I loved her whom all the world admir’d,
I was refused of her that can love none.
……………….Earl of Essex (May Poetry 47)
There have been many myths created about Elizabeth, but in no area of her life has the truth been so used and abused as that of her love life. This is not surprising since, unlike every other queen of her time, and most monarchs, she remained single for fifty years, defying the most daunting pressures to marry, blatantly defying the rumor-mongers by adorning herself, or allowing others to adorn her, with the soubriquet “the Virgin Queen,” while surrounding herself with handsome men she raised to wealth, power, and social eminence. No wonder that some have seen this behavior as bizarre, perhaps deviant, or simply a smoke-screen for a sex life that had to be kept private.
But to those who know the Queen’s life story and who have some understanding of female psychology, it should be obvious that her so-called hatred of marriage stemmed as much from fear as from policy, more obviously from the probable loss of her authority to any man she married. Less obvious perhaps was her deep-seated fear of pregnancy. Marriage meant sex which, in turn, meant pregnancy. As long as she could avoid marriage, she could avoid both.
How much truth was there to the Virgin tag?
No one can know for certain whether or not Elizabeth was, in fact, a virgin, for the simple reason that no one (but a personal physician) can ever know the truth about someone else’s sex life. No area of a human’s life is more hidden or more lied about. While today it takes a particular kind of private detective to catch ordinary people in flagrante delecto, even they can’t get anywhere near enough to the great film and music stars and other celebrities that are today’s version of the lords and ladies of the 16th century, much less could the 16th-century papparazzi catch unawares a Reformation-era queen who was impossible to approach without permission and who was never out of sight or hearing of retainers whose welfare depended on protecting her, even, if necessary, from herself.
Of course there were rumors. Based on those that made it into print (and that ever since have been repeated, over and over, amplified and distorted, by historians and biographers bent on seeing everything through the moral lens of their own time) we can be sure that these and others like them were hugely compounded in her own time. But that’s only to be expected. All great social or political leaders are prey to rumors, particularly when it comes to sex, even more when they’re women. But no amount of rumor or supposition can supply something that simply can’t be known, nor can any viable theory about the period be based on an assumption where there are no facts in evidence.
Kings and other powerful males are generally cut some moral slack. In fact, for a king to demonstrate a higher than normal sexual appetite has long been accepted, even applauded. Since before humanity left the treetops, what in other males would be seen as reckless promiscuity has generally been regarded in both head apes and kings as an admirable demonstration of masculine power. Consider the courts of antiquity that included scores of wives and concubines, mothers of the king’s hundreds of children. But the attitude has always been far different for history’s female monarchs.
From Semiramis and Messalina on down, the sex lives of powerful female rulers have been invented and/or amplified to extravagantly kinky extremes, so that history––written by men who often prefer a sexy fable to dull reality––remembers them, not so much as who they really were, but as how those who envied, feared, or hated them chose to portray them. Consider the terrible lies told about Marie Antoinette at her trial, so obviously untrue that even the gang of bloodthirsty females who wanted to see her head cut off hissed the prosecuting attorney until he was forced to drop the charges (that she had sex with her little son). Consider the (physically impossible) stories told about the brilliant Catherine of Russia.
Whatever the nature and intensity of the rumors, the likelihood is that those queens who had some power of choice over the matter had lovers during their youthful years with whom they had normal sex relations––no orgies, no incest, no horses, no bathing in the blood of teenage virgins. However, with Elizabeth not even that is possible. She had favorites, yes, and she was obviously attracted to handsome men, but for many reasons, that she did anything more than simply enjoy their company is so unlikely as to be out of the question
As for giving birth to illegitimate children, that is a sheer impossibility. First of all, without knowing anything but that she was an unmarried queen, why on earth would she? For a child to result there has to be penetration. As with all living creatures, human females included, the impulse that results in intercourse is the urge to achieve orgasm. Since women can easily achieve this without risking pregnancy, it’s fair to ask, if an adult woman––particularly one as intelligent as Elizabeth, one who does not have to cater to the ego of a lover––if she can have the pleasures of sex without the danger of getting pregnant, why on earth would she risk it? The answer is simple: she wouldn’t. Even so, for a number of compelling reasons it’s unlikely that Queen Elizabeth ever got that far.
“I have already joined myself in marriage to a husband, namely the kingdom of England.”
It’s an indisputable fact, known to all who research the history of her time, that Elizabeth was dead set against marriage. Her biography is full of statements like the above. This was no bit of coy behavior, meant to entice, but a profound attitude, stated over and over and expressed by many actions over the years, including some ferocious showdowns with her Privy Councillors and Parliaments, and probably her own female retinue, everyone in fact but Elizabeth herself, since everyone knew that a secure transmission of power was dependent on her producing a legitimate heir (or even an illegitimate heir, if such a thing were possible). Her godson, Sir John Harington, who knew her well, wrote of her in his 1602 Tract on the Succession to the Crown:
Than to make the world think she could have children of her own, she entertained till she was fifty years of age mentions of marriage; and though in mind she hath ever had an aversion and (as many think) in body some indisposition to the act of marriage, yet hath she ever made show of affection, and still doth to some men which in Court we term favorites, to hide that debility, enduring rather to run into some obliquy among strangers of a fault that she could not commit, then to be suspected to want anything that belongs to the perfection of a fair lady. (Kilroy 109)
Her fear of marriage came partly from her astute awareness of the political reality faced by any woman in a similar position of authority, namely that if she gives herself to a man, whether in marriage or by allowing him to “have her” sexually, she will lose to him some or, more likely, all of her authority, a well-founded and perfectly rational concern. She may have grasped this as early as age eight. In 1566, her long time favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, stated that
his true opinion was that she would never marry . . . he knew her majesty as well as or better than anyone else of her close acquaintance, for they had first become friends before she was eight years old. Both then and later (when she was old enough to marry) she said she never wished to do so. (DNB)
But politics only reinforced the real source of her fears, which grew from a handful of devastating personal experiences, her own and those of other women in her position. With the pressure from her councillors and the Parliament to marry and produce an heir, these two fears combined to create a psychological state of terror that was hard for her to hide and that they could not overcome. Since most of the personal events in her life added something to it, a full account would include almost her entire biography. Let’s look at three of the events that caused her such terror and that effected her most directly, beginning with the final blow.
The “wretched conspiracy”
The one moment in her life when we know for a fact that Elizabeth was on the brink of yielding to normal female sexual desires took place in the spring of 1559. Shortly after her coronation, the current Spanish Ambassador writes to his master, Philip of Spain:
Lord Robert has come so much in favor that he does whatever he likes with affairs, and it is even said that her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night. People talk of this so freely that they go so far as to say that his wife has a malady in one of her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert. (Read Secretary 198)
This story quickly spread to all the capitals of Europe. According to William Cecil’s biographer, Conyers Read:
Cecil appears to have been bewildered, but not greatly disturbed . . . . At that time he was more interested in getting the Queen married than in selecting her bridegroom. But when he got back from Scotland he was genuinely alarmed. The Queen would have none of him. She was altogether absorbed in dalliance with her Master of Horse. (198)
Elizabeth was in love. More than that, at twenty-five her sexuality, repressed till then by circumstance and by religious and political necessity, was on the verge of overwhelming her native reserves of fear and caution. That this was the case can be seen by her passion for riding through the fields, urging Dudley to send to Ireland for horses that could run harder and faster than her geldings. He wrote to Sussex: “She spareth not to try as fast as they can go. And I fear them much, but yet she will prove them” (199).
It would hardly have escaped her married courtiers that this fierce exercise was a substitute for the kind of exercise that the Queen was really craving. Some of her ladies, eager to see her wedded, may actually have been urging her, subtly of couse, to yield, for that would mean she would be forced to marry somebody. And everyone––that is, everyone but Elizabeth herself––wanted to see her married, pregnant, and with an heir or two.
Cecil, ignored by Elizabeth and scorned by Dudley, was frightened. Letters to colleagues suggest that he was making plans to resign. Yet how could he? With Dudley, his arch-rival, King or at least Royal Consort, Cecil’s days at Court would be numbered. A man with many enemies, his very life might be at stake. Courtiers who normally swarmed to greet him whenever he approached now turned away, their smiles growing ever more faint. On September 11th, 1560, the Spanish Ambassador wrote to a friend at the Spanish Court:
I met the Secretary Cecil, whom I know to be in disgrace. Lord Robert, I was aware, was endeavoring to deprive him of his place. With little difficulty I led him to the subject, and after my many protestations and entreaties that I would keep secret what he was about to tell me, he said that the Queen was going on so strangely that he was about to withdraw from her service. It was a bad sailor, he said, who did not make for port when he saw a storm coming, and for himself he perceived the most manifest ruin impending over the Queen through her intimacy with Lord Robert. The Lord Robert had made himself master of the business of the state and of the person of the Queen, to the extreme injury of the realm, with the intention of marrying her, and she herself was shutting herself up in the palace to the peril of her health and her life.
That the realm would tolerate the marriage he said that he did not believe. He was therefore determined to retire into the country although he supposed they would send him to the Tower before they would let him go. He implored me for the love of God to remonstrate with the Queen, to persuade her not utterly to throw herself away as she was doing and to remember what she owed to herself and her subjects. Of Lord Robert he said twice he would be better in paradise than here . . . He told me the Queen cared nothing for foreign princes. She did not believe she stood in any need of their support. She was deeply in debt, taking no thought how to clear herself, and she had ruined her credit in the city.
We should take particular note of the final four sentences:
Last of all he said that they [Elizabeth and Dudley] were thinking of destroying Lord Robert’s wife. They had given out that she was ill, but she was not ill at all; she was very well and taking care not to be poisoned. God, he trusted would never permit such a crime to be accomplished or so wretched a consipiracy to prosper. (199-200)
Read comments: “This is a strange letter and the picture it presents of Cecil is altogether out of character. Yet it is impossible to believe that de Quadra . . . would have invented it or seriously distorted it.” In Conyers Read’s view, anything that doesn’t fit his Victorian picture of a kindly, straightforward Cecil is “out of character,” but at least he has the honesty to report the facts.
Read accepts at face value Cecil’s claim that he is making these revelations to the Spanish Ambassador so that de Quadra will let Elizabeth know how her behavior was endangering her position both abroad and at home, himself being denied access to her. But de Quadra was a peculiar choice for such a mission, since, as Cecil well knew, he was far more friendly towards Dudley––who had promised him that, once married to Elizabeth, he’d work to reestablish Catholicism––than he was to Cecil, the Court’s leading “heretic” and his major adversary. Cecil was fully aware that, in such a matter, de Quadra would have been most inclined simply to let Nature, however wickedly, take its course.
Why then did the politically astute Secretary choose the Spanish ambassador for his confidante in this most sensitive matter? Events suggest the answer. On September 8, Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart, was found dead from a broken neck at the foot of a stone staircase in the house where she’d been living whilst her husband was courting the Queen. If the reported facts are accurate, this happened three days before de Quadra wrote his letter, so when Cecil had his “confidential” session with the Ambassador, he must already have known that Robsart was dead.
Needless to say there was a scandal, one that, largely thanks to Cecil and de Quadra, soon reached international proportions––as Cecil surely knew that it would. Despite the inquest that declared the death an accident, many both at home and abroad continued to believe that it was murder and that both Dudley and Elizabeth were implicated. Certainly de Quadra thought it was murder.
The tables are turned
Long story short: Elizabeth, desperate to retrieve respect for herself and her nation at the courts of Europe, was forced to put her lover under house arrest, where, brought to his knees, he wrote despairingly to Cecil, whom he’d been treating so cavalierly just days before.
I thank you much for your being here. And the great friendship you have showed towards me I shall not forget. I am very loathe to wish you here again but I would be very glad to be with you there. I pray you let me hear from you what you think best for me to do . . . (201)
Cecil could afford to be generous. Welcomed once more into the Queen’s presence, those who had been turning their backs on him once again smiling and turning to him for access to the Queen, with Dudley locked up under the shadow of a murder charge, Master Secretary Cecil was more secure than ever.
In spite of herself, Elizabeth loved Dudley. As soon as she could she brought him back to Court, but the moment for marriage had passed. With Cecil, her “Spirit,” present once again to keep a watchful eye on proceedings, she put off any discussion of marrying the favorite, making up to him for her change of heart by an outpouring of privileges and offices which once more fanned the flames of rumor. As her biographer reports:
If court gossip was to be believed, there were even times when [Dudley] was permitted to treat Elizabeth with a familiarity that threatened to overset the bounds of propriety. In the morning, he had the right to enter Elizabeth’s bedchamber after she had been woken by her ladies, and an enemy of Dudley’s claimed that on one occasion he had tried to hand the Queen her clothes as she was dressing, and had attempted to kiss her without being invited. (138)
Hot stuff! This may sound like marriage, but it hardly sounds like passion.
This incident occured in the late summer of 1560 when the Queen was in her late twenties. Young, relatively healthy, two years into her reign and, for the first time in her life able to feel somewhat secure, she had fallen in love with this attractive, virile, seemingly devoted friend of her childhood, a man perfectly suited to her nature in every way. With Secretary of State Cecil gone for months in Scotland to craft the Treaty of Edinburgh––the only time he would ever again dare to leave her side for more than a few days––she had relaxed into dalliance, ignoring business and spending days on end riding through the summer meadows with her man.
Obviously she was teetering on the brink, and had Dudley been free, had his wife’s neck remained intact, it’s certainly possible, despite fears, traumas, and politics, if there was any time in her life that she could have relaxed enough to become pregnant, this would have been it. Rumors abounded then and continue today that she did. But Fate was rushing Elizabeth once again towards reliving the most terrible trauma of her young life, her first brush with sex at age fourteen. Once was bad, twice was more than her psyche could handle. Never again would she come so close.
“Here comes a candle to light you to bed . . .
It should be no surprise that the death of Amy Robsart and the scenes that followed frightened the young queen out of her wits. Once again her sexuality had led herself and a man she cared for into disaster, escaping it this time only by the happenstance of an external event.
That either Elizabeth or Dudley were actually involved in Robsart’s murder seems unlikely. They were both sophisticated politicians, who would have known what the result would be. On the other hand, when the facts of Robsart’s death are examined, it’s hard to believe that she could have broken her neck by falling down a short flight of stairs. Whatever the truth, the only one who actually benefitted from Amy Robsart’s death was Master Secretary William Cecil.
In the weeks following, as the reports of the rumors came in from foreign courts implicating her in Robsart’s murder, Elizabeth would surely have been revisited by memories of the horrors she suffered at 15, on those suffered by her surrogate mother Queen Catherine Parr, those visited on her aunt Queen Catherine Howard when she was eight, and on the men who had dared to approach these queens––all doomed to loss of status and life by their sexuality. And of course by what may have the worst, though the first and dimmest memory of all, the grisly execution of her mother, Queen Anne Boleyn, when Elizabeth was two.
Elizabeth was a two-and-a-half year old toddler when her mother, Anne Boleyn, had her head struck off on Tower green having been convicted by her father’s kangaroo court of sexual intercourse with five men including her own brother. Although, like most members of the aristocracy, Elizabeth didn’t live with her parents in childhood, her caretakers would have suffered from the same terror as her mother and her mother’s attendants through the long months while the King contemplated how he was going to rid himself of this tiresome, unproductive wife. There’s no way that they could have protected Elizabeth from absorbing their all-consuming dread.
Shortly before being taken to the Tower, Anne ran through the halls of Greenwich Palace, carrying Elizabeth to the courtyard where Henry was looking out a window. Holding the two-and-a-half-year-old up so he could see her, the frightened queen, weeping hysterically, begged him to spare her own life for their daughter’s sake (Erickson 29). The King disliked hysterics. His response was to withdraw and close the window.
As for Anne Seymour, wife #3, although she did produce the all-important heir, she died shortly after of the complex of symptoms known as childbed fever. So she too lost her life through her sexuality, though not in the same way as Anne Boleyn, or wife #4, Elizabeth’s cousin Catherine Howard, who was tried for treason and beheaded for much the same reasons as her cousin Anne, for having sex with someone other than Henry. The real reason of course was that she had not yet produced a male heir, for had she done so, her enemies would not have dared to report anything hurtful about her to the King. Who knows how much the eight-year-old Elizabeth was told at the time. She would certainly have learned the truth at some point.
For Elizabeth, the immediate effect of her mother’s exection had been her demotion from beloved royal princess to ignored bastard. From the next 20 years, until her coronation at age 25, she would spend most of her days surviving in careful penury under the cloud, first of her father’s embarrassed disregard, then of her older sister’s envious hatred. That is, all except for the one four-year period when she lived as part of a real family group. In 1543, when she was ten, Henry’s sixth and final wife, Queen Catherine Parr, brought Elizabeth, her younger brother Edward, her older sister Mary, and little Lady Jane Grey under one roof where she was determined to create a real home for the royal children. Yet this too ended badly, caused, once again, by female sexuality , this time Elizabeth’s own.
Following Henry’s death, Catherine Parr, still in her thirties, had rushed into marriage with her first love, Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour, uncle to Elizabeth’s brother, the young King Edward VI. One day the now pregnant former queen caught Seymour in the act of embracing Elizabeth. Though she never accused her openly, Catherine felt it necessary to remove the 14-year-old princess from her household. Some months later, when this kind, intelligent surrogate mother died in childbirth, raving, insane with pain, cursing her household and her husband for their lack of concern (Erickson 78-9), Elizabeth was not present.
With his wife out of the way, Seymour turned up the heat on his relationship with the vulnerable young princess, by now living at Hatfield House. His eye on the prize of a royal marriage, he proceeded to toy with disaster, spending more time with her than was proper, teasing her, chasing her around the grounds of the estate and playing slap and tickle in her bedroom. When, inevitably, disaster struck, and he was arrested after an insane attempt to kidnap the young king, his brother, the Duke of Somerset, de facto ruler in his nephew’s nonage, had Elizabeth’s governess and her husband arrested and held in the Tower for interrogation.
Elizabeth herself was put under the watchful eye of an investigator who grilled her relentlessly in an effort to break her will so that she would confess to sexual relations with Seymour, or at least to complicity in his plans to marry her. Had they been able to get anything out of the 15-year-old girl or her retainers that showed any sign that she was guilty of either of these, she too would have lost her liberty and possibly her life, for it was treason for royalty to marry without permission, even to make plays to do so, or in any way to risk the unapproved birth of an heir to the throne. When nothing could be found to condemn her, the Protector allowed her retainers to return to her.
Elizabeth was accepted back at Court the following December, but by then the months of emotional stress had done their damage. As soon as the danger was passed, she collapsed, physically and emotionally, remaining bedridden for months. Even so, when she heard that there were rumors running rampant that she was pregnant by Seymour and imprisoned in the Tower (Jenkins 24), one of her first significant acts of leadership, perhaps the very first, was to insist that Somerset issue a proclamation stating that she was innocent of any wrong-doing and that anyone who stated otherwise was going to have to answer for it. He agreed, and issued the proclamation (25).
No evidence of pregnancy
Yet rumors about great stars and celebrities, once born, take a long time to fade. Seymour’s wooing of a marriagable princess, the publicity of his trial and execution, plus Elizabeth’s subsequent illness guaranteed that forever after she’d be pursued by rumors that she’d been made pregnant by Seymour and given birth in secret to his child. And as usual with such rumors, those responsible ignore the reality, the relentless quizzing of herself and her staff, the close observation of her during the following months, and the impossibility of hiding a pregnancy under such circumstances. Had she been guilty, we can be certain that the truth would be apparent. It isn’t, yet the rumors persist. Why? Because they involve sex and sex sells.
Those searching for proof that Elizabeth was made pregnant by Seymour point to the evidence of her extreme physical distress during this period. Jenkins reports that her governess testified that “she was first sick about midsummer” and that she was confined to bed for much of 1548 (20). These symptoms would continue off and on until she was twenty. She certainly would not have been pregnant for five years; nor, despite centuries of digging, is there anything in the descriptions of the illnesses that she suffered at this time that gives any evidence of it. The long breakdown after being sent away from the Queen’s household, the loss of her menses with periods of physical weakness, are all within the range of problems faced by many girls during puberty, even those who haven’t been through the kind of emotional hell that Elizabeth had been forced to endure.
Seymour was an engaging man whose attentions would have been exciting to a teen-aged girl raised in the isolation of royal celebrity, but few girls this age, particularly those who are the focus of attention by a number of persons whose welfare depends so completely upon theirs, are likely to leap into adult sex with this kind of abandon. Boys of 14 and 15, bombarded with testosterone, have a very different developmental curve than do girls of the same age.
Nor does it make sense that Seymour would have pressed his advantage any farther than winning her affections. Making her pregnant would have meant an immediate and obvious end to his ambitions and his life. That he eventually overplayed his hand with her brother is another matter entirely. Jenkins reports an incident where Elizabeth, disturbed by his advances, called on her attendants to help her hide from him. Upset by his morning visits clad only in his nightgown, she saw to it from then on that she was up and dressed and at her studies before he appeared (19). We recognize this as the Elizabeth we know from her later life.
Kinsey’s reality check
Historians no longer need to depend on what records there are or their own often limited understanding of female sexuality. In his ground-breaking study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), Alfred E. Kinsey presents conclusions based on years of in-depth clinical studies that shed scientific light on Elizabeth’s behavior. Unless she was far from the norm (for which there is no evidence whatsoever) at age 14 her desire nature would still have been relatively childish (125-26), and although she may already have been menstruating for some months, it does not necessarily mean that she was capable of becoming pregnant.
According to Kinsey, “regular ovulation in each menstrual cycle probably does not begin in the average female until she is 16 to 18 years of age” (125). Since the trend has been that maturity in girls tends to occur ever earlier as time goes by, for girls in the 16th century maturity may have come even later than it did for American girls in the 1950s. This tends to be validated by contemporary references to the still frequent marriages of girls in their early teens vis a vis their capacity to successfully bear children.
In the 16th century, the opinion was prevalent that parturition before age 16 was damaging to a girl (Stone Crisis 656-7). This created a dilemma for dynastically-minded parents who thought they had better see their children married before they got old enough to take matters into their own hands. A frequent solution was to have them marry, but keep the young husband and wife separated until they reached their late teens.
This doesn’t mean that girls couldn’t get pregnant at 14; of course some did. It does mean that even had penetration occured, it was much less likely to result in pregnancy that it would a few years later. As for Elizabeth herself, though then as later she enjoyed the attentions of a suitor, her nature as displayed throughout her life argues that even at 14 she would not have allowed Seymour to get any closer to her than propriety or her own comfort allowed. Those who like the notion of a promiscuous queen claim that she “must have” inherited her father’s randy nature, that she was “a chip off the old block.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. If Elizabeth was a chip off any “old block,” it was her cautious, parsimonious, acutely politically aware grandfather, Henry VII.
Fear of syphilis
Although some biographers deny it, by any standards but those of Renaissance royalty perhaps, Henry was promiscuous. Married at 15 to his brother’s wife, Katherine of Aragon, from his teens on he took mistresses from among the young women at Court. Although these relationships are often presented as a form of serial monogamy, it’s not likely, with Henry’s appetite in every other department of life, that he refrained from a bit on the side. It could have been from any such encounter, whether known or not, approved or not, that he contracted the disease that made him so sick and so crazy toward the end of his life. That disease was syphilis.
Most mainstream English historians are unwilling to report this obvious fact. Somerset avoids the issue by stating that when Henry died it was because he had “finally succumbed to the disease that had wracked him intermittently for years,” just as later she states that Mary Tudor’s false pregnancy was nothing more than an early sign of “the disease that was ultimately to kill her” (Ladies 46, 58). In neither case does she actually name the disease. (One who does is Hilda Prescott, Mary Tudor’s biographer .)
Where a powerful and famous king is concerned, such niceties may be understandable, but the truth is impossible to ignore. Although syphilis is notoriously difficult to diagnose due to its widely varied symptoms, none of them necessarily present in any given case, the painful and disgusting sore on Henry’s leg (and ultimately on both legs and feet) that oozed pus for years and refused to heal is one of its more certain signs, particularly the fact of its long duration and continually increasing severity. So is the paranoia (known as general paresis) that made life for his courtiers such a nightmare toward the end. Taken together, these suggest only one thing.
Sick wives, sick children
Most modern medical authorities who express an opinion claim that the horrific illness that claimed the life of his son Edward at age 15 was tuberculosis. Although TB has similar symptoms, those that killed the boy, when taken as a whole, sound more like inherited syphilis (Skidmore 246-55, Hill 34, 187-8). Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, had eight pregnancies in nine years: two miscarriages, three stillbirths, and two that lived only a few weeks. Her one surviving child, Mary Tudor, suffered from “female trouble” and other illnesses all her life. Once married (to Philip II of Spain), Mary found it impossible to conceive, dying from whatever caused her second false pregnancy.
After giving birth to Elizabeth, Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, miscarried at least twice. His third wife died in childbed after giving birth to his only heir. The marriage with his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves (luckily for her) was never consummated. We’ve already discussed the unhappy death in childbed of his sixth wife, for although the father of Catherine’s child was Seymour, like Henry’s other wives, she could have been infected before she married Seymour.
True, there could be other causes for these troubles, but taken together, the simplest and most likely explanation, unpleasant though it may be, is that all his wives and his son were infected by Henry with syphilis, the women directly, the children indirectly, through their infected mothers. But the point here is not whether any of this is true, it’s whether Elizabeth feared that it was true.
If so, small wonder that she was so dead set against marriage. Marriage would have meant sexual intercourse which would eventually have meant pregnancy. For a woman with inherited syphilis, pregnancy is dangerous for both the mother, who could die, and for the child, who could miscarry or be born dead (like so many of her lost siblings), or be born deformed. And since so many persons knew of Henry’s symptoms, Elizabeth would also have been aware of the intense scrutiny that would accompany her pregnancy and the health of any child she might bear, the kind of scrutiny she had already had to bear once and would never want to experience again, not to mention the possible terrible outcome.
Although there are numerous reports of her illnesses, what symptoms are described are simply not enough to diagnose her one way or the other. Syphilis has been called “the great immitator” due to its many and varied symptoms, most of them shared with other diseases, none of them a certainty and all present in some cases and not in others. However, there are at least three that, taken together, strongly suggest, both to us today and certainly to Elizabeth then, the presence of inherited syphilis.
Setting aside the illnesses of her youth, trouble with her eyes, edema, her infrequent menses, etc., all possibly due to other causes, the most obvious symptom was a “fistula,” that first appeared in 1569. This was a suppurating sore near her ankle that apparently took years to heal (Chamberlin 75). It was so well known that it even found its way into the plot of Shakespeare’s Alls Well that Ends Well (Act I Scene 1).
Apart from a dangerous bout with smallpox in her twenties, and the general run of colds, “agues,” and so forth throughout her life, she displayed two more suspicious symptoms: an “issue” from her shoulder, commented on in 1566 (57), essentially the same thing as the fistula, and a rash that broke out in 1572 (64), that her doctors called “spots.” They also called it “smallpox”––unlikely since she’d already had it less than ten years earlier, and smallpox rarely returns a second time. Apparently she got over this new outbreak in a few days and the sores left no scars. Today they think she had chickenpox; however, if these “spots” were closer to what we would term a rash, that too could be a symptom of inherited syphilis (Thompson 83). Again, this is about her fears, not the truth.
In the 1920s, Frederick Chamberlin set out to examine the record of Elizabeth’s illnesses. Weary of the charges that she was promiscuous on one hand, or that she had inherited syphilis on the other, he made a detailed study of the record, available now online to anyone who wishes to read it. Because he was combating claims of scholarship by her detractors, he was careful to document his findings. What I provide here is largely based on his detailed report.
A secret disease
There’s no way to prove that Elizabeth’s health problems were in any way due to her father’s disease; we simply don’t have enough information. Nor was there any way for her physicians to know for certain either, since the discovery of the microbes that carry the virus lay far in the future. We can be certain of so little today partly because it’s hard to interpret the terminology of the time, but also because the “filthy disease” they called “the pox” was caused by sex, no one close enough to Elizabeth to matter dared utter the dreaded terms, either then or for centuries after.
Again, the question here isn’t whether or not she actually had the disease, but whether or not she feared she might. Such a fear would have added another layer of anxiety to her already substantial fears of pregnancy and childbirth. And if to these are added the fates of her mother, her surrogate mother Catherine Parr, her brother’s mother, Jane Seymour, their father’s mother, all of whom died from complications following childbirth, plus the disasters brought on her mother and so many others by their female sexuality, including what she herself had suffered preceding and following Seymour’s execution, it should be obvious why Elizabeth would have feared pregnancy, why she would have told an envoy: “Better beggar woman and single than Queen and married.”
Today we would probably diagnose Elizabeth as having PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the trial that followed his arrest and execution. A person can live with PSTD as long as they can avoid situations that restimulate the original trauma. Certainly she was able to function very well in areas where there was no question of her losing control over her body. But whenever the issue of the succession, and consequently her need to marry would get too hot, surely we can understand why Elizabeth was inclined to panic.
As if these personal traumas weren’t enough, she also had to live with the reports of the sufferings and deaths of her sister queens. By 1573, her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, just turned 30, was already headed for a life lived in custody followed by the usual beheading. Mary’s marriage to Darnley; his subsequent murder, for which she was blamed (probably unjustly); followed by her wild flight and marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, had sealed her doom. Yet even these might not have meant her utter ruin had she not already produced the necessary son and heir, for once they had James the Scottish lairds had no more need of his troublesome mother. Elizabeth was forced to watch––and worse, assist––as life for Mary became one long, dark slide toward the same fate suffered by Elizabeth’s mother, all due to her female sexuality.
The other queen was Mary’s childhood companion, the French princess Elizabeth Valois, who at age 14 had married Philip II of Spain following the death of his first wife, Mary Tudor. A skilled amateur painter, the gentle young queen gave birth to four girls in four years, then died shortly after producing the all-important male (who did not survive) at age 26. Although the death of the Spanish queen was probably due to too many pregnancies in succession, rumor craved something more on the order of a Queen of Scots type scandal. Stories began to circulate at the courts of Europe that Elizabeth Valois had been strangled by Philip for having an affair with his son, Don Carlos, to whom she had been engaged before he decided to marry her himself. According to the rumor, their relationship came to light, causing the King to go into a jealous rage and choke her to death with his bare hands.
That this rumor, though durable enough to fuel the plots of Shakespeare’s Othello, Shiller’s romance, and Verdi’s opera, was purest fantasy is clear from the facts: first, that Don Carlos and Elizabeth never met until her marriage to his father, their earlier courtship having been carried on solely by diplomats; and second, because (as thoroughly documented) Don Carlos was both deformed and insane, a result of the Habsburgs’ habit of marrying their near relations. Thus, as Elizabeth would have been well aware, both of her sister queens, by simply doing what was expected of them––marrying and producing legitimate heirs––lost not only their political power but their lives as well, through marriage, sex, and/or pregnancy.
To Elizabeth, the lesson couldn’t have been more clear: her surrogate mother, Catherine Parr, dead after giving birth; her brother’s mother, Jane Seymour, dead after giving birth to her brother; her grandmother, Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII, dead after giving birth to a daughter; her sister queen, Elizabeth Valois, dead after giving birth to the royal heir. Live to an old age, get to see their grandchildren grow up? Not a one. Elizabeth was a survivor. She was not about to die young for the reasons that killed these queens.
But just staying alive wasn’t the only issue. Just as Fate had given her life, it had also given her power. She was not about to lose that either.
“The Monstrous Regiment”
After the bad luck of an infant on the throne, a female monarch was considered next worst, chiefly because women were regarded by the patriarchal culture of the time as weaker than men in intellect, will power, and native virtue. In fact, to many, leadership qualities in a woman were considered “monstrous” (unnatural), as decried by the Scottish reformer John Knox. In his notorious pamphlet, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, Knox set out to show “how abominable before God is the Empire or Rule of a wicked woman, yea, of a traitoress and bastard.” Published in 1558 shortly before Elizabeth took the throne, however it must have enfuriated her, it may also have helped make clear just what she was up against.
The failure of Mary Queen of Scots to hold her power against the Scottish lairds, the similar failures of Mary’s mother and of her own mother, challenged Elizabeth, once the throne came to her, to do whatever it took to hold onto it. And what it took in large part was to remain unmarried. This was the only way that she could see that would guarantee that neither her power nor her life would be stripped from her, whether by a fatal or wasted pregnancy or by an equal and in some ways more certain threat, a husband who would take the royal power into his own hands.
Although he made every effort to get her married, Cecil was certainly aware of the reasons why Elizabeth refused to name a successor, which were essentially no different from those that kept her from marrying. In 1562, during her bout with smallpox, when asked by de Quadra if the Queen would declare a particular member of the Court heir to the throne in case she died, Cecil responded “Certainly not, because as the saying is, the English run after the heir to the Crown more than after the present wearer of it.” (Chamberlin 50).
“I will have here one mistress and no master!”
Following the death of Amy Robsart, Elizabeth must have realized the extent of the danger she had just escaped. Like most of the men who sought her favor, Lord Robert was ambitious. Whether she made him king or he remained merely royal consort, as many anecdotes clearly show, however much she loved him, she feared his ambition even more. Once he felt secure in his position he would continue to expand his horizons. She had enough of a battle as it was to keep her councillors from making decisions for her. Men, including the members of her own Privy Council, frustrated by how long it took her to make decisions, would turn by instinct to the reigning male. What would life be like with Dudley in control? He couldn’t be fired. He couldn’t be divorced. She couldn’t risk it.
That Dudley (later Earl of Leicester) kept up the masquerade of their romance for as long as he did is testimony to his ambition, for even though he wasn’t getting anywhere with the marriage, his position as her acknowledged favorite gave him important authority on the Privy Council, in the parliament, back home in Warwickshire, and at foreign courts. Knowing how vindictive she could be when crossed in her affections, it was largely his fear of losing this power that kept him hanging on until he was almost too old to beget an heir and a legacy of his own. Finally in 1578, now 45 and feeling he could wait no longer, he married in secret. When Elizabeth found out, probably in the summer of 1579, she, of course, went berserk, as he knew she would.
She kept him at arms length for as long as she dared, but soon he was back in his previous position with no serious harm done either to himself or his estate. He was simply too big a part of her life to punish him any longer, and perhaps what was more important, too necessary to the delicate balance of power that kept the Privy Council under her control. For Elizabeth’s greatest concern and her greatest achievement was the balance of power she was able to maintain on her Privy Council for most of her reign. This is one of the reasons that it often took her so long to make appointments. She had to be as certain as she could before making it official that the newcomer would not throw the balance too far to any one side.
The Robsart scandal was probably a blessing in disguise for Elizabeth the politician, as it saved her from the marriage that, given the Reformation nature of the Court, must necessarily have followed quickly had she gone the limit with Dudley. Had she done so, everyone at Court would have known within minutes, and if somehow they missed it, or they couldn’t be sure, he would certainly have found a way to let them know. At a Reformation Court where sexual 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 someone else.
However flirtatious she may have appeared in public, once past that watershed there was no possibility that Elizabeth, given her history, would ever again get so close to sexual intercourse.
For a profile of Elizabeth, read Queen Elizabeth.
For more on Elizabeth’s sexuality, read The Marriage Card.
For more on Elizabeth as the Great Goddess, read The Politics of Frustration.
For recent insights into the Queen: “Dissing Elizabeth”: A Review
For a close look at the Royal Incest (or PT) theory, read Christopher Paul’s The Prince Tudor Dilemma: Hip Thesis, Hypothesis, or Old Wive’s Tale?