Like most people, Elizabeth I was born a virgin. Unlike most people, she made it into a career move.
Why wouldn’t she? She didn’t have a lot of conventional material to work with.
Liz was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. When she was two and not yet thinking about career options, Henry had Anne beheaded and replaced her with an unsteady stream of wives. As wife replaced wife and minutely argued religious justification replaced tediously argued religious justification, Liz was alternately Henry’s legitimate child and his illegitimate child, a princess and not a princess, pushed off to the margins and brought into court to share in all the who-gets-it-next worries of Henry’s inner circle.
It all depended on which way the religious, political, and sexual winds were blowing.
Being born female wasn’t a great career move. Henry’s goal in life was to magic a male heir out of wife number whichever, and as he got older that seemed to depend more and more on magic, or at least on luck, than on the usual methods. And although Liz was said to be very bright, she never figured out how to grow the odd appendage that being a male heir depended on.
She was thirteen when her father died and her nine-year-old half-brother, Edward, became king. Or maybe he was ten. Maybe she was fourteen. It depends who you ask. I asked two different BBC posts, not some fly-by-night bloggers who make it up as they go along. (You know what bloggers are like.) The BBC’s generally reliable on these things, but Ed’s age a side issue, so let’s smirk and move on.
But let me insert a brief interruption here, since I’ve already interrupted myself. I’m about to stash Liz on the shelf for a while and talk about her relatives. And about religion. Because nothing in her life, including the whole virginity shtick, makes sense unless you know the background.
Edward was intensely Protestant (that’s a general link about the Tudors and the Reformation, not particularly about Edward), and more to the point, so were the men (or man–it’s complicated) who ran the country in his name. They set about consolidating the Protestant reformation that Henry, however inconsistently, had begun. If Henry can be said to have started the English reformation. Ask Lord Google something as simple as whether Henry was a Protestant and the answer seems to be yes. And also no. You can think of his Church of England as the Catholic Church but without a Pope. And with a bible in English instead of in Latin. And–
But we’re getting sidetracked. We weren’t talking about Henry, we were talking about Edward. He was Protestant, so everyone had to be Protestant, or at least live as if they were. Because that’s the way it was back then. The state and religion were as tangled together as that string of Christmas lights you drag out of the back of the closet every year. Or more so, because if you work at it you’ll get the lights untangled by Easter, but the religion and politics of the era were so completely welded together that you can just stop trying.
Liz was twenty (give or take a few months) when Edward died. After the collapse of a brief effort to put another Protestant on the throne, Liz’s sister, Mary, became queen. And Mary was as Catholic as Edward was Protestant, so now the country had to be Catholic. (The link is to a brief but interesting piece on Mary’s reign and the progression of her attempts to turn the country Catholic again.)
Mary brought back the old heresy laws. Protestants were burned at the stake. Everyone had a wonderful, time, thanks, and sent cards to say they wished we’d been there.
Then Mary died childless. It was a thing with the Tudors, not finding heirs where they expected them. So it’s time to take Liz off the shelf.
Liz was now twenty-five, unmarried, female, and the new queen of an uneasy country. She was also Protestant, although more mildly so than Edward. She didn’t have a lot of choice about being Protestant. If she’d been a Catholic, her mother wouldn’t have been married, making Liz a bastard, which was an even worse career move than being a woman.
What kind of country was she now in charge of?
One that for years had been lurching from Catholicism to Protestantism to Catholicism, and now back to Protestantism. People holding church or public office had to swear that the queen, not the Pope, was the head of the English church. Everyone had to attend church or be fined for it. The service was in English, not Latin (score one for the Protestants), although it was full of fancy robes and incense and expensive toys (score one for the Catholis). The idea was to keep both sides happy and inside a single church. Liz famously said she didn’t want to open windows into men’s souls, meaing she didn’t care what they believed, but she did want them to play nice and do what she told them to, which included showing up at her church.
For a long time England had been a nervous place and it still was, with everyone looking over their shoulder, and over everyone else’s shoulder, wanting to know who hid Protestant books when the country was Catholic, who said an illegal Latin mass when the country was Protestant, who defended the Pope as the head of the English church when the monarch was its head or the other way around, not to meniton who claimed the queen was born not just a virgin but a bastard and who had a forbidden Jesuit priests hidden away.
And it wasn’t just individuals looking over their shoulders. Elizabeth’s government lived in fear of rebellion and invasion.
No one was being paranoid about any of this. Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth were real, as were rebellions. Spy networks searching for hidden Catholic priests were just as real. Catholic Spain tried to invade and was thwarted as much by the weather as by England’s navy. Everybody fought proxy wars in Ireland and the Netherlands.
And just to complicate the picture, Protestant groups were pushing for a purer form of Protestantism, and predictably they weren’t all of one mind either. As soon as the bible became available in English for any literate person to read, it was also available for them to interpret, and their interpretations took them in a variety of directions.
Anabaptists believed in the separation of church and state and leaned toward social equality. Puritans wanted no bishops, no fripperies, no fun, and nothing that reminded them of Catholicism. We’ll skip over the other groupings and grouplets. It’s enough to know they existed. The one thing they all agreed on was that the Church of England was nothing more than a sugar-free version of the Catholic Church.
So this was a time of spies, plots, paranoia, torture, and bloodshed.
Who shed more blood, Elizabeth or Mary? I couldn’t find sources that would let me compare like with like, but I’m left with the impression that Mary wins–as in she killed more Protestants than Liz killed Catholics. But that hardly makes Liz’s reign a comfortable time.
Throughout this period, the country was split into three camps: 1. Catholics, who wanted freedom for their religion; 2. Protestants, who wanted freedom for their religion; and 3. people who were willing to be either Protestant or Catholic as long as whoever was in power would refrain from (a) throwing them in jail, (b) burning them at the stake, (c) fining them, or (d) noticing them at all in case they thought of something else to do to them.
This was before the introduction of public opinion, polls and if they’d been around you’d have had to be crazy to answer one honestly. Still, I think it’s a fair bet that the majority of the population fell into the third camp. They kept their heads down and if anyone had offered them a tin hat they’d have worn it as protection against the religious shrapnel that was flying in all directions.
What the country needed was stability–a nice long stretch of time when whatever the approved religion was didn’t change and people had time to get used to it. Enough time to remember what they were supposed to believe and, more importantly, what not to say in public.
And what did stability depend on? First off, the monarch had to not die. Liz did a good job of that. Secondly, the monarch had to magic up an heir to the throne, preferably male, and here’s where Liz had a problem, because if there’s one thing everyone knows about virginity, it’s that it decreases the odds that you’ll produce a kid. And if your job title is virgin queen, you are now looking at an occupational hazard.
But virginity’s not a terminal condition, so why didn’t Liz marry?
There could’ve been a hundred emotional reasons, and if you’re writing historical fiction you have your choice of everything from early trauma to liking girls instead of boys. Sadly, we’re stuck with the facts, and we have none. Whatever Liz felt, she kept it to herself. This wasn’t a touchy-feely time. No one would’ve said, “Gee, Liz, that must’ve been hard. Want to sit down and have a good cry?”
So let’s look at the condition of women in Tudor England, because it explains a lot and it can be documented. Quick summary? It wasn’t a great time to be a woman. You can skip the next few paragraphs if that’s all you need to know.
Women were considered physically, intellectually, and emotionally weak. They not only weren’t fit to rule a country, they weren’t fit to rule a family. Hell, they weren’t fit to rule themselves. We’ll let the Scot John Knox stand in for an entire culture here.
“God hath revealed to some in this our age that it is more than a monster in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire above man.”
Even a man who meant to praise Liz could only manage to say, “Her mind has no womanly weakness. Her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up.”
The era was still working with the medieval Great Chain of Being, with god at the top, followed by the various ranks of angels and after them the various ranks of humans. Among humans, kings were at the top, which gave them divine right to rule. Then came the varied ranks of nobles and the descending ranks of commoners. And in all these ranks, men were set above women. It was the natural order, as handed down by god himself. It was catalogued all the way down through dragonflies and snakes and plants and rocks.
Male rocks were set above female rocks.
Salt, please, someone.
So when Elizabeth took the throne, crown lawyers worked up a theory called the king’s two bodies to legitimize her. She wasn’t a woman, exactly:
“When she ascended the throne, according to this theory, the queen’s whole being was profoundly altered: her mortal ‘body natural’ was wedded to an immortal ‘body politic.’ ‘I am but one body, naturally considered,’ Elizabeth declared in her accession speech, ‘though by [God’s] permission a Body Politic to govern.’ ”
Me neither. You pretty much had to be there for it to make sense.
Now let’s back up a bit and talk about marriage in general. If women were weak, silly, emotional creatures, what happened when one of them married? Well, for everyone’s good, she stopped having to obey her father and started having to obey her husband, and any property she inherited became her husband’s. The best move a woman could make if she wanted her independence was to become a widow.
This, unfortunately, wasn’t always easy to arrange.
And if a queen married? She’d be expected to take second place to her husband, of course. When Liz’s brother was king, Thomas Seymour was executed for–allegedly–trying to marry Liz so he could rule the kingdom. The assumption was that as her husband he’d have that right.
Any queen who meant to rule her own kingdom would have been wise to stay single, because her husband would be expected to rule her and own the property she inherited–in other words, her kingdom.
So no marriage for Liz. She became a professional virgin, married to her country. She flirted diplomatically with the occasional suitor and shed them all when diplomacy either dictated or allowed.
Most of the available monarchs or near-monarchs were Catholic in any case.
That left the problem of an heir. And I repeat, because it’s a complicated concept: Not producing children is an occupational hazard if you’re a professional virgin.
The best solution was to work up a cult around Liz’s virginity, turning it from a problem into a virtue. And so Liz has come down in history not just as an unmarried queen but as the Virgin Queen, ablaze with capital letters. England, its church, and its culture were only minutes away from Catholicism, and a cult around a virgin must’ve seemed natural. The culture already equated virginity–at least female virginity–with purity, which was useful.
The cultural obsession with whether or not a woman’s ever had sex strikes me as completely bizarre, not to mention intrusive. But again, you had to be there. All cultures get trapped inside their ways of thinking, and when you’re inside one it’s hard to imagine any other way for a mind to work. If virginity equals purity, then who could step outside long enough to question it?
The lack of an heir hung over her reign and she managed to avoid making a decision about who it would be until she was on her deathbed, when she made a sign that one of her advisors conveniently interpreted as meaning she’d chosen the successor he thought was the best of the available choices.
Funny how that works.
Now let’s take a minute to talk about sex in the Tudor era. It’s not exactly relevant, but I did stumble into some information and it’s not completely off the topic.
The Tudor Society website (“the Tudor Society is a well established Tudor history group,” whatever that means) says people “were forbidden to have sex during Lent, Advent, Feast Days, Fast Days, Easter Week, Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays…. Women were also forbidden to have sex when they were menstruating, pregnant, for the forty day period after giving birth or when they were breastfeeding.”
So few days were left that no business got done on non-feast, -fast, or -reproductively related Mondays, Tuesdays, or Thursdays. Or Fridays, when they were catching up on their sleep.
“The act of sexual intercourse within marriage was to be done only in the missionary style and there was no room or allowance for experimentation. The Church also taught that the missionary position was the best way to conceive a male child and other positions could lead to creating a deformed child. The Church believed that both men and women needed to produce seed to create a child, therefore it was necessary that a woman obtained an orgasm. ”
I’m not sure which church they mean here–Catholic or Church of England–but I doubt that particular set of beliefs changed with the shift from Latin to English and back again, so it doesn’t matter.