Vol. 4, #2, Issue 14, 1999, pp. 42-48

Copyright (c) 1999, RENAISSANCE MAGAZINE, Vol. 4, #2, Issue 14, 1999.

by Carole Levin

     The recent film ELIZABETH presents a young, sensual queen, disappointed in her lover Robert Dudley because he turns out to be married, and in her suitor the Duke of Anjou, because he cross-dresses in women's garments. According to the film, as a result of these experiences, she cuts off her hair and recreates herself as the Virgin Queen who gives up love to become an effective monarch.

     But the historical Elizabeth was much more complex. She knew about Robert Dudley's early first marriage, and the French Prince who visited her court in late 1579 and again in 1581 was not the cross-dressing Duke of Anjou (by 1579, Henry III of France), but his younger brother. And from the very beginning of her reign, despite all the pressure from Parliament and her Council for her to marry and have an heir, Elizabeth publicly declared that she preferred to be single. Yet while Elizabeth claimed she would stay a virgin, resisting all demands on her to wed, she also loved receiving marriage proposals and played with the possibility of marriage for more than 20 years into her reign.


     Elizabeth had a number of foreign suitors, including her former brother-in-law, Philip II of Spain, who had been married to her older half-sister Mary; King Eric of Sweden; Charles, Archduke of Austria and brother of the Holy Roman Emperor; and both the Duke of Anjou and the Duke of Alencon, brothers to the French king. In addition to these official foreign courtships was her favorite suitor, Robert Dudley, whose relationship with her caused such concern that many believed that their bond would impede all other negotiations.

     When Elizabeth became queen in 1558, she was a young, unmarried woman of 25. The pressure on Elizabeth to marry was great--a king could relieve Elizabeth of the difficulties of rule (or so her advisors fondly believed), giving her the time and the freedom to produce an heir to the thrown.

     Though Elizabeth stated that she disliked marriage negotiations, she actually encouraged them. One of her courtiers, Sir Henry Sidney, suggested she was "greedy for marriage proposals," a view shared by Guzman de Silva, the Spanish Ambassador during the 1560s.

     "I do not think anything is more enjoyable to this Queen than the treating of marriage, although she assures me herself that nothing annoys her more. She is vain, and would like all the world to be running after her."

     But enjoying courtship and actually marrying were two different things to this 16th-century queen. Early in her reign, the Scottish ambassador Sir James Melville showed great insight into her character when he stated, "Madame, I know you will never marry. For if you marry you will be but queen of England; now you are king and queen both."

     Adding further to the ambiguity of the foreign negotiations were Robert Dudley's determined courtship and his position as her favorite. Elizabeth's relationship with Dudley was different from those with her foreign suitors. She knew him well, and apparently had intense feelings for him. His prospects for marrying the queen came not from the suitability of his birth but from Elizabeth's personal affection for him. (The rumors that spread about Elizabeth's sexual misconduct throughout her reign almost entirely centered on her relationship with Dudley.) But Elizabeth, whatever her emotions, kept them sufficiently under control as to not make such a potentially divisive marriage.


     From the beginning of her reign, Robert was clearly Elizabeth's favorite. They had apparently become friends while both were imprisoned in the Tower of London during the reign of her sister, Mary I. Robert had also known Elizabeth since they were children, once confessing that when he and Elizabeth were only eight years old, she had told him that she would never marry. (Elizabeth was eight when her stepmother, Katherine Howard, had shared the same fate as her mother, Anne Boleyn--she was beheaded on order of her husband, Henry VIII. Perhaps even as a child, Elizabeth had confused sexuality and marriage with danger.)

     Robert's memory of Elizabeth's statement did not keep him from hoping to marry her, but at the time Elizabeth became queen, he was already married to Amy Robsart. Unlike the presentation in the recent film, this was no secret to Elizabeth; she had even danced at his wedding.

     Once Elizabeth became queen, Amy was sent to live in the country away from court, suffering from what was probably breast cancer. Many people suggested that Robert was simply waiting for Amy to die so that he might marry the queen, while others thought he had other plans for his ailing wife. The Spanish Ambassador wrote to his king in November 1559--only a year after Elizabeth's reign began--that he had heard that Robert was planning to poison his wife.

     There is no evidence that Dudley contemplated murdering Amy, but he may well have not regretted the idea of her imminent natural death. In any case, on September 8, 1560, she was found dead with her neck broken at the bottom of some stairs.

     Was she murdered? The coroner's court said no, but the verdict never quieted the rumors. Did she throw herself down those stairs? She was certainly unhappy; her maid had overheard her mistress praying to God to deliver her from desperation. In either case, on the day she died, Amy sent everyone out of the house. It's possible that she may have simply died accidentally, her spine so brittle from metastasized cancer that even the act of walking down stairs--especially if she had stumbled--could have caused her neck to snap.

     Whatever the truth, marrying Dudley at this time would have been an unpopular move for Elizabeth, given the questions about Dudley's wife's death. But while she refused to marry Dudley, she continued to have him at her court as her favorite courtier.


     If Elizabeth were not to marry Dudley, there was still great pressure on her to marry someone else, and in the mid 1560s, the negotiations to have Elizabeth marry the Archduke Charles were intense. A marriage alliance with the Archduke could possibly restore the balance of power against Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland, and her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, the second husband of the Scottish Queen.

     Yet whether Elizabeth really wanted to marry is another question. In March of 1565 she told a confidant that she never had any inclination for marriage but was being pressed to by her subjects. She added passionately,

     "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."

     Elizabeth certainly believed that a woman, at least a queen, could live unmarried and do it for the best of reasons. But, as she admitted, she was pressed very hard, and did agree to negotiate with the Holy Roman Empire over a marriage with Charles.

     Her Principal Secretary William Cecil reopened the negotiations with the Empire in 1563 and two years later, the support for the marriage with Charles included much of the Council. They were worried about the succession because of religious differences; promoters of the marriage believed that the Hapsburgs of the Holy Roman Empire were more flexible about religion than indeed was the case. Elizabeth herself took the matter of Charles not being Protestant seriously, but she also did not want to see the negotiations ended, even if she had no intention of actually marrying Charles.

     For Elizabeth, it was also crucial that she see the Archduke before any marriage contract be signed. The Spanish Ambassador recorded in May 1559 that,

     "...the Queen says that she has taken a vow to marry no man whom she has not seen...and said she would rather be a nun than marry without knowing with whom and on the faith of portrait painters."

     There were certainly a number of reasons to hold to this position. Elizabeth was all too aware of Henry VIII's scathing disappointment when he actually met his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Her sister's husband, Philip, too, had scarcely bothered to hide his contempt for his older queen, despite Mary's passionate love for him.

     While it was obviously important to Elizabeth that she not be paired with a man she found physically distasteful, she also did not wish to place herself in a vulnerable position with a foreign suitor who would not sufficiently appreciate HER charms. Insisting on seeing him before she committed herself was a way to stop the marriage negotiation before it got too serious. She kept holding out the possibility she might marry until 1568, when Charles finally abandoned the game.


     It was to be 20 years into her reign before a foreign Prince would actually come and woo the queen in person. In the late 1570s, the idea of marriage to the French royal house was revived, with the potential husband being Francis, Duke of Alencon.

     The negotiation with Henry III's brother Francis was the final marriage charade, and perhaps the most difficult to sort out. By the end of the 1570s, the English were lining up with the French against the Spanish over the Netherlands. But it also seems that Elizabeth, then in her mid-forties, was a woman looking at her last chance at marriage and potential motherhood. When Alencon's envoy arrived at court, Elizabeth did everything she could to show that she was sincere about the marriage. She even agreed to Alencon's private practice of Catholicism, something she had always before refused to grant a potential husband.

     Alencon came to England in August of 1579. Elizabeth expressed her delight with him, but the proposed French marriage caused great dissension in England, where people remembered all too vividly how the French had had Protestants slaughtered in the streets by the thousands only a few years earlier, during the Saint Bartholomew's day massacre. But it was not only fear of Catholicism; after her people had been begging Elizabeth for two decades to marry, now many worried that marriage and potential pregnancy were too dangerous for a woman of her age.

     This perspective outraged Elizabeth and she called a meeting of the Privy Council in October of 1579 to consider the marriage. And by November, Elizabeth told her Council that she had made up her mind to marry. By late January, however, Elizabeth wrote to Alencon that since her people were so opposed to the marriage, she could not do it.

     In October of 1581, the Duke of Alencon returned to England to see if he could still get her to agree to the marriage. On November 22, Elizabeth and Alencon walked together in a gallery. The French ambassador entered and told Elizabeth that his king wanted to hear from the queen herself what her intentions were in regards to his brother.

     "You may write this to the king," Elizabeth startled the ambassador by stating, "that the duke of Alencon shall be my husband." She then turned to the Duke, kissed him on the mouth, and took off a ring to give to him as a pledge. Alencon was both astonished and delighted, and gave her a ring in return.

     But if Alencon was delighted with this turn of events, Elizabeth grew reluctant, expressing the belief that she must remain a spinster until she could "overcome her natural hatred to marriage." The ring, she claimed "was only a pledge of perpetual friendship."


     The story is an odd one. Was she swept away and then realized what she had almost done, or did she never really intend to marry him? We will never know. Elizabeth finally lent Alencon some money and he left England in February, dying two years later. Elizabeth publicly wept at his leaving, but some said that in private she danced with joy at getting rid of him.

     Many people have chosen to see Elizabeth's public self-presentation as a Virgin Queen as a sign of some sexual or psychological inadequacy: we may understand her better, however, if we see it as an effective political strategy. Marriage had many potential difficulties, and if Elizabeth married she ran the risk of people perceiving her husband as the real ruler. Marriage could also have led to the embarrassment that had dogged her sister Mary with her hysterical pregnancies, or to the risks of dying of disease related to childbirth, as were the fates of her step-mothers Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr.

     Certainly there were both personal and political costs to marriage. Ultimately, however, Elizabeth made the right choice; while on the throne, England flourished, and her reign ushered in a new Golden Age for Britain.

     * * *

     Carole Levin is Professor of History at the University of Nebraska. Her most recent books include THE HEART AND STOMACH OF A KING: ELIZABETH I AND THE POLITICS OF SEX AND POWER and (co-edited with Patricia Sullivan) POLITICAL RHETORIC, POWER, AND RENAISSANCE WOMEN. Her current project is a book (of which she is lead author) on extraordinary women of the medieval and renaissance world.

     * * *


     Elizabeth was not alone among renaissance monarchs who adorned themselves with jewels and used them as gifts. Her father, Henry VIII, owned more jewels than all of his wives combined. Many of the treasures of the dissolved monasteries ended up in his personal treasury. Francis I of France was famous for his diamonds, and while Philip II of Spain was austere in his own dress, the women of his court, particularly his daughters, were almost encased in jewels.


     The pearls now known as the Hanover Pearls were a bone of contention throughout their long history, and remain a bit of a mystery today. Pope Clement VII purchased six long strands of well-matched round pearls, ornamented with 25 drop pearls, as a wedding gift for Catherine de' Medici when she married Henry II of France. Catherine gave the pearls to her new daughter-in-law, Mary, wife of the Duc de Guise, the Dauphin of France.

     When the dauphin died before ascending the throne, Mary brought the pearls to Scotland with her. And when she had to leave them behind when she fled to England, they became the property of her son, James I. In need of cash, James eventually sold them to Elizabeth for 300 pounds.

     Elizabeth wore them incessantly, doubtless savoring this final triumph over her former rival. When he himself ascended the English throne, James became owner of the pearls again, and gave them to his daughter on her marriage, who passed them to her daughters, and so the pearls became the property of the house of Hanover. Later, disputes arose as to whether the jewels were Hanover property or English crown property, and after lengthy lawsuits, the jewels were awarded to the English crown. However, it has never been revealed what ever happened to the necklaces.


     Elizabeth made it a tradition for her courtiers to give her jewelry each New Year, and she amassed a considerable collection this way; in 1587 alone, she received 80 such gifts!

     Frequently these jewels were a tribute to her sagacity and political achievements, as well as to her personal charms. One example depicts an idealized Elizabeth with a ship balanced upon her knee, as a symbol for her guiding the ship of state, as well as a tribute to England's growing maritime power. Sir Francis Drake gave her another ship jewel, this one to commemorate and remind her of his circumnavigation of the globe. Its hull is made of ebony set with a diamond, with the rest of the jewel made of enameled gold. A smaller ship of blue enameled gold is suspended from the upper ship.

     Elizabeth herself gave out jewelry as thanks for services rendered. Drake received at least two notable jewels from her, one a locket with a cameo of an African man and a European woman on the front (probably meant as a metaphor for Elizabeth's rule spanning the globe), and a portrait of Elizabeth, surrounded with rubies, on one face of the interior, with a phoenix (symbolizing purity and royalty) painted on parchment on the other. The locket was surrounded by an elaborate frame of enameled gold, set with rubies and diamonds. A cluster of about a dozen small pearls hung below the frame, and a single pearshaped pearl hangs from that cluster.

     The other major gift Elizabeth gave to Drake was a hat badge designed as a sunburst. The center is a large ruby, surrounded by opals, which are themselves surrounded by rubies and diamonds. The reverse shows a portrait of Elizabeth. (Both of these jewels are still in the possession of Drake's descendants.)

     Another gift from the Queen to Sir Thomas Heneage, Elizabeth's treasurer during the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, was the Armada Jewel, a gold locket with an image of Elizabeth on the front, and a painted portrait of her and an enameled image of the Ark, inside (again, a tribute to her guiding the ship of state, as well as a reminder of the victory over the Spanish Armada). The reverse depicted an enameled Tudor red rose.


     As a mark of general favor, Elizabeth would often give out pendants or rings containing a miniature portrait or a cameo of herself. The Essex Ring is the most famous of these, not only for its exceptionally high quality but also for the romantic legend that was attached to it.

     Legend has it that Elizabeth had given a ring with an onyx cameo of herself to her favorite, Robert Devereux, saying that if he should ever need her aid or a favor, to bring it to her. In prison, awaiting execution for treason, he gave the ring to Lady Scrope to deliver to Elizabeth, who gave it to her sister, the Countess of Nottingham, to deliver to the Queen. But the Count of Nottingham, an enemy of Devereux, held onto the ring until the execution had taken place. When the Countess confessed, Elizabeth exclaimed, "God may forgive you, I shall never!" The Essex Ring now is on display in Westminster Abbey, although many question its authenticity.


     Although the exact circumstances aren't known, the Phoenix Jewel might have been a gift to or from Elizabeth. The design is quite simple, consisting of an enameled green wreath adorned with small white and red flowers. In the center is a gold bust of Elizabeth, attached only to the top and bottom of the wreath. On the reverse a striking chased phoenix hovers above Elizabeth's monogram, itself topped by a crown. A loop at the bottom suggests a pearl might have hung from it.

     Elizabeth's love of finery both in jewels and in dresses outstripped any other monarch's. For Elizabeth, jewels were more than just an aesthetic expression, or even a show of her wealth and power. Her courtiers and foreign ambassadors and visitors to her court were required to pay tribute to her beauty and personal charm, as well as her qualities as a ruler, and her jewels and dresses simultaneously enhanced and symbolized those qualities in the eyes of her subjects, her court, and the world.--Ann Feeney

     * * *


     During the 16th century, suggesting that Queen Elizabeth was not a virgin would have provoked a scowl, while speculating that she had had a child would have landed you in the Tower. Even today, proposing that Queen Elizabeth had children is laughable for many, but since about the beginning of the last century, some researchers have come to believe that the Virgin Queen was the mother of at least one, if not as many as five, children.

     A few members of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, an organization devoted to unearthing the true author of Shakespeare's work, support the idea that Edward deVere, the Earl of Oxford, may have been the first child of Queen Elizabeth. Born in 1548, Edward was, according to some members of the Society, fathered by Admiral Thomas Seymour, husband of Katherine Parr. Well documented are the late-night "tickling" sessions between the Princess and Seymour. So serious was their affair (the Admiral was suspected of secretly plotting to make Elizabeth his wife) that Elizabeth was eventually sent away from the household by Katherine.

     If, indeed, Edward was the Queen's child, as an infant he was put under the care of John deVere and Margery Golding, whose marriage some believe may have been arranged for the sole purpose of raising the young Edward. Additional oddities throughout deVere's life point to an atypical birth. Edward's birthdate was not recorded until 30 years after his birth, by Lord Burghley, and only after Edward was found questioning the paternity of his first-born daughter. Also notable is Elizabeth's attendance of Edward's graduation from Oxford, one of only two graduations attended by the Queen throughout her reign.

     As portrayed in the film ELIZABETH, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, may have been the paramour of Elizabeth--but he may also have fathered a few children by Elizabeth as well. Few dispute Dudley's role as the Queen's favorite and lover during the early parts of her reign; for years, his bedroom adjoined the Queen's, allowing him open access to her apartments both day and eve.

     According to some researchers, on January 21, 1560, soon after the questionable death of his wife, Amy, Dudley secretly wed Elizabeth in the House of Lord Pembroke, to legitimatize her then unborn second child. Their marriage was common knowledge among the commonfolk and was often the subject of gossip in the private communiques of foreign ambassadors. In fact, a letter discovered early in the 20th century within the Spanish archives shows Dudley begging King Philip to use his influence with the Queen to secure public acknowledgment for him as Prince Consort.

     So who was this second child? The Sir Francis Bacon Society believes that he was Francis, who was fostered with the Bacon family (Francis' birth was recorded in London a day after the Queen and Dudley's secret marriage). Not only this, but Francis bore little resemblance to his "father" Sir Nicholas Bacon, but did bear a striking resemblance to Dudley.

     Francis also received special privileges and honors throughout his life, that were, for the most part, undeserved. At the age of 23, Bacon was made a member of Parliament for Melcombe Regis, a royal borough, and while still poor, was given Twickenham Park, a villa with 87 acres of parkland, opposite the Queen's Palace at Richmond. Such honors were normally reserved for those of much higher birth than Francis and could only have come from someone of considerable wealth or power--someone like Queen Elizabeth. Finally, from 1580 to 1585, Francis was known to continually petition the Queen and others, regarding his "suit." Could this mysterious suit have been to gain Francis official recognition as the Queen's son?

     In 1581, Henry Hawkins said that "my Lord Robert hath had five children by the Queen." Whether or not this is true, the Bacon Society contends that in 1567, Elizabeth bore Dudley a second son, Robert, who was fostered by the Devereux family. It is also believed that not only were Robert and Francis acquaintances in their older years, but they also corresponded over their mutual heritage. And in 1602, before his execution Robert engraved in his cell "Robart Tudir," many believe in an attempt to tell the world of his true Tudor lineage.

     Interestingly, Dudley secretly married Robert's foster mother, Lettice in 1578. Some historians believe that he did this in an attempt to become closer to his son, since by marrying Lettice, Dudley had become a stepfather to his real son, Robert. Elizabeth was known to have been enraged when she heard of Dudley's marriage to Lettice, banishing him from court for a brief time as punishment.

     So why, exactly, was the marriage between Dudley and Elizabeth--and the identities of her children--concealed to such great lengths? By proclaiming herself a Virgin, Elizabeth not only elevated herself to political levels higher than previous monarchs, but she also satisfied factions of the Church within England and Europe.--Sir Miles

     * * *


     Cosmetics arrived in Britain later than other European countries, due to the island's isolation from eastern or Mediterranean cultures. But ancient Celtic tribesmen did paint their bodies with birds and animals, precursors to English heraldic symbols. First-hand accounts from Roman conqueror Julius Caesar describe contact with Anglo-Saxons wearing long mustaches powdered or dyed in vivid blue, red, green, or orange.

     For a time, Britons adopted Roman perfumes and cosmetics, but the invasions that drove Rome out of England left the people with only naturalistic ointments and herbal potions. The Roman custom of bathing was discontinued, as early Christian ministers considered it evil.

     Slow to accept cosmetic adornment, England looked to France, Spain, and especially Italy for guidance. But it was not until Queen Elizabeth I took the throne in 1559 that cosmetics, jewels, and perfumes came into liberal use.

     Whatever the Queen could not import she prepared herself. Her time-intensive recipes for skin softeners and lotions included such ingredients as borax, sugar, eggs, hog lard, beeswax, honey, ass' milk, turpentine, rose petals, herbs, and cherries.

     In 1589, Richard Puttenham wrote of Elizabeth's "natural" beauty:

     Two lips wrought out of rubie rocke,
     Like leaves to shut and to unlock
     As portall door in prince's chamber,
     A golden tongue in mouth of amber.
     Her bosom sleek as paris plaster
     Held up two balls of alabaster.

     Renaissance England under Elizabeth I assumed a more feminine orientation, mixing intellectual vitality, witticism, artistic vitality, and individualism with the youthful sovereign's distinctive style. Following Elizabeth's fashion lead, court ladies washed their hair with such popular Gaul-inspired dyes made of chalk as "lixivium," to achieve a gold-red color. Her plucked forehead, white lead facial foundation glazed with egg white, and red lips and rouged cheeks were also widely imitated. To protect this paleness from the sun, Elizabethan women often wore oval-shaped masks held in place by a button clenched between the teeth.

     Men, too, fell under Elizabeth's spell. Beards marked the face of fashion, and men had theirs cut into various shapes and styles, fixed in place with perfumed wax or gum pomade, and usually dyed yellow or orange in tribute to the Queen's hair color. Men slept with their beards encased in a special nightcap or clamped in a wooden press to protect its shape.

     The Queen's mania for elaborate dress also spread to the men. Jerkins embroidered with precious stones were part of the courtier's normal equipment, and plumes were usually fastened on velvet caps with a diamond or ruby. Even the least frivolous statesman, William Cecil, never appeared in public without waist-length heavy gold chains around his neck.

     Bathing was regarded as a therapeutic practice rather than a necessity for cleanliness, which may account for the rise of perfumes as deodorants. Elizabeth, who is said to have bathed once a month, used delicately-scented, imported rosewater, or a light marjoram-inspired fragrance. Likewise, pomanders made of apples, nutmeg, aloes, ambergris, and rosewater were attached to clothing to elicit continual fragrance. Clothing and handkerchiefs were also laundered and perfumed, and perfumed gloves were essential to protect fashionably white hands.

     Sir Hugh Platt helped to satisfy Elizabethan ladies' preoccupation with cosmetics by compiling a book in 1602 entitled DELIGHTES FOR LADIES. His recipes included those for making a "blanch" to whiten the face, a preparation to remove freckles with rosemary and white wine, scented water for clothing, and a "sweet and delicate dentifrice for teeth."

     As Elizabeth's beauty faded with age, she devoted a great deal of time to elaborate, exotic concoctions for its restoration. Her forehead painted with veins and smoothed with curd, she also masked her thinning hair with a tightly curled red wig. The Queen possessed about 80 such wigs, generating a fad for copies that required so much expensive imported hair, that wig-stealing became a lucrative endeavor.

     England did experience a spirit of romanticism and innovation during Queen Elizabeth's reign that helped loosen the binds placed on women. For the first time, the female desire to beautify herself with cosmetics was regarded as folly rather than least for a time.--Ellen Seiden