Personal politics in Elizabeth I’s court

The Virgin Queen’s possessive treatment of her favourite advisors and maids of honour was driven more by political motives than by petty jealousy, according to Susan Doran...

Elizabeth I of England

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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In the summer of 1592, Elizabeth I’s captain of the guard, Sir Walter Ralegh, and her maid of honour, Bess Throckmorton, were committed to the Tower of London after the queen was told of their clandestine marriage and the birth of their baby boy. This was neither the first nor the last time that Elizabeth punished her courtiers for marrying in secret, but the penalty in their case was among the most severe.

Although released after a few months, Ralegh lost his offices, was banished from court, and waited five years before the queen consented to speak to him again. Bess remained imprisoned until the end of the year and was permanently excluded from the court.

In October 1599, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, another royal intimate, was placed under house-arrest after storming unannounced into the queen’s bedchamber while she was still in her night clothes, minus her wig, and devoid of heavy make-up. Essex was seeking to explain to her why he had failed to suppress rebellion in Ireland, but Elizabeth was unimpressed, ordered his detention, and refused to see him, despite his many appeals over the next year or so. Stripped of his offices and lucrative royal patents, the desperate earl took to the streets of London in February 1601 with the intention of forcing his presence on the queen, or possibly mounting a palace coup. A second leader of the rising was his friend Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, another courtier who had lost the queen’s favour after marrying a maid of honour. Both earls were charged with treason. Although Southampton was reprieved, Essex died on the scaffold.

The queen’s treatment of these men is usually regarded as grossly unfair. In the instances of Ralegh and Southampton, popular media present Elizabeth as guilty of petty spite against male courtiers who failed to give her the sole adoration that she craved, and of sexual jealousy towards the young, pretty maids of honour, who proved successful rivals for her favourites’ attention. As for Essex, he is often portrayed as a tragic figure who for years had been forced to dance attendance on the queen, when he would have much preferred to fight in England’s wars, and who fatally believed that their personal intimacy gave him the right to enter her private apartments without leave.

In this narrative, Elizabeth comes off very badly. Writers sympathetic to Essex see her as unreasonable in depriving him of his liberty and offices, while even the earl’s detractors criticise the queen for her absurd infatuation with a man young enough to be her grandson. Her failure to rein him in on many earlier occasions, they claim, left him feeling free to disregard royal orders in Ireland and break court protocol on his return. The headline in the Daily Mail, advertising AN Wilson’s The Elizabethans, said it all: “Elizabeth I and the men she loved: how the queen gave an Essex toyboy her heart, then lopped off his head.”

Elizabeth I of England
UNSPECIFIED – DECEMBER 16: Elizabeth I of England (Greenwich, 1533-London, 1603), Queen of England and Ireland in procession to Blackfriars, June 15th, 1600. Detail of a painting by Robert Peake the Elder (ca 1551-1619). Sherborne Castle (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

In all these works, the relationships between Elizabeth and her courtiers – both male and female – are seen in largely personal terms. Whether displaying affection or anger, Elizabeth is characterised as reacting emotionally as a private person rather than a public figure. The same kind of analysis predominates when the queen’s other relationships are described: so, for example, we learn in many histories that Elizabeth was deeply jealous of Mary, Queen of Scots; hated and treated cruelly her cousins Katherine and Mary Grey; and flew into rages when slighted by her councillors.

While not denying that Elizabeth experienced strong emotions at times, I believe that the queen had no private life. As she well knew, all her utterances and doings took place on a public stage and, consequently, had a political purpose and were expected to conform to political norms. Only very rarely did Elizabeth behave otherwise, most noticeably when she fell in love with Robert Dudley at the outset of her reign. Customarily, when interacting with her kin, courtiers, or councillors, she operated at a political level, even when her conduct appeared personal. For all 16th-century monarchs – not just Elizabeth – the personal was always political.

This can best be appreciated when considering Elizabeth’s relationships with her so-called favourites. Mistakenly, it is often stated that the queen promoted Dudley (later Earl of Leicester), Christopher Hatton, Ralegh and Essex simply because of their good looks, fine physiques, and superficial charm. In these accounts, Elizabeth has a weakness for men with sex appeal. Certainly, her favourites were handsome, dashing and athletic, but such attributes were essential for courtiers who were to act as a master of the horse, a gentleman pensioner, or an esquire of the body, their first positions at court. Even so, their rise to power was not the result of the queen falling for their good looks.

Dudley and Essex came from families that the queen wished to promote for political reasons, while Hatton and Ralegh had influential patrons who brought them to the queen’s notice. All four men later became close to the queen because they were excellent courtiers, entertaining her with their dancing, card playing, jousting, witty exchanges and cultured conversation. They also brought glamour to the court, not only in their own persons but also by hosting magnificent feasts for foreign visitors and arranging exciting entertainments and tournaments that impressed foreigners and English guests alike.

In this way, they were instrumental in helping Elizabeth’s court gain international prestige and recognition. In other ways, too, they used their positions and money in the service of the crown, financing and managing spies, privateering expeditions and military campaigns. All four men were intelligent and able. By the time that Dudley, Hatton and Essex were promoted to the privy council, they had already carried out successful political apprenticeships as administrators or soldiers, and as unofficial advisers.

It is highly unlikely that Elizabeth had a sexual relationship with any of her favourites; she was too shrewd and cautious to risk discovery or pregnancy. Besides, to safeguard her sexual reputation, Elizabeth always had at least one of her privy chamber women present in her company and sleeping in her bedchamber, and no gossip slandering the queen came from their quarter.

Nonetheless, there was a semi-erotic and flirtatious quality that marked out the queen’s relationships with many of her male courtiers, for she and they exploited the language and coded behaviour associated with courtly love and the chivalric discourse of the late 16th century. Elizabeth would exchange personal gifts and share private jokes with favoured courtiers; she addressed them affectionately, often by particular nicknames; she allowed them, or their representatives, easy access into her privy apartments, and would visit their homes or offer them her physician during periods of sickness.

Such displays of intimacy signified to the political world that these courtiers were especially close to the queen, and raised their status as men of influence and patronage. On their side, Elizabeth’s courtiers expressed a love and adulation for the queen in letters and poems that to today’s readers appear genuinely romantic or erotic but were, then, understood to be written in the highly stylised language of courtly love. Elizabeth did not demand such declarations to satisfy her personal vanity; their purpose was to create and strengthen the bonds of loyalty and service of elite men to a female monarch without eroding their masculinity.

When angered, Elizabeth also performed within the conventions of courtly love by distancing herself from those who had caused offence: expressing her ire, and withdrawing her affection. This often happened when her intimates wed, especially when they did so without her consent. Perhaps it was to avoid the queen’s displeasure that Hatton chose not to marry. In the case of Essex, the queen’s annoyance did not last long, even though she considered his bride – the widow of Sir Philip Sidney and daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham – a socially unsuitable match for a nobleman. But Leicester never fully regained the queen’s trust, after his secret marriage to Lettice Knollys. This, however, was a special circumstance – the earl had long pursued Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, the last time just a few years prior to his secret wedding. He had also kept his marriage to Lettice quiet for as long as he could.

Ralegh had gone even further in deceiving the queen. He had denied that he and Bess were married when Sir Robert Cecil, the acting principal secretary, questioned him about their relationship, while his wife had lived in close proximity to the queen, pretending to be still single, hiding her pregnancy, and slipping away to deliver the child. For Elizabeth, their dishonesty came close to sedition; and their punishment was intended as a warning to maids of honour who might follow Bess’s example.

Other maids did follow suit, and they were, likewise, severely punished. Two years after the Ralegh scandal, Bridget Manners (daughter of the 4th Earl and Countess of Rutland) also married without royal permission. Elizabeth had given her a month’s leave from court because the girl was said to have caught the measles and needed to recuperate at home. Bridget, though, did not return, preferring life with her husband. When the queen learned the truth, she was furious with the married couple and “highly offended” with Bridget’s mother, who had connived at the deception. For several months the bride was placed in the keeping of the Countess of Bedford, and her husband languished in the Tower.

The queen did not always object to courtiers’ marriages, and when she did deny them permission to marry, she usually had a sound reason for doing so. Most often it was because she considered that the couple seeking marriage were of unequal status; sometimes it was because of their youth; and on a few occasions, objections to a match could be political. The union of a potential heir to the throne (such as Katherine Grey) to a man from a powerful noble family (like the Earl of Hertford) held obvious political dangers. Elizabeth could also be concerned that courtiers would put their responsibilities to their new spouses before their service to their queen. For this reason, she preferred that the wives of certain courtiers were kept away from court. Those that stayed on were at all times expected to show total dedication to their queen at the expense of their family life.

Elizabeth claimed that she always furthered “any honest or honorable purposes of marriage or preferment to any of hers, when without scandal and infamy they have been orderly broken unto her”. And, in general, this was true. When permission to marry had been requested and granted, the queen provided generous gifts to the brides and happily attended their weddings. She ordered a black satin gown as a wedding present for her chamberer, Dorothy Broadbelt, and she gave her maid of honour Margaret Edgecombe a pair of richly embroidered gloves. We do not know what gift another maid of honour, Frances Radcliffe, received, but we do know that the queen attended the nuptial supper, masques and dances. She also attended Anne Russell’s wedding to the Earl of Warwick, which was performed in the Chapel Royal at Whitehall Palace, and the celebratory banquet and tournament that were held afterwards at court.

The queen’s anger at the men and women who married without her permission soon abated, if she was especially fond of them and their fault was not judged too great. Elizabeth had delivered “blows and evil words” to her chamberer and cousin Mary Shelton on learning of her secret marriage to the gentleman pensioner John Scudamore – another unequal union. But before long, the queen welcomed both back into her service and showed the couple great favour. Mary was one of her preferred sleeping companions and also acted as a frequent intermediary for the queen, delivering messages and receiving gifts on her mistress’s behalf. John was later knighted and afterwards appointed the standard-bearer of gentlemen pensioners.

Let’s turn now to Elizabeth’s relationship with Essex. Was she really as besotted with him as is commonly believed? Undoubtedly, during his first decade at court, Elizabeth bestowed upon him all the signifiers of intimacy outlined above, but she was never infatuated or in love with the earl. He was certainly not Elizabeth’s sole male companion and initially had to tolerate the equal favour she showed to Ralegh and Southampton. Furthermore, Essex never enjoyed the full confidence and trust of the queen. She was wary of his advice to pursue an offensive war strategy, suspecting that he was too partial to the French king, Henry IV, and too ready to be reckless with royal funds. She disliked his attempts at self-aggrandisement, as when he tried to take full credit for the successes of a 1596 expedition to Cadiz. She grew irritated by his attempts to badger her into promoting his friends to positions they did not deserve. It is true that she forgave his insubordination and difficult moods too readily, but she was induced to do so by privy councillors who mediated on his behalf because they recognised the earl’s worth to the state and importance to the war effort.

However, by 1599, Essex had lost his powerful mediators with the queen. With the deaths of key supporters on the council – Hatton in 1591, Sir Francis Knollys in 1596, even Lord Burghley in 1598 – Essex should have built up strong alliances with the new generation of Elizabethan privy councillors. Instead he came to alienate the most influential – Sir Robert Cecil and Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham – by treating them as political enemies. By the late 1590s, Essex was convinced that they and their friends comprised a narrow cabal of evil councillors and corrupt politicians, who were poisoning the queen against him. It was fear that they would present his failure in Ireland in the worst possible light – even as treason – that led the earl to dash to court in 1599 to explain his actions face to face with the queen, even though she had ordered him to stay put in Ireland. When Elizabeth consulted her councillors after her unexpected interview with the earl, unsurprisingly no one close to her spoke up for him.

Essex’s political isolation at the heart of government continued until his death. He had many supporters in the army and London, but at court he had to rely on female relatives to plead for his reinstatement with the queen, and inevitably their voices were not enough. Essex fell from power not because Elizabeth saw sense and was shaken out of her infatuation with her unreliable ‘toyboy’ but because he badly overplayed his hand in a political power struggle that should never have happened.

Emphasising the political and public nature of Elizabeth’s relationships makes them no less fascinating. On the contrary, setting them within their cultural and political contexts adds a richness and complexity to our readings of the reign. The stories surrounding the queen’s relationships remain enthralling and also provide important insights into the workings of the court and political life, especially when approached from multiple perspectives: how the queen related to her circle; how her kin, courtiers and councillors viewed and dealt with her; and how these stories were constructed by contemporaries and later historians.

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Susan Doran is a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, and a tutorial fellow at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford.