Queen Elizabeth ruled England for over fifty years. She was known as the “Virgin Queen” because she never married. We do not know if Elizabeth was literally a virgin. She did have many admirers and favorites. Her family, filled with soap opera-level drama, showed her the dangers of marriage and childbirth. A life as an unmarried monarch, toying with the idea of marriage, had its benefits. Elizabeth’s strength and independence were inherited from both her parents. She ultimately was a beloved symbol of England.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Elizabeth (born 1533) was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.
Henry insisted that Anne was his first legitimate wife. He argued that his first marriage was illegitimate under church law. On her part, Anne previously refused to be merely the king’s mistress. A strong-willed and educated woman, she wanted to be his wife.
Elizabeth’s childhood was not a happy one. Her mother was executed for adultery and treason. He remarried and had a son (Edward), who became heir instead of his older sister. Her new stepmother died. Her father remarried three more times before he died in 1547.
One marriage was annulled. The second marriage resulted in another execution. Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth and final wife, treated Elizabeth well. Henry died before any lethal problems arose. Elizabeth’s nine-year-old half-brother Edward became King Edward VI.
Elizabeth was fourteen years old.
Jane Seymour was the mother of Edward. Thomas was her brother and the future king’s uncle. Catherine Parr married Thomas Seymour shortly after Henry’s death.
Elizabeth joined the couple’s household. Catherine Parr played an important role in Elizabeth’s upbringing, including ensuring that she received a good education.
Elizabeth’s mother died when she was a toddler. She was not close with her other stepmothers. Catherine was probably the closest to a mother that Elizabeth had. Catherine sent Elizabeth away after catching Elizabeth and Thomas in an embrace. This must have been traumatic.
We begin our “virgin queen” story in earnest here. We also see the limitations of determining with crystal clarity the intimate lives of people from hundreds of years ago. We do not know the nature of their relationship, including if there was some sort of sexual relationship.
We do know of some sort of what we can call “horseplay,” including tickling. At some point, the attention was unwanted. Elizabeth tried to make sure not to be alone.
Catherine soon died in childbirth. Thomas tried to convince Elizabeth to marry him. Elizabeth refused. Thomas Seymour was executed for an attempted plot to gain control over the throne, now held by young Edward (his nephew).
Elizabeth, not yet sixteen, was questioned. She denied any involvement. But, many thought she was somehow implicated.
Edward died while he was still a teenager. Henry’s daughter with his first wife became queen. You can learn more about “Bloody Mary” here. For our story, we can simply note that Elizabeth’s observations of her half-sister’s short reign (1553-8) again made her wary about marriage.
Mary married a foreign Catholic prince. The British people were worried this would lead to a foreigner controlling the government. Marriages were often a means to ally with a powerful family or foreign nation. Nonetheless, a queen was a sensitive matter because traditionally the male had the power. Also, she married a Catholic, raising religious complications.
(Mary’s grandmother was the Spanish Queen Isabella, who with her husband King Ferdinand, sponsored Christopher Coumbus’ trip to America.)
Mary never gave birth to an heir. She had multiple false alarms. Elizabeth saw multiple stepmothers die from complications of childbirth. Now, her sister had many more problems.
Was Queen Elizabeth “Truly” A Virgin?
Queen Elizabeth (1559)
Elizabeth (like Elizabeth II centuries later) became queen at age 25. She would reign until 1603. Elizabeth would never marry or have children. She was the “Virgin Queen.”
We simply do not know if she was literally a virgin. We do not know if she ever had sex. Nonetheless, life as a monarch was akin to a fish in a fishbowl. It is unlikely she had the ability to hide a pregnancy. Few historians believe there is a chance that she was ever pregnant.
Elizabeth: Virgin Queen? by Philippa Jones is a rare exception. This book does not argue that it is definitely true that she was pregnant and gave birth. It does argue that it is possible.
Queen Elizabeth had many admirers. She also had close intimate relationships with multiple men. Robert Dudley, her “sweet Robin,” might have been her first love.
They knew each other from childhood. She made him her “master of the horse,” which allowed for close daily contact. Their flirtation with each other was infamous. When his wife died, Elizabeth seriously thought about marrying him. But, the marriage never occurred.
The two continued to be very close. When he died in 1588, the queen was so distraught that she locked herself in her room for days. She kept the last letter he sent her in a box near her bed.
Elizabeth Refuses Marriage
Elizabeth’s advisors did want her to get married. Marriage was an expected part of life. She needed an heir. An heir would help avoid the power struggles since Henry’s death. A marriage was also a good way to obtain an alliance with a foreign monarch. Many options were available.
Queen Elizabeth, however, found single life to her liking. She enjoyed the attention of many admirers and possible husbands. Elizabeth knew she would have a bargaining chip as long as she was not married.
She saw from personal experience the dangers of marriage, including to a foreign prince. She was a strong, independent monarch. She did not feel a need for a husband.
Elizabeth’s independence and conviction she could rule alone is not surprising for the daughter of a king and a mother who insisted she was fit to be queen.
Her father broke with the Catholic Church partially to ensure a male heir. Ironically, Edward died young, and it was one of his daughters that became the most powerful queen England would have.
Dudley’s Stepson and Supposed Son
A man calling himself Arthur Dudley later claimed to be the illegitimate child of Elizabeth and Robert. He told the Spanish, who had him in custody under suspicion of being a spy, a tale that Elizabeth gave birth to him while she was bedridden with an illness.
The Spanish king was open to the story being true. Nonetheless, the Spanish government officially rejected the tale. It is unlikely the queen would be able to hide a pregnancy.
Robert Devereux, the young earl of Essex and stepson of Robert Dudley, was Elizabeth’s last great flirtation. He took over his stepfather’s old role as “master of the house.” Flattery from young courtiers kept her young. But, when it seemed like Devereux was involved in a plot against her rule, Elizabeth ordered his execution. She was careful about her power to the end.
There were various rumors about why the queen never married. Was something physically wrong with her? One rumor that started was that the queen was actually a man! She supposedly died as a child and a nurse replaced her with a boy. Could a woman really rule so long and so well?
She continued to have flirtations and suitors. Her last suitor was Francois, the Duke of Anjou, brother of the king of France, who at the time was over twenty years her junior.
Walter Raleigh named the land in America he was given control over after her. Thus, the name “Virginia.”’
In time, her role as the “Virgin Queen” was well appreciated by the British people. She was symbolically married to the people themselves. A virgin, like the Virgin Mary, was someone who was pure and selfless. Her devotion was to the British people.
Elizabeth died at age 69, officially a virgin. James, her cousin, became the king of England.