Elizabeth I, the ‘estate of marriage’, and the 1559 Parliament

To mark Women’s History Month, Dr Paul Hunneyball, assistant editor of our Lords 1558-1603 section, recalls the first public statement by the ‘Virgin Queen’ that she had no plans to marry, and the incomprehension with which her (male) subjects reacted…

The first Parliament summoned by Elizabeth I opened on 25 January 1559 with a packed agenda. Urgent business in the opening days included a new settlement for the Church of England, and a bill recognising the Queen’s right to the throne, a sensitive topic given her periodic removal from the royal line of succession and her supposed illegitimacy – the fruits of her tumultuous early life. However, once the formalities of the state opening were completed, it took just four sittings before another issue entirely was raised in the House of Commons, one which Elizabeth herself did not wish to be discussed. As the Journal records on 4 February, there were ‘arguments that a request may be made to the Queen’s Highness for marriage’ (Journals of the House of Commons, i. 54). The genesis and course of this debate is shrouded in mystery, but it was most likely prompted by some of Elizabeth’s own councillors behind her back, and the subject-matter was of great concern to the assembled Members.

There were of course pressing reasons of state for wanting to know the Queen’s matrimonial intentions. Although Elizabeth’s accession in November 1558 had been accepted without question by the vast majority of her new subjects, she was the last of Henry VIII’s offspring, and so long as she remained childless, the future of her dynasty and the stability of the realm itself were in doubt. After more than a decade of political and religious upheaval in England, this continuing uncertainty was deeply unwelcome. Moreover, the most credible potential successor at this juncture was her young cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, a staunch Catholic, and this fact posed a serious threat for the Protestants in Parliament who were now engaged in shaping the Elizabethan religious settlement. As things stood, there was no convincing Protestant heir to the throne unless Elizabeth herself married and had children.

Admittedly, the marriage of her sister and predecessor, Mary I, had ended childless, so this wasn’t a guaranteed solution. Also, Mary’s consort, Philip of Spain, had drawn England into a disastrous war with France which culminated in the loss of Calais, the country’s last possession on the Continent. However, that fact was viewed as an argument in favour of Elizabeth marrying an Englishman, rather than in any sense diminishing the belief that she needed a husband.

Beyond these considerations, there was another deep-seated prejudice which went unspoken. In Tudor England, it was taken for granted that a woman of Elizabeth’s age should be married. The social order, hallowed by custom and endorsed by the Bible, was built around a framework where men were the authority figures, and their wives’ primary roles were childbearing and household management. A wealthy widow might enjoy a high degree of independence, but in the eyes of the law married women were to all intents and purposes their husbands’ property. Accordingly, for the male population at least, the existence of a head of state who was female, unmarried, and the mistress of her own destiny, was at the very least unsettling, and in a real sense a challenge to the norms of society. The radical Protestant John Knox had stirred up controversy just a year earlier with his outspoken book, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstruous Regiment of Women, an uncompromising denunciation of the very notion of women rulers. Few Englishmen were brave enough to echo Knox’s sentiments, but there was little doubt that a married Queen would be more palatable to them.

Queen Elizabeth I
Unknown English artist c 1600 (copy of lost original, c 1559)
NPG 5175

Thus it was that on 6 February 1559, the Commons agreed to send a delegation of its Members to ‘make request to her Highness for marriage’. The text of their petition has not survived, but seems to have been a fairly general plea for Elizabeth to take this step as she saw fit. Another four days passed before her reply was delivered via the Speaker, Sir Thomas Gargrave, and it must have taken the House by surprise. There were of course the expected flowery civilities, the Queen thanking Members for their great care of her and the realm, and noting with approval that they had not breached her prerogative by suggesting who she should marry.  However, she wasted no time in affirming that she was single because she preferred to be: ‘from my [first] years of understanding…, I happily chose this kind of life in which I yet live, which I assure you … hath hitherto best contented myself and I trust hath been most acceptable to God.’ She’d had opportunities to marry, but had consciously opted not to take them; ‘if any of these … could have drawn or dissuaded me from this kind of life, I had not now remained in this estate wherein you see me.’ Elizabeth acknowledged Members’ concerns about the succession, and promised that if she should happen to marry, she would choose a man ‘as careful for the preservation of the realm and you as myself’. However, she studiously avoided committing herself to such a marriage, merely affirming that she would ensure the kingdom passed in due course to a suitable heir. In conclusion, she observed: ‘this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin’. (Simonds D’Ewes, Journals of all the Parliaments during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth (1682), 46)

This was not what the Commons wanted to hear. For form’s sake, it was noted in the Journal that Elizabeth’s message had caused Members great ‘contentation’; but just five days later, the House requested a conference with the Lords to debate ‘the authority of that person whom it shall please the Queen to take to husband’ (Commons’ Journal, i. 54). That can only mean that Members didn’t take Elizabeth’s statement seriously, or thought that it should be ignored. A meeting was agreed, but the business proceeded no further. Either Elizabeth herself intervened to block discussion, or the peers recognised that nothing more could be achieved at this juncture.

And so the stage was set for the arguments over the succession and the Queen’s failure to marry which marked most subsequent parliaments during her reign. Elizabeth herself skilfully exploited the diplomatic opportunities which her spinster status afforded her, and indeed enjoyed the romantic manoeuvrings, but never committed herself to any one man. Her subjects consistently failed to appreciate the benefits of this behaviour, even if the ‘Virgin Queen’ ultimately became an iconic symbol of English freedom. But the fact remains that Elizabeth set out her intentions very clearly just months after her accession. The fault lay with her audience, which was unable to accept such a radical and unconventional message.

PMH

Further reading:

G.R. Elton, The Parliament of England 1559-1581 (1986)

Maria Perry, The Word of a Prince: a Life of Elizabeth I from Contemporary Documents (1990)

Anne Laurence, Women in England 1500-1760: a Social History (1994

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