Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Question from Marjorie - Elizabeth I's reluctance to marry

Elizabeth I was so guarded about her right to the English throne. I've always wondered why she did not marry and have children to secure her royal line. She knew if she did not have children her successor would be the child of Mary , Queen of Scots, who was her royal antagonist for so many years. Are there any theories as to her refusal to marry?

[Note - I thought this had come up already, but I couldn't find it in the archives. Perhaps I'm confusing the discussion here with threads on my email list? I know it is a topic that has come up several times, so maybe that's what I'm thinking of.]


PhD Historian said...

Wow! The answer to this question is massively complex! Entire books have been written on the topic. So let me try the short and simple answer:

Any woman who married in Tudor England became entirely subject to her husband. "Honor and obey" meant exactly that. Married women in Tudor England had almost no legal standing. They could not own property themselves; they had few rights in courts of law; they could not sue or be sued; they could not make wills. This was all based on Judeo-Christian religious teaching. And it was presumed to apply even to monarchs.

SO ... if Elizabeth married, she would be subject to her husband. She would no longer be "in charge," but would instead be required to obey the wishes of her husband. Yet Elizabeth wanted very much to be "in charge," both of her own life and of the kingdom. So she refused to marry.

That's the short and vastly over-simplified answer.

And I must correct the statement that Elizabeth "knew [that] ... her successor would be the child of Mary, Queen of Scots." There was no such certainty, even down to the last months of Elizabeth's reign and long after she had ceased being able to bear children. In fact, prior to the point at which Elizabeth was no longer able to bear children (probably around the mid 1570s), there was no shortage of possible successors within England. You might read either of Leanda de Lisle's two books to learn more about the many people, other than Mary Stuart and her son, who might have succeeded Elizabeth. See After Elizabeth: The Rise of James of Scotland and the Struggle for the Throne of England and The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Tragedy.

kb said...

Well...there's several reasons we can imagine. Who would she marry?

If a foreign prince or king, then there were fears that England would become a satellite country as Scotland nearly was when Mary Queen of Scots was married to the French dauphin.

There weren't very many foreign princes who were Protestant. So would marrying a catholic prince mean a return to the old church? After the turmoil of Mary's reign that seemed like a poor idea.

The Reformation was strongly patriarchal. The husband/father was supposed to be head of the family and govern all the family business. If she found a reformed prince willing to marry her, and that would be difficult indeed, would that be good for Elizabeth? Or her kingdom?

If an English lord, would her choice upset another lord's faction? By raising one of her own nobles to be her consort, then the others would become jealous and there might be civil war.

Also, there were no guarantees that she would bear healthy children and live through child bearing herself. We know how much trouble her father had trying to get a son and heir. What if she also had trouble?

Worse, what if she married a foreign prince and then died in childbirth? Would England then belong to the king's native country? Or if she married an English lord would he then become king permanently? Would the other lords support him wen just last year he had been one them?

What's a queen to do? Is it better to try to keep your family - as yet unborn - on the throne after your death? Or keep a firm grasp on your throne and peace in your kingdom today? Elizabeth chose the latter.

You mention Mary Queen of Scots. She also was an example of how disastrous marriage could be for a queen. Mary QoS lost her throne and country because of her various marriage choices and her disregard for the counsel of her Scottish lords.

Anonymous said...

And Mary, Queen of Scots, was forced to abdicate in favor of her son before the boy was a year old. Elizabeth herself pointed out, quite clearly, that the heir to the throne was rarely on good terms with the monarch. "Princes cannot even love their own children", or words to that effect.

James never saw his mother again, and was raised by people who had a completely different religion. The one thing Mary, Elizaqbeth and James had in common was the belief in their own rights and righteousness.

Elizabeth could always see how things could go wrong. This drove her ministers to distraction, but she ended up dying peacefully in her sleep at the age of sixty-nine and a half.