Did They or Didn’t They?

Robert Dudley

Today’s article has been written exclusively for The Elizabeth Files by novelist Jeane Westin, writer of “The Virgin’s Daughters: In the Court of Elizabeth I”. Thank you so much, Jeane, for giving us this insight into the relationship between Elizabeth and her “Robin”.

Did they or didn’t they? Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.

Bess and her Robin’s love story is a tangled puzzle, one which I’ve attempted to unravel in years of research and two novels. In the first, The Virgin’s Daughters:In the court of Elizabeth I, NAL, August, 2009, I’ve viewed their lives through the eyes of two of Elizabeth’s ladies-of-the-bedchamber. In the novel I’m currently writing, His Last Letter: Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester, NAL, August 2010, I write from their viewpoints, getting inside their hearts.

Robin’s last letter to Elizabeth survives. He says her medicine has made him feel better and he kisses her foot. But is that all? Was there another page to the letter that Elizabeth could not allow to survive? Did she carry a romantic secret to her grave, a secret that answers one of the continuing puzzles of her life?

Elizabeth, the iconic Virgin Queen, Gloriana, Good Queen Bess, Diana the Huntress and all the other grand titles she was known by, was obviously and forever in love with Robert Dudley, her Sweet Robin. For thirty years she could not allow him to leave her side without great pain, their love outlasting her endless flirtations with other courtiers and on-going marriage negotiations with most of the foreign princes of Europe.

Yet, Robert was so unpopular with many jealous courtiers and much of the English population that for several centuries after his death he was treated by historians as a greedy, not too bright failure with little to recommend him but his looks and ability to dance the galliard. In his lifetime many believed he murdered his first wife, Amy Robsart He was also suspected of poisoning every man who opposed him and who died suddenly.

The Death of Amy Robsart by William Frederick Yeames

We know better today. Although I believe that Elizabeth might have married him in the beginning of her reign, Amy’s suspicious death made that forever impossible. Did he kill his wife? No, I don’t believe so. Dudley was no fool. If there was one thing that would put the queen forever beyond his reach, it was a murder…a murder in which she, too, would obviously be implicated.

Amy had advanced breast cancer when she fell down two short flights of stairs at Cumnor Manor in 1560 and broke her neck. Modern medicine tells us that cancer can cause brittle bones. It would take a very short fall by a woman in great pain to break a fragile neck. She could also have committed suicide, but the possibility of that was immediately hushed because it meant that she could not be buried in consecrated ground. Two juries judged Amy’s death was caused by “misadventure,” in modern meaning an accident, but many Englishmen never accepted that judgment.

Any number of theories about Amy’s death have come down to us. I even found an accusation against William Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State. Could he have had Amy killed in order to implicate Dudley, since Cecil feared Elizabeth would marry him instead of a foreign prince? I’ll leave that one to the conspiracy theorists.

As for Robert Dudley, his love for Elizabeth survived his two marriages and many affairs, remaining the one constant and supremely important love of his life.

There are numerous guesses about why Elizabeth never married. Marriage put a wife in Tudor times under her husband’s total control. Her father’s marriages taught her well. Besides, Elizabeth liked to rule. Perhaps she was afraid of childbirth, which killed many women. Most of all, she liked to play the marriage game keeping half of Europe guessing and her country free from attacks while there was a possibility of acquiring England without bloodshed or expense.

The first question asked of any writer of Elizabeth and Dudley: Did they have a consumated love affair or was she truly a virgin? One answer could be that the the definition of virgin has changed over the centuries. In Tudor times it meant a “maid,” in other words an unmarried woman. Another answer: Elizabeth willed herself to be a virgin and that was that! No one will ever know for sure, which is a good thing for writers who want to weave a tale.

Cecil, himself, thought they were lovers as late as 1572 or 14 years after Elizabeth ascended the throne. In the early years of her reign, it was remarked in letters by ambassadors and other unofficial communications that they were very physical…she, touching him (she tickled his neck when he knelt to be made a garter knight) and he, having access to her chamber whenever he liked. When they were young, they had adjoining chambers.

If you have read much of this queen’s reign, you know that she was shrewd and a good judge of men. Would she have kept Dudley so close if he were an idiot? She put him on her council. She twice named him head of her armies and even contemplated naming him Captain-General of England, which would have put him second in command of the realm. Cecil talked her out of it.

Early in her reign when she thought she was dying of smallpox, she named Dudley Protector and demanded that her council give him twenty thousand pounds a year (an unheard of sum). England was her most precious possession; she refused to ever name an heir in her lifetime. Would she have left her realm, her most precious posession to someone she thought unworthy?

One of my greatest pleasures in writing about them is to imagine them in their castles and riding madly through the countryside all those years, always together yet forever apart.

By Jeane Westin
Author of “The Virgin’s Daughters: In the Court of Elizabeth I”.

29 thoughts on “Did They or Didn’t They?

  1. Brilliant article, Jeane, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to write it.

    I read the Cecil accusation in Alison Weir’s “Elizabeth, the Queen” – I foled the page down and wrote a big question mark in the margin because she just didn’t back it up with any evidence, just mentioned it in passing. I thought “What??!!”. It really would have been nice for her then to go into detail on this accusation but she didn’t – shame.

    I think Elizabeth and Dudley truly loved each other and were soulmates. I don’t think that Elizabeth slept with him or anyone else as she knew that her reputation had to be completely unblemished and she just could not risk pregnancy or scandal. Some suggest that she was actually physically unable to have a sexual relationship, others suggest that it was psychological, but I think it was a decision that she made, the decision to always be in control. We’ll never know!

  2. Thank you, Claire, for this opportunity to put forward my views about Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.

    Your view that she died a virgin is certainly the one she wanted everyone then and forever to have. But…there’s always a caveat…I don’t think human nature has changed that much between then and now, which informs my view that they were lovers at some time in their lives together. Of course, she didn’t give birth to the “son” that turned up in Spain years later, or had any of the other many children gossiped about.

    She was a passionate woman and he was an extremely handsome and witty man she had known and trusted since she was a child, a man who catered to her in every way. Desire is desire and there are many precautions, here unnamed, that they could have taken even in those days.

    No one will ever know and that’s why this exercise of “did they or didn’t they” will probably go on forever.

    Best always,
    Jeane Westin

  3. What a fine article! Thanks to Jeane – and to Claire for bringing it to us.
    We all have our views – and they probably alter and fluctuate every few months or so, according to whatever latest piece of news or opinion makes the blogs or whatever new novel hits the bookshelves.
    My view is prompted by the epitaph written under dictation to William Cecil, by a woman who served and lived with the Queen for over 55 years, Mistress Blanche Parry, Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber.
    ‘With maiden Queen a maid did end my life.’

  4. It’s definitely a puzzle, ladies, and I love puzzles and mysteries!

    Jeane, I love this type of article because it gets people talking and debating, and there’s no right answer! Thanks again for this wonderful thought provoking article.

    My personal view is that she was a virgin but it wouldn’t change my admiration or view of her if she wasn’t. My husband sometimes says that perhaps she was a bit like Bill Clinton with the whole Monica Lewinsky (probably haven’t spelled that right!) thing – perhaps she felt she was a virgin because she told herself she was or perhaps she allowed things to go so far but not “all the way”! Anyway, I think she was a virgin.

  5. Great article, Jeane. I admit I don’t know much about Elizabeth so I learn something new with each of these articles.

    If anyone here likes mystery stories, Fiona Buckley has a great series based in the court of Queen Elizabeth, the Ursula Blanchard series. The first book is called To Shield the Queen, and deals with Amy Robsart’s death and the conspiracies around it. Highly recommended.

  6. A wonderful article here, Jeane and Claire, thank you.

    I have also always wondered about Elizabeth’s virginity status, as it is fun to go over all the “facts” but as you said, we’ll never really know.

    I doubt that later as a queen she would have done anything to harm her realm such as sleeping with Dudley, but I would listen to the arguments as a teenager when she was so close to him and going through the emotional turmoil of being the King’s daughter.

  7. Ah, one of England’s great historical love stories… Never unsolved, and will probably never be, but the two answers are possible. Don’t forget that Elizabeth was sensual ( as seen in her flirt with Thomas ‘Thanks Lord for all the little girls”Seymour. After all contraception, like condoms, existed, and an hedonist like Dudley surely knew how to avoid pregnancy. And concerning the Spanish propaganda who never discovered any hint of sexual activity in Elizabeth’s bedchamber, I’m convinced that they prefered showing her as a bloody virgin, an annormal creature, opposed to the married and mother Mary Stuart. Don’t forget the at this time it was believed that hysteria was caused by a lack of sexual activity!

  8. Wonderful article Jeanne. I’m of the mind that they probably consummated the relationship, possibly towards the end when she knew that she wasn’t fertile anymore. I do think that he was the great love of her life. I agree with Lexy that Dudley would have known how to prevent pregnancy. We’ll never know for sure, but it is wonderful to speculate.

  9. How reliable would birth control have been back then? Dudley must know something I don’t know and I thought reliable birth control first came around with “the pill.” Hard to believe anyone could connect hysteria with sex! I suppose they never heard of a cold bath or shower LOL! I guess the relationship between Elizabeth and Dudley will remain a mystery.

  10. I guess I’ll have to try and research Tudor contraception now! I’m not sure what they used but Catherine Howard once said “a woman might meddle with a man and yet conceive no child unless she would her-self” and perhaps that would explain how Catherine could have had the sexual experience she had and not get pregnant. But did Elizabeth and Dudley use birth control or was Elizabeth barren or did they actually never go that far? It’s a mystery!

  11. At that time, condoms made of fabrics, or pig’s guts, where available, mostly to avoid venerian diseases like siphylis when having sex with prostitutes, and, as it is nowadays, condoms is the best way to avoid pregnancy.
    Lisajane, it may seem unbelievable for us, but doctors were convinced for centuries that women without sexual activity were exposed to hystaria. They believed (don’t laugh at what follows, people like Hippocrate or Gallien wrote it, and even Aristote!!!!) that a woman’s uterus wasn’t fixed in her body. It was supposed to move into the body and to perturb her mind. The only way to fix it and to calm the woman was to give her a husband and regular sexual activity. Longtime virgins were accused of hysteria and seen as annormal and pererted ( have a look to litterature, old maids are always dryed and opposed to the other’s happiness.

  12. Just out of curiosity, were the Vestal Virgins all considered hysterical? I know that a vestal could retire about 30 years old and many of them did not marry to continue Rome’s “good luck.” Still sounds like a guy’s excuse to get laid! I suppose a nunnery was a dangerous place! I don’t think chocolate was around during Henry’s time to appease all those crazed nuns LOL!

  13. In fact, chastity for religious purpose was a different point: a Vestal or a nun wasn’t really a woman, as if the fact of choosing God as a husband took their uterus away from her (lol). The main target of all the hysteria stuff was women who didn’t marry but remained in the “world”, and didn’t take the veil. Yes, it was a chauvinist’s pig view on women, not only to get laid (“Oh, I had to refix her uterus!”), but to laugh at inependant women. for centuries, women who remained unmarried were the most independant of all, not having to submit to a husband. Saying that they were hysterical was a good mean to minimize them. There was a stupid expression too, saying that women without sexuality had “spiderwebs inside”. And you can be frightened by the idea that doctors believed in the “traveling uterus” until the twenthieth century. For the nuns, they dinn’t have chocolate ( such an unbearable time, lol!), but if you read comics short storie of this time, like The Decameron, you’ll see that they had gardeners… And confessors…

  14. Thanks for the info Lexy! So independent women who didn’t marry have been a threat to guys for a long time! It’s amazing the ideas that people had. Part of the reason that I love this site if finding facts not in most history books (or at least the ones I’ve read).

  15. Yes, Lisaanne, single women who hadn’t to submit to any male were seen not only as threats, but as annormal cratures. Just look at all the rumors about the reasons for Elizabeth’ s chastity, like my favourite ( that she hadn’t any “hole” to couple with a man). it was the same thing for many great women in history, just look at the reactions toward first feminists. If you want to have an exemple of the ‘Traveling Theory”, have a look at the very good and well documented The Crimson Petal and the White. During the examination of a depressed woman, the doctor declares that her uterus is not at the right place and that he have to refix it. And for another historical exemple, people said criticizing Marie Antoinette queen of France, that since her wedding had not been immediatly consummed, she had developped “uterine furors”, that made her sleep whith everything ( men, women, dogs, even her children ) and plotting the more deaths she could.

  16. OMG Lexy! That’s a crazy rumor – I suppose they thought Elizabeth didn’t have a period or connected that babies came out of the same place! Poor Elizabeth! Having to rule a country and deal with all these crazy rumors. These doctors amaze me. So how did the doctor treat the depressed woman? Was he treating or molesting her? And poor Marie Antoinette (I keep thinking of a song parody “I Kissed A Dog And I Liked It” – I suppose everyone ran away from her who wasn’t in the mood! Now how come this wasn’t on the show I saw about the French Revolution?

  17. Thanks Claire, for the article and for what you said!
    Lisaanne, it was surely very humiliating for Elizabeth to hear the rumor that she had just “a small hole to piss” and that she had refused the intervention that would have made the other hole bigger. One of these days I’ll translate and put on this site the extract of Brantôme ( you had probably remarked that I often refer to that man, who knew both Elizabet and Anne Boleyn, a good mine of informations) where he talks of that. Concerning Marie Antoinette, as often, crispy things are omitted in historical shows. These rumors belonged to the world of pamphlets, people who knew her knew the truth. You can look for the excellent book “La reine scélérate”, I don’t know if it’s translated: the pamphlets can be found in it, and it is HOT. In one of them her little dog complains that her human lovers stole his place. In Sofia Coppola’s movie, it is mentioned when Polignac describe an image wher she is sucking Marie’s toes. Whet these women experienced is really unbelievable!

  18. The more I find out what Elizabeth had to endure, the more I admire her. And the more I learn about Marie Antoinette, the sorrier I feel for her. I focused a bit on the history of Rome and I knew how dirty Roman politics could get, but I guess mean spirited comments have been around forever. I heard of Gallien but I thought he primarily worked for the army and imperial family. I have to mention Claire that I looked up your wiki website and all I can say is that my view of the Sears catalogue has certainly changed.

  19. Hi Lisa,
    Which wiki site? The Elizabeth or Anne one? I’ve been too snowed under with the regular sites to spend muct time on the wiki sites recently – must check in and do some work on those sometime. I’m a Brit so I haven’t got a clue what your comment means about the Sears catalogue! Sorry!

  20. Ah, I see! I thought you meant that you went to one of my wiki sites! I found that wikipedia article when I was doing some research on female hysteria (as you do!). Yes, I can see how it might be a bit different from Sears!! The reference to Sears in the article went completely over my head but I’ve just clicked on the wiki link for Sears so I know all about it now! Love the description of their electric woman’s appliance, made me laugh!

  21. I believe that they were lovers and quite honestly I think it was cruel of everyone around them to want to keep them apart, she may have joked and toyed with the idea of other men but nothing could top Dudlley and same to other way around as to Amy Robsart well as you say he was not stupid and everyone knew that so they should all know that it was a “misadventure” and get over it. As to the virgin part it is said she took that so that the people would worship her if they were in such a desperate need of The Virgin Mary, vain but still it seems to have worked

  22. I always think that Robert Dudly and Elizabeth’s ‘love story’ is so romantic! – She falling in love with a man she could never marry. (For more than one reason!) He dosen’t seem as bad as most people wrote/said of him – although i have heard that he acted differently around the queen than to others. Was this because of his love for her, or the throne? (He must have known that she would, if married, want to keep her authority?!) So much is left unanswered – i’ll just have to write a book for myself!

  23. Ah, the big question! We’ll never know of course, but I like to think that at some point, they did conssumate their love–and I believe the best possible time for that would have been early on, when she couldn’t keep her hands off him! He surely would have known of birth controls they had–the fine linen or guts, there’s always the rhythm method to be used in conjuction, various herbs….who knows? I hope they did for such a love is rare==then again, maybe it lasted because they didn’t. Lots to consider. Thanks for the great artilcle and I await the book as well!

  24. I think the most significant thing about Queen Elizabeth and Lord Dudley’s relationship is that they were really good friends. Many years passed by and they remained affectionate for each other, wasn’t it great? I like the part when the Queen tickled Lord Dudley’s neck when he was being knighted. Great article, Ms Jeane 🙂

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