7. Was Elizabeth I A Virgin By Choice?
Queen Elizabeth never married and would go down in history as the Virgin Queen. However, that does not preclude her having had a sexual relationship outside of marriage. Elizabeth openly flirted with men, and her intimate relationships with male courtiers were fodder for much gossip. Among those with whom she may have had romantic affairs were Lord Chancellor Christopher Hatton, Sir Walter Raleigh, and—in her twilight years—the much younger Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.
The love of her life, however, was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Elizabeth didn’t care what the public thought about their liaison, especially since Dudley lived away from his first wife to be close to the queen. It was rumored that Elizabeth bore Dudley several children. But Elizabeth teased and tantalized Dudley regarding her matrimonial intentions, until he got fed up and married Elizabeth’s cousin, Lettice Knollys, instead. A furious Elizabeth struck the new Countess of Leicester’s ears and banished her from the court.
Why was Elizabeth so difficult when it came to marriage? The traditional explanation was that she regarded herself as being married to England and didn’t want to diminish her political power by sharing it with a husband. A deeper reason may be because Elizabeth had a psychological aversion to marriage. At an early age, she had associated marriage with death. Her father Henry VIII killed many of his wives, including her mother, Ann Boleyn. At age eight, Elizabeth was traumatized by the execution of her stepmother, Catherine Howard. That was when she declared that she would never marry.
Elizabeth may have also had a devastating secret, suggesting that she had less choice in the matter. The playwright Ben Jonson talked about the queen having “a membrane on her which made her incapable of man.” This could mean she had an abnormally thick hymen, or that she was debilitated by vaginismus, which makes the vaginal muscles tight, rendering the sufferer unable to have normal sex.
Whatever the reason, it did not stop Elizabeth from loving Dudley till the day he died in 1588. The queen mourned as any wife would the passing of the pillar and strength of her life.