Elizabeth I: The Most Elusive Bride in History

Katherine E. Culbertson

(8)In failing to marry and secure the Tudor line of succession to the English throne, Elizabeth I defied an entire nation. To her Parliament, her Privy Council, her suitors, and her subjects, Elizabeth's obstinence was indeed a bewildering phenomenon. Many regarded her as a capricious, impetuous woman insensitive to England's welfare. Elizabeth's contemporaries, however, vastly underestimated her. While succession was indeed a thorny issue and the lack of a Tudor heir threatened disaster, Elizabeth perceived marriage, the only means to secure an heir, as even more dangerous. She resisted the constant pressure to take a husband because she regarded marriage as fundamentally incompatible with the objectives of her reign. Elizabeth therefore rejected each potential husband not on the grounds of his individual shortcomings, but on the basis of her aversion to the idea of marriage. Ironically, Elizabeth's utter devotion to her subjects compelled her to pursue what she believed to be a wiser course. That course included not only avoiding marriage, but integrating courtships as a crucial element of her foreign policy. While marriage offered strategic advantages at the cost of a permanent entanglement, protracted courtships promised short-term strategic and diplomatic gains without a costly commitment. That policy served as a major foundation of Elizabeth's rule.

Pressure for Elizabeth to marry rested on the national obsession over the issue of succession. If Elizabeth should not produce an heir, Mary Queen of Scots' claim to the English throne would spell an imminent return to Catholicism. [1] The Archbishop of Canterbury perceived the continuation of the Tudor line as fundamental to the preservation of England. Immediately upon her succession, he submitted his urgent request that she marry, beseeching her to bear an heir "whereby the great fears of ruin of this your ancient empire might be prevented, the destruction of your natural-born subjects avoided." [2] Parliamentary pressure ensued in early 1559, when the House of Commons entered its plea for her to marry. William Camden, who was commissioned by Elizabeth's successor James I to write her history, recorded Parliament's request:

There is nothing which with more ardent affection we beg of God in our daily prayers, than our happiness hitherto received by your most gratious government may be perpetuated to the English nation unto all eternity. Whilst in our mind and cogitation we cast many ways how this might be effected, we can find none at all, unless your Majesty shall reign for ever, or else by Marriage bring forth children, Heirs both (9) to their Mother's Vertue and Empire. This is the single, the onely, the all-comprehending prayer of all Englishmen. [3]

Elizabeth delivered her famous reply:

...now that the Publick Care of governing the Kingdom is laid upon me, to draw upon me also the Cares of marriage may seem a point of inconsiderate Folly. Yea, to satisfie you, I have already joyned myself in marriage to an Husband, namely, the Kingdom of England...And to me it shall be a Full satisfaction, both for the memorial of my Name, and for my Glory also, if when I shall let my last breath, it be ingraven upon my Marble Tomb, "Here lieth Elizabeth, which Reigned a Virgin, and died a Virgin." [4]

Though Parliamentary pleas were powerful, Elizabeth was reinforced on the marriage issue and others by the English tradition which upheld royal prerogative. Historian Joseph Levine observed that "the sixteenth-century Parliament was a body with few privileges, little continuity, and ill-defined procedures. It was called and dismissed at royal pleasures, and was expected to be submissive to the royal prerogative." [5] While he conceded that Elizabeth's Parliaments were uncharacteristically combative, Levine concluded that "the Queen almost always had her way." [6]

Elizabeth's near death from smallpox in 1562 added new fervor to the call for her to marry. "Henceforward," wrote biographer J. E. Neale, "Englishmen could not fail to realize upon what a slender thread-a woman's life-depended the tranquillity of their land." [7] Because few doubted that Elizabeth would actually remain unmarried, further debate centered around whether she should marry a subject or a foreigner. Whom the Queen might marry involved questions of international and domestic stability, not just succession. A 1563 public sermon in Westminster Abbey advocated Elizabeth's marriage as especially crucial given the lessons of her half-sister Mary's disastrous marriage to King Philip II of Spain. [8] In 1563, the House of Commons issued a petition on the marriage and (10)succession question. The petitioners reminded Elizabeth of "the great dangers, the unspeakable miseries of civil war, the perilous intermeddling of foreign princes with seditious, ambitious, and factious subjects as home" which would surely result if Elizabeth chose her husband unwisely. [9] An alliance with a foreign power through marriage offered certain advantages. Taking Philip II as her husband would help stabilize England's precarious position in peace negotiations with France. [10] Others, however, feared subjection to a foreign "yoke." [11] Asked one English noble, "What need it be sought so far, that we have so near?" [12] Yet the prospects at home were no more encouraging. Edward Courtenay, the Earl of Devon, had been targeted early on as Elizabeth's most likely husband, but his death in 1556 left no suitable English candidate. It was becoming apparent, according to Neale, that "there was no other [Englishman] whom Elizabeth could have married without a fair certainty of setting her nobility by the ears." [13]

To confront the constant barrage of pressure to marry, Elizabeth capitalized on the masculine prejudice encircling her, appearing outwardly frivolous while inwardly steering a wise and cunning course of domestic and international policy. "The Queen made her mistakes, of course," found Levine, " but her female virtues were by and large more than a match for her more blustering male contemporaries." [14] The Bishop de Quadra, who handled marriage negotiations on behalf of the Archduke Charles of Austria in 1563, once commented that Elizabeth "must have a hundred thousand devils in her body." [15] Others shared his frustration. According to biographer Carrolly Erickson, Elizabeth possessed a perverse delight in outraging people." [16] Other historians have identified her penchant for exasperating those around her. Josephine Ross pointed to a certain playfulness in Elizabeth, a "half-suppressed merriment." [17] In no other area was this dimension of the Queen more evident than in her baiting and luring of hapless suitors, as she played on the naive expectations that as a woman, she naturally wanted to marry. "It occurred to few of them [Elizabeth's male contemporaries]," wrote British historian Paul Johnson, "that an intellectual like Elizabeth, of imperious temper and fixed opinions, might not be prepared, under any (11)circumstances, to accept the subordinate role that sixteenth-century marriage imposed even on a Queen Regent." [18]

Ambassador de Feria, who conducted Philip's suit, most of all fell victim to Elizabeth's manipulation, failing to realize "how skillfully the young Queen wielded her weaknesses." [19] He naively assumed that Elizabeth could be easily won over by reminding her of Mary's claim to the throne and offering Spanish aid as if she were so defenseless and unresourceful that she would fly to Spain's protective side. [20] As Neale observed, "Neither master nor servant was a match for the young woman at the diplomatic game of bluff. " [21]

Bluffing was indeed Elizabeth's favorite tactic. Courtship, and all the manipulation and wile it entailed, brought her greater gains than its end, marriage. Knowing that, in feigning indecision, she lured suitors who believed they could prey on that indecision and win her over, thereby inviting a multitude of courtships, but no marriages. The Venetian Ambassador Giovanni Michieli acutely sensed Elizabeth's tactics. He wrote: "She has many suitors for her hand, and by protracting any decision keeps them all in hope, persuading herself that in her need they will do what they can from rivalry to gain her love and matrimonial alliance." [22]

Elizabeth used courtships as a crucial element of her foreign policy. When Philip II advanced his offer in January 1559, Elizabeth knew that it would be politically foolish to accept. Yet she also realized that it would be equally unwise to reject immediately his offer. [23] The lingering threat of an Anglo-Spanish alliance would keep the French momentarily at bay while Elizabeth negotiated peace with them, and hostile Catholic subjects might be temporary mollified by an impending union with Spain while Elizabeth proceeded with her religious reforms. Elizabeth saw only an immediate need for Spain's friendship which could be achieved through entertaining the suit. Marriage was unnecessary because Spain offered no long-term benefits to England. [24] Throughout the spring of 1559, Elizabeth avoided giving the Spanish an answer, buying time to advance her interests. She eventually rejected the offer on the grounds that she could (12)hardly marry her half-sister's widower, and that her subjects would strongly oppose the return of the Catholic king to the throne of England. Camden wrote that, "Queen Elizabeth, being most averse to this Marriage, and most desirous to promote the Protestant Religion, thought nothing more pleasing to God, nothing more effectual to put off her importunate suitor, than that Religion should forthwith be altered." [25] Thus ended the suit of Philip II, whom Neale called the "most transient and therefore the most fortunate of Elizabeth's suitors." [26]

Elizabeth's handling of her second major courtship reflected her overriding concern for England's welfare. Upon the second Parliament's fretful 1563 plea that she marry, the Archduke Charles of Austria materialized as the next ill-fated suitor, whose hopes Elizabeth "at the first did not quite cut off," according to Camden. [27] As negotiations continued into 1564, the everpresent question of religion plagued Charles' suit. His brother the Emperor insisted that Charles and his court be allowed to practice publicly their Catholic religion in England, which indeed turned out to be a fatal request. Elizabeth nevertheless continued the suit into 1567, finally turning to her councilors for their advice. They were divided. Thomas Radcliffe, the Earl of Sussex, pushed Elizabeth to consent to marriage. The desperate Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and Elizabeth's ardent admirer, urged her to reject the suit on the pretense that marriage to a foreign king promised ruin. [28] The decision left to her, Elizabeth exhibited her characteristic wisdom and rationality. Though succession was still unsettled, as Neale wrote, " the supreme need of the country was not . . . a royal child to settle the vexed and threatening question of succession, but salvation from civil and religious war." [29] Elizabeth simply did not perceive the urgency of the succession question as much as her Parliament and Council did. Her priorities ranked the political and religious stability of England higher. She knew that marriage to the Archduke would further split a nation already divided on the merits of the union. Furthermore, his Catholicism would be disastrous to her religious reforms. Therefore, she rejected the suit.

Philip II and Charles submitted the most prominent suits. However, they did not want for company in the vain attempt to win Elizabeth's hand. Early in her reign, James Earl of Arran, on behalf of the Scottish Protestants, submitted a proposal for marriage by which Scotland and England would be united. The Protestant Eric, King of Sweden was the most earnest and most generous suitor. [30] (13)Francis, the French Duke of Alenšon, conducted the final and most exhaustive bid for Elizabeth. His mother, Catherine de Medici, first advanced the offer in 1572, and then renewed it six years later, by which time the Queen was approaching fifty. Though the French marriage offered tempting payoffs, particularly an alliance to withstand the Spanish and the Scots, its potential political liabilities were overwhelming. [31] Various English strongly opposed the union; prominent Puritans openly published a book titled The Gulph Wherein England will be Swallowed by the French Marriage, an act for which Elizabeth ordered their right hands cut off. [32] Moreover, with succession the main concern fueling the marriage question, the issue was now obsolete given the Queen's age.

The uproar over marriage and succession plagued Elizabeth throughout the first part of her reign, with various interests pulling her in opposite directions. That she managed, against this tumultuous background, deftly to steer England into the seventeenth century without marrying was indeed a remarkable feat. Though her accomplishment was stunning enough on the level that she resisted such intense pressure, even more incredible were the major domestic and international victories she secured, against all predictions, as a maiden Queen. She ensured a peaceful religious settlement and prevented foreign domination.

In 1566, when Parliament convened "with the sense that it had been thwarted and fooled three years before," restless Commons and Lords agreed to draft a new petition. An angry Elizabeth challenged them to point out the weaknesses of her reign:

Was I not born in this realm? ... Is not my kingdom here? Whom have I oppressed? Whom have I enriched to other's harm? What turmoil have I made in this commonwealth that I should be suspected to have no regard to the same? How have I governed since my reign? I will be tried by envy itself. I need not to use many words, for my deeds do try me. [33]

Elizabeth's strength as a ruler rested on her vision and her true devotion to her people. Feria remarked on his visit to Elizabeth's court that "she is very much wedded to the people." [34] While on the surface it appeared that Elizabeth's defiance directly opposed the wishes of an entire nation, the sheer success of her reign was a testament to her political shrewdness and her dedication to her subjects, and it was her best defense against critics. As Camden wrote: "She out of her singular Love to her Country, was all this while so attentive to the Publick good, that in the mean time, she almost quite put out of her mind the Love of (14)potent Princes." [35] And as Elizabeth herself said shortly before her death, ". . . though ye have had, and may have, many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had, or shall have, any that will be more careful or loving." [36]



1. Mary Queen of Scots was married to the French King Henry II. She was also the senior great-granddaughter of Henry VIII of England. With this in mind, Henry II set his sights on absorbing England and Ireland along with Scotland into his realm. Josephine Ross. Suitors to the Queen. (New York: Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, Inc., 1975), 59.
2. Joseph M. Levine, ed. Great Lives Observed: Elizabeth I. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 101.
3. Willam Camden. The History of the Most Renowned and Victorious Princess Elizabeth Late Queen of England. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), 28.
4. Ibid., 29-30.
5. Levine, 131.
6. Ibid., 132.
7. J.E. Neale. Queen Elizabeth I: A Biography. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), 121.
8. Ross, 107. Mary, the daughter of Elizabeth's father Henry VIII and his wife Catherine of Aragon, married Philip II and attempted in vain a Catholic restoration. The result was even stronger anti-Catholic inclinations throughout England. the issue of Elizabeth's marriage became even more delicate in this light; she must marry one who would not threaten England's political and religious tranquillity.
9. Ross, 107.
10. Neale, 71.
11. Camden, 136.
12. Levine, 101-2.
13. Neale, 75.
14. Levine, 84.
15. Ross, 81-2.
16. Carrolly Erickson. The First Elizabeth. (New York: Summit Books, 1983), 181.
17. Ross, 59.
18. Paul Johnson. Elizabeth I. (New York: Rinehart & Winston, 1974), 111.
19. Ross, 65.
20. Ibid., 65-6.
21. Neale, 72.
22. Levine, 104.
23. Neale, 71.
24. Ross, 69; Camden, 12. Philip looked to England and Elizabeth to keep King Henry II and France from acquiring England and Ireland through his wife Mary's claim to the English throne. Elizabeth temporarily accepted Philip's friendship so that France would be prevented, out of fear of Spain, from declaring Elizabeth an illegitimate ruler.
25. Camden, 14.
26. Neale, 72.
27. Camden, 52.
28. Ibid., 77.
29. Neale, 154-55.
30. Camden, 51.
31. Ibid., 136. Philip II was at the time offering his daughter in marriage to the Scottish King, thereby drawing the Scots into opposition to England.
32. Ibid., 136-7.
33. Neale, 149.
34. Ross, 59.
35. Camden, 51.
36. Jane Murray. The Kings and Queens of England. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1974), 96.