“The Virgin Queen”, by Leanda de Lisle

Editor’s Note: Queenanneboleyn.com is very excited to learn that Leanda de Lisle is completing the “finishing touches” on her new biography White King, The Untold Story of Charles I. This highly anticipated and comprehensive look at England’s tragic Stuart King and his family will release in the United Kingdom on August 31, 2017, by Random House. An American release by Penguin Books is anticipated in January 2018.

If you are seeking an outstanding introduction to the Tudor Dynasty of English History, look no further than Tudor: The Family Story. Do enjoy a short excerpt from Leanda highlighting the origin of Queen Elizabeth Tudor’s sobriquet as “The Virgin Queen”.


The Phoenix Portrait, Nicholas Hilliard


The Virgin Queen

by Leanda de Lisle


Was it better for a Queen who could not marry never to have felt love? In verse Elizabeth begged, ‘let me live with some more sweet content/Or die and so forget what love e’er meant’. Her father, Henry VIII, had feared it would be hard to find a King consort for a Tudor Queen, ‘with whom the whole realm could and would be contented’ as’, and so it had proved. The anxieties she had expressed to the emissary of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1561, that she could not marry without triggering unrest, had deepened following Mary’s disastrous marriages. Elizabeth continued to look publicly for a husband to fulfill national expectations and surely hoped it was not impossible that she might find someone suitable, but in their absence, she had settled for a kind of celibate marriage with Robert Dudley. It was a kind of ‘sweet content’.

People always rushed to see Elizabeth and Dudley together. The antiquarian John Stowe recalled witnessing them meeting once in 1566. Dudley had entered London with a train of seven hundred lords, knights, and gentlemen accompanied by the Queen’s footmen, as well as his own. They had marched from Temple Bar, through the City, across London Bridge into Southwark while the Queen came, ‘secretly.. [across the water] taking a wherry with one pair of oars for her and two other ladies’. When she had landed Elizabeth got into a blue coach and as Dudley and his army reached her on the highway, she came out and greeted him with kisses, before she mounted a horse and they rode on together to Greenwich palace. Later Stowe had watched Dudley return to London in advance of the Queen, the night sky lighting his way with the strange glow of the northern lights.

Nine years later, in 1575, Robert Dudley had prepared a magnificent eighteen days of entertainment for Elizabeth’s visit at his seat at Kenilworth castle in Warwickshire. When the great day came Elizabeth had enjoyed a feast in a specially built pavilion before Dudley rode with her to his castle, the flickering flames of the candles from the windows reflected in the lake and glittering like a vision from a fairy tale. Over the following two and half weeks there had been masques, pageants, and dramas, with the subject of marriage a constant theme. But Elizabeth would turn forty-five in 1578, suitors had come and gone for two decades, and the pretence that she would ever marry was coming to an end.

One last serious discussion of a match was underway with Elizabeth courted by the twenty-four-year old brother of the French King Henri III, the Duke of Anjou. The old friendship with Spain had soured over their religious differences and the piracy of Spanish gold. Elizabeth needed France as a friend, but to England’s beleaguered Catholics the marriage proposal also represented the desperate hope of an end to the increasingly vicious persecution to which they were being subjected. English Catholics reasoned that Elizabeth’s fears about their loyalty would be greatly reduced if she were married to a Catholic, but their hopes for the Anjou marriage were matched by Protestant opposition. These divisions over the Anjou match were to be played out during the royal progress into East Anglia that summer.

As usual a book was drawn up of the proposed route of the progress, which the Queen would then agree, and she picked the clothes she was to wear. Elizabeth’s face now had the square jawline of middle age and her aquiline nose dropped a little at the tip, giving it a hooked appearance. But what she had lost in youth she made up for in the increasing magnificence of her dress. The Spanish style cone shaped skirts of the 1560s had given way in the 1570s to much fuller skirts, thickly embroidered fabrics, and still more elaborate ruffs. Elizabeth did not always remember all the clothes, ruffs and jewels, she needed for each stop of her progress. She once overheard a carter, who was being sent back on a third trip to the Royal Warbrobe, slap his thigh, complaining, ‘Now I see that the Queen is a woman..as well as my wife’. More her Tudors predecessor Elizabeth had a sense of humour, and asking loudly from her window, “What a villain is this?’, she then sent him three coins ‘to stop his mouth’.

The progress of that summer arrived in Norwich on Saturday 16 August 1578 where, amongst the composers of the coming entertainments was a poet called Thomas Churchyard. A principle theme of his shows was to be the virtues of chastity – his patrons were against the Anjou match. He had been rehearsing his shows in Norwich for weeks but he was uncertain when and where his performances could go ahead and the weather was unsettled. When that Monday proved dry Churchyard was determined to seize any opportunity that might arise to put on his opening pageant.

Sometime before supper the Queen was spotted standing at a window with her ladies. As Churchyard’s players swung into action Elizabeth saw an extraordinary coach appear in the gardens beneath her. It was covered with painted birds, naked sprites and had a tower decked with glass jewels and topped with a plume of white feathers. As the coach rattled by a boy dressed as Mercury jumped off, made a leap or two and delivered a speech. The subject was God’s desire to, ‘Find out false hearts, and make of subjects true/ Plant perfect peace, and root up all debate.’ Elizabeth looked pleased (as well she might, tired as she was of debate about who she should marry) – but his show was not over yet.

The next day a friend gave Churchyard advance notice of the path the Queen was taking to dinner. They set up quickly in a field where a crowd was gathering. Churchyard had a whole morality play organised, in which the forces of Cupid, Wantoness and Riot were ranged up against Chastity and her lieutenants, Modesty, Temperance and Shamefastness. When Elizabeth arrived it unfolded before her, in praise of the celibate life. She acknowledged Churchyard’s efforts politely with ‘gracious words’, unaware as yet of the true significance of what she had just witnessed.

The famous phrase, the ‘Virgin Queen’ was coined in the parting pageant on Saturday, but Churchyard’s show in the open field was the first to celebrate Elizabeth as such. The sobriquet associated Elizabeth with the cult of the Virgin Mary and when the Anjou match eventually came to nothing like the others before it, a new iconography was born, with classical as well as Christian associations. A favourite theme in the pictures of Elizabeth that Courtiers commissioned was the classical story of the Vestal Virgin who proved her chastity by carrying water in a sieve from the river Tiber to the temple of Vesta. At least eight pictures survive depicting Elizabeth holding a sieve from the period 1579-83. In several of her portraits icons of empire were included, with the abandonment of the Anjou marriage linked to an aggressive foreign policy in which England would found a Protestant empire. But although these are the images of the great Queen we still remember, behind the icon stood an isolated figure.

Elizabeth is supposed to have written the verses of yearning ‘to live in some more sweet content’ when Anjou left England. But the pain and passion it describes surely found their true inspiration in the man she had truly loved: Robert Dudley.

I grieve and dare not show my discontent,
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate,
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant,
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate.
I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned.

My care is like my shadow in the sun,
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done.
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be supprest.

Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, love, and so be kind.
Let me or float or sink, be high or low.
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die and so forget what love ere meant.1


Queen Elizabeth I; Selected Works (2004) edited Steven W May p 12


Leanda de Lisle

Leanda de Lisle is a renowned journalist and historian who writes articles and book reviews for BBC History Magazine, History Today, the Literary Review, the New Criterion and the Spectator, as well as several national newspapers in the United Kingdom.  Leanda’s first non-fiction book, After Elizabeth: The Death of Elizabeth & the Coming of King James, made a huge impression, a runner-up for the Saltire Society’s First Book of the Year award. Leanda’s book, Tudor; The Family Story (1437-1603), was a top ten bestseller in the United Kingdom and released in the United States, re-titled Tudor: Passion, Manipulation, Murder – The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family for an America audiences. Leanda’s newest highly anticipated biography, White King, The Untold Story of Charles I, will release August 31, 2017.

Fittingly, Leanda lives near Bosworth Battlefield, Bosworth, England. For more information, visit Leanda’s website at LEANDA DE LISLE.






Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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