Elizabeth never married. This was certainly unexpected: she easily could have had her choice of husbands, and the Privy Council and her closest advisors constantly begged her to marry. As a result of her aversion to matrimony, she began to be called the "Virgin Queen." However, although it is clear that she never married, her status as a lifelong virgin is under considerable doubt. Sex was far from a polite discussion topic at the time and her affairs were not recorded in the same explicit detail as they might be today. Yet there is strong evidence that she likely had several affairs. Elizabeth certainly had the opportunity: she was constantly surrounded by men and was in a position of power over them.
The Queen's relations with men were often couched in romantic terms. She maintained likely romantic friendships with Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Chancellor from 1587 to 1591, Sir Walter Raleigh, and, in her old age, with the much younger Robert Devereux (the Earl of Essex). But of all her liaisons, the most overt and most certain was with her Master of the Horse, Lord Robert Dudley, whom she named the Earl of Leicester in 1564. During most of his career as Master of the Horse, Leicester (Lord Dudley) lived apart from his wife and very close to the Queen. Dudley's wife was slowly dying, probably of breast cancer, but Dudley left his dying wife in their lonely castle by herself, preferring nearly constant service to the Queen, despite the fact that his post was a decorative and fairly unimportant one. Needless to say, the fact that Dudley was married to a slowly dying woman made for even juicier gossip in Elizabethan England. Elizabeth's obvious favoritism in making Dudley into the Earl of Leicester raised some eyebrows, but most were already well aware of the situation between the two. Elizabeth's affection for Dudley was so great that she hardly cared about the public gossip. It was said that she kept a picture of Dudley in her room with which she refused to part. When Lady Dudley fell down some stairs and died from a broken neck, many English people speculated that Leicester had pushed her, murdering his wife so he could marry Elizabeth. Others theorized that it was Elizabeth herself who had commissioned the murder, though most scholars dismiss this idea.
Parliament's desire for Elizabeth's marriage was originally motivated by the members' hopes for international alliance; by 1566, however, they simply wanted an heir, and issued a statement in that year encouraging Elizabeth to marry anyone she wanted, so long as she did it soon. Elizabeth continued to confound them, however, pretending to be looking for a husband but somehow always finding a way to break off marriage negotiations at the last second.
In 1579, Leicester secretly married Lettice Knollys, Elizabeth's cousin. Yet rather than becoming upset and shunning Leicester, Elizabeth continued to love him. At the same time, Elizabeth was in the middle of doomed marriage negotiations with the Duke de Alencon, the French King's brother. In 1588, when Leicester passed away, Elizabeth was so depressed that she locked herself in her room; Lord Burleigh (William Cecil) finally had to break her door down in order to force her to eat.
Elizabeth started to run into trouble when Lady Catherine Grey, who many considered the heiress to the throne, married in secret. Elizabeth feared that people might prefer a married woman (and thus a woman with the built-in counsel of a man and the possibility of an heir) and attempt to overthrow her reign. As a result, Elizabeth imprisoned her competition in the Tower of London.
Elizabeth's sex life remains a topic of considerable interest and debate today. In the Elizabethan period, the issue was a matter of constant gossip, not unlike our own time's media coverage of various scandals among the current British royal family. Although there is no evidence to this effect, England whispered about the possibility of Elizabeth having had bastard children. Yet her supposed celibacy, too, was equally gossiped about; rumors abounded that no one would marry her because she was infertile or had some sort of sexual deformity. However, the actual reasons for Elizabeth's continued single status were probably much more prosaic: it is hardly surprising that Elizabeth would have been afraid of marriage from a young age, since her father had killed many of his wives, including Elizabeth's mother, Ann Boleyn, who was beheaded when Elizabeth was not yet three. Likely it was the death of Catherine Howard, Elizabeth's stepmother, when the princess was eight, which scarred Elizabeth most greatly. Moreover, Elizabeth enjoyed her direct involvement in the governance of the nation and didn't want to diminish her own political power by sharing it with a husband. Instead, she continued to use the possibility of marriage with her as a diplomatic force well into her forties.
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