We know Queen Elizabeth I never married, but do we truly understand why?
Imagine being the daughter of a king who couldn’t settle on a wife, and then going from Princess to Lady overnight.
Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn only had a couple of years with her young daughter. Elizabeth most likely had no memory of her mother because of her untimely end.
Anne Boleyn was vilified as a witch — she supposedly seduced Henry VIII into doing things that he normally would not have done. He became displeased with his queen and found ways to find her guilty of treason.
To ensure Anne was not an ongoing thorn in his side Henry had her beheaded instead of divorcing her. It seems clear that he still had some feelings for Anne, or he would not have allowed a more merciful death by sword instead of the normal axe. After her death Henry made sure to remove all traces of Elizabeth’s mother and allowed the Tudor propaganda machine to slander Anne.
All of these events, along with the subsequent marriages, deaths, divorces and beheadings of her father’s queens would inevitably shape Elizabeth’s future decisions on marriage and relationships.
Elizabeth also had an interesting relationship with Sir Thomas Seymour when she was just a teenager and living with the dowager queen, Katherine Parr. During the downfall of Seymour many of those close to him and Elizabeth were interrogated. One of them being Elizabeth’s governess, Kat Ashley. Ashley stated that Thomas would flirt with Elizabeth in an improper fashion – and to thwart him from continuing these escapades Katherine would participate (to keep a watchful eye) by holding down young Elizabeth while Thomas tickled her. Inevitably, Katherine supposedly found them alone in an embrace and she immediately put a stop to this behavior. She was after all Elizabeth’s guardian. Katherine was also pregnant with Thomas’ child at the time. She sent young Elizabeth away to her own household. By now you probably know that Kat’s testimony may have been forced to spare herself from the Tower. Those responsible for the downfall of Thomas Seymour needed evidence and everyone was aware that torture for a confession was always a possibility.
When Katherine Parr died after the birth of her daughter Mary, Thomas Seymour once again turned his attentions to young Elizabeth. Seymour’s ambitions got the best of him and he was eventually charged with treason. Elizabeth was interrogated in order to help build the case against Thomas, but she refused to say anything that would incriminate him – Elizabeth understood by incriminating Thomas she would also be hurting her own reputation at court.
When Elizabeth’s sister Mary wed Philip of Spain she also witnessed the pain that her sister went through to fight for her husband. Mary’s council was concerned that Philip would try to take advantage of Mary’s power and use it for his own country. Mary loved Philip dearly and fought to make him her king consort. After much argument with the council they agreed to the marriage as long as Philip was not allowed to make any political decisions for England.
Elizabeth was witness to the heartache that her sister went through with the phantom pregnancies and when Philip left for Spain after it was discovered she was not pregnant the first time . Having seen for herself how destructive marriage could be, Elizabeth was in no hurry to wed – plus any man that she would wed as queen would be in a position of authority that would be nearly equal to her’s, so she understandably was leery to any agreement of marriage.
When the young princess became Elizabeth I, the first thing on her council’s agenda was to find her a suitable husband. However, Elizabeth’s past with men would determine her decision-making when it came to a husband.
Elizabeth had one man in her life whom she had known since childhood and loved very much — Robert Dudley. The Dudley family was a favorite at court but had fallen out of favor with their involvement in Lady Jane Grey’s rise to power, prior to the reign of her sister Mary I.
In 1550 Robert Dudley married Amy Robsart after he realized that Elizabeth would never marry him. Elizabeth was upset — she wanted him all for herself but couldn’t make the commitment, she was after-all a princess of England.
There had always been an attraction between Elizabeth and Robert. It’s obvious that Robert was her best friend, someone she trusted implicitly. Elizabeth would find ways to be near Robert. This began when she appointed him her Master of Horse. A position that would keep him very close to her. Later she would raise his station by making him a member of her privy council, Lord Stewart of the Royal Household and eventually the Earl of Leicester.
For many years Elizabeth gave Robert Dudley hope that he was a leading suitor for her hand in marriage — something that would raise his status greatly. When Elizabeth appointed Robert to Earl of Leicester it was to make him suitable to marry her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. This was Elizabeth’s way of satisfying her cousin and controlling her through her most trusted friend, Robert. The marriage was something that Robert was against because of his feelings for Elizabeth – how could she so easily use him as a pawn when they shared such a great love?
Elizabeth understood that marriage meant an alliance. In order for her to marry there had to be a benefit for England. Marrying Robert Dudley would not benefit England – only Elizabeth. If Elizabeth married Robert it would only tear apart the country – plus he was already a married man. It was still long suspected that he would marry Elizabeth upon the death of his wife Amy.
On 8th September 1560, Amy Robsart had insisted that all her servants be away from the household that day. There was a local fair going on. When Amy was found dead at the bottom of her staircase with a broken neck Robert Dudley was immediately a suspect; however, he was vindicated because he was at court with Elizabeth at Windsor Castle.
An investigation was carried out and found the cause of death to be accidental but this did not remove suspicion from Robert and Elizabeth. It was too convenient. For Elizabeth to be able to marry Robert, Amy could not be in the picture. Whether this was declared an accident or not Elizabeth could no longer consider Robert a husband. It would ruin her kingdom and reign as queen.
There is no doubt that Elizabeth loved Robert Dudley. Unfortunately he would not wait forever for the queen to propose. Robert remained unmarried after Amy’s death for 18 years. When he eventually married again, in 1578, it was to Elizabeth’s cousin, Lettice Knollys. Elizabeth was crushed and saddened by the fact that her love could marry anyone but her – let alone her beautiful cousin.
When Robert died on 4 September 1588, his death came unexpectedly. Some historians have considered both malaria and stomach cancer as cause of death. Elizabeth was deeply affected by her dear friend’s death and locked herself in her apartment for days –until Lord Burghley had the door broken down.
Elizabeth kept the last letter Robert Dudley had written her prior to his death in her bedside treasure box — the letter was still there when she died over a decade later.
It seems clear now that all the male relationships that Elizabeth had — her father, Philip of Spain, Thomas Seymour and Robert Dudley and the fear of losing control of her kingdom had helped to shape her stance on marriage in her future. Elizabeth was able to witness how marriage affected women in her life and didn’t want the same for herself. She also witnessed the death of Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr after giving birth – another possible outcome after a marriage.
As she stated – she would rather be married to England than any man. Can you blame her?