Elizabeth and Leicester – Bess and Robin

Joseph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett as Leicester and Elizabeth

After reading Jeane Westin’s wonderful novel about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, I asked Jeane her opinion on two questions:-

  • Why didn’t Elizabeth and Leicester marry?
  • Was what they felt true love?

Jeane has kindly written a guest article for The Elizabeth Files answering these questions – thank you, Jeane!

You can read my review of Jeane’s novel, “His Last Letter: Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester”, at http://reviews.theanneboleynfiles.com/his-last-letter-by-jeane-westin/420 and bid for a signed copy over at The Anne Boleyn Files – Signed Book Up for Grabs.

Elizabeth and Leicester

by Jeane Westin

Thank you Claire for this opportunity to write more about Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester. You had two questions for me: Why didn’t Elizabeth and Robin marry? Was what they felt true love?

Why Didn’t Elizabeth and Robin Marry?

There are multiple reasons Elizabeth avoided marriage, although I think, at times, she wavered. The principle reason was her power: she did not want to share it. Also, marriage in Tudor times gave the husband control over his wife (due to the Tudor belief in God’s chain of being, with women near the bottom of the chain) and Robert certainly wanted to be a king, although not enough to marry Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth’s efforts to send him north to Mary, though half-hearted, played a big part in His Last Letter. The idea, which seemed like a solution to the Stuart’s Queen’s French intentions was one Elizabeth couldn’t allow. A French king (and potential army) on her northern border was anathema to her and she wished to avoid it even at the cost of losing her Robin. Whether she would really have sent Dudley to Mary is a question that I had an interesting time with in the book. Mary Stuart was the second-best catch in Europe at that time and was highly resentful of Elizabeth’s offer of “her paramour,” though she eventually relented and agreed that Robert could come north to visit her. Robert fought Elizabeth on this matter until they both came to tears.

Why would Robin fight so against becoming Mary’s husband? There can be only one answer. He wanted Elizabeth and had every reason to believe she wanted him. Now what would give him that idea?

In addition to her fear of power-sharing, Elizabeth had youthful experiences that did not dispose her to marry. Her father’s cruel treatment of his wives, especially Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, probably helped to set her mind against marriage. Sir Thomas Seymour and his pursuit of Elizabeth while married to Katherine Parr, did not improve matters, whatever happened between him and the fourteen year old Princess Elizabeth. There were also rumors of her inability to have successful congress (as they called it) with a man, but I doubt they were true or the court doctors who examined her several times would not have been able to keep the secret, at least not forever.

All this is well-known, but in addition, I truly believe that Elizabeth thought herself the truest descendant of Henry VIII and the only one fit to rule England. I’ve wondered, too, if there was a thought of vindication for her mother, Queen Anne Boleyn, in the back of her mind that she refused to give up.

Religion also swayed her decision-making. If she married a Catholic, she alienated her Protestant people. If she married a Protestant, Catholic Englishmen might rebel as the north did early in her reign. Elizabeth trod a narrow path between the two forms of Christianity throughout her reign, not always successfully.

It was in her interest not to marry so that she could keep dangling the English throne in front of France and Spain, thus protecting England from invasion until the last possible moment by which time her fleet was ready.

True Love?

Were Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester truly in love? They were seldom parted for decades during her long rule and then only with mutual heartache. Her letters to him in Holland, written with anger, hold all the evidence of love betrayed. And her tender letters of reconciliation, signed, always the same, certainly speak to a deep attachment. We don’t have their youthful letters. They had ears to whisper into.

Robert Dudley withstood her angry tirades and reveled in her loving attention…it is reported, she tickled his neck as he knelt to become a Garter Knight at Westminster. He wrote to her as he lay dying. When there are so many signs of deep affection, denying it makes no sense to me. Finally, I had to explore their relationship and wrote His Last Letter to tie the strands of their history together.

Jeane Westin
The Virgin’s Daughters:In the court of Elizabeth I, August 2009
His Last Letter:Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester, August 2010