Was Queen Elizabeth 1st a Virgin?

In the light of what the historical sources tell us- YES.

Shortly after her coronation the twenty five year old Queen shocked the nation with a most singular statement. She said that she intended to die a virgin. This revelation, meaning the end of the Tudor lineage was connected with a certain risk, after the death of Elizabeth the throne would go to the house of Stuart- and that meant the risk of a reversion to Catholicism. The Maiden Queen never made any fundamental changes to the intention stated in 1559.

In 1560 she turned down a long standing marriage prospect, Prince Eric of Sweden, with the words: “as often we have testified both in words and writing, that we have never yet conceived a feeling of that kind of affection towards anyone.”
There were rumours that she had a secret relationship with Sir Robert Dudley. Although these heinous rumours were completely unsubstantiated, they were greedily swooped upon by her sworn enemies; the Spanish ambassadors Count de Feria and Bishop Quadra, to name but two. Frederick Chamberlin gives us a more reliable insight in “The private Character of Queen Elizabeth” (1921); in this work he lists all the rumours and charges and deals with them one by one, in a critical, unemotional, in fact academically correct manner. Ambassador Guzman de Silva noted a statement that Elizabeth made on 24 March 1565: “they said of me that I did not marry because I was fond of the Earl of Leicester, and that I would not marry him because he had a wife already. Although he has no wife alive now I still do not marry him ... But what can we do? We cannot cover everybody's mouth, but must content ourselves with doing our duty and trust in God, for the truth will at last be made manifest.”

Robert Dudley, later Earl of Leicester, first met Elizabeth when he was eight years old, perhaps when they were both pupils in the royal classroom. They became good friends, and their friendship lasted throughout their lives. Speaking of his childhood relations with Elizabeth later in life, he said that he “knew her better than anyone else from when she was eight years old". He also added: "and from that age she always said that she would never marry”. (Psychologists know that if a woman's father is violent or abusive towards her mother then she has problems with her sexuality in later life. Elizabeth's father had her mother's neck severed with a huge sword. Need we say more?)

Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603)
Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603)

At no point her her life did Elizabeth change her opinions on the subject of virginity. She did conduct negotiations of marriage with France for over ten years, first with Henri, Duke of Anjou (the future King Henri III), as her potential husband, later with François Duke of Alençon (King Henri's younger brother.) However these negotiations were conducted out of political reasons, rather than a true desire to tie the knot. Elizabeth's feigned negotiations were intended, among other things, to avoid an alliance between Spain and France against England, even though she abhorred the very idea of marriage. The list of her other suitors is also most impressive.(See: A List of Queen Elizabeth’s Principal Suitors: http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Documents/suitors_of_queen_elizabeth.htm )
Gloriana's words: “ Better a beggar woman and single than married and queen!" und "I will have but one mistress and no master” have gone down in History.

Whosoever would wish to accuse Elizabeth of any sort of indiscretions would be well advised to consider that she was- using her own words- surrounded by an army of “witnesses”. Furthermore, she took her duties as Queen and as head of the church very seriously indeed. She was fully aware that any secret love affairs could seriously detract from the credibility so urgently required to fulfil these duties. A romantic fling would not only mean a loss or face for Elizabeth in the eyes of the nation but also a loss of face for England in the eyes of the world- an unacceptable situation for the woman to whom honour meant more than life itself. (“We were not born only for ourselves”- Letter to Jehan Simier, Aug. 1580.)

In October or November 1584 Mary Stuart wrote a letter, whose authenticity has been verified, denunciating Elizabeth. However, if this letter reveals character flaws, then those of Mary rather of Elizabeth. Mary was imprisoned for fifteen years in Tutbury castle in the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury. The Earl's wife, the Countess of Shrewsbury, better known as “Bess of Hardwick” was a malevolent gossip. At one point Bess of Hardwick accused Mary of having an affair with the Earl of Shrewsbury and Mary's reaction to this accusation was to repeat all the gossip that she had heard from Bessy. She did so with a view to causing trouble for the Countess and not out of any desire to bring truth out into the light of day. At the end of the letter she makes a hypocritical proclamation that she doesn't believe any of what Bess says: “I swear to you once more on my faith and honour that what is above is quite true, and that as to what concerns your honour, it has never come into my mind to wrong you by revealing it, and that it will never be known through me, holding it as quite false.”
Let us, by all means put our full trust in what Mary tells us. If she says she doesn't believe a word of what Bess of Hardwick says, then we won't either. Anyone who requires further proof that the accusations mentioned in this letter are unsubstantiated is referred to Frederick Chamberlin, pp. 190-274.

The testimonies of the men with whom Elizabeth was associated tell us far more than the jabberings of fools, gossips and washer women. There are many who can vouch for the Virgin Queen's integrity, among others: Nils Gyllenstierna (Nicholas Guildenstern), Chancellor of Sweden, and one of its most prominent and most experienced statesmen - Adam Swetkowitz, Baron Mitterburg, ambassador of the Austrian Emperor Maximilian II during the negotiations for the Archduke Charles of Austria - Bertrand de Salignac de la Mothe Fénélon, French ambassador in London between 1568 and 1575, one of the most prominent men of the France of his day – and Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de la Mauvissiere, French ambassador between 1575 and 1585, who had intimate acquaintance with the English Court for a quarter of a century.


Elizabeth I to Parliament, 1559

Parliamentary pressure ensued in early 1559, when the House of Commons entered its plea for her to marry. William Camden recorded Parliament's request:

“There is nothing which with more ardent affection we beg of God in our daily prayers, than our happiness hitherto received by your most gratious government may be perpetuated to the English nation unto all eternity. Whilst in our mind and cogitation we cast many ways how this might be effected, we can find none at all, unless your Majesty shall reign for ever, or else by Marriage bring forth children, Heirs both to their Mother's Vertue and Empire. This is the single, the onely, the all-comprehending prayer of all Englishmen.”

Elizabeth delivered her famous reply:

“...now that the Publick Care of governing the Kingdom is laid upon me, to draw upon me also the Cares of marriage may seem a point of inconsiderate Folly. Yea, to satisfie you, I have already joyned myself in marriage to an Husband, namely, the Kingdom of England...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.”
Willam Camden. The History of the Most Renowned and Victorious Princess Elizabeth Late Queen of England. 1615

Count de Feria to King Philip II of Spain, 18 April 1559

During the last few days Lord Robert has come so much into favour that he does whatever he likes with affairs and it is even said that her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night. People talk of this so freely that they go so far as to say that his wife has a malady in one of her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert. [Calendar, p. 56]

Elizabeth I, Letter to Eric, Prince of Sweden, 25 February 1560

Most Serene Prince Our Very Dear Cousin,
A letter truly yours both in the writing and sentiment was given us on 30 Dec by your very dear brother, the Duke of Finland. And while we perceive there from that the zeal and love of your mind towards us is not diminished, yet in part we are grieved that we cannot gratify your Serene Highness with the same kind of affection.
And that indeed does not happen because we doubt in any way of your love and honour, but, as often we have testified both in words and writing, that we have never yet conceived a feeling of that kind of affection towards anyone. We therefore beg your Serene Highness again and again that you be pleased to set a limit to your love, that it advance not beyond the laws of friendship for the present nor disregard them in the future. And we in our turn shall take care that whatever can be required for the holy preservation of friendship between Princes we will always perform towards your Serene Highness.

G.B. Harrison (ed.), The Letters of Queen Elizabeth, London 1935, p.31

Eric XI, King of Sweden
Eric XI, King of Sweden (1533-1577)

Nils Gyllenstierna, Baron of Lundland, to Eric, King of Sweden, 4 April 1561

I saw no signs of an immodest life, but I did see many signs of chastity, of virginity, and of true modesty; so that I would stake my life itself that she is most chaste. She is beautiful and eloquent, and wholly worthy your Majesty, in my judgment at least, if there is any in all Europe who is. [Chamberlin, p. 264]

Nils Gòˆransson
Nils Göransson (Gyllenstierna)

Guzman de Silva to King Philip II, 9 October 1564

I told her, as I am sure she knew, that her preachers spoke ill of her because she had a cross on the altar of her chapel, and that they did in this a daring disrespect to her person. She signified that she should order crosses to be put into the churches, and that some of the newly rebuilt ones have stone crosses, not inside but on the towers. She said also, "They charge me with a good many things in my own country and elsewhere, and, amongst others, that I show more favour to Robert [Dudley, Earl of Leicester] than is fitting ; speaking of me as they might speak of an immodest woman. I am not surprised that the occasion for it should have been given by a young woman and young man of good qualities [Robert Dudley and Mary, Queen of Scotland], to whose merits and goodness I have shown favour, although not so much as he deserves, but God knows how great a slander it is, and a time will come when the world will know it. My life is in the open, and I have so so many witnesses that I cannot understand how so bad a judgment can have been formed of me." [Calendar, p. 387]

Guzman de Silva to King Philip II, 24 March 1565

On the 20th instant I was with the Queen speaking on certain private affairs, and afterwards we talked on other unofficial matters. [...] I said, "They also say that your Majesty is going to marry the king of France." She held down her head a little and laughed, and I then told her that I had mentioned it to the French Ambassador, who asked me what I thought of it as the King is short and the Queen tall, to which she replied they tell me he is not short, but I wish to confess to you as it is Lent and-you are my friend. "Marriage was suggested to me with the King my brother-in-law; the king of France has proposed as well as the kings of Sweden and Denmark, and I understand the Archduke Charles also : the only person who has not been mentioned to me is your Prince." "The reason," I said, "appears clear. The King my master no doubt is convinced that your Majesty does not wish to marry since he, the greatest prince in christendom and the wisest, to whom, I am told, your Majesty owes most obligation, was offered to you and nothing came of it." She replied, "For my own part I do not think that such a conclusion is so clear as you say, although at that time I had a great idea not to marry, and I promise you, if I could to-day appoint such a successor to the Crown as would please me and the country I would not marry, as it is a thing for which I have never had any inclination. My subjects, however, press me so that I cannot help myself, but must marry or take the other course, which is a very difficult one. There is a strong idea in the world that a woman cannot live unless she is married, or at all events that if she refrains from marriage she does so for some bad reason, as they said of me that I did not marry because I was fond of the Earl of Leicester, and that I would not marry him because he had a wife already. Although he has no wife alive now I still do not marry him, notwithstanding that I was spoken to about it even on behalf of my brother the King. But what can we do? We cannot cover everybody's mouth, but must content ourselves with doing our duty and trust in God, for the truth will at last be made manifest. He knows my heart, which is very different from what people think, as you will see some day. I wish your master were here that I might entertain and consult with him, as please God some day I may. If he goes by way of France you know the road is a bad and a long one, and there are always difficult bits on a long journey." [Calendar, p. 410]

Adam Swetkowitz, Baron Mitterburg, to Maximilian II, Emperor of Austria, 4 June 1565:

And since the principal author and promoter of all this business is and will be the most illustrious lord the Earl of Leicester who is most affectionately disposed and devoted to your Imperial Majesty, and to the Archduke Charles, and to the whole house of Austria, and who is ever loved by the most serene Queen with sincere and most chaste and most honourable love as a true brother, it would seem in my judgment to be of the greatest advantage if your Imperial Majesty and the most serene Archduke Charles would salute and gratify with fraternal letters the aforesaid most illustrious Earl. [Chamberlin, p. 266]

Bertrand de Salignac de la Mothe Fénélon to Catarina of Medici, 31 January 1571:

They write and speak very differently of this princess from the hearsay of men who sometimes cannot forgive the great qualities of their betters; but in her own Court they would see nothing irregular, and that she is very greatly honoured therein, and understands her affairs so well that the mightiest and the lowliest of her subjects fear and revere her, and she rules them with complete authority. I conceive that this could not proceed from a person of evil fame, or who was lacking in virtue. Nevertheless, I know what you have heard said, and that there is the opinion that she will never have children. [Chamberlin, p. 269]

Mary Queen of Scots to Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de la Mauvissiere, Wingfield, October 18, 1584.

No reply having come from the Queen of England concerning the treaty proposed between her, me, and my son, and not having received any news from you for six weeks, I cannot but doubt that this delay has been purposed to give time and advantage to the Countess of Shrewsbury, in order that she may play her game and trouble those on every side possible, to escape the just punishment of her fault and treason, and to give the lie to the queen, her sovereign, to these malicious reports, so harmful to me. I would make, with all affection possible, the request from myself, and in the name of monsieur my good brother, and the noblemen, my relations in France, that you will give a satisfactory and clear explanation to the Queen of England and those of her council of the false and scandalous rumours that everybody knows have been invented and spread abroad by the countess, of my intercourse with the Count of Shrewsbury. I beg you to proceed with all haste in a public examination, or at least before the council, and in your presence particularly, of her and her two sons, Charles and William Cavendish, whether they will confirm or refute the rumours and language they have previously maintained, that in the cause of reason and justice they may be punished as an example, there being no subject so poor, vile, and abject in this kingdom to whom common justice can be denied. Such satisfaction would be granted to the meanest subject, how much more to one of my blood and rank, and so closely related to the queen. But here I am, bound hand and foot, and, I might say, almost tongue-tied. I can do nothing for myself to avenge this atrocious and wicked calumny. May it please you to remember the definite promise made to me by the queen, which I have mentioned before in four or five letters to you, that she had always hated the liberty and insolence so largely encouraged in this corrupt age in the slander of kings and primates, and that she would do all in her power to repress this evil. I will give her the names of the guilty originators of this scandal, and in proof of her words she will be obliged to execute a rigorous and exemplary punishment upon them. I name to her now the Countess of Shrewsbury and her son Charles especially, to convict them of this unhappy slander. If not, I ask but their own servants and those of the count usually in the house should be put on their oath to God, and their allegiance to the queen, and examined, for I know too well that some of them otherwise will never have the chance of giving witness, and the countess would maintain her rumours for truth. One of her servants has told me that she has caused this scandal to be spread in divers parts of the kingdom, and that they have heard her in the room of the count reproaching him similarly. And to come to particulars, for some months at Chatsworth there was staying one of the grooms of Lord Talbot specially to inquire concerning this. He has nothing to say of me under the name of the Lady of Bath. I cannot but think the countess has power to silence her friends, who would otherwise be too convincing witnesses of the falsehood of these rumours against the queen, her sovereign, so that she will do wisely not to force me to rouse the witnesses, for if I demand justice on them, and am refused, I will produce, before all the princes of Christendom, by articles signed by my own hand, an account of the honourable proceedings of this lady, as much against the queen as against me, against whom she had formerly spread this rumour. I will give a declaration of their time, persons, and all friends, so necessary that it will not be pleasing to those who are constant in condemning. And in the wrongs that she has done them, if there are any of them to support her and to countenance those injuries which I have received from her, or if in such a case there is a question of my honour, it will always be to me more than earthly life. It may be after so long and painful captivity, I am constrained and obliged to put before the public anything which may offend them or do harm. In that it is for them to remedy and obviate by giving me reparation and satisfaction for scandals and impostures. God grant that at the end I may find true what the countess has formerly told me, that the more she could show herself my enemy, and work against me, she would be so much the more welcome and more favoured at court.
Marie R.
Cited in: Samuel Cowan, Mary, Queen of Scots, and whoWrote the Casket Letters? (1901), vol. II, pp. 208-11

Mary Queen of Scots to Queen Elizabeth, [Oct./Nov.] 1584:

According to what I promised you and you have since desired, I declare to you now, with regret that such things should be brought into question but very sincerely and without any anger, which I call my God to witness, that the Countess of Shrewsbury said to me about you what follows as nearly as possible in these terms, to the greater part of which I protest I answered, rebutting the said lady for believing or speaking so licentiously of you as a thing which I did not at all believe and do not now believe, knowing the disposition of the Countess and by what spirit she was then urged on against you.

Mary Queen of Scotland
Mary Queen of Scotland (1542-1587)

Firstly, that one [Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester] to whom she said you had made a promise of marriage before a lady of your chamber had lain numberless times with you, with all the licence and familiarity which husband and wife can use to one another, but that undoubtedly you were not as other women, and for this reason all those who desired your marriage with the Duke of Anjou [François, Duke of Alençon and Anjou], considering that it could not be consummated, were foolish, and that you would never wish to lose the liberty of making love and gratifying yourself with new lovers, regretting this, said she, that you would not content yourself with Master [Christopher] Hatton and another of this kingdom. But on account of the honour of the country that which vexed her the most was that you had not only compromised your honour with a foreigner named [Jean de] Simier, going to find him at night in the chamber of a lady whom the said Countess greatly blamed in this affair, where you kissed him and indulged in divers unseemly familiarities with him, but also you revealed to him the secrets of the kingdom, betraying your own counsellors to him. That you had disported yourself with the same dissoluteness with the Duke his master, who had been to find you one night at the door of your chamber, where you had met him with only your nightdress and dressing gown on, and that afterwards you had let him enter and that he had remained with you nearly three hours. As for the said Hatton, that you ran him hard, showing so publicly the love that you bore him that he himself was constrained to withdraw from it, and that you gave a box on the ear to Killigrew for not having brought back the said Hatton to you after he had been sent to recall him, having departed in anger from you for some insulting words you had said to him because of certain gold buttons which he had on his coat. That she had worked to bring about a marriage between the said Hatton and the late [Margaret Douglas] Countess of Lennox's daughter, but that for fear of you he dared not consent. That even the Earl of Oxford dared not reconcile himself with his wife for fear of losing the favour which he hoped to receive by courting you [que mesme le Comte d’Oxfort n’osoit ce rappointer auveques sa famme de peur de perdre la faveur qu’il esperoit recepvoir par vous fayre l’amour]. That you were lavish towards all such people, and those who lent themselves to such practices, as to one of your chamber, Gorges, to whom you had given three hundred pounds of rent a year for having brought you the news of the return of Hatton. That to all others you were very ungrateful and niggardly, and that there were only three or four in your kingdom to whom you had ever been generous, advising me, while laughing unrestrainedly, to place my son in the ranks of your lovers as a thing that would be of very great advantage to me, and would put Monsieur the duke out of the running, in which he would be very disadvantageous to me if he continued. And answering to her that that would be taken for unfeigned mockery, she replied to me that you were as vain and thought as highly of your beauty as if you were a goddess of heaven, that she would become responsible for making you believe it readily, and for receiving my son in that humour. That you took such great pleasure in flatteries beyond all reason that you were told for example that at times one dared not look full at you because your face shone like the sun. That she and all the other ladies of the court were constrained to use such flatteries, and that in her last visit to you, she and the late Countess of Lennox [d. 1578], while speaking to you, dared not look at one another for fear of bursting out laughing at the tricks she [the Countess of Shrewsbury] was playing on you, begging me on her return to rebuke her daughter [Elizabeth Cavendish], whom she had never been able to persuade to do the same, and as for her daughter [Mary Cavendish, C. of] Talbot, she was sure that she would never fail to laugh in your face. The said Lady Talbot, when she went to make her courtesy to you and to take her oath as one of your attendants, immediately on her return, relating it to me as a thing done in mockery, begged me to allow a similar ceremony, as she has more feeling and fealty for me, which I for a long time refused but in the end, influenced by her tears, I let her have her way, saying that she would not for anything in the world be in your service near your person, that she would be afraid that when you were angry you would do to her as you did to her cousin Skedmur [Sir John Scudamore], whose finger you had broken, making those of the court believe it was a candlestick which had fallen on it, and that to another who was serving you at table you had given a violent blow on the hand with a knife, and in a word as to these last points and common gossip, you were played and imitated by them as in a comedy amongst my women themselves perceiving which, I swear to you I forbade my women to take part any more. Further the said Countess [of Shrewsbury] warned me formally that you wished to order Rolston [Roulstone] to make love to me and try to dishonour me, either in reality or by evil report, about which he had instructions from your own mouth.
That Ruxby came here about eight years ago to attempt my life after having spoken to you, who had told him that he should do what Walsingham would command and direct him.When the said Countess was promoting the marriage of her son Charles with one of the nieces of Lord Paget, and you on the other hand wished to keep him by complete and absolute authority for one of the Knollyses because he was related to you, she complained bitterly against you, and said that it was nothing but tyranny, your wishing at your caprice to carry off all the heiresses in the country, and that you had treated the said Paget disgracefully with insulting words, but that finally the nobility of this kingdom would not permit it to be repeated to the same degree if you addressed yourself to certain others whom she knew well. About four or five years ago when you were ill, and I also at the same time, she told me that your malady came from the closing of a fistula that you had in one leg, and that no doubt losing your monthly period you would very soon die, rejoicing in a vain fancy which she has long had through the predictions of a certain Jon Lenton, and of an old book which predicted your death by violence and the succession of another Queen, whom she interpreted to be me, regretting only that by the said book it was predicted that the queen who would succeed you would reign only three years, and would die like you by violence, which was represented in a painting in the said book in which there was a last leaf, the contents of which she never would tell me. She herself knows that I have always held this as pure folly, but she laid all her plans well to be the first of those about me, and even that my son should marry my niece Arbella.
To end, I swear to you once more on my faith and honour that what is above is quite true, and that as to what concerns your honour, it has never come into my mind to wrong you by revealing it, and that it will never be known through me, holding it as quite false. If I can have that good fortune of speaking with you, I will tell you more particularly the names, times, places and other circumstances to let you know the truth both about these and about other things which I reserve when I am quite assured of your friendship, which as I desire more than ever also if I can this time obtain it, you never had relative, friend or even subject more faithful and loving than I shall be to you. For God be certain of her who wishes to serve you. From my bed, compelling my arm and my sufferings to satisfy and obey you. Marie R.
See: Chamberlin, Frederick: The Private Character of Queen Elizabeth, London 1921, pp. 166-169

Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de la Mauvissiere, Mémoires, written after 1584:

If some persons have wished to tax her falsely with having amourous attachments, I shall say with truth that these are inventions forged by the malevolent, and from the cabinets of some Ambassadors, to prevent those to whom it would have been most useful from making an alliance with her. [Chamberlin, p. 273]

Michel de Castelnau-Mauvissiè€re
Michel de Castelnau-Mauvissière


[Calendar] Calendar of State Papers, Spain (Simancas), Volume 1 - 1558-1567, ed. by Martin A. S. Hume, London 1892

[Chamberlin] Chamberlin, Frederick, The Private Character of Queen Elizabeth
(London: Bodley Head, 1921) http://www.archive.org/stream/privatecharacter00cham#page/n21/mode/2up)