Queen Elizabeth I's Personal Life Was So Intense It Nearly Split An Entire Continent In Half

Elizabeth I of England was famously known as the "Virgin Queen." As the second-born daughter of Henry VIII - a daughter who was at times deemed illegitimate - Elizabeth was never supposed to become queen. Nonetheless, she ruled England from 1558 until her passing in 1603. Her rule was notable for countless reasons, but Elizabeth I's love life, not to mention her sex life, has fascinated people for centuries.

As a powerful and influential female ruler in the 16th century, Elizabeth I the Virgin Queen remained unmarried for her entire life, using her position to maneuver through the murky political and religious waters of her day. This led to speculation about her sexuality and gender by contemporaries, with rumors flying about her insatiable sexual appetite, her inability to procreate, and even about Elizabeth I's love child. Through it all, Elizabeth kept her rivals at a safe distance while allowing only her favorites to get close - intimate, at times - making her personal life a public and private affair.


  • She Had A Longtime 'Friendship' With Robert Dudley That May Have Produced A Love Child

    Princess Elizabeth found great comfort in her friendship with Robert Dudley, the son of the Duke of Northumberland. The two were companions and shared a bond that only intensified when they were both imprisoned in the Tower of London by the newly installed Queen Mary in 1553. Elizabeth and Dudley spent so much time together that there was speculation about them being lovers, even though Elizabeth swore that while she loved him, "nothing unseemly had ever passed between" the pair.

    The uncertainty of Elizabeth and Dudley's relationship, especially after she became queen in 1558, only fed into the rumors about the couple. A young man named Arthur appeared in Madrid in 1587 and claimed to be the love child of Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, furthering the intrigue. Arthur Dudley claimed that after his birth in 1561, he was taken into the care of Robert Southern, who raised him as his own. Arthur said he did not learn about his true parentage until 1583, when Southern confessed to his adopted son on his deathbed.

    The timing of Arthur's birth, estimated to be around 1561, coincided with a period in Elizabeth's life when she was ill and removed from the public eye. At least one person claimed Elizabeth was "swelling extraordinarily" around this time.

    At the time, Dudley was engaged in a controversy of his own - his wife, Amy Robsart, perished under suspicious circumstances in 1560. One of the arguments in support of the idea that Arthur was Elizabeth and Dudley's child is that he had no reason to lie. His admission only made his life more dangerous. An argument against the notion of a secret love child is that Elizabeth would not have been able to hide a pregnancy from all of her companions, courtiers, and attendants.

  • Her Step-Uncle, Thomas Seymour, May Have Tried To Take Advantage Of Her When She Was 14
    Photo: Nicholas Denizot / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Her Step-Uncle, Thomas Seymour, May Have Tried To Take Advantage Of Her When She Was 14

    Elizabeth's relationship with Thomas Seymour, brother to Henry VIII's third wife Jane Seymour, has raised a lot of questions over the years. Seymour was not only Elizabeth's former uncle (Jane Seymour perished soon after giving birth to the future King Edward VI in 1537), but was also married to Henry VIII's widow, Katherine Parr.

    After Elizabeth's father passed away in 1547, Thomas Seymour asked Elizabeth to marry him, although she was only about 14 at the time. Seymour was 25 years older than her and Elizabeth politely declined (there is some speculation that she may have been infatuated with him). He soon became engaged to Katherine Parr, the surviving wife of Henry VIII, with whom he'd previously been involved. Parr and Seymour were married in 1547 and established a household where Elizabeth spent much of her time.

    That didn't last long, however. Seymour would visit Elizabeth's bedchamber early in the mornings, playfully spanking her on "the back or the buttocks" and joking that he should have his way with her. He tried to kiss her and tickled her on different occasions, and while there's no evidence of Elizabeth's reaction, the nature of his relationship with the much younger princess was deemed inappropriate. After a final incident in which Parr found her husband and her step-daughter in an embrace, she sent Elizabeth away to her governess's brother's house in 1548. Elizabeth was secluded there, leading to speculation that she was pregnant with Seymour's child.

    There's some evidence that Seymour's advances were unwanted by Elizabeth. She supposedly wrote, "Thou, touch me not,” then deleted it, and wrote instead, “Let him not touch me," on the outside of a letter she once sent him. 

    Parr passed away in 1548, but it's not known whether her demise factored into Seymour's imprisonment and subsequent execution for treason in 1549 - although his plot to capture King Edward VI didn't help his chances for survival.

  • Whether Or Not Elizabeth Was Actually A Virgin Queen Remains A Mystery
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Whether Or Not Elizabeth Was Actually A Virgin Queen Remains A Mystery

    With all her suitors and rumored relationships, it's impossible to know if the Virgin Queen remained a virgin throughout her life. She told Parliament

    But if I continue in this kind of life I have begun, I doubt not but God will so direct mine own and your Counsels, that ye shall not need to doubt of a Successour which may be more beneficial to the Commonwealth than he which may be born of me, considering that the Issue of the best Princes many times degenerateth. 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.

    She knew she'd never produce an heir and was willing to proudly be called a virgin because of it.

    There has been speculation, however, that Elizabeth couldn't have a child. Historian Allison Weir wrote that the playwright Ben Jonson told a friend Elizabeth had "a membrane on her, which made her incapable of man." This assertion - likely gossip, per Weir - could mean she had an abnormally thick hymen or suffered from vaginismus, a condition that affects a woman's ability to engage in intercourse, making it painful or impossible.

  • Elizabeth May Have Equated Sexuality With Death
    Photo: Isaac Oliver/Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger / WikiMedia Commons / Public Domain

    Elizabeth May Have Equated Sexuality With Death

    Elizabeth's mother was beheaded by her father on trumped up charges of adultery, and she saw subsequent step-mothers suffer through similar experiences. As historian Allison Weir noted, she may have had a "mental aversion" to sexuality as a whole.

    The pain of childbirth alone may have been enough to prevent her from engaging in intercourse, especially since it could be life-threatening to the monarch. Avoiding marriage and avoiding pregnancy could do wonders for prolonging a woman's life during the Tudor period. Elizabeth's step-mother Jane Seymour perished soon after giving birth, as did Katherine Parr.

  • Elizabeth I And Robert Dudley Played Flirtation Games To Make Each Other Jealous
    Photo: George Gower / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Elizabeth I And Robert Dudley Played Flirtation Games To Make Each Other Jealous

    When Elizabeth was unhappy with Robert Dudley, she let him know it. When Elizabeth began flirting with Thomas Heneage, Dudley became jealous and confronted the queen, who dismissed him. In despair, Dudley withdrew for four days. He rebounded though and took up a flirtation of his own, giving attention to Lettice Knollys, a daughter of one of Elizabeth's attendants and her own distant cousin. Elizabeth got so jealous that she flew into "a great temper" at Dudley's perceived betrayal, according to an ambassador from Spain.

    In 1578, Dudley later married Lettice, who had been widowed two years earlier. This was perhaps a reaction to the queen's reassertion that she would never marry, crushing Dudley's hopes of a wedding to his longtime love. After Dudley and Lettice were wed, the latter was banished from court. The queen herself allegedly called her a "she-wolf" and "bad woman." By all accounts, Lettice looked very much like Elizabeth.

  • Elizabeth Announced She Would Marry The Duc D'Anjou But Changed Her Mind Literally Overnight
    Photo: Unknown/LordMethven / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Elizabeth Announced She Would Marry The Duc D'Anjou But Changed Her Mind Literally Overnight

    One of Elizabeth's last serious considerations for a possible husband was Francois, Duc d'Anjou. In 1578, 10 years after the Netherlands revolted against Spain, Elizabeth was looking to find ways to continue her support to the Protestant cause but also wanted to prevent France from taking the Netherlands as their own in the aftermath. One option was to bring France into a matrimonial agreement that would prevent them from intervening, so she sought a marriage to Francois, brother to French King Henry III. 

    Elizabeth reached out to Francois and negotiations were conducted between the late 1570s and early 1580s. Elizabeth was in her 40s. Francois was only 23 years old, but he visited London at least twice in order to win over the queen. They exchanged letters for years and there seems to have been affection between them. She called him her "frog" - testament to his Frenchness - but there was resistance within England for her to marry a Catholic outsider. 

    When Francois visited London in 1581, Elizabeth met with her future husband and declared publicly that she would marry him. She gave him her ring, kissed him on the mouth, and gave every indication that she would finally go through with a betrothal. The next day, however, after apparently having second thoughts, she made another announcement - that the marriage would not take place.