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.
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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.