Why Didn’t Elizabeth I Marry?

In the final scene of Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth”, starring Cate Blanchett, we see Kat Ashley cutting Elizabeth’s hair off and Elizabeth making a dramatic entrance in front of her court dressed as a bride in an elaborate white gown, pearls (which symbolise purity), a red wig, a huge ruff and a whitened face.

When Elizabeth sees her new short hair, she says to Kat, “Kat, I have become a virgin”, and when she appears at court she says to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, “Observe, Lord Burghley, I am married to England.”

It is an amazing final scene. It is incredibly dramatic and emotional and really makes you think about Elizabeth and how she changed into the iconic queen of her later portraits, the Gloriana and the Virgin Queen. In the movie, Elizabeth I is not a virgin. She has an affair with her childhood sweetheart, Robert Dudley, and so the scene at the end is about Elizabeth transforming herself by assuming this new persona and stating her commitment to England by “marrying” England. It is this new stronger Elizabeth who heralds in the country’s Golden Age. So, it is a persona rather than the real Elizabeth.

But what about the real Elizabeth? Whatever your thoughts on Elizabeth’s virgin status, it is clear that she considered herself married to her country and that she made a conscious decision not to marry – but why? Surely it was her responsibility to carry on the Tudor line, to secure the succession and to provide England with an heir, so why would Elizabeth make such a huge decision? Here are some possible reasons but please do share your thoughts in the comments section below:-

  • Psychological – It is said that after Catherine Howard’s execution the 8 year old Elizabeth told her friend Robert Dudley that she would never marry. Did she decide not to marry because of what happened to her own mother, Anne Boleyn, and her stepmother, Catherine Howard?
  • Mary I’s example – Elizabeth saw the damage that Mary’s marriage to Philip II did to the country. This marriage caused unrest and rebellion and it also broke Mary’s heart.
  • Control – In Tudor times, a wife was expected to submit to her husband and Elizabeth, as monarch, may not have wanted to give away any control to her husband, when it was she who was responsible for the running of the country.
  • Love – Elizabeth loved Robert Dudley and it may be that she chose not to marry because she could not marry her true love.
  • Diplomacy – Remaining unmarried meant that she could enter marriage negotiations and play countries off against each other.
  • Fear of childbirth – Two of Elizabeth’s stepmothers, Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr, had died just a few days after childbirth so was Elizabeth frightened of having children?
  • Commitment to her country – Elizabeth wanted to do the best for her country and felt married to her country.
  • The perfect marriage never came along – Marriage negotiations always seemed to come to nothing because of diplomatic wranglings and problems.
  • Medical reasons – In my post “Elizabeth I – A Virago, Genetically Male or Simply a Strong woman?” I looked at R. Bakan’s theory that Elizabeth had testicular feminization syndrome which meant that she looked like a female and would have had female external genitalia but that the uterus and uterine tubes would have been either rudimentary or absent, and that the vagina may also have been absent. She would also have been sterile. If Elizabeth did not have a vagina then she would not have wanted anyone to know about it. I can’t credit this theory at all!
  • Elizabeth was a man – I love this theory! According to The Bisley Boy legend, the real Elizabeth died in childhood and a boy took her place. Obviously, the imposter would have been discovered if “Elizabeth” had married!

37 thoughts on “Why Didn’t Elizabeth I Marry?

  1. I have very much enjoyed reading the detailed and considered comments from this website. I have just stumbled upon it. I do not have use academic qualifications of done of your contributers, but have enjoyed the pure theatre and intense human drama of the Tudor, especially Elizabeathan, Age, all of my life. I am fascinated by our fascination with Elizabeth Tudor, the way she navigated her life and reign is amazing.

    I think it is very important that it is recognised that film, TV and writers are

  2. (Sorry too early submission) I think it is important that the concrete of artistic interpretation be acknowledged. The film Elizabeth, whilst an amazing film, is subject to the filmmakers personal assessment. Some of the events portrayed are documented but are not in chronologically order and in some cases, pure speculation. The concept of the evolution of Elizabeth into a ‘virgin’ was not an event but a part of her ageing and public assessments over-the-counter past 400 years.

  3. If she had married, as soon as she produced a male heir, she might have been created a regent up until her son could become king. All throughout her reign Elizabeth was determined not to have male Tudor babies upsetting her position. Just remember the executions of male Plantagenets in the reign of Henryvii.

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