The issue of marriage and succession would have been a key issue facing Elizabeth as a female ruler. It is also an issue which historians have debated for many years and there is still no clear reason to suggest why she did not marry. It was the accepted practise of the era that female monarchs would take a husband, not only to act as consort and to assist with their rule, but also to sire a royal dynasty. It is because of these obvious advantages that historians still debate whether or not her decision not to marry was a conscious one or whether it was due to the bickering and indecision of her advisors at court.
The situation at court was such that Elizabeth’s councillors had become increasingly more powerful to the extent where they could physically impede the queen’s wishes if they deemed it necessary. Two of the most prominent advisors were William Cecil, head of the Privy Council, and Lord Walsingham, an Elizabethan spy master. Both played an active role in the marriage issue to the extent of warning-off and discrediting potential suitors. Although the fact that this took place is irrefutable, it is still unclear as to whether this was out of indecision or whether it was for the good of the nation.
There we certainly no shortage of suitors for the young queen. There were many young nobles, some English, some foreign, who were more than keen to woe England’s premiere, the most notable being Lord Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The tale of the childhood romance between Dudley and Elizabeth was the stuff of gossip at court and it seemed that much of her youthful life, she had been passionately in love with Dudley. He was clearly her favourite and received regular audiences, lands and titles. In September 1560, Dudley’s wife died in strange circumstances when she was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in his home.
It was at this moment that Cecil choose to discredit Dudley and spread rumours that he had been plotting to murder his wife by poisoning. The rumour even went so far as to suggest that Elizabeth had been involved. It was widely spoken of that she had been murdered on Dudley’s orders and Elizabeth was immediately forced to distance herself from such scandal. It is unclear what Cecil’s motives were – possibly he sought to protect Elizabeth, since a marriage with Dudley would have meant scandal around the queen, but more likely, Cecil feared he would lose power and influence if Dudley became king and consort.
Another match that Elizabeth’s councillors could not decide over was the Duke of Anjou, one of the heirs to the throne of France. The marriage seemed like a win-win situation – the French would be able to get rid of a pest at the French court, who was constantly scheming for power, Anjou would gain the power and resources he wanted, the country would achieve peaceful relations with France and Elizabeth would gain a husband, and, since she was still of child-bearing age, an heir. However, there was a problem.
The problem was Dudley and he led the opposition to the marriage with vigour and managed to successfully discredit the Frenchman and undermine the Anjou match. Firstly, Anjou was a devout Catholic and Dudley capitalised on the fears on the Protestant hard-liners that if a Catholic consort ruled, it would mean a return to reign of tyranny witnessed under Mary. He also appealed to the Englishman’s natural hatred of the French and reminded them of the years of wars and rivalry which had gone on.
They also ridiculed the queen and mocked this seemingly “old” woman for marrying a man who was almost half her age. Walsingham aided Dudley in this venture and together they used the encouraged anti-French sermons in churches around the country and also anti-Anjou pamphlets. The most notable of these was the John Stubbs pamphlet which attacked, with sound arguments, the Papist Frenchman and claimed that England would go to ruin if ruled by a French Catholic. This attack threw the queen and she sought advice from her Privy Council.
However, they were less than helpful, many refusing to commit to either side of the argument. In the end, it seems that Elizabeth accepted that the match would do more harm to the country than good and so the French connection was abandoned. There were many reasons behind the Privy Councillors stalling tactics over a marriage alliance. Many felt it would commit England too strongly to the politically volatile situation in Europe – power changed hands so quickly that it could easily end up with England becoming a battleground.
Others also feared the dominance of other nations fearing that if Elizabeth were to marry another powerful monarch, England would simply become a satellite nation or a province of a larger empire. There were also issues at court associated with religion – a Protestant would aid in the complete Reformation of England but would alienate the strong Catholic presence in the country. A Catholic would in turn infuriate the Protestant elite and undermine Elizabeth’s sovereignty. English candidates were also seen as weak and so heavily influenced by faction that there was no real prospect of any such candidate coming even close to a proposal.
This performance by the Privy Council and those closest to Elizabeth would seem to support the view that she remained single and unmarried because the factional infighting meant that a candidate could not be chosen. In contradiction to this view, many historians feel that Elizabeth did not marry for a variety of other reasons, including her image, personal choice or even childhood trauma. Randell’s view of the marriage question is unique in that he feels that since Elizabeth established her status above a “mere woman”, she had no need of marriage and therefore it was a conscious choice not to marry.
She did not feel the need to commit herself in that way since she wanted to be considered an “honorary man – not in a sexual sense but as far as the ordering of society was concerned”. He believes that Elizabeth found the marriage question tiresome and avoided it all costs since succession was not a priority and she had no need of the security of a male consort since she was “every inch a king”. Later in life, this refusal became abstention with the propaganda that she was married to the country and so would not distract herself with a man when she had her kingdom to defend.
Randell also claims that Elizabeth feared motherhood and also wifedom since it would not only reduce her power and influence in a male-dominated world, but that childbirth was a potentially life-threatening and painful experience. It also seems clear that by this stage, she was keen to maintain the image of the Virgin Queen, the classical goddess who would lead her people. In Randell’s opinion, it was entirely in Elizabeth’s personal interests not to marry and that she did everything in her power to skirt the issue. The historian Haigh takes a slightly different stance on the issue.
He claims that after the Dudley affair, Elizabeth was emphatically opposed to marriage and that she had made a conscious decision to remain single. He also claims that she made excuses not to marry since she feared the loss of her own power – “in any marriage negotiations, she looked for snags rather than advantages”. Even after heavy pressure from her council to marry, for example in 1559, 1563, 1566 and 1576 there were petitions from Parliament for her to marry; she refused claiming that she sought to protect the country.
Haigh also claims that “marriage to a subject was too demeaning, marriage to a foreigner was too dangerous” showing that although Elizabeth recognised marriage as a political weapon, she lacked the political metal to use it. She mastered rhetoric to avoid the issue with her councillors and “sacrificed instability after he reign for stability in her reign”. Haigh also points out that she refused to name an heir, probably of fears that he would become a figurehead in a coup. This paranoia cost Elizabeth a dynasty.
Other historians attend to the view that Elizabeth did not marry due to an inherent fear brought about by the events of her succession. Her mother had been executed by her husband; Jane Seymour died after childbirth; and Catherine Howard, a third stepmother, was executed for adultery. In addition to this, there seems no doubt that she did experience some form of sexual abuse in her adolescence at the hands of the ambitious Thomas Seymour and this would certainly have had an effect on the way in which she viewed marriage.
As a result, she adopted aggression, dominance and fearlessness which made it impossible for her to marry into the classic subservient wife model. In truth, the fact that Elizabeth herself was keen not to lose power, wished to maintain English sovereignty and also feared the burdens of marriage would seem to support the case that it was a conscious decision not to marry and she did not remain single due to the influence of her councillors.
In conclusion, there can be no clear answer to the issue of why Elizabeth did not marry. The discrediting of prospective partners by influential men, such as Cecil and Walsingham, would certainly have played an important role in the choices of partner and these tactics did successfully remove two likely suitors. However, it is still doubted as to what extent the Privy Council could not decide on a husband.
It keenness for Elizabeth to marry is evident and it still could have maintained power in the face of a male-consort, such as in the case of Philip II’s marriage to Mary I, where he was restricted in his powers over England in the marriage-treaty. It is also true that Elizabeth’s own personality played a role in the marriage issue for it does seem that she became increasingly fearful of marriage, after the breakdown of the Dudley and Anjou matches. For whatever reason, Elizabeth remained “married to her country” and chose to be a ruling queen, rather than a subservient mother.