From the moment Elizabeth became Queen, there was one question that everyone was asking - who will the Queen marry? It was assumed that one of the first things Elizabeth would do, would be to select a husband to help her govern the realm, and more importantly, to get her pregnant. Elizabeth was the last of her dynasty, and it was thought natural that her main concern would be to provide a child to perpetuate the rule of the Tudors. Elizabeth was young, unlike her sister who was already into her late thirties when she became Queen, and there were high hopes that soon England would have a royal family again. Without an heir of the Queen’s body, the future would be uncertain, and many feared that the rival claims of Henry VII’s distant relatives, would plunge the country into a bitter civil war should Elizabeth die without a legitimate child to succeed her. In these early weeks of her reign, the court buzzed with suitors eager for her hand in marriage, and European ambassadors were busy trying to advance the suit of their masters and of their master’s relatives. Elizabeth was then the most sought after woman in Europe. She received offers of marriage from the King of Spain, Prince Eric of Sweden - soon to be king, The Archduke Charles (son of the Emperor Ferdinand), the son of John Frederic Duke of Saxony, The Earl of Arran, the Earl of Arundel, and Sir William Pickering, who was so confident that he would be selected, that he demanded certain privileges be granted him while he stayed at the Court. Elizabeth politely rejected the offer made by King Philip, but allowed the other suitors to remain hopeful, while allowing her advisors to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each match. Yet, the only person, who did not see the urgency for marriage, was Elizabeth herself.
It will never be known whether Elizabeth really intended to marry or not. She showed no enthusiasm for marriage, and declared on a number of occasions that she personally preferred the single life. However, there is a danger to read history backwards and assume that because Elizabeth never married, it was always her intention not to. The marriage of a Queen regnant was a complicated affair, and could be disastrous for the country, as the case of Queen Mary had illustrated. Elizabeth did not want to repeat her sister’s mistake by marrying a man that would not be popular with her people. Any man Elizabeth married would expect a say in the governing of the country and neither Elizabeth or her ministers wanted to relinquish any power over English affairs. For this reason, it was in the best interests of the country for Elizabeth to marry a man who, although of suitable rank and status, was not a major European power, and would be content to be the Queen’s consort only. This effectively ruled out reigning monarchs, although Elizabeth’s ministers gave Eric of Sweden serious consideration.The suit of Eric, a fellow Protestant, was also popular in the country, and when it was rumoured that Elizabeth had accepted his proposal, medals were made in London with a picture of Elizabeth and Eric united on them. But Eric was far from a wealthy monarch, and marriage to him would have brought England little financial benefit, or provided her with a strong European ally. The Archduke Charles was also given serious consideration, and his suit remained a possibility for several years. But as well as the need to consider the demands for power a potential husband would make, it was also necessary to take into consideration his religion, and religion often proved to be a serious bar to the marriage eventually occurring. The Archduke was a Catholic, and as a Catholic, his suit was not popular by the Protestant element in Elizabeth’s Council.
To complicate matters, it seemed that Elizabeth had fallen deeply in love with one of her own subjects, Lord Robert Dudley, her Master of Horse. They had been friends since childhood, and he was one of the few men Elizabeth believed valued her for herself, and not for the fact that she was now Queen. Her marriage to a fellow protestant Englishman would certainly have avoided the problem of foreigners controlling the realm through marriage to the Queen, and avoided a clash over religion, but marriage to a subject also gave rise to serious problems. Competition for power amongst the English nobility was fierce, and if Elizabeth married one noble, his rivals in power would be offended, and possibly withdraw their allegiance from her, and even plunge the country into civil war. Also the match would not be one of equality, and would not provide England with a much needed foreign ally. There were also other considerations that made Dudley particularly unsuitable. To begin with he was already married, having married a young girl called Amy Robsart when he was about seventeen, and secondly he was the son of the much hated Duke of Northumberland who had been executed for treason in the reign of the Queen’s sister, and the grandson of Edmund Dudley, who had likewise met a traitors death earlier in the century. Robert Dudley himself had been imprisoned in the Tower for his involvement in his father’s scheme to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne, and was regarded with suspicion by his fellow Englishman. Elizabeth's attachment to him, however, seemed unrelenting, and it was feared by many that he would seek an annulment from his wife, and marry the Queen. Whether Elizabeth seriously intended marrying him or not, is another of the many mysteries of her reign, but the sudden death of Dudley’s wife in the September of 1560, put to an end any real hope of marrying him that she may have entertained. The relationship between the Queen and her Horse Master had long been the subject of speculation amongst her people and in Europe, and malicious gossip had circulated the idea that Dudley was going to murder his wife so that he could marry Elizabeth. Amy was found dead at the bottom of a narrow staircase, her neck broken, and many believed that her death was not an unfortunate accident. Dudley was widely suspected to be responsible for her death, despite the fact that the Inquest declared it to be an accident, and had Elizabeth married him, many more would have believed the ugly rumours circulating about him, and perhaps even that Elizabeth herself had been involved. But despite the bar Amy’s death made to their marriage, for the next ten years, Dudley was still the most likely candidate for her hand, and her advisors reluctantly had to acknowledge this fact.
The only other serious contender for Elizabeth’s hand was Francis, Duke of Alencon, later Duke of Anjou. He was the son of Catherine de Medici, Queen Mother of France, and a brother to the French King. His courtship did not gain serious consideration until the 1570’s, as he was considerably younger than Elizabeth herself, and the negotiations were entirely based on the mutual need of England and France to make an ally of each other. The traditional European alliance system whereby England was united with Spain was rapidly deteriorating, and England needed the support of France if she was to protect herself against Spain. The French were Catholic as well, but did not appear to be as hostile to English Protestantism as the Spanish were. Alencon himself was also known to have a sympathy with the French Protestants and was not as adverse to marrying a Protestant Queen as his older brother, now king, had been. For a decade, negotiations for the hand of Alencon played a prominent part in English politics. The negotiations were temporarily discontinued following the Bartholomew Massacre, in which an estimated six thousand French Protestants, including women and children, were killed, but were soon continued when the need for an ally was pressing again. This was by far the most serious foreign courtship of Elizabeth’s reign, and it seemed certain for a while that Elizabeth would indeed marry him. Francis even came to England for Elizabeth to meet him, and it seemed that the Queen was quite taken with the Frenchman, who she called “frog”, despite the fact that he was not as good looking as some of her suitors had been, and was reputedly disfigured from an attack of the small pox. Elizabeth announced before some of her courtiers that she would marry him, kissed him, and gave him a ring. This pleased those eager for her marriage, but alarmed those who did not want their Queen married to a French Catholic. The political elite appeared divided. There were those who supported the marriage such as William Cecil and Thomas Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, and those who were ardently opposed such as Robert Dudley, now Earl of Leicester. A man named John Stubbes wrote a pamphlet warning the Queen against the marriage, for which he had his right hand cut off, and Sir Philip Sidney, the famous poet, wrote her a letter advising her against it. Once again, politics and religion was making it difficult for the Queen to marry. Elizabeth was in a difficult situation. If she married, then she risked her popularity and support for her regime, but she was now in her late forties, and if she did not marry Alencon, then this could be her last chance at marriage, and having a child to succeed her to the throne. Elizabeth appears to have felt this deeply, and on one occasion when her Council was debating the pros and cons of the marriage, she broke down and wept. The ultimate decision as to whether she married or not, lay with Elizabeth herself, but without the solid backing of the country, marriage would not have been wise. No one knows if marriage was what Elizabeth really wanted. The Alencon courtship had caused lot of problems within the court and country, and on top of that, Elizabeth learnt that Dudley had married her cousin, Lettice Devereux, Countess of Essex. While the story that he kept the marriage a secret from her for a year is probably apocryphal, Elizabeth still felt a sense of betrayal at his marriage and this may have been a factor in her apparent desire to marry Alencon. But after ten years, the Alencon match was finally laid to rest. Elizabeth’s fears of marriage once again began to surface, and the political problems the marriage would cause, made it seem impractical.
For over twenty years, the most eligible men in Europe had courted Elizabeth. The “marriage game” had come to be an important part of foreign relations, and a valuable asset to the country. When it seemed that England was losing friends, or in times when England needed friends, all Elizabeth had to do was suggest marriage to the respective countries, and regardless of whether she intended to marry or not, the prospect of marriage to the English Queen was too big a bait to resist, and Elizabeth could be assured of their support for the foreseeable future. But now that Elizabeth was approaching fifty years of age, and could no longer realistically expect to bear a child, she could no longer use her marriage as a diplomatic weapon. The Alencon courtship was her last political courtship. It was certain now that Elizabeth would never marry. Her statesmen must have been relieved that the often grueling negotiations for her hand were over, but the dangers the lack of an heir posed could not be ignored, and must have weighed heavily on the minds of her more far-sighted advisors.
The woman who early in her reign had declared that it would please her immensely if on her grave it was written“ A queen having lived and reigned such and such a time, lived and died a virgin” would have her wish come true, and be known for ever more as “The Virgin Queen”.
This list gives the names of the principal suitors to the Queen over the course of her life. Some individuals appear more than once as their suit was considered and reconsidered. Those suitors that were given serious consideration by the Queen's government or whose desire for her hand in marriage had a profound influence upon the Queen's personal and political life, have been highlighted.
1534 Duke of Angoulme (third son of Francis I)
c1542 A Prince of Portugal
1543 Son of the Earl of Arran
1544 Prince Philip (Philip II)
1547 Sir Thomas Seymour
1552 Prince of Denmark
1553 Courtenay, Earl of Devonshire
1554 Philibert Emanuel, Duke of Savoy
1554 Prince of Denmark
1556 Prince Eric of Sweden
1556 Don carlos (son of Philip II)
1559 Philip II
1559 Prince Eric of Sweden
1559 Son of John Frederic, Duke of Saxony
1559 Sir William Pickering
1559 Earl of Arran
1559 Henry Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel
1559 Robert Dudley
1560 King Eric of Sweden
1560 Adolphus, Duke of Holstein
1560 King Charles IX
1560 Henry, Duke of Anjou
1566 Robert Dudley
1568 Archduke Charles
1570 Henry Duke of Anjou
1572- 1585 Francis, Duke of Alencon, later Anjou.