Elizabeth I of England has been called everything from the "Virgin Queen" to the "Little Whore" (her mother Anne Boleyn was, of course, the "Great Whore"). As the second-born daughter of Henry VIII—and at times deemed legally illegitimate—Elizabeth was never supposed to become queen but, nonetheless, ruled England from 1558 until her death 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 her 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 both 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: "‘though she loved him dearly... nothing unseemly had ever passed between them."
The uncertainty of the nature of what Elizabeth and Dudley shared, especially after she became queen in 1558, only fed into the rumors about the couple. When a young man named Arthur appeared in Madrid in 1587 and claimed to be the love child of Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, he furthered 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 did not learn about his true parentage until 1583 when Southern died, confessing to his adopted son on his deathbed.
The timing of Arthur's birth coincided with a period in Elizabeth's life when she was not only ill and removed from the public eye, but also, according to those who did see her: "“swelling extraordinarily” and was “dropsical”."
Had she really been pregnant? Did she actually give birth? Was it Dudley's child? At the time, Dudley was engaged in a controversy of his own given that his wife, Amy Robsart, had died under suspicious circumstances. Historians have explored the possibility that, since a marriage between Elizabeth and Dudley wouldn't have been feasible, this may have been the only option for a child produced out of wedlock. One of the arguments in support of the idea that Arthur was their 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. The truth is, only Elizabeth and Robert Dudley really ever knew the truth.
Her Step-Uncle, Thomas Seymour, May Have Tried To Force Himself On Her When She Was 14
The exact nature of Elizabeth's relationship with Thomas Seymour, brother to Henry VIII's third wife Jane Seymour, is one that has raised a lot of questions over the years. Seymour was not only Elizabeth's former uncle (Jane Seymour died soon after giving birth to the future King Edward VI in 1537), but was also married to Henry VIII's widow, Katherine Parr.
After the death of Elizabeth's father in 1547, Thomas Seymour was supposed to have asked Elizabeth to marry him, although she was only 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" if she were awake or joking that he should have his way with her if she were still in bed. 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 where 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. It's difficult to tell what that may have meant but after Katherine Parr died in 1548, it seemed as though a relationship between Elizabeth and Seymour may be an option. This factored into Seymour's arrest, imprisonment, and subsequent execution for treason in 1549 (although his plot to kidnap King Edward VI didn't help his chances for survival).
Whether Or Not Elizabeth Was Actually A Virgin Queen Remains A Mystery
With all of her suitors and rumored relationships, it's impossible to know if the Virgin Queen remained a virgin throughout her life. She told Parliament that if she continued "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 not only wouldn't produce and heir but that she couldn't have a child, much less have intercourse. Historian Allison Weir wrote "of how the playwright Ben Jonson had talked of Elizabeth having "a membrane on her which made her incapable of man", meaning either an abnormally thick hymen or perhaps Elizabeth may have suffered from Vaginismus, a condition which affects a woman's ability to have sex because of a tightness of the vaginal muscles."
Elizabeth May Have Equated Sexuality With Death
In addition to having a physical reason for not engaging in sex, it's possible that Elizabeth saw sexuality as directly related to death. Her mother, after all, had been beheaded by her father on trumped up charges of adultery, and she saw subsequent step-mothers suffer through similar experiences. As historian Allison Weir asserts, 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 sex, 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 died soon after giving birth, as did Katherine Parr.