Academic journal article History Review

Why Elizabeth I Never Married: Retha Warnicke Investigates One of the Key Questions of Tudor England

Academic journal article History Review

Why Elizabeth I Never Married: Retha Warnicke Investigates One of the Key Questions of Tudor England

Article excerpt


Observers and historians, from Elizabeth I's reign until the present time, have discussed and debated why the Queen never married. The claim in her first parliamentary speech about preferring the single state was not extraordinary. Her sister Mary Tudor made the same disclaimer before instructing her privy councillors to negotiate a marriage treaty with the advisors of Philip, future king of Spain. In this patriarchal society, people expected husbands to take charge of their wives' property and business. It is not surprising, therefore, that Sir James Melville, the Scottish ambassador, should have observed in 1564 that Elizabeth remained unmarried because she wanted to be both king and queen. Later Catholic polemicists gave contradictory reports concerning her sexual experiences and attributes. Some alleged she had numerous illegitimate children with Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, and others asserted she was biologically unable to bear children. Modern historians have suggested she possessed a psychological fear of marriage, recalling the execution of her mother and step-mother as well as the death of Jane Seymour in childbirth. Still others believe she would have married if only her councillors could have agreed to support a suitor's candidacy.

Political issues surely had more impact on her decision to remain single than alleged psychological fears. Furthermore, it is difficult to believe, given what is known about her character and personality, that, had she married, Elizabeth would have ceded her sovereign rights to her husband. Recent investigators of Mary Tudor's reign have argued that she did not relinquish to Philip her royal powers. To test the theory that fears about political unrest and insurrection played major roles in her unwillingness to marry, it will be instructive to examine public responses to the marriages of Lady Jane Grey, Mary Tudor, and Mary Stewart.

Lady Jane Gray

In June 1553, when Edward VI was seriously ill, he drafted a 'Device' to change the line of succession as outlined in the will of his father Henry VIII. According to the will of his father, in the event of Edward's death without legitimate heirs, his successors were to be his half-sister Mary, and her legitimate offspring; then his half-sister Elizabeth, and her legitimate offspring; and finally the two daughters and their legitimate heirs of Henry VIII's sister, Mary, the French queen and wife of Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk. In 1553, the French queen's elder daughter Frances, wife of Henry Grey, duke of Suffolk, was the next claimant after Mary and Elizabeth.

How influential John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, was in Edward's decision to change this order is still under debate. The final version of the 'Device' was not entirely in the ailing king's hand, but he seems to have approved of naming his cousin Lady Jane Grey, the Protestant daughter of the duke and duchess of Suffolk, as his successor rather than his half-sister Mary, a noted Catholic. As a parliamentary statute had authorised Henry's will, Edward's executive decree was illegal. It has been alleged that Northumberland played a major role in effecting this change because in May he had matched his son, Guildford, with Jane. Presumably this marriage would have permitted the duke to gain Protestant support for his retention of royal power, first governing for Jane and then passing that authority on to his son, her husband, and her legitimate children, transforming the Tudor dynasty into the Dudley dynasty.

Questions have been asked about whether Northumberland had this longrange royal plan in mind because he was ill prepared to implement the 'Device's' measures when Edward died on 6 July 1553. No one doubts, however, that the duke was entirely responsible for persuading the royal council to honour and endorse Edward's wishes. Even so, Northumberland had made little or no enforcement preparations. …

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