Elizabeth I’s love life: was she really a ‘Virgin Queen’?
For a queen known for her alleged virginity, Elizabeth I's love life has long been the subject of great speculation. Here, Dr Anna Whitelock, a reader in early modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London, explores what really went on behind the closed doors of the so-called Virgin Queen
Over the years, countless books, novels, plays and films have depicted Elizabeth I’s relationships with figures such as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and the Duke of Anjou. In the absence of conclusive proof one way or another, the question ‘did they or didn’t they?’ will always linger. Yet what is clear is that, both at home and abroad, rumours about Elizabeth’s love life – real or imagined – circulated throughout her reign. Far from being the Virgin Queen, for some hostile observers Elizabeth was the ‘whore’ of Europe.
Contemporary beliefs about the ‘insatiable’ sexual appetites of women, together with Elizabeth’s failure to marry, fuelled suspicions that the queen was engaged in secret sexual liaisons. Her Catholic opponents challenged her virtue, and accused her of a “filthy lust” that had “defiled her body and the country”. The king of France joked that one of the great questions of the day was “whether Queen Elizabeth was a maid or no”. The courts of Europe were abuzz with gossip as to the queen of England’s behaviour.
From the very earliest months of her reign, rumours spread of Elizabeth’s relationship with Robert Dudley, her “sweet Robin” whom she had known since childhood. Within days of her accession, Elizabeth had appointed Dudley as master of the horse – a position that guaranteed almost daily contact. The Spanish ambassador reported to the king of Spain that “Lord Robert has come so much into favour that he does whatever he likes and it is even said that Her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night”.
The pair’s attraction to one another was widely commented upon, and their flirtatious behaviour shocked observers. When in 1560 Robert Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart, was found with her neck broken at the bottom of a staircase, speculation was rife as to the involvement of the queen and her favourite. In the years that followed, their close relationship continued, but any lingering possibility of a future marriage was cast aside.
Elizabeth’s councillors were determined to secure a favourable marriage for her, both as a means of consolidating England’s position in Europe and to provide an heir to succeed her. While there was no lack of suitors, including Philip II of Spain; Erik XIV of Sweden and the Archdukes Ferdinand and Charles of Austria, no one managed to win the queen’s favour or the unanimous support of her council. While foreign negotiations continued, Elizabeth enjoyed the attention of young male courtiers like Thomas Heneage, Christopher Hatton and Walter Raleigh, and later Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, all of whom flirted their way into the queen’s favour.
But Robert Dudley remained the queen’s first, and probably only love. Perhaps as a reaction to Dudley’s marriage to Lettice Devereux, dowager countess of Essex in the autumn of 1578, the following year Elizabeth welcomed Francois, the duke of Anjou, brother of the king of France, to the English court to present his suit for marriage.
It was not an ideal match. Anjou was a 20-something tiny and pockmarked Catholic who was widely rumoured to be a transvestite. Nonetheless, Elizabeth had always longed to be wooed in person by one of her illustrious suitors, and for a time she seemed to be genuine in her affections and interest in Anjou, whom she affectionately named her ‘frog’.
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After a few weeks Anjou returned to France and negotiations appeared to falter in the face of public opposition to the match, but in October 1581 Anjou returned to England. Since his previous visit, he had continued to write love letters to the queen in which he expressed his desire to be “kissing and rekissing all that Your beautiful Majesty can think of”, as well as to be “in bed between the sheets in your beautiful arms”.
Upon his arrival in London Elizabeth once again seemed enthralled and enraptured by Anjou’s presence, and on 22 November, when the court was assembled at Whitehall to celebrate the Accession Day festivities, Elizabeth declared in public that she intended to marry him. She proceeded to kiss him on the mouth and give him her ring. Yet overnight, Elizabeth apparently had second thoughts and announced the next day she would not marry Anjou.
It is doubtful whether Elizabeth had really intended to go ahead with the marriage given the popular hostility to it, but when Anjou finally departed she made much of being grief-stricken at the loss of her lover “with whom she so unwillingly parted”.
With the failure of the French match, hopes that Elizabeth would marry came to an end, but as she grew old and increasingly isolated she continued to seek the attention of her male courtiers. Robert Devereux, the young earl of Essex and stepson of Robert Dudley, was Elizabeth’s last great flirtation. Despite the age gap between them, the nature of the relationship was again speculated upon. He soon became master of the horse and moved into his stepfather’s apartments at court. One of Essex’s servants boasted that “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.”
But this was a different kind of relationship than the one Elizabeth had had with Dudley, and was more about the desire of an ageing woman to be made to feel young and attractive by a handsome young courtier. Yet Elizabeth was never so swept away by her emotions that she lost a keen sense of political realities. In 1601, after what was seen to be an attempted coup against her, she ordered Essex’s execution.
In 1603 Elizabeth, then almost 70, died unmarried and celebrated as England’s great ‘Virgin Queen’. Yet her death served only to continue speculation about her private life. In the years that followed, the questioning of Elizabeth’s virginity was no longer confined to hostile Catholic discourse, and there was a growing sense that Elizabeth’s private feelings had compromised the integrity of her rule.
In life, Elizabeth and the ladies of the bedchamber had tenaciously defended the chastity of her body to protect her reputation and defend her crown. In death, it is surely the possibility that she was not chaste that continues to fascinate, and ensure Elizabeth’s enduring popularity and appeal.
Dr Anna Whitelock is a reader in early modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court (Bloomsbury, 2013).
This article was first published by History Extra in April 2015.