This article is an edited transcript of Elizabeth I with Helen Castor on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 14 April 2018. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
Elizabeth I was barely a teenager when she experienced the political headache that men – specifically men who were potential suitors – could create for her. After being left in a precarious political situation by her father’s own complicated love life (Henry VIII declared Elizabeth illegitimate after her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed, yet still put her in the line of succession), she kept her head down in her books.
That is apart from the extraordinary period in which she became entangled with her brother‘s uncle Thomas Seymour.
Seymour married the Queen Dowager, Catherine Parr, very soon after Henry VIII’s death, and thus more or less became Elizabeth’s step-father shockingly quickly. And Elizabeth was living with Catherine, her step-mother, when Seymour came to join his new wife’s household. At the time, Seymour was in his 30s, while Elizabeth was 14 going on 15.
Elizabeth carried on living in the household for a while but then left, rather precipitately, during Catherine Parr’s pregnancy. What came out afterwards was that there had been some really inappropriate behaviour going on in the household between Seymour and Elizabeth – in particular early morning visits, when no one was properly dressed yet, that involved tickling.
Sometimes Seymour would visit Elizabeth by himself; other times he would be accompanied by Catherine.
Elizabeth wasn’t alone during these visits – she had all her ladies-in-waiting around her. And yet they involved a kind of intimacy that was certainly not proper.
After Catherine Parr died due to post-partum complications, it emerged that Seymour had designs on Elizabeth. After the queen dowager, he was looking for another marriage that would serve his unquenchable ambition.
Elizabeth was clearly taken with Seymour; it was said she blushed at the mere mention of his name. And she didn’t resist the flirtatious games that got played. But after Seymour was arrested and accused of treason, she discovered just how dangerous such a flirtation could be.
At the age of just 15 she was taken into custody for questioning – alone, except for her closest servants.
With no one to protect her at that point, she had to stand on her own two feet. And she did so with remarkable aplomb and remarkable strategic flair.
The princess took up a firm position, saying, “Yes, maybe marriage had been discussed, but only if the (privy) council agreed”, and that she had never done anything improper. And she would not budge from that position.
The man who was in charge of questioning her initially said he would have results within a day or two. But by the end of the week he was saying, “This is impossible. You can’t get anything out of her”.
The wider context
It is important to factor in what had already happened to Elizabeth before this point. Not only had her father married her mother for love and lust and then killed her before Elizabeth was three years old, but he had also later married her mother’s cousin, Catherine Howard, and killed her too.
In between all that, Elizabeth lost another step-mother, Jane Seymour, to childbirth, while her final step-mother (Catherine Parr) survived until she too gave birth and died. Elizabeth didn’t have a very happy set of precedents when it came to the prospect of romantic entanglements, sexual entanglements and marriage.
Seymour may have been an appealing prospect because, at that point, Elizabeth was going to have to marry someone if she couldn’t be in charge of her own destiny.
And, with most royal princesses getting sent abroad to marry a man they’d never laid eyes on and never seeing their home again, marrying someone who she rather liked the company of, and who would allow her to stay at home, might well have seemed the most appealing of the options open to her.
But at the point where that prospect crashed and burned, the renewed lesson that love, sex and marriage were dangerous can only have been very powerful for Elizabeth.
Not quite the virginal queen
Interestingly, despite the trouble with Seymour, Elizabeth didn’t renounce men completely. She didn’t become a sort of virginal figure who would never be in the company of men. Indeed, she liked men – and in particular charming, good-looking men.
She got herself into a spot of trouble as queen with Robert Dudley, who she adored. Gossip raced around not only England, but the whole of Europe too about what they might be getting up to.
There was a rather poignant moment very early in Elizabeth’s reign when one of her closest women servants, Kate Ashley – who’d been her governess – went to her and said, “I’m worried about what you’re doing to your reputation by dallying with Robert Dudley in this way”. And Elizabeth replied by saying:
“I have so much sorrow and tribulation in my life and so little joy. Can’t I be allowed this pleasure?”
She clearly wanted that kind of human contact but couldn’t have it.
A lose-lose situation
Elizabeth could not win when it came to men and marriage. And it’s one of the many ways in which being a female ruler confronted her with dilemmas that a male ruler would never have had to deal with. For who could she marry?
If she had married someone abroad, then there would have been a risk of him being seen as a foreigner who was coming to England and taking over the government.
In addition, as a queen regnant marrying a foreign prince, Elizabeth would have had to marry someone whose status was appropriate to her own. But if she had done that then she would have been locking her kingdom into an alliance that would have been very hard to shift – in a way that would have not been the case if she had been a king marrying a foreign princess.
Indeed, Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon did not mean that he and Spain were forever locked together. But the marriage of Elizabeth’s sister, Mary, to Philip II did mean that she and Spain were forever locked together.
But if Elizabeth had married someone domestically, then she would have upset the very finely balanced domestic, social and political hierarchy of the country.
As a result, she was only able to keep her options open in terms of diplomacy and politically by not marrying. Instead, she kept thinking about marriage – or at least kept saying that she was thinking about marriage – but never actually took a decision. And that left her with room to manoeuvre.