The secret weapon of her diplomacy was her virginity. This condition, of course, is a recondite detail on which historians must not pretend to certainty; let us be as trustful as Raleigh naming a colony. Cecil, watching Elizabeth’s long flirtation with Leicester, had some passing doubts, but two Spanish ambassadors, not loath to dishonor the Queen, concluded to her honor.20 The gossip of the court, as reported by Ben Jonson to Drummond of Hawthornden, held that “she had a membrane on her which made her incapable of man, though for her delight she tried many. … A French surgeon undertook to cut it, yet fear stayed her.”21 “The people,” wrote Camden in his Annales (1615), “cursed Huic, the Queen’s physician, as having dissuaded the Queen from marrying on account of some impediment and defect in her.”22 Yet Parliament, repeatedly begging her to marry, assumed her capacity to bear. Something went wrong, in this regard, with most of Tudor royalty: probably the misfortunes of Catherine of Aragon in childbirth were due to Henry VIII’s syphilis; his son Edward died in youth of some ill-described disease; his daughter Mary tried fervently to have a child, only to mistake dropsy for pregnancy; and Elizabeth, though she flirted as long as she could walk, never ventured on marriage. “I have always shrunk from it,” she said; and as early as 1559 she declared her intention to remain a virgin.23 In 1566 she promised Parliament, “I will marry as soon as I can conveniently … and I hope to have children.”24 But in that same year, when Cecil told her that Mary Stuart had borne a son, Elizabeth almost wept, and said, “The Queen of Scots is the mother of a fair son, and I am but a barren stock.”25 There for a moment she revealed her lasting grief—that she could not fulfill her womanhood.
The political implications deepened the tragedy. Many of her Catholic subjects believed her sterility a proper punishment for her father’s sins and a promise that Catholic Mary Stuart would inherit the crown. But Parliament and the rest of Protestant England dreaded such a prospect and importuned her to find a mate. She tried, but began by losing her heart to a married man. Lord Robert Dudley, tall, handsome, accomplished, courtly, brave, was the son of that Duke of Northumberland who had died on the scaffold for trying to disinherit Mary Tudor and make Jane Grey queen. Dudley was married to Amy Robsart, but was not living with her, and rumor called him an unprincipled philanderer. He was with Elizabeth at Windsor when his wife fell downstairs at Cumnor Hall and died of a broken neck (1560). He and the Queen were suspected, by the Spanish ambassador and others, of having arranged this clumsy annulment; the suspicion was unjust,26 but it ended for a while Dudley’s hopes of becoming consort to Elizabeth. When she thought she was dying (1562), she begged that he might be appointed protector of the realm; she confessed that she had long loved him, but called God to witness that “nothing unseemly” had ever passed between them.27 Two years later she offered him to the Queen of Scots and made him Earl of Leicester to enhance his charms, but Mary was loath to have her rival’s lover in her bed. Elizabeth comforted him with monopolies, and favored him till his death (1588).
Cecil had borne this romance with dignified hostility. For a time he thought of resigning in protest, for his own plan contemplated a marriage that would strengthen England with the friendship of some powerful state. For a quarter of a century a succession of foreign suitors danced about the Queen. “There are twelve ambassadors of us,” wrote one of them, “all competing for her Majesty’s hand; and the Duke of Holstein is coming next, as a suitor for the King of Denmark. The Duke of Finland, who is here for his brother the King of Sweden, threatens to kill the Emperor’s man, and the Queen fears they will cut each other’s throat in her presence.”28 She must have felt some satisfaction when Philip II, the greatest potentate in Christendom, offered her his seasoned hand (1559), but she rejected this device for making England a Catholic dependency of Spain. She took more time in answering a proposal from Charles IX of France, for France was meanwhile kept on good behavior. The French ambassador complained that “the world had been made in six days, and she had already spent eighty days and was still undecided”; she artfully replied that the world “had been made by a greater artist than herself.”29 Two years later she allowed English agents to propose her marriage to Charles, Archduke of Austria; but at Leicester’s urging she withdrew the plan. When the international situation favored humoring France (1570), the Duke of Alençon (son of Henri II and Catherine de Médicis) was encouraged to think of becoming the sixteen-year-old husband of the thirty-seven-year-old Queen; but the negotiations were wrecked on three obstacles—the Duke’s Catholic faith, his tender youth, and his pockmarked nose. Five years softened one of these deterrents, and Alençon, now Duke of Anjou, was considered again; he was invited to London, and for five years more Elizabeth played with him and France. After a final flurry (1581) this gay courtship petered out, and Anjou retired from the field waving as a trophy a garter of the Queen. Meanwhile she had kept him from marrying the Infanta and thereby allying her two enemies, France and Spain. Rarely has a woman derived so much advantage from barrenness, or so much pleasure from virginity.