I have given many talks on the Tudors over the years, and the question that I am asked far more than any other is: 'Was Elizabeth I really a virgin?' It seems as inconceivable to us as it did to those living at the time that this flirtatious queen, who loved to surround herself with handsome young courtiers, would abstain from sex throughout the whole course of her long life.
In stark contrast to her much-married father, Elizabeth made her intention to remain single very clear from the start, famously declaring: 'I will have but one mistress here, and no master.' During the course of her long reign, she was besieged by many suitors but gave each one nothing more than 'fair words but no promises.' That a woman should wish to remain unmarried was deeply shocking in Tudor times, when they were believed to be the weaker sex and therefore in need of a man's guidance and protection. This was even more the case for the queen: how could she, a self-confessed 'weak and feeble woman', hope to govern a country alone? Moreover, she needed to bear children in order to secure the succession.
But if Elizabeth was determined not to marry, it is generally accepted that there was one man who, more than any other, tempted her to relinquish her virgin state. Robert Dudley was the fifth son of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland. The Duke had wrested power during the minority of Elizabeth's younger brother Edward VI and was executed for putting his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne after the young king's death in 1553. His son Robert led troops in support of the coup, but was swiftly defeated by the rightful queen, Mary I, and was thrown into the Tower.
Robert Dudley's sojourn in the Tower coincided with that of the new queen's half-sister, Elizabeth. They had been friends since childhood, Dudley having been among her brother Edward's companions. Their relationship, which grew ever more intense in adulthood, would endure for almost half a century.
Yet it was also one of the most turbulent in royal history. Just two years after Elizabeth ascended the throne, Dudley's wife was found dead at the bottom of a short flight of stairs. Speculation was rife that the queen and her favourite had masterminded her death so that they might at last be together, and the scandal reverberated across Europe for years to come.
Despite his professed devotion to Elizabeth, Dudley was capable of shocking betrayals, such as when he contemplated marrying her chief rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, and, just a few years later, when he was married in secret to one of her ladies in waiting. Elizabeth always forgave her favourite, though, and the obvious intimacy that existed between the couple prompted endless speculation that they were more than just queen and courtier. They would often meet in secret, and Elizabeth even had Dudley's apartments moved next to her own at court.
What exactly passed between the couple when they were closeted away in the queen's private apartments has been the source of endless speculation ever since. In my view, while Elizabeth may have enjoyed some physical intimacy with her favourite, the likelihood of her having risked full sexual intercourse is remote. She had fought too hard for her throne to throw it away on the discovery of an illicit affair or, worse, an unwanted pregnancy. Her authority would never have recovered from such a scandal, particularly as she was already battling against the slur of illegitimacy. If there had been certain proof that she was not chaste, it would have rendered her virtually worthless in the international marriage market. Moreover, the disastrous personal history of her female family members, notably her mother and half-sister Mary, had proved powerful disincentives to enter the dangerous world of royal marriage.
In addition to the sound political and personal reasons why Elizabeth would have been unlikely to risk an affair are the practical ones. As she herself was at pains to point out: 'I do not live in a corner. A thousand eyes see all I do.' As queen, she was constantly surrounded by her ladies and attendants, even when she slept. It would therefore have been virtually impossible to conduct an affair in secret. And even if only one or two of her most trusted ladies had been privy to any sexual transgressions, the truth would almost certainly have leaked out. There were few, if any, secrets at the Tudor court.
I do not live in a corner. A thousand eyes see all I do.
Perhaps most convincing, however, is Elizabeth's own testimony. In the course of my research for The Private Lives of the Tudors, I uncovered a contemporary account that strengthened my belief that Elizabeth was the virgin she claimed to be. In October 1562, the queen was staying at Hampton Court when she contracted smallpox, one of the most deadly diseases of the age, and one for which there was no known cure. Elizabeth's council was so convinced that she would die that they held an emergency meeting to decide upon her successor. The queen herself believed the end was near and felt the urge to confess her sins. In so doing, she insisted that nothing improper had ever passed between her and Dudley. In this God-fearing age, when people spent their lives striving to secure their place in heaven, Elizabeth would have been unlikely to risk her eternal salvation by uttering a lie.
But if that proves Elizabeth was still a virgin in 1562, it doesn't necessarily follow that she remained so for the rest of her life. In 1587, as England prepared to counter the mighty Armada, a young man going by the name of Arthur Dudley arrived at the Spanish court, insisting that he was the illegitimate child of the English queen and her long-standing lover. He was even able to name certain royal servants who had been complicit in the cover up.
Unless fresh evidence comes to light, we will probably never know for sure whether he was telling the truth. But that doesn't stop me fantasising about discovering an unknown letter in the archives that finally solves the mystery of whether Elizabeth I really was the Virgin Queen.