virgin or Virgin: The definition of the Queen’s chastity
by Evelyn J. Moody
Sex. The issue and popularity of sex is not a recent popular phenomenon but rather an issue commonly discussed as far back as the 16th century. The details and nature of Queen Elizabeth’s sexual affairs was and still is a common issue discussed in both academia and popular culture. With the abundance of movies and books on the life of Queen Elizabeth, the question of was she or wasn’t she in regards to her virginity is a frequently debated issue. In the 21st century, the discussion of the word virginity refers to the sexual experiences of a person, however during the 16th century it often referred to a woman who was unmarried, such as Queen Elizabeth. More than four centuries after her rule, the meaning and specifications of Queen Elizabeth’s reign as the virgin Queen is a common topic depicted and researched in popular culture.
Commonly referred to as the bastard child of Henry VII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s life began under a realm of sexual controversy. Anne Boleyn is often referred to as a promiscuous woman whose low-cut bodices charmed her way into the heart of Henry VII. It is of no surprise given the attention on her mother’s sexual affairs that the same would be done for Elizabeth. When finally named the Queen, the unmarried Elizabeth was frequently pressured into finding a suitable husband and to produce a male heir to the throne. Elizabeth’s reluctance to commit led to many rumors and speculations. Many people began to say that she would not marry because she had some physical deformity that made her incapable of the sexual act to produce an heir (Hibbert 79). Elizabeth’s Councilors were very adamant about her finding a husband also. It was never a consideration that the virgin Queen might want to stay that way as to not want to submit to the loss of freedom that a marriage would entail. Her decision to remain a virgin may have been a part of her decision to not give in to the male-dominated society that she lived in (Hibbert 78).
While it can be proven that Elizabeth was a virgin in regards to never getting married, her chastity is a much more complicated matter. In many recent popular culture depictions of the Queen’s life, such as the 1998 motion picture Elizabeth, the Queen is believed to have engaged in sexual acts, but other sources disagree, such as Christopher Hibbert’s The Virgin Queen. During her reign, rumors spread on the Queen’s sexual immorality: she had conceived more than one child; she was as sexually licentious as her mother; she coerced men to sleep with her by threatening them with execution (Hibbert 80). Though none of these rumors can be proven, the Queen had many suitors and had her favorite amongst her suitors however, how intimate her relationship was with any of them is unclear.
One of the most notable and commonly referenced suitors of Elizabeth was Lord Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Highly disliked and distrusted by many, it was of common knowledge that the Queen was very fond of Dudley. She often praised Robert for his abilities and would challenge anyone who spoke of him negatively (Hibbert 65). Rumors of their relationship ranged from nighttime visits in her chamber to secret marriage ceremonies. In the motion picture Elizabeth, it is suggested that the Virgin Queen was indeed not a virgin, as she and Dudley were very intimate even in her bedroom. Being childhood friends, the actual extent of the Queen’s relationship with the Earl of Leicester is unknown. What is known is that Dudley was married during the time that he was romantically linked to Elizabeth, and his wife died under very mysterious circumstances.
Elizabeth. Dir. Shekhar Kapus. Gramercy Pictures, 1998.
Hibbert, Christopher. The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age. Cambridge: Perseus, 1991.