Elizabeth I – why was she a Virgin Queen?

In 1998, the movie Elizabeth was released with Cate Blanchett as the queen who resolved to never marry nor have children. Audiences in the United States were so moved by her strength and defiance that some stood up to shout “go girl!” during the film. The decision by a real-life female monarch to reject all those royal male suitors and become the almost ethereal Virgin Queen is a hugely compelling narrative. But is it true?

Well, let’s look at the different theories about Elizabeth – the allegedly Virgin Queen.

Powerful royal women – but this was the first Virgin Queen

Many women had exerted power behind the throne in England for centuries. Powerful and intelligent women like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Margaret of Anjou. But the Tudors in the 16th century gave us two women who ascended to the throne in succession: Mary Tudor and her sister Elizabeth. Both daughters of Henry VIII and as strong-willed as their father.

DISCOVER: Tudor treasure stolen in England

Elizabeth was crowned as the last Tudor monarch after a stormy century of religious turmoil and war. Her rise to power was by no means assured and on many occasions she had good cause to fear for her life. Elizabeth was constantly at the centre of court intrigue for which she could easily have paid with her head. But good fortune saw her succeed to the top job. However, holding on to power was a formidable challenge.

Creating Elizabeth – Gloriana and Virgin Queen

To do that, Elizabeth crafted an image of herself. She used her body, her sex and her appearance as propaganda tools. Her Ladies of the Bedchamber worked tirelessly on her dress, make-up and hair to project Gloriana – the Virgin Queen. In effect, Elizabeth politicised her body to create a myth. That she was married to England and no prince would come between her and royal duty.

It was a secularisation of the wedding between Catholic nuns and Christ – appropriate for the newly Protestant England. This spiritual marriage was to a country now independent of the Pope and his church. Elizabeth’s chastity was a statement of dedication to her country – not to God and Rome.

But sceptics abounded. Elizabeth was the subject of gossip with regards to several very eligible courtiers. Expert Dr Anna Whitelock believes the rumours of illicit relationships between Elizabeth and various male aristocrats were dealt with by her ultra-loyal Ladies. If necessary, they would take a bullet for the queen and claim to have been seeing the man involved themselves.

Whitelock details how Elizabeth batted away attempts by her Privy Councillors to force her to marry soon after becoming queen and how this pressure to wed continued into her 40s as she approached the menopause. Her contemporaries and many commentators down the centuries wrestled with the question of whether she simply concealed her affairs, was incapable of having sexual relations or if her propaganda was in fact the truth.

No choice but to be a Virgin Queen?

Maybe Elizabeth simply couldn’t have sex – for solid biological reasons. The playwright Ben Johnson (1572-1637) believed “she had a membrana on her which made her uncapable of man, though for her delight she tried many” (his spelling). Peter Bayle writing in 1710 stridently asserted that “it is certain, she had no vulva”. A gynaecologist writing last year thought that Johnson and Bayle were referring to a condition called vaginismus – where penetration is impossible due to a combination of fear and pain.

Even in death, Elizabeth the Virgin Queen left instructions to ensure that there would be no embalming. This would have led to the prying hands and eyes of physicians taking a good look at the royal corpse. And that would not be allowed to happen. Her womb, as was the custom, would not be examined to see if it had borne children. Her secret would go to the grave.

Tudor treasure

Tudor treasure stolen in England

On Friday last week, a set of gold rosary beads carried by Mary Queen of Scots to her execution were stolen from Arundel Castle. Thieves smashed open a display cabinet and took the rosary plus other gold and silver items dating back to the Tudor period. This included coronation cups given by Mary to the Earl Marshal.

Mary had a tragic life. She became Queen of Scotland as a baby and spent her childhood in France while others ruled on her behalf. Once an adult, Mary returned to Scotland but her Catholic faith brought her into conflict with the rising Protestant faith and its leading Scottish firebrand, John Knox.

Her personal life was stormy to put it mildly. She married her first cousin, Lord Darnley, in what seems to have been a passionate liaison. But it turned sour and Darnley died after a very suspicious explosion at a house where he was staying and was found dead in the grounds, most likely smothered to death.

DISCOVER: The boy who kept stealing Queen Victoria’s underwear

Mary had a legitimate claim to the throne of England – which naturally concerned Elizabeth the First – who just happened to be the Queen of England! These two women, who never actually met, were set on a collision course. For English Protestants, Elizabeth was the defender of their faith while Mary was a French-raised Catholic who had to be crushed.

And crushed she was. Firstly by her own Scottish aristocracy who turned on Mary. Then she was abducted and imprisoned for nearly two decades by cousin Elizabeth. Initially, Mary thought Elizabeth might help her regain the Scottish throne. But when it became clear that was not going to happen, Mary took to plotting against Elizabeth.

A course of action that led with grim inevitability to the executioner’s block. The beheading was the subject of lurid tales from those present on that tragic day. Apparently it took more than one blow of the axe to take off her head. Then the executioner held up her head by the hair only to discover it was a wig – and her head fell to the wooden stage and rolled along.

And then a claim that for up to quarter of an hour, Mary’s lips continued to move. Plus a small dog emerged from under her skirts after the execution. So – quite a scene.

Tudor treasure – the gold rosary beads of Mary Queen of Scots

Very sad that the rosary beads she clutched on the way to her death should have been stolen by some total low life. The metal value is very low according to Arundel Castle. Let’s hope then that they haven’t been melted down. I will confess this kind of crime boils my blood. The thieves are lucky we don’t inflict Tudor-style punishments today for these kind of offences.