In October of 1562, while on progress through the country, Queen Elizabeth fell ill with smallpox, a common plague in 16th century England. She recovered, but her advisors thought she wouldn’t. While on her deathbed, William Cecil and her council created their own plan for succession. They never got to implement it, but when Elizabeth recovered, she faced renewed pressure to marry and produce an heir for England.
As an heir and as a queen, Elizabeth had no shortage of suitors. As a young heiress, she was, like her sister Mary, tainted by bastardy (thanks to their father), which made advantageous foreign marriages difficult. Even so, she was a legitimate heir to the throne of England, a powerful draw for ambitious Englishmen as well as lesser nobles abroad. When she became Queen, she became one of Europe’s most eligible bachelorettes. Her court would become a continuous staging area for suitors–– fawning courtiers and ambitious foreign nobles alike. Elizabeth reveled in the attention, but she was wary of marriage. For all their troubles, those who sought her hand in marriage sought in vain.
As a young girl, after the death of her father, Elizabeth was a ward in the home of her stepmother the dowager queen Catherine Parr. After Henry VIII’s death, Catherine Parr remarried one of her former flames, Admiral Thomas Seymour. Seymour was a brother of the late Queen Jane Seymour, brother of the Lord Protector, and uncle to King Edward VI. But apparently his own connections weren’t enough. The Admiral was unscrupulous and ambitious. With the Lady Elizabeth, an heir to the throne, within his household, he took inappropriate liberties and familiarities with the young princess. When Queen Catherine became pregnant, and her death a real possibility (pregnancy was a leading cause of mortality among 16th century women) the Admiral schemed to secretly marry the young heiress, which was a crime. Someone of Elizabeth’s royal stature could only marry with approval of the king. But Seymour’s schemes were discovered and he was eventually executed for treason. Elizabeth was also detained and interrogated over this matter, but King Edward’s men could never prove she was complicit in the Admiral’s plans.
Edward Courtenay was a descendant of Edward IV, and had his own, albeit weaker, claim to the throne. Henry VIII had imprisoned him at the age of 12 because of his family’s involvement in the northern rebellion of 1538. He had spent most of his life in the tower until Queen Mary released him in 1553 at the age of 27.
As a young woman under her sister Mary’s reign, there was a substantial movement to marry Elizabeth to Edward Courtenay. Supporters of this match hoped to unite the two branches of dynastic lineage into one. If Mary provided no male heir, than it was hoped that this match would. But Mary would have none of it. Perhaps she did not wish her sister any personal happiness. Or perhaps, she feared a focused threat to her reign by uniting these two contenders to the throne. The marriage never took place, and Courtenay was to die while traveling in Italy in 1556, leaving no heirs.
Prince Philip of Spain
Mary’s marriage to Prince Philip of Spain, while disastrous for the country, was beneficial to Elizabeth. Philip’s influence at Mary’s court tempered Mary’s anger toward Elizabeth. He often interceded on Elizabeth’s behalf, persuading leniency over harshness. It was Philip who arranged for Elizabeth to be released from house arrest and returned to court. But, the animosity between the two sisters made tensions at court high, and Elizabeth eventually returned to Hatfield.
Philip’s interest in Elizabeth is often debated. Some believe he had romantic interests in Elizabeth herself. As the much younger sister, she perhaps presented a second chance at keeping hold of England in light of Mary’s apparent inability to bear a child.
But whether or not Philip was personally interested in Elizabeth, he definitely was interested in arranging a Spanish marriage, as this too would secure England as an ally after Mary’s death. Philip proposed a couple of Spanish unions for Elizabeth, all of which were opposed by Mary. Although Elizabeth held a good opinion of Philip—his intercessions on her behalf were not forgotten—England’s relations with Spain were never to recover from the animosity that developed during Mary and Philip’s reign.
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester
Had Elizabeth been free to marry anyone she pleased, she almost certainly would have chosen Robert Dudley. He was a childhood friend, a lifelong confidant, a loyal advisor, and almost certainly the love of her life.
Robert Dudley was the son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, the second Lord Protector during King Edward VI’s reign, and a lead conspirator in the Jane Grey plot. That’s quite a resume. Northumberland and his son Guildford (Jane Grey’s husband) had been executed as a result of their involvement in trying to place Jane Grey on the throne. Robert had also been imprisoned at that time (as had Elizabeth) but was eventually pardoned by Queen Mary. He later served in Queen Mary’s service in Philip’s war with France including fighting at the fall of Calais.
As Elizabeth ascended to the throne, so also did Robert ascend at court. Before her coronation he was appointed Elizabeth’s Master of the Horse and among other things, helped plan her coronation parade and service. The attainder against his family (because of his father’s traitorous behavior) was lifted. He was placed on Elizabeth’s Privy Council and throughout her reign received ever escalating titles and holdings, including Knight of the Garter and finally Earl of Leicester. Throughout his life, Robert Dudley would serve as one of Elizabeth’s closest advisors and confidants, often delivering the bad news no one else wanted to give.
Dudley was also the focus of his enemies’ conspiracies against him—and his enemies were many. The English Court was a hotbed of ambitious, powerful men trying to gain more favor and more power. Anyone who stood in their way was a target to be taken down, and Dudley was often in their way. It was to Dudley’s good fortune that Elizabeth, unlike her father, never forsook her friends. From time to time he, too, would fall out of her favor. But she valued and depended on his company and friendship. He was always forgiven and asked back to court.
Because of their close friendship, the Queen and Dudley were often the focus of romantic whisperings, at the English court and at foreign courts as well. And it is true there was real affection between them. Despite her aversion to marriage, Elizabeth might have married Dudley had it been feasible. But like her sister, she was reluctant to raise a subject so high. She too believed that if she married, it should be to a fellow royal.
Although they never married, Dudley and Elizabeth’s friendship lasted until “death do us part”. Leicester died shortly after the Armada battle, most likely of stomach cancer, in September of 1588.
Charles, Archduke of Austria
The Archduke of Austria was the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (Ferdinand was brother to Charles who had abdicated in 1556). Of all of Elizabeth’s foreign suitors, he was the most suitable candidate for a royal marriage. They were of similar age and royal rank. Marrying the Archduke would have created an alliance with the Holy Royal Emperor. But he was Catholic––a devout Catholic. An alliance with such pro-Catholic forces would have been unpopular with Elizabeth’s subjects and potentially disadvantageous to England’s autonomy in Europe. With the wounds of Mary’s foreign marriage still fresh, Elizabeth never seriously considered this match (though she did string him along).
William, Duke of Orange
A marriage with the Duke of Orange would have made the most sense for Elizabeth and England, and probably the only one that would have been accepted by her subjects. As the leader of the Low Countries (Netherlands), the Duke did not bring great power or wealth to the marriage but he would have been a good ally for England. The two nations would have created a common northern military front against Spain’s encroachment throughout Europe.
England and the Low Countries were also historical trading partners and negotiating a diplomatic marriage would have strengthened national ties. It’s also possibly the only foreign union in which England was in a superior negotiating position.
And unlike most foreign rulers, the Duke was Protestant. The stars seemed to be aligned for this match. The Duke even traveled to England to propose, an unprecedented gesture for a leader of his rank, and shows the eagerness with which he sought this union.
But, as with all her other suitors, Elizabeth kept him waiting until his unanswered proposal became humiliating for a royal of his station. He eventually withdrew his proposal. The Duke was assassinated in July 1584 during the wars with Spain.
The Dukes of Anjou
During her lifetime, Elizabeth negotiated a marriage pact with not just one, but two princes of France. Both were the sons of the formidable Catherine de Medici. Elizabeth was older than both, and considerably older than the younger, with whom she met and seriously considered in marriage.
The first Duke of Anjou went on to be King Charles IX of France. He was, at any rate, a staunch catholic and not at all amiable to the idea of marriage with the Protestant queen.
His younger brother, originally Duke of Aloncon, became the Duke of Anjou when his brother became king. He was not nearly as religious as his brother. During the treaty negotiations he actually came to England to meet his possible bride, and there was real affection between them.
While the age difference might make this match seem farcical to a modern age—there were 21 years between them––the match was considered seriously by Elizabeth and her advisors (although the age difference did raise eyebrows). At 47, Elizabeth was at the outer age of the probable conception of a Tudor heir, but it was still a possibility however remote. Perhaps more important to her advisors at this point was the need to secure a diplomatic treaty with France in alliance against Spain.
As usual Elizabeth balked when negotiations became serious––her fear of marriage stronger than her longing for companionship. At any rate, it was her subjects who killed the deal. France was the ancient enemy of England, and marriage with a Catholic French prince did not sit well with them. When a Protestant evangelical published a tract in protest against the marriage, he was arrested and Elizabeth publicly had his hand cut off.
But despite this defiance, Elizabeth did bow to public pressure. There were too many obstacles to overcome in negotiating this marriage. At any rate, England got her treaty with France without the marriage.
As for the Duke, he met the same fate as all of Catherine de Medici’s sons, an untimely death. The Duke was killed fighting in the Low Countries war against Spain.
The failure of this marriage negotiation represented the last viable option for Elizabeth to marry and produce an heir.