Gather ye scandals while ye may

Returning for the moment to the truth about Elizabeth’s sex life: grievous as it must have been for her as a woman to have her favorite, Robert Dudley, placed under house arrest following the death of his wife Amy Robsart, the scandal it caused was probably a blessing in disguise for her politically, as it saved her from the marriage that, given the Reformation nature of the Court, must necessarily have followed quickly had she slept with him. Had she done so, everyone at Court would have known it within minutes, and if somehow they missed it, or they couldn’t be sure, Dudley himself would certainly have found a way to let them know. At a Court where morality was a constant issue and no one had any privacy, for the unmarried queen to have slept with a courtier would have required an immediate wedding, if not to Dudley (who, lest we forget, was already married), then to some other candidate for her hand.

Once past that watershed, there was no possibility that Elizabeth, given her history, would ever again get so close to intercourse. Alfred Kinsey offers evidence from his exhaustive clinical studies and interviews with American women in the 1950s––an era not quite so repressive as Elizabeth’s, but far more so than it would become once The Pill launched the so-called sexual revolution of the “swinging sixties.” In the 1950s of Kinsey’s era:

At forty-five years of age there were still 15 percent of the devout Protestant females who had never experienced orgasm in their lives, but only 5 percent of the inactive [not devout] Protestants who belonged in that category. . . There seems to be no doubt that the moral restraints which lead a female to avoid sexual contacts before marriage, and to inhibit her responses when she does make contacts, may also affect her capacity to respond erotically later in her life. (516)

In Elizabeth’s case, her restraint had nothing to do with piety. Biographers Elizabeth Jenkins and Anne Somerset, after studying the heaps of documents that bear on the Elizabethan reign, bold hold that the Seymour affair caused permanent damage to her psycho-sexual development. Thomas Seymour’s overbold flirtation, followed by the horrors of his trial and execution, not to mention her own ordeal by the third degree to which she was subjected by Somerset, took place at that most sensitive moment in a girl’s development when, as Kinsey describes, her body had become that of a woman but her ability to respond sexually was still not fully formed. Of mature unmarried women with no experience of orgasm, Kinsey says:

Many of them were sexually responsive enough, but they were inhibited, chiefly by their moral training [as Protestants] and had not allowed themselves to respond to the point of orgasm. Many of them had been psychologically disturbed as a result of this blockage of their sexual responses. (526)

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”

As so many poets of the time would express during her reign, the springtime of life must be experienced before it passes by, or flowers die on the vine before pollination and fruition can take place. Kinsey makes what may be the most important point where our interest in Elizabeth is concerned:

All of these females . . . were limited in their understanding of the nature of sexual responses and orgasm, and many of them seemed unable to comprehend what sexual activity could mean to other persons. They disapproved of the sexual activities of females who had high rates of outlet [satisfaction] and they were particularly incapable of understanding the rates of response which we have reported for the males in the population. . . . When such frustrated or sexually unresponsive, unmarried females attempt to direct the behavior of other persons, they may do considerable damage. (our emphasis)

As many at Court would have agreed. Elizabeth’s biographer Anne Somerset describes her attitude towards her ladies-in-waiting:

Ideally Elizabeth would have preferred it if more of her female attendants had followed the example of ladies such as Blanche Parry and Mary Radcliffe and remained single. Not only did she resent the upheavals that her ladies’ marriages caused in her own domestic arangements . . . but she failed to see why they needed the fulfilment of family life any more than she did. She would “much exhort all her women to remain in virgin state as much as may be,” and even on those occasions when she pretended that she would not mind if they married and asked her ladies if they had anyone in mind, “the wise ones did well conceal their liking thereto, as knowing the Queen’s judgement in this matter.” (346-7)

Elizabeth’s ignorance when it came to the emotional realities of marriage and family life can be seen in her amazingly naive idea of 1563 that the problem of Mary Queen of Scots could be solved by persuading her to marry her own favorite, Dudley (not yet Earl of Leicester, a title she gave him so that he’d be legally able to marry one so high above him in rank). As explained by another biographer, since she couldn’t marry him herself, she would take care of him in this way, and her sister Queen as well. It’s rather sad.

Most significant is the intensity of her rage when some member of the Court was caught either having sex or marrying without her permission (348). It’s one thing to get cross with a couple who know they need her permission and don’t ask for it, or who endanger the Court’s reputation with careless behavior. It’s another to throw them in the Tower, using jailors to keep them separated, leaving them there to rot, for months, even years. Doubtless some of this was calculated to maintain control, but still, would a woman who herself had had, or was having, adult sexual relations for pleasure, carry these tantrums to the extremes that she did?

Not only did she hate to see her courtiers pair off, either sexually or as marriage partners, she was ice cold to normal family needs, refusing to allow ambassadors to return to their families after they’d been abroad for years, making decisions that separated couples and family members, and looking for any excuse to refuse the wives of her favorite male courtiers access to Court society. Her time was one that did not pay much attention to what we think of as family bonding, but Elizabeth took this to extremes. Neither sexual nor family needs were in her vocabulary.

Another symptom of her negativity towards marriage and family was her determination that Protestant clergymen remain unmarried. Obtaining the right to marry and have legitimate children was one of the leading reasons why many Catholic clergymen were willing to join the Protestant revolution. Had her reasons been political, she would surely have yielded on a point that was so obviously politically expedient. Why should she care whether or not these men married?   But she was undetered, refusing to promote those who were married, while she favored both courtiers and clergymen who remained unmarried, giving them top spots in her government while sending the married men off to foreign embassies, which in many cases meant separating them from their wives and children.

Lovely lads

Historians tell us that Elizabeth had many “favorites,” but we mustn’t assume that a favorite was a lover (the Elizabethans often use the word lover to mean a particularly close friend and the word friend to mean what we mean by lover). Accepting that Dudley played a signficantly different role in her life, Elizabeth’s other favorites were more like protégés, particularly as she got older––good to look at, fun to talk to, and above all, good dancers. The estates and lucrative monopolies she bestowed on them were less gestures of affection than bonds to keep them by her side and, not least, to keep them out of the marriage market. And God help them if they strayed!

What confuses historians is the fantasy of courtship that she required, not only from her favorites, but from almost any man in search of a post or a favor. Peculiar as it may seem to us today, this was largely a function of the times, a vestigial remain of the medieval tradition of Courtly Love, the unselfish devotion of a knight to a lady who outranks him. The billing and cooing that this required, much of it in the form of coy love notes, lavish gifts of jewelry and clothing, poems, and eloquent dedications. She hugely enjoyed her political courtships with Continental princes, in the case of her last, the Duc d’Alençon, dragging it out for over a decade (Somerset Ladies 72).

Throughout her career she was inclined to respond positively to the kind of tactics that most adults would regard as an invitation to intimacy, but with her this was no more than a charade indulged in purely for pleasure and, in the case of a genuine suitor, intended to keep him interested for as long as possible. The pleasure was all in the prologue, which was all there was and all there could ever be.

That Elizabeth greatly appreciated masculine beauty is reflected in the good looks of the men around her, Dudley, Oxford, Hatton, Raleigh, Sidney, Southampton and many others. These may have had other accomplishments to offer, but their looks were certainly important. At Elizabeth’s Court, masculine beauty far outshone the feminine, a situation that Elizabeth controlled by giving grief to any female who dared to dress more luxuriously than herself, and by requiring that her Maids of Honor all dress in white as backdrop to her own peacock array. While women were covered with fabric from head to toe, with great bulky sleeves and skirts, men’s bodies, though covered, were far more obvious, particularly their legs. During a period known to geologists as the “little ice age,” the legs of the younger men were covered only with tight hose, topped with snug little jackets, not much there to keep warm as they stood about in the cold rooms of the palace. No wonder there was so much dancing!

Marriage yes, sex no

Of course there have been queens who had lovers. Catherine the Great of Russia was one that we know about, Marguerite de Valois another, but their circumstances were very different from Elizabeth’s. Both had powerful family connections to rely on, while Elizabeth, with no close relations to any of the great pan-European ruling families and without brothers or uncles more powerful than herself, was in an extremely weak position from the start. Her father’s family saw her as an upstart, even a bastard, while her mother’s family, the Howards, most of them Catholics, were more inclined to plot against her than to support her.

In addition, both the Russian and French queens flourished at courts where promiscuity was open and rampant, a lifestyle that even had Elizabeth been so inclined, her evangelical ministers would never have tolerated. Raised from birth in households dependent on the Court, she knew all too well its capacity for rumor. She knew that if she ever had sex with Dudley, or Hatton, or Oxford, or Raleigh, or any of her so-called favorites, someone would know about it, and so intense was the scrutiny under which she functioned, so important was it to defy the rumors, both at home and abroad, of the notorious sexuality of this Protestant “Whore of Babylon” and the gazillion bastards she was supposed to have borne in secret, that as the major promoter of Protestantism abroad, even had she wished otherwise, she simply had no choice.

As social historian Lawrence Stone informs us, today’s concept of privacy was unknown to the Elizabethans (6). Elizabeth rarely slept alone; in fact, neither she nor any monarch ever did anything completely alone. For purposes of security there was always someone near enough to her to hear if there was any kind of trouble, or, if she wished to be by herself, someone close enough to keep an eye on her. Her retainers would have been acutely aware of any substantial amount of time spent alone with anyone but her oldest and hoariest ministers. In addition, the women who surrounded her were the wives, sisters, and daughters of the men who ran her Court and the nation. For their sakes as well as her own, she could not afford to do anything that would tempt them to reveal things that were damaging to her reputation or authority.

Beware the “monstrous regiment of women”

For Elizabeth, it was absolutely imperative that she retain the respect of her Privy Council. They need not love her; they need not even like her; but they had to respect her. If she lost their respect she would find herself isolated, a danger she could not risk. Had she been a male her sex life would have been of small concern to the Council. As a woman, one whose duty it was to marry and produce a legitimate heir to the throne, anything that threatened this scenario would have been a disaster, certainly for her and possibly for them as well.

Francis Osborne in his Memoirs (1658) quotes Henri IV of France as saying that there were three things that people thought false that he knew to be true: that contrary to opinion, the Prince of Orange was a great general, that he himself was a true Catholic, and that the Queen of England was a virgin (Chamberlin 194). Henri was the brother-in-law of Elizabeth’s last princely suitor, the Duc d’Alençon. Because he was a legal suitor, she was able to spend many hours alone with him, soon becoming very fond of this small, ugly, unthreatening man, many years younger than herself, so fond that she may well have fooled even herself, however briefly, as to her intentions to marry.

Family members don’t always get along, certainly Navarre and d’Alençon did not, but they are also inclined, at moments when they are together, to exchange the kind of information that they might not share with others. Navarre would have been interested in anything his brother had to tell him about the Queen whose friendship he so badly needed (while posing as a Protestant, he continually sent her envoys begging her for loans), particularly since he himself had once been considered as a candidate for her hand.

“God sent us our Elizabeth” 

The Queen of England may have lacked support from the Establishment of European Royalty, but she more than made up for it by the support of her people. Absent the backing of a powerful family network like the Hapsburgs, the Valois or the Medici, her main source of support was the vast hordes of English commoners. During Mary’s reign, her popularity with the people was the major factor in her sister’s hatred. That she was “married to her people” was one of her favorite excuses for not marrying.

The feeling was mutual. To her people the queen would always be the golden-haired angel whose coronation ended the years of imprisonments, torture, burnings and exile. During the early days of her reign, a poem known as “The Register,” that listed the horrors of the burnings during Mary’s reign, ended each verse with the refrain: “After these were burned to death, we prayed for our Elizabeth.” The final verse that listed the last of the burnings, ended with the line: “And after these were burned to death, God sent us our Elizabeth.” Evidence of their love can be found in the many affectionate Mother Goose rhymes about Lizzie, Betty or Bess. Yet, although her people wanted her to be happy and to provide the nation with an heir (or two), at some level they were pleased by her virginity, for had she married, their vision of her would be forced to change, as happened to her sister following Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain. She knew from Mary Queen of Scots (and many other examples) that, should she give birth to the all-important heir, how their interest would shift immediately from herself to her son.

She was also aware that in a nation so bitterly divided over religion and regional interests, she would never be able to please all, or even half of her people through politics alone. Elizabeth’s purity was a story they bought into when they first came to know her as a child. They had watched as she bore with courage and dignity the cruelties perpetrated on her, first by her father, then by Protector Somerset, and finally by her sister. Despite all the rumors of sex with Seymour and the curse of bastardy, they continued to believe in her, and would continue, that is, so long as there was never any proof that she was otherwise.

The people were also her refuge from the tyranny of her Privy Council. If they wanted her to do something she didn’t want to do, whenever possible she would use her people’s love against them. To them she must remain their golden-haired princess, long after the real hair under the red wig had turned sparse and gray. By 1573 she had seen how even a queen from a powerful family like Mary Queen of Scots was treated by her once loyal people after she made the mistake of marrying a man they didn’t like. By not marrying, though it drove her ministers crazy, Elizabeth was able to keep that most valuable weapon in the political battles she had to fight over the years, the undying love of her people.

Playing the marriage card

As canny a politician as ever lived, Elizabeth hadn’t been in the top power seat for long before she realized that, when it came to the masculine arena of international politics, her sex did give her one great benefit. Where other royal females had to marry men chosen by their fathers and brothers, because she was (legally) free to choose for herself, she had something to offer that no male monarch could provide. While marriage to a male monarch could offer only an alliance, marriage to Elizabeth was seen by the princes of Europe as a potential means of adding England to their sphere of influence. This of course would have been a problem for England, but only if she actually married one of them.

The reality was that as long as she remained unmarried, what she did and said may have carried more weight than it would had she been a king. As a queen of marriageable age, one who had, not just an alliance, but conceivably a throne to offer, she wielded a kind of power at the royal courts of Europe that only an unmarried female monarch could. For a good many years it was chiefly this Royal Ace that kept Spain from attacking England and France from invading Scotland. It helped make Sweden and Russia willing to negotiate treaties and trade alliances, and kept them from forming similar alliances with her rivals.

Of course, time would eventually run out for her in this royal shell game, as of course she knew it would. Nevertheless, by careful negotiation, by enveloping herself in pearls and cloth of gold for the portraits that were all most of her people and all members of foreign courts would ever see of her, and by surrounding herself with an attractive entourage at a Court where envoys and ambassadors knew they could always find good entertainment, she managed to keep the game going for almost two decades, giving England time to build a navy, secure its borders, and consolidate most of the nation in a vigorous Protestant lifestyle. Largely as a result of this pretense at royal dalliance, when Spain finally attacked in 1588, England was ready.

The White Goddess

The 16th century in Europe is often referred to as the Age of Queens. With Mary Queen of Scots in Scotland, Elizabeth in England, and Marie de Medici in France, women appeared to rule much of Europe. As suggested by the opening scene in Henry V, this was as much a worry to the Renaissance Church as it had been to the war lords of the Middle Ages. But on a deeply emotional level, a much older if generally silent attitude towards a female in power deafened her rural constituents to the shrieks and howls of anti-feminists like John Knox and Pope Gregory.

It was ages since the patriarchal kingdoms and religions had supplanted the earliest religion, the one that worshipped the Great Mother, the central deity in the Stone Age rituals of tribal Europe. But behind the threats of an angry Reformation God, of Jehovah or Zeus or Mithras, behind her portrayals by the patriarchs as raging Juno, the furious Eumenides, or the Medusa whose face turned men to stone, the sense of a magical mother of men lingered deep in the hearts of ordinary people, particularly in rural areas where they were still dependent on the earth for survival, and where they continued, with May Day rituals like the maypole, to worship the Mary hidden in words like May Day (Mary’s Day), “merry-making,” and marriage.

In the British Isles the Goddess was known by many names, most recently the Virgin Mary and St. Brigid, but long before them by assorted Celtic and Frankish names. She dwells at the silent heart of the ancient mysteries, and of the legends of the Holy Grail sought by Parsifal and Galihad. As Diana, Cynthia, Astraea, or Phoebe, ancient goddesses of the moon and the hunt, the poets of the Renaissance resurrected her as Elizabeth in hundreds of paintings, poems, and plays while artists arrayed her in splendors that drew upon prehistoric racial memories. The modern English poet and mythologist, Robert Graves, based his great study of the role of British mythology in English literature, on a being he describes as

a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips as red as rowan berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair; she will suddenly transform herself into sow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid or loathsome hag. Her names and titles are innumerable. In ghost stories she often figures as “the White Lady, “ and in ancient religions, from the British Isles to the Caucasus, as “the White Goddess.” I cannot think of any true poet from Homer onwards who has not independently recorded his experience of her. The test of a poet’s vision, one might say, is the accuracy of his portrayal of the White Goddess and of the island over which she rules. (24)

Now who does that sound like? (All but the blue eyes––Elizabeth’s were gray.) And no, Graves was not thinking of Elizabeth when he wrote it, but that it sounds so much like her helps to explain why she meant so much to her people, who, tapping into a shared if attavistic memory must have felt that they had known Her forever, and that, unlike Arthur, who remained in Avalon, She had returned to protect them. Elizabeth was all too human, but for a nation shaking with the tremors of great changes in a world view terrifyingly expanded by Copernicus, it was easy for the superstitious country folk who knew nothing of her personally to see in her something of the great goddesses of yore, something she knew instinctively that she would lose should she marry.

Thus Elizabeth, with the survival instincts that kept her reign intact for four decades, understood that by remaining unmarried she roused in the hearts of the country folk who were her most dedicated supporters, their subconscious devotion to the Ideal Feminine, the Great Goddess, lover and mother of mortal men, but not bound by them or to them. With the help of her poets, songwriters, and artists, she simply did an end run around Knox and Calvin, cheerfully acknowledging the artists who painted her and the poets who made her era one of the most famous in literary history.

Surrounded by her maids-of-honor and ladies-in-waiting, many of them unmarried (or seeming so), for poets and artists it was easy to portray her as Diana, goddess of the hunt, with her corps of virginal nymphs. Any reference to the Moon, beautiful but distant, was seen as a reference to Elizabeth. The myth of Actaeon, who made the mistake of coming upon Diana in the altogether, for which he was turned into a stag and hunted to death by his own dogs, sent the message: “look but don’t touch.”

As she left her marriageable years, portraits of her, loaded with goddess and imperial symbolism, were created and made available to those who wished to have copies made for themselves, thus spreading the goddess image throughout the nation. To keep the marriage card in play, to continue with the charade of being wooed by the great princes of Europe, was part and parcel of the Elizabethan mythology. Had she allowed one of these suits to end with a marriage would have meant a quick finish to the myth and all that went with it.

Evoking the Faerie Queene

Famed for its entertainment, for us today the image of Elizabeth’s Court comes closest to that of musical theater, with the queen as a regally attired diva surrounded by her corps of male dancers, her chorus of maidens all dressed alike. The ballet has preserved the styles of this era for all time, the males in tights and little jackets, the females all in white with great full skirts.

This was the show, but what about backstage? Most Renaissance courts were less than moral, some virtual sinks of sexual license, the almost inevitable result of an environment where scores of well-fed, attractive individuals have little to do but get dressed in the latest styles, drink to excess, gamble, gossip, plot, and urge suits to benefit themselves and their clients. Elizabeth’s Court was no different, that is, in everything but drunkeness and sexual license. In this it could not have been more unique.

The philandering of Church officials was one of England’s chief reasons for breaking with Rome and the Empire, one they used with effect in discussions with the other nations of Europe. With this and with the puritanical City fathers keeping watch, sobriety and morality were an absolute necessity. Elizabeth insisted upon it, her clergy preached it, and the most loyal members of her household were drawn from the strictest members of the Protestant establishment. Of course there were exceptions, we’re aware of some and no doubt there were many that escaped report, but when compared with the usual behavior of court societies, Elizabeth’s was marvelously well-behaved.

What an interesting dichotomy. Here was a Court where sexuality was forbidden, where the Queen saw to it that sex was as difficult as possible even for married couples, yet unlike the kind of gloomy, haunted environment that Philip II created at the Escorial in Spain, his strict piety forbidding any show of pleasure, for many years, Elizabeth’s Court was filled with music, dancing, and laughter. Flirtation was fine, just so long as it didn’t lead to anything more. The result was that the energy that otherwise would have gone ito private sexual assignations, went instead into the rituals of flirtation. Since nothing else could happen, the glances, sighs, love songs and poems that documented the sensations of lovemaking, expanded the rituals of flirtation to fill the time that, for less repressed environments, would have been devoted to sexual fulfilment. Such a climate also fosters efforts to discover romantic secrets, to intercept meaningful glances, to grasp through hints what at other courts was openly displayed, who was in love with whom, an atmosphere described in the poem Ann Vavasor wrote to Oxford when the Queen forced them to part:

Thou seest we live amongst the lynx’s eyes,
That pries and spies each privy thought of mind;
Thou knowest right well what sorrows may arise
If once they chance my settled looks to find.

Content thyself that once I made an oath
To shield myself in shroud of honest shame;
And when thou list, make trial of my troth,
So that thou save the honor of my name. . . .

We silly dames, that false suspect do fear,
And live within the mouth of envy’s lake,
Must in our hearts a secret meaning bear,
Far from the show that outwardly we make.

So where I like, I list not vaunt my love;
Where I desire, there must I feign debate.
One hath my hand, another hath my glove,
But he my heart whom most I seem to hate. . . .

As all novelists are aware, the romantic passion that feeds on adversity, dies with security. There is no greater stimulus to desire than anticipation, no greater damper than satiety. Where a community of several hundred souls spend their days in an atmosphere of permanently unsatisfied excitement, like work to the workaholic, Desire becomes an end in itself. The repressive atmosphere at Elizabeth’s Court had a great deal to do with the upsurge of poetry that occurred during her reign, culminating in superb works of frustration such as Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, Raleigh’s Cynthia, even Spenser’s Faerie Queene. These gorgeous fleurs du mal were products of the hothouse of sexual repression demanded from the pulpit and experienced by her courtiers. And so the background to the rich profusion of works that emerged from Elizabeth’s Court was nurtured by the frustration emanating from the Queen herself, as suggested in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Titania sighs in Act III, “The Moon methinks looks with a watery eye; and when she weeps, weeps every little flower, lamenting some enforced chastity.” As always in Shakespeare, “the Moon” is referring to Elizabeth.

With the advent of King James and the rampantly immoral atmosphere of his Court, the mood changed abruptly. With plays like Bartholomew Fair, Volpone, The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi, and Tis Pity She’s a Whore, playwrights sought to outdo each other with incest, violence, excruciating cruelty and bitterly sardonic wit. Disgusted, John Donne turned from writing the most lyrical love poetry of the late Elizabethan period to a stern piety, while Shakespeare wrote bitterly of sex in Measure for Measure and King Lear.

All things historical and psychological affirm this as the truth about Elizabeth’s sex life.  As with every other aspect of the Authorship Question, let’s try to keep it in mind.

2 responses to “Gather ye scandals while ye may

  1. Astute and accurate comment from beginning to end of this posting. I become less and less tempted by the PT theory or the PT2 theory. And this makes the contrast between Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots all the more evident, with Mary coming off as considerably less canny about men or marriage than her English rival.

    And the passage on the dress of male courtiers with only hose against the drafts in castle audience chambers…gives me the cold shivers. Nice detail. They would indeed have needed to dance the lavolta!

  2. Also, good use of the mythological insight given by scholar-poet Robert Graves, whose work I admire.

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