Elizabeth I is famously known as the Virgin Queen: she never married and never had children, keeping her suitors guessing and remaining non-committal whenever she could. But the Queen of England was an attractive marriage proposition to European royalty nonetheless, and Elizabeth was courted by many men during her lifetime. So just who were these men who thought they had a chance with Gloriana?
Following the death of Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, she was sent to live with her former step-mother Catherine Parr, and her new husband Thomas Seymour, Baron Sudeley. Quite what the relationship between Seymour and Elizabeth was has long been speculated on by historians, but it seems that Seymour used to visit the 14 year old Elizabeth in her bedroom early in the morning, tickling her and generally playing the fool.
Catherine Parr knew about and sometimes participated in these games, but eventually she put a stop to things when she supposedly walked in on the pair in an intimate embrace. Following Catherine’s death, Seymour pursued Elizabeth’s hand in marriage: her governess Kat Ashley actively encouraged the match.
In 1549, Seymour was arrested and tried on 33 counts of treason, including plotting to marry Elizabeth and to then overthrow the king, Edward VI. Elizabeth was questioned intensely following Seymour’s arrest, but nothing incriminating was ever found against her, and she was most likely an innocent pawn.
Some consider this early confusing romantic episode to have had an impact on Elizabeth’s later relationships with men, and a contributing factor in her decision never to marry.
King Philip II of Spain
Philip was married to Elizabeth’s sister Mary – and on her death, he remained in England for several months in an attempt to woo Elizabeth.
Unfortunately for Philip, Elizabeth was a Protestant and had no interest in an alliance with Spain, nor in her half-sister’s widower. Parliament was also firmly against the match, which made a diplomatic refusal slightly easier.
On Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, Dudley was appointed Master of the Horse, before rapidly rising up the ranks in Elizabeth’s court. The two were close friends during Mary’s reign, and by 1559, rumours swirled around court that Elizabeth was in love with Dudley.
Notwithstanding the fact that Dudley was already married, marrying an Englishman would have proven difficult for Elizabeth in several respects. Firstly, she would be denying England the chance to make an important political alliance with a neighbouring European monarchy. Secondly, marrying within her own court would almost certainly help generate factions and rivalries.
Dudley’s wife Amy died in mysterious circumstances in 1560, and Dudley was tainted enough as a result that Elizabeth could not consider him as a serious marriage prospect any longer. However, the pair continued to remain extremely close: Dudley was made Earl of Leicester in 1563, and became one of the wealthiest landowners in England.
The historian Susan Doran described Dudley as being ‘at the centre of [Elizabeth’s] emotional life’, and Elizabeth fiercely disliked Dudley’s second wife, Lettice Knollys.
King Eric XIV of Sweden
Sweden was a Protestant nation, and therefore attempts to make an alliance with the newly Protestant England were politically sensible. Prince Eric negotiated for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage for several years, but in 1560 she eventually wrote him a letter in which she expressed regret at not being able to reciprocate his feelings, and firmly rejected his advances.
Eric tried to marry various other European princesses, before eventually marrying his mistress. Increasingly, he began to show signs of insanity and was eventually imprisoned and dethroned by his own brother.
Archduke Charles of Austria
In 1567, Elizabeth began to consider Archduke Charles of Austria, son of the Emperor Ferdinand. Again, religion stood in the way: as a Protestant, Elizabeth and her councillors were somewhat wary of creating alliances with Catholic countries.
As with many of her suitors, Elizabeth kept Charles dangling for well over a year, before finally rebuffing his advances.
Francois, Duc d’Anjou
The Duke of Anjou was one of Elizabeth’s most persistant suitors, and perhaps one of those she considered the most carefully. Heir to the French throne, a marriage to Francois could be extremely advantageous politically, although it seems the people would not have been best pleased by a Frenchman becoming king.
Some of Elizabeth’s advisors – including Walsingham – were convinced there would be religious riots on the scale of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) in France should she make such a match.
Unlike many of her suitors, Francois courted Elizabeth in person, and the two became close – she called him her ‘frog’, and many believe Elizabeth knew he would be her last serious suitor: there was already a 22 year age gap between the two.
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex
The step-son of Elizabeth’s first love, Robert Dudley, Essex quickly became one of Elizabeth’s favourites despite being 34 years her junior. In 1587, he was appointed Master of the Horse, the same post Dudley had held on Elizabeth’s accession, and in 1593, he was made a member of her Privy Council: a role which gave him considerable political influence.
Elizabeth and Essex were known to have a somewhat tempestuous relationship: Essex often lacked the respect Elizabeth was due as Queen – he burst into her bedchamber to defend his actions at one point: an unthinkable act of familiarity and disrespect to the Queen of England.
Essex was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1599, and took 16,000 men across the sea to quash the rebellion that had arisen. Instead of a decisive victory, Essex failed in his mission and signed a humiliating truce with the rebels, before fleeing back to England. He was tried on grounds of desertion and imprisoned.
In 1601, Essex made a bid for power in an attempt to force the Queen to name James VI of Scotland as her successor. The rebellion collapsed after a lack of widespread support, and Essex was executed on grounds of treason. Elizabeth was said to have been shocked by her favourite betraying her, and some argue this aged her considerably overnight.