Although Elizabeth I has been extensively written about with regards to her unique nature as an unmarried female monarch in the early modern period, she remains one of my historic heroes. This is particularly due to her adamancy in the face of huge scrutiny on things that she truly believed in – specifically the issue of marriage and succession.
Elizabeth was petitioned by parliament to make a decision on these issues not once, not twice, but THRICE! She was immediately accosted in 1559 after becoming Queen, to which she responded politely but resolutely that they should perhaps back off a touch. Then, in 1562 the poor gal almost died of smallpox. This threw into sharp focus the lack of a clear plan of action in the event of her death. So, good ole parliament gave her a year to feel better, and petitioned her again. She was slightly more curt this time, which led them to lay off…for just three more years. She was petitioned one more time in 1566, at which time she decided to open a can of whoop-ass on parliament. (Side note – even after this the issue of her naming a successor remained a prevalent one.)
Her response was cold, cutting, and accused them of questioning her ability as Queen and her desire to protect her realm and her people. She dryly reminded them that she had already answered all their questions – “A strange order of petitioners that will make a request and cannot otherwise be assured by the prince’s word, and yet will not believe it when it is spoken.” Unfortunately, historian Ilona Bell has explained how when Elizabeth was straightforward with her councillors she was assumed to be lying, and when she was elusive they assumed she was concealing a secret plan, all due to the fact she was a woman. (“Elizabeth I: Always Her Own Free Woman,” in Political Rhetoric, Power and Renaissance Women, ed. C. Levin and P. Sullivan.)
Her response evidently was not trusted, and sadly even to this day some historians don’t seem to believe her, claiming that her replies where part of a political rhetoric to get her advisors to leave her the HELL alone. Here are the reasons why I believe in her responses:
Firstly, she did not want to name a successor. She herself (in the eyes of all but the Catholics) had been the successor to the throne under the reign of her sister, Mary I, and look where that got her – the centre for opposition, imprisoned by her own sister. She was adamant that she did not want to divide her people by giving them someone to focus on in moments of mistrust for the present monarch. Even more thoughtfully, she did not want to put anyone through what she had been through herself.
Secondly, Elizabeth is infamous for her decision not to marry. Many historians depict her as ‘The Virgin Queen’ who knew from the beginning of her reign that she would not marry. However, Elizabethan historian Susan Doran has shed much light on this issue, particularly in her co-edited book The Myth of Elizabeth. She explains that the culture of ‘The Virgin Queen’ actually did not begin until well into Elizabeth’s reign, immediately discrediting the fact that she had wanted to convey this all along. Furthermore, she believes that Elizabeth made genuine attempts at courting various suitors for marriage. The issue was that her councillors were so divided on who was the best man for the job that once again, Elizabeth feared that making a decision would create destructive divisions. Thus, she chose no one.
Elizabeth was well known for wanting to keep the peace in this manner. Despite becoming the Protestant Queen of a Catholic country she made it clear that an individual’s personal religion was of no concern to her so long as people respected hers. Yet through slow and careful change she solidified the religion of the country to Protestantism by the end of her reign. In fact, she made Catholicism so abhorrent in England that after her reign it was no longer tolerated in the monarchy, being one of many causes for suspicion of Charles I and leading to the deposition of James II. Yes, she may have been blessed with a long reign to be able to implement these things, but I also think it was representative of her slow and careful decision making, which is why she did not marry and why she did not name a successor – not stalling tactics or weapons of diplomacy, but genuine and valid reasons and fairly typical of her style of rule.
And so, Elizabeth I remained unmarried and reigned for 45 years with no named heir until she became close to her departure from this world. Yet the succession was smooth and went to Mary Queen of Scot’s son James, the man she had wanted it to go to ever since his mother’s death. She was a smart one that Elizabeth.