And these things have I thought upon when I was a private person. But now that the publick Care of governing the Kingdom is laid upon me, to draw upon me also the Cares of Marriage may seem a point of inconsiderate Folly. Yea, to satisfie you, I have already joyned my self in Marriage to an Husband, namely, the Kingdom of England.”
Prince Eric Of Sweden Tried To Woo The Queen But Had Very Little To Offer
Elizabeth wasn’t afraid to drag out proposals and use marriage as a political tool but when Eric of Sweden proposed, it was a bit different. Eric, who would become King Eric XIV in 1560, pursued Elizabeth for years, even before she was queen. He sent her love letters and, at one point, attempted to marry her using his brother as a proxy groom.
Finally, in 1560, Elizabeth decided that she could no longer mince words with Eric and wrote him a letter indicating her true intensions. She wrote that she did “not conceive in our heart to take a husband but highly commend the single life, and hope that your Serene Highness will not longer spend time in waiting for us.” Eric abandoned his efforts, slowly lost his mind, and was deposed in 1586.
Elizabeth’s Last Suitor Was Executed For Treason
Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, and Elizabeth I started their flirtation relatively late in the queen’s life but his position in her heart seems to have been secure. As the son of Robert Dudley’s wife, Lettice Knollys, and her first husband, Robert Devereux was more than 30 years younger than the Queen. He was first noticed by Elizabeth in 1584 when his step-father brought him to court and, despite his youth, rash nature, and open defiance of the queen at times, the two seemed to love each other dearly. According to one of Devereux’s attendants, they could not get enough of each other: “even at night my lord is at cards or one game or another with her, that he cometh not to his own lodging till the birds sing in the morning.”
Devereux did not meet a good end, however. In 1589, he participated in the English Armada – an effort by England to use the momentum of the failed Spanish Armada to their advantage. He did this in spite of the queen’s orders that he avoid the conflict. This annoyed the Queen but she became truly furious with him when he married Frances Walsingham in 1590.
His disobedience and lust for power ultimately led to his demise. In 1601, he was connected to a coup against the queen, convicted of treason, and beheaded in London. Elizabeth granted him one last gift, however, by commuting his death sentence from hanging, drawing, and quartering to a quick beheading.