The nickname has stuck throughout the ages: Elizabeth I, the "Virgin Queen". Except... she might very well have been a lot more experienced than many people think. While the monarch never married, there were rumours about lovers throughout her life, and one of them has gone down in history as her legendary soulmate: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The question is, was theirs a chaste passion, or did they ever act on their desires? Let's weigh up the two possibilities.
ARGUMENT 1: THEY (PROBABLY) WERE LOVERS
Who was Robert Dudley? A dashing nobleman. Well-connected, blue-blooded, and handsome. In other words, a very good match for Elizabeth, and she certainly knew it. It was well known that the queen was uncommonly fond of Dudley, to the point where many observers commented how she hated letting him out of her sight.
Take the time Dudley was called away for a few weeks. A letter was written to him, imploring Ddley to return. "This court wanteth your presence," it said. "Her majesty is unaccompanied and, I assure you, the chambers are almost empty." Doesn't really sound like the usual reaction to a mere friend being away, does it?
Let's also consider Elizabeth's jealous rages. Dudley's first wife was certainly not welcome in the queen's presence - it was as if she didn't exist as far as Elizabeth was concerned. Later, when Dudley gave up on the notion of ever marrying Elizabeth and tied the knot with a noblewoman called Lettice Knollys instead... well, the queen's fiery fury knew no bounds. She dubbed her a "flouting wench" and basically banished Lettice Knollys from court, rendering the poor woman an outcast in London. Does this sound like the reaction of a platonic soulmate?
There's other circumstantial evidence to consider as well. The fact that Dudley was appointed Master of the Horse, a job that required his constant presence at her side. The fact that his lodgings at court were right alongside the queen's. The fact that advisors and ambassadors wrote in letters about Elizabeth's very "physical" interactions with Dudley - how she would touch him fondly, even tickling him at times.
And then there are the letters between Elizabeth and Dudley. Historian Christine Hartweg, author of John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law, says that "their correspondence is very intimate. To address your queen as "my own lady" is rather risqué, and Elizabeth must have welcomed this sort of language or Robert would not have used it."
Frankly, there is no doubt they were deeply in love. And the fragments of evidence create an overall mosaic we can't ignore.
ARGUMENT 2: THEY (PROBABLY) WEREN'T LOVERS
Circumstantial evidence. That's ALL people have to go on when they assert that Elizabeth and Dudley were lovers. Where's the real proof?
Yes, they were close. Yes, she was possessive and jealous and wanted him as her friend, companion and plaything. But none of this means that she ever crossed the line from emotional adoration to physical lust.
Historian Christine Hartweg, who wrote a biography of Dudley's father and knows the Tudor stories better than most, admits that "we can ever be sure about whether Elizabeth and Robert Dudley were lovers in any physical sense". Interestingly, Hartweg also recounts how "Elizabeth is reported to have said, when she believed herself to be dying, that she had always loved Robert Dudley, but had never done anything improper with him."
Some say the queen was lying, or she didn't say such a thing at all. But this just goes to show how hazy all the details of their apparent courtship are. Can we really trust the snippets that have fallen to us through time? And let's also reconsider the relationship itself. Lest we forget, Elizabeth and Dudley were actually childhood friends. They were school pupils together, in fact, breeding a closeness that would one day lead Elizabeth to describe Dudley as "another ourself".
Is it not possible that they were in many ways TOO close? Could the fact they knew each other from such a young age mean their love was too sibling-like for comfort? It's possible that this may have, at least on a subconscious level, kept Elizabeth from consummating her relationship with Dudley.
When all's said and done, we can't deny how Elizabeth's every move was intensely scrutinised. "A thousand eyes see all I do," she once complained. On a purely logistical basis, it's hard to imagine how an illicit affair could take place under the noses of all the courtiers, without saucy revelations seeping into the pages of history. Instead, we simply have allegations and hearsay, and the fevered imaginings of myth-makers.