Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 7 : Foreign Affairs and Matrimony

The next point was foreign relations. On Elizabeth’s accession, England was still officially at war with France, although peace negotiations had been started. Astonishingly, the draft peace treaty that the late Queen Mary had been too ill to attend to had disappeared. It was only when her former ladies were questioned that it was discovered that the parchment had been used as part of the embalming procedure – giving a gruesome reality to Mary’s sigh that Calais would be found engraved upon her heart.

Matters proceeded, and the 1559 Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis included England in Spain’s peace with France, but with Elizabeth cool towards him, Philip had little incentive to pursue the recovery of Calais. The treaty provided that Calais would be returned after eight years, or the French would make financial reparations, but no-one really expected that Henri II would honour such a clause. Nevertheless, for many years Elizabeth hoped to regain French territory, and relations with that country remained strained, especially as the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France had culminated in the marriage of Mary of Scotland to François of France. The young Queen Mary had been directed by Henri II, who was her father-in-law, to quarter the arms of England with her own – signalling her claim to be the rightful queen. Simultaneously, the Scottish Protestant Lords of the Congregation sought Elizabeth’s help against the Catholic regent, Marie of Guise. Elizabeth was in a quandary. She was being pushed by Cecil to help the Scottish Lords, but did not want to undermine another sovereign. Eventually, she gave secret assistance, and the Lords triumphed. The resulting Treaty of Greenwich acknowledged Elizabeth as queen of England although in France, Queen Mary refused to ratify the treaty.

The question of marriage was Elizabeth’s third problem. In hindsight, her eventual non-marriage seems a wise policy, but it was probably not her fixed intention at the time, and everybody assumed that she ought to marry, although her ministers could not agree on a suitable spouse. The 1559 Parliament immediately petitioned her to choose a spouse. Her response did not rule matrimony out, although she said she was disinclined towards it – a statement that the men in Parliament probably took to be maidenly posturing, as it was inconceivable that a woman would actively choose not to marry, or that a queen-regnant would not seek spousal support. Elizabeth’s first suitor was Philip, keen to maintain the Anglo-Spanish alliance. Not choosing to quarrel, Elizabeth let him think she would consider it. Other possible suitors were the sons of the Emperor Ferdinand, particularly the Archduke Charles, the King of Sweden, and the younger sons of France.

The difficulties in selecting a marriage partner were manifold: by choosing a foreign king, Elizabeth was exposed to the risk that he would want to be king in more than name, and that he would embroil England in his own political concerns, which might not be compatible with hers. Necessarily, he would also often be absent. There was also the question of religion. Whatever her private views on religious doctrine, to accept any prince who acknowledged the supremacy of the Pope would create enormous difficulties. The Roman Catholic position was that Elizabeth was illegitimate. No prince would wish for an illegitimate bride. If the Pope were to grant a dispensation removing the stain of illegitimacy (certainly not impossible in principle) that would leave Elizabeth as dependent on papal authority for her title, rather than her own right under English statute – not a position she could accept.

On the other hand, if she married a subject of her own, and raised him above his peers, that would cause envy and discontent – especially if he were given sovereign power, which, in the male-centric age in which Elizabeth lived, it was assumed he would. The best possibility might be a younger son of a European royal house who would be able to remain at her side, and whose power might be limited by the marriage treaty, as had been the case for Philip of Spain. Allied to these considerations was Elizabeth’s own real reluctance to marry. It has been postulated that her witness of the experiences of her father’s later wives, the unhappy marriage of Katherine Parr, and the difficult state marriage of her sister all contributed to make her profoundly unwilling to surrender her power to any man. However, that does not mean that Elizabeth was in any way an asexual being – throughout her life she clearly enjoyed the company of men, was physically attracted to them and enjoyed being the object of pursuit. As the Spanish ambassador observed in 1565, with some prescience, ‘I do not think anything is more enjoyable to this queen than 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 it will probably end with her remaining as she is'.

Over the years, it was sometimes whispered that Elizabeth declined to marry, as she knew could never bear children – but there does not seem to be any evidence to support such an idea, and one of her physicians in 1566 firmly told the French ambassador’s nephew that Elizabeth was as well able to bear children as any woman. There were also slanders that she had numerous illegitimate children – which seems even more far-fetched.

So far as the duty upon her to bear an heir was concerned, Elizabeth was aware that, if she bore a son, she might soon find herself passed over for his benefit. As she observed in 1561, ‘[p]rinces cannot like their children, those that should succeed unto them’. She had consequently refused to name a successor, despite being pressed by Parliament to do so, a point increasingly urged on her as her unmarried state continued.