History has many romantic stories to tell of the part which women
have played in determining the destinies of nations. Sometimes it is
a woman's beauty that causes the shifting of a province. Again it is
another woman's rich possessions that incite invasion and lead to bloody
wars. Marriages or dowries, or the refusal of marriages and the lack
of dowries, inheritance through an heiress, the failure of a male
succession--in these and in many other ways women have set their mark
indelibly upon the trend of history.
However, if we look over these different events we shall find that it
is not so much the mere longing for a woman--the desire to have her as a
queen--that has seriously affected the annals of any nation. Kings, like
ordinary men, have paid their suit and then have ridden away repulsed,
yet not seriously dejected. Most royal marriages are made either to
secure the succession to a throne by a legitimate line of heirs or else
to unite adjoining states and make a powerful kingdom out of two that
are less powerful. But, as a rule, kings have found greater delight in
some sheltered bower remote from courts than in the castled halls and
well-cared-for nooks where their own wives and children have been reared
with all the appurtenances of legitimacy.
There are not many stories that hang persistently about the love-making
of a single woman. In the case of one or another we may find an episode
or two--something dashing, something spirited or striking, something
brilliant and exhilarating, or something sad. But for a woman's whole
life to be spent in courtship that meant nothing and that was only a
clever aid to diplomacy--this is surely an unusual and really wonderful
It is the more unusual because the woman herself was not intended by
nature to be wasted upon the cold and cheerless sport of chancellors
and counselors and men who had no thought of her except to use her as
a pawn. She was hot-blooded, descended from a fiery race, and one whose
temper was quick to leap into the passion of a man.
In studying this phase of the long and interesting life of Elizabeth of
England we must notice several important facts. In the first place,
she gave herself, above all else, to the maintenance of England--not an
England that would be half Spanish or half French, or even partly Dutch
and Flemish, but the Merry England of tradition--the England that was
one and undivided, with its growing freedom of thought, its bows and
bills, its nut-brown ale, its sturdy yeomen, and its loyalty to crown
and Parliament. She once said, almost as in an agony:
"I love England more than anything!"
And one may really hold that this was true.
For England she schemed and planned. For England she gave up many of her
royal rights. For England she descended into depths of treachery. For
England she left herself on record as an arrant liar, false, perjured,
yet successful; and because of her success for England's sake her
countrymen will hold her in high remembrance, since her scheming and her
falsehood are the offenses that one pardons most readily in a woman.
In the second place, it must be remembered that Elizabeth's courtships
and pretended love-makings were almost always a part of her diplomacy.
When not a part of her diplomacy they were a mere appendage to her
vanity. To seem to be the flower of the English people, and to be
surrounded by the noblest, the bravest, and the most handsome cavaliers,
not only of her own kingdom, but of others--this was, indeed, a choice
morsel of which she was fond of tasting, even though it meant nothing
beyond the moment.
Finally, though at times she could be very cold, and though she made
herself still colder in order that she might play fast and loose with
foreign suitors who played fast and loose with her--the King of
Spain, the Duc d'Alencon, brother of the French king, with an Austrian
archduke, with a magnificent barbarian prince of Muscovy, with Eric of
Sweden, or any other Scandinavian suitor--she felt a woman's need for
some nearer and more tender association to which she might give freer
play and in which she might feel those deeper emotions without the
danger that arises when love is mingled with diplomacy.
Let us first consider a picture of the woman as she really was in order
that we may understand her triple nature--consummate mistress of every
art that statesmen know, and using at every moment her person as a lure;
a vain-glorious queen who seemed to be the prey of boundless vanity;
and, lastly, a woman who had all a woman's passion, and who could cast
suddenly aside the check and balance which restrained her before the
public gaze and could allow herself to give full play to the emotion
that she inherited from the king, her father, who was himself a marvel
of fire and impetuosity. That the daughter of Henry VIII. and Anne
Boleyn should be a gentle, timid maiden would be to make heredity a
Elizabeth was about twenty-five years of age when she ascended the
throne of England. It is odd that the date of her birth cannot be given
with precision. The intrigues and disturbances of the English court,
and the fact that she was a princess, made her birth a matter of less
account than if there had been no male heir to the throne. At any rate,
when she ascended it, after the deaths of her brother, King Edward
VI., and her sister, Queen Mary, she was a woman well trained both in
intellect and in physical development.
Mr. Martin Hume, who loves to dwell upon the later years of Queen
Elizabeth, speaks rather bitterly of her as a "painted old harridan";
and such she may well have seemed when, at nearly seventy years of age,
she leered and grinned a sort of skeleton smile at the handsome young
courtiers who pretended to see in her the queen of beauty and to be
dying for love of her.
Yet, in her earlier years, when she was young and strong and impetuous,
she deserved far different words than these. The portrait of her by
Zucchero, which now hangs in Hampton Court, depicts her when she must
have been of more than middle age; and still the face is one of beauty,
though it be a strange and almost artificial beauty--one that draws,
attracts, and, perhaps, lures you on against your will.
It is interesting to compare this painting with the frank word-picture
of a certain German agent who was sent to England by his emperor, and
who seems to have been greatly fascinated by Queen Elizabeth. She was at
that time in the prime of her beauty and her power. Her complexion was
of that peculiar transparency which is seen only in the face of golden
blondes. Her figure was fine and graceful, and her wit an accomplishment
that would have made a woman of any rank or time remarkable. The German
She lives a life of such magnificence and feasting as can hardly be
imagined, and occupies a great portion of her time with balls, banquets,
hunting, and similar amusements, with the utmost possible display, but
nevertheless she insists upon far greater respect being shown her than
was exacted by Queen Mary. She summons Parliament, but lets them know
that her orders must be obeyed in any case.
If any one will look at the painting by Zucchero he will see how much is
made of Elizabeth's hands--a distinctive feature quite as noble with the
Tudors as is the "Hapsburg lip" among the descendants of the house of
Austria. These were ungloved, and were very long and white, and she
looked at them and played with them a great deal; and, indeed,
they justified the admiration with which they were regarded by her
Such was the personal appearance of Elizabeth. When a young girl, we
have still more favorable opinions of her that were written by those who
had occasion to be near her. Not only do they record swift glimpses of
her person, but sometimes in a word or two they give an insight into
certain traits of mind which came out prominently in her later years.
It may, perhaps, be well to view her as a woman before we regard her
more fully as a queen. It has been said that Elizabeth inherited many
of the traits of her father--the boldness of spirit, the rapidity of
decision, and, at the same time, the fox-like craft which often showed
itself when it was least expected.
Henry had also, as is well known, a love of the other sex, which has
made his reign memorable. And yet it must be noted that while he loved
much, it was not loose love. Many a king of England, from Henry II. to
Charles II., has offended far more than Henry VIII. Where Henry loved,
he married; and it was the unfortunate result of these royal marriages
that has made him seem unduly fond of women. If, however, we examine
each one of the separate espousals we shall find that he did not enter
into it lightly, and that he broke it off unwillingly. His ardent
temperament, therefore, was checked by a certain rational or
conventional propriety, so that he was by no means a loose liver, as
many would make him out to be.
We must remember this when we recall the charges that have been made
against Elizabeth, and the strange stories that were told of her
tricks--by no means seemly tricks--which she used to play with her
guardian, Lord Thomas Seymour. The antics she performed with him in her
dressing-room were made the subject of an official inquiry; yet it came
out that while Elizabeth was less than sixteen, and Lord Thomas was very
much her senior, his wife was with him on his visits to the chamber of
Sir Robert Tyrwhitt and his wife were also sent to question her,
Tyrwhitt had a keen mind and one well trained to cope with any other's
wit in this sort of cross-examination. Elizabeth was only a girl of
fifteen, yet she was a match for the accomplished courtier in diplomacy
and quick retort. He was sent down to worm out of her everything that
she knew. Threats and flattery and forged letters and false confessions
were tried on her; but they were tried in vain. She would tell nothing
of importance. She denied everything. She sulked, she cried, she availed
herself of a woman's favorite defense in suddenly attacking those who
had attacked her. She brought counter charges against Tyrwhitt, and put
her enemies on their own defense. Not a compromising word could they
wring out of her.
She bitterly complained of the imprisonment of her governess, Mrs.
Ashley, and cried out:
"I have not so behaved that you need put more mistresses upon me!"
Altogether, she was too much for Sir Robert, and he was wise enough to
recognize her cleverness.
"She hath a very good wit," said he, shrewdly; "and nothing is to be
gotten of her except by great policy." And he added: "If I had to say
my fancy, I think it more meet that she should have two governesses than
Mr. Hume notes the fact that after the two servants of the princess had
been examined and had told nothing very serious they found that they
had been wise in remaining friends of the royal girl. No sooner had
Elizabeth become queen than she knighted the man Parry and made him
treasurer of the household, while Mrs. Ashley, the governess, was
treated with great consideration. Thus, very naturally, Mr. Hume says:
"They had probably kept back far more than they told."
Even Tyrwhitt believed that there was a secret compact between them, for
he said, quaintly: "They all sing one song, and she hath set the note
Soon after this her brother Edward's death brought to the throne her
elder sister, Mary, who has harshly become known as Bloody Mary. During
this time Elizabeth put aside her boldness, and became apparently a shy
and simple-minded virgin. Surrounded on every side by those who sought
to trap her, there was nothing in her bearing to make her seem the head
of a party or the young chief of a faction. Nothing could exceed her in
meekness. She spoke of her sister in the humblest terms. She exhibited
no signs of the Tudor animation that was in reality so strong a part of
But, coming to the throne, she threw away her modesty and brawled and
rioted with very little self-restraint. The people as a whole found
little fault with her. She reminded them of her father, the bluff King
Hal; and even those who criticized her did so only partially. They
thought much better of her than they had of her saturnine sister, the
first Queen Mary.
The life of Elizabeth has been very oddly misunderstood, not so much for
the facts in it as for the manner in which these have been arranged and
the relation which they have to one another. We ought to recollect that
this woman did not live in a restricted sphere, that her life was not
a short one, and that it was crowded with incidents and full of vivid
color. Some think of her as living for a short period of time and speak
of the great historical characters who surrounded her as belonging to a
single epoch. To them she has one set of suitors all the time--the Duc
d'Alencon, the King of Denmark's brother, the Prince of Sweden, the
russian potentate, the archduke sending her sweet messages from
Austria, the melancholy King of Spain, together with a number of her
own brilliant Englishmen--Sir William Pickering, Sir Robert Dudley, Lord
Darnley, the Earl of Essex, Sir Philip Sidney, and Sir Walter Raleigh.
Of course, as a matter of fact, Elizabeth lived for nearly seventy
years--almost three-quarters of a century--and in that long time there
came and went both men and women, those whom she had used and cast
aside, with others whom she had also treated with gratitude, and who had
died gladly serving her. But through it all there was a continual change
in her environment, though not in her. The young soldier went to the
battle-field and died; the wise counselor gave her his advice, and
she either took it or cared nothing for it. She herself was a curious
blending of forwardness and folly, of wisdom and wantonness, of
frivolity and unbridled fancy. But through it all she loved her people,
even though she often cheated them and made them pay her taxes in the
harsh old way that prevailed before there was any right save the king's
At the same time, this was only by fits and starts, and on the whole
she served them well. Therefore, to most of them she was always the good
Queen Bess. What mattered it to the ditcher and yeoman, far from the
court, that the queen was said to dance in her nightdress and to swear
like a trooper?
It was, indeed, largely from these rustic sources that such stories were
scattered throughout England. Peasants thought them picturesque. More
to the point with them were peace and prosperity throughout the country,
the fact that law was administered with honesty and justice, and that
England was safe from her deadly enemies--the swarthy Spaniards and the
But, as I said, we must remember always that the Elizabeth of one period
was not the Elizabeth of another, and that the England of one period
was not the England of another. As one thinks of it, there is something
wonderful in the almost star-like way in which this girl flitted
unharmed through a thousand perils. Her own countrymen were at first
divided against her; a score of greedy, avaricious suitors sought her
destruction, or at least her hand to lead her to destruction; all the
great powers of the Continent were either demanding an alliance with
England or threatening to dash England down amid their own dissensions.
What had this girl to play off against such dangers? Only an undaunted
spirit, a scheming mind that knew no scruples, and finally her own
person and the fact that she was a woman, and, therefore, might give
herself in marriage and become the mother of a race of kings.
It was this last weapon, the weapon of her sex, that proved, perhaps,
the most powerful of all. By promising a marriage or by denying it, or
by neither promising nor denying but withholding it, she gave forth a
thousand wily intimations which kept those who surrounded her at bay
until she had made still another deft and skilful combination, escaping
like some startled creature to a new place of safety.
In 1583, when she was fifty years of age, she had reached a point when
her courtships and her pretended love-making were no longer necessary.
She had played Sweden against Denmark, and France against Spain, and the
Austrian archduke against the others, and many suitors in her own land
against the different factions which they headed. She might have sat
herself down to rest; for she could feel that her wisdom had led her
up into a high place, whence she might look down in peace and with
assurance of the tranquillity that she had won. Not yet had the great
Armada rolled and thundered toward the English shores. But she was
certain that her land was secure, compact, and safe.
It remains to see what were those amatory relations which she may be
said to have sincerely held. She had played at love-making with foreign
princes, because it was wise and, for the moment, best. She had played
with Englishmen of rank who aspired to her hand, because in that way she
might conciliate, at one time her Catholic and at another her Protestant
subjects. But what of the real and inward feeling of her heart, when she
was not thinking of political problems or the necessities of state!
This is an interesting question. One may at least seek the answer,
hoping thereby to solve one of the most interesting phases of this
perplexing and most remarkable woman.
It must be remembered that it was not a question of whether Elizabeth
desired marriage. She may have done so as involving a brilliant stroke
of policy. In this sense she may have wished to marry one of the two
French princes who were among her suitors. But even here she hesitated,
and her Parliament disapproved; for by this time England had become
largely Protestant. Again, had she married a French prince and had
children, England might have become an appanage of France.
There is no particular evidence that she had any feeling at all for her
Flemish, Austrian, or Russian suitors, while the Swede's pretensions
were the laughing-stock of the English court. So we may set aside this
question of marriage as having nothing to do with her emotional life.
She did desire a son, as was shown by her passionate outcry when she
compared herself with Mary of Scotland.
"The Queen of Scots has a bonny son, while I am but a barren stock!"
She was too wise to wed a subject; though, had she married at all, her
choice would doubtless have been an Englishman. In this respect, as in
so many others, she was like her father, who chose his numerous wives,
with the exception of the first, from among the English ladies of
the court; just as the showy Edward IV. was happy in marrying "Dame
Elizabeth Woodville." But what a king may do is by no means so easy for
a queen; and a husband is almost certain to assume an authority which
makes him unpopular with the subjects of his wife.
Hence, as said above, we must consider not so much whom she would have
liked to marry, but rather to whom her love went out spontaneously, and
not as a part of that amatory play which amused her from the time when
she frisked with Seymour down to the very last days, when she could no
longer move about, but when she still dabbled her cheeks with rouge and
powder and set her skeleton face amid a forest of ruffs.
There were many whom she cared for after a fashion. She would not let
Sir Walter Raleigh visit her American colonies, because she could not
bear to have him so long away from her. She had great moments of passion
for the Earl of Essex, though in the end she signed his death-warrant
because he was as dominant in spirit as the queen herself.
Readers of Sir Walter Scott's wonderfully picturesque novel, Kenilworth,
will note how he throws the strongest light upon Elizabeth's affection
for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Scott's historical instinct is
united here with a vein of psychology which goes deeper than is usual
with him. We see Elizabeth trying hard to share her favor equally
between two nobles; but the Earl of Essex fails to please her because he
lacked those exquisite manners which made Leicester so great a favorite
with the fastidious queen.
Then, too, the story of Leicester's marriage with Amy Robsart is
something more than a myth, based upon an obscure legend and an ancient
ballad. The earl had had such a wife, and there were sinister stories
about the manner of her death. But it is Scott who invents the
villainous Varney and the bulldog Anthony Foster; just as he brought
the whole episode into the foreground and made it occur at a period much
later than was historically true. Still, Scott felt--and he was imbued
with the spirit and knowledge of that time--a strong conviction that
Elizabeth loved Leicester as she really loved no one else.
There is one interesting fact which goes far to convince us. Just as
her father was, in a way, polygamous, so Elizabeth was even more truly
polyandrous. It was inevitable that she should surround herself with
attractive men, whose love-locks she would caress and whose flatteries
she would greedily accept. To the outward eye there was very little
difference in her treatment of the handsome and daring nobles of her
court; yet a historian of her time makes one very shrewd remark when
he says: "To every one she gave some power at times--to all save
Cecil and Walsingham in counsel and Essex and Raleigh in the field might
have their own way at times, and even share the sovereign's power, but
to Leicester she intrusted no high commands and no important mission.
Why so? Simply because she loved him more than any of the rest; and,
knowing this, she knew that if besides her love she granted him any
measure of control or power, then she would be but half a queen and
would be led either to marry him or else to let him sway her as he
For the reason given, one may say with confidence that, while
Elizabeth's light loves were fleeting, she gave a deep affection to
this handsome, bold, and brilliant Englishman and cherished him in a far
different way from any of the others. This was as near as she ever came
to marriage, and it was this love at least which makes Shakespeare's
famous line as false as it is beautiful, when he describes "the imperial
votaress" as passing by "in maiden meditation, fancy free."