The Tragic Life of Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I Rainbow PortraitIn 1562, the Doctor, suspecting the shape-changing Zygons have infiltrated the English royal court, tests Queen Elizabeth I by making statements the real one would be unlikely to simply accept. The ultimate test was a marriage proposal, knowing she would refuse. Instead, the real Queen accepted his proposal, chased him like a lovesick puppy, and eventually forced him to honor his promise.

At least, that’s the story the Doctor tells.

The State of Things

In 1562, Elizabeth was 29 years old and had reigned for four years. She was the last survivor of Henry VIII’s three children, her siblings being the very Protestant Edward VI and the very Catholic Mary I. Elizabeth herself followed a moderate Protestant path, which made for some very powerful Catholic European enemies, who attempted multiple assassination attempts.  The pope even called on people to eliminate her, given the chance.

She was also officially a bastard. Henry had nullified his marriage to Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, before executing her for treason when Elizabeth was three. Her enemies seized upon that fact, as an illegitimate child can’t inherit a throne. According to them, she was a pretender.

On top of all that, Elizabeth was a woman. She was not the first woman in Europe to rule in her right – her own sister had ruled before her, and a rival claimant to her throne, Mary Queen of Scots, was also female – but it was an uncomfortable situation. Furthermore, while she did an admirable job of being a monarch, she was rather terrible at being an actual queen. That is to say, she wasn’t in any hurry to marry and produce heirs, which is generally the first priority of queens.

In fact, it was seen as unnatural for a woman in any position to be unmarried, and it certainly opened the door for the sinful temptation of sex outside of marriage. Elizabeth fought against such rumors her entire life, constructing an image of herself as the Virgin Queen and claiming to be married to England.

The other complication of her unmarried state was the lack of heirs. England had not too long ago ended a civil war brought about by an unclear line of succession. Henry had a single child left and no grandchildren. England badly needed an heir.

The Political Value of Marriage

Everyone wanted her to marry, so why did she so stubbornly resist it her entire life?

Political alliances were often sealed with betrothals between royal children. Elizabeth, as queen, was an even better catch than being the daughter of the monarch, and she repeatedly offered up the possibility of betrothal at the negotiation table. Actually getting married would have taken away that option. To that end, she always found a reason why a union wasn’t possible or was not in her country’s best interest.

There would also be the question as to the rank of her husband. When her sister, Mary, married, her foreign husband became king of England, and many felt he exploited England for the benefit of his own home, Spain. (In modern times, the tradition has been to name the husband of a ruling queen “prince consort.”)

If she did marry, she would be expected to have children, and if that child was a boy, there would have been pressure for her to abdicate.

And what if she couldn’t have children? Her sister tried desperately to get pregnant, and the closest she came to one was a false pregnancy that she insisted was real so long as to be the laughing stock of Europe. Elizabeth’s mother also had difficulty carrying a child to term. Did Elizabeth fear being barren? Fertility was one of the things that defined womanhood. An infertile woman was an incomplete woman.

Robert Dudley, Earl of LeicesterRobert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

Elizabeth was certainly not an unemotional woman. She laughed and cried and got angry like everyone else. She also had court favorites for whom she clearly had strong feelings for, and none so much as Robert Dudley, whom Elizabeth eventually made Earl of Leicester.

Leicester and Elizabeth were pretty clearly in love. But politics and social convention kept them apart. Leicester’s father and older brother had been executed for treason, and Leicester himself had been condemned but then pardoned.

He was also a commoner, not even having noble title until Elizabeth conveyed one upon him. Royals were expected to marry other royals (although it didn’t always happen as Elizabeth’s mother could attest). Marrying beneath her station might have been taken as an affront by those more suitable.

But the most tragic barrier between the two was the death of Leicester’s first wife, Amy. Gravely ill, Amy sent her servants away for the day, then fell down the stairs and died. It was ruled accidental, but if Leicester gained anything from it – such as freedom to marry Elizabeth – there would forever be accusations that one or both of them engineered Amy’s death.

Elizabeth avoided marriage her entire life, not because she didn’t have suitors, and not because people told her to avoid it, but because she felt it necessary to remain unmarried.

Lucretia Strange, time traveler, has never met a historical period she didn’t like…except the 18th century, which was just rubbish.   You can find all of her articles HERE.  Her alter ego blogs at History, Interrupted.


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