Playing the marriage card

The moon methinks looks with a watery eye;
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,
Lamenting some enforced chastity.
                 Titania:  A Midsummer Night’s Dream:  Act III  Scene 1

Evidence provided by Alfred E. Kinsey in his exhaustive clinical studies and interviews with American women in the 1950s provides the psychological profile for the behavior that we know from reading the most reliable of her biographies.  Far from the profligate queen that her enemies would have her, the notion that Queen Elizabeth could have given out-of-wedlock birth in secret is without foundation either in fact or in likelihood.  Once past the nightmarish results of her dalliance with Dudley in 1560, not only would she not dare to take such a risk, she was no longer able even to want to. 

Both Jenkins and Somerset, after studying the heaps of documents that bear on the Elizabethan reign, hold that the Seymour affair caused permanent damage to her psycho-sexual development.  Seymour’s overbold flirtation, followed by the horrors of his execution and her own ordeal by third degree 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, and had not allowed themselves to respond to the point of orgasm.  Many of them had been psychologically distrurbed as a result of this blockage of their sexual responses. (526)

The “moral training” that Kinsey blames for inhibiting the sexuality of white Anglo-Saxon female protestants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was a descendant of the anti-sexual aspects of the Protestant Reformation that got its first real foothold on the English culture during the 40 years of Elizabeth’s reign.  

The women Kinsey studied in the 1950s, though far less repressed than Elizabeth, were much more so than most women today.  Of those he studied, Kinsey tells us

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)

Kinsey makes what may be the most important point where 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. (526)

Many at Elizabeth’s Court would have seen this as a description of their mistress.  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 the amazingly naive idea she came up with in 1563, that the problem of Mary Queen of Scots could be solved by marrying her to Elizabeth’s own favorite, Robert Dudley (Erickson 211-17).  She had him created Earl of Leicester on purpose to raise his status so that legally he could marry someone of Mary’s rank.  As Erickson explains, since she couldn’t marry him herself, and thus satisfy his ambitions to be a king, she would take care of him in this way, and her sister Queen as well.  It’s really rather sad.  Certainly Mary thought it strange. 

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, leaving them there for months, sometimes years.  Doubtless some of this was about maintaining 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 part of her vocabulary.

Another symptom of her negativity towards marriage and family was her determination that clergymen should not marry.  Obtaining the right to marry was one of the leading reasons why many former Catholic clergymen were willing to turn Protestant.  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 where they were forced to live separated from their families.

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 outranked him.  This required a good deal of billing and cooing, 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 public relations 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.Hilliard miniature

That Elizabeth greatly appreciated masculine beauty is reflected in the good looks of the men around her, Dudley, Hatton, Oxford, Raleigh, and Southampton among others.  They may have had other accomplishments, 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 stipulating 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 attractive younger men were displayed in tight stockings, topped with short little “hose”(pants), not much to keep warm as they stood about in the cold rooms of the palace.  No wonder there was so much dancing!

Of course there have been queens who’ve had lovers.  Catherine the Great of Russia was one, 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 lacking powerful brothers or uncles, was in a weak political position throughout.  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.  So had she married into one of these great Continental families, as her courtiers wished, her status at their courts would be questionable.  At home, in England, she knew she would never be anything but first.

Both the Russian and the French queen flourished at courts where promiscuity was open and rampant, a lifestyle that even had Elizabeth been so inclined, her Reformation ministers would never have tolerated.  Raised from birth in households dependent on the Court, she knew all too well its capacity for gossip and 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.   Someone would tell (most likely the lover himself).

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, if from a distance.  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.

“The monstrous regiment of women”

Most men do not understand the situation that an attractive woman finds herself in, even today, if she wants to keep her place in an all male arena. It’s hard enough for a woman to aquire the respect of male colleagues, and once achieved, easy to lose. Women in such positions are aware that if they become sexually involved with one of their colleagues they risk losing the trust of the group and will soon find themselves left out of important communications.  This behavior seems hardwired into humans at the animal level.  It’s not something that’s ever going to be easy to change.  

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 minor 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, possibly for them.  She came close to losing control once, back in 1561, with terrible results (the murder of Amy Robsart).  Elizabeth was a survivor.  She wasn’t going to let that happen again.

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 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 figure, many years younger than herself, so fond that she may well have fooled even herself 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 getting along, to exchange the kind of information that they might not share with anyone else.  Navarre would have been interested in anything his brother had to tell him about Elizabeth, partly because he often needed her help, and partly because he himself had once been a candidate for her hand.

“Little Betty Blue, lost a holiday shoe . . .”

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, her main source of support was the public. During her sister’s reign, Elizabeth’s popularity with the people was the major factor in Mary’s hatred. That she was “married to her people” was her own constant excuse for not marrying.

The feeling was mutual.  For most of her people the queen would always be the golden-haired angel whose coronation ended the years of exile, imprisonment, torture, and burnings.  Evidence of their love can be found in the many Mother Goose rhymes about Eliza, Lizzie, Betty or Bess; all affectionate, none satirical.  Yet, although her people wanted her to be happy and to provide the nation with an heir (or two), down deep they didn’t really want her to marry, for if she did, their vision of her would be forced to change. 

She knew this, just as she knew that if she married she would lose a great deal of their all-important support, for in a nation bitterly divided over religion and regional interests, no one man could possibly please all, or even half, her people.  Whether true or not, her 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 by her father and 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 real proof of inappropriate behavior on her part. 

The people were also her refuge from the tyranny of her Privy Council.  If her ministers wanted her to do something she didn’t want to do, whenever possible she would use her people’s love against them. Knowing them, she knew what they wanted, that she remain always 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, the undying love of her people, something she would never dare to jeapordize. 

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 king or prince 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 territory.  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 marriagable 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. 

Time would eventually run out for her in this Royal shell game, as of course she had always known it would.  Nevertheless, by careful negotiation, by enveloping herself in pearls and satin, and 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 extended dalliance, when Spain finally attacked in 1588, England was ready.


For a profile of Elizabeth, read Queen Elizabeth.
For details on the causes of Elizabeth’s fears, read This Queen hates marriage.
For more on Elizabeth as the Great Goddess, read The Politics of Frustration.

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