One of the most serious criticisms of Elizabeth I’s reign of England was her failure both to marry and produce, or indeed name, an heir. Her father had been so adamant to produce an heir (and preferably a male one) that he had established the Church of England, at least in part, to stand a better chance at getting one. Yet as time passed and Elizabeth’s years progressed beyond those at which she could realistically hope to produce an heir, the problem of succession undoubtedly began to occupy an uncomfortable position in the back of even the most optimistic courtier’s mind.
Marriage was important for a variety of reasons, ranging from foreign alliances to religious policy, but by far the most significant was the production of an heir and the guarantee of a clear line of succession. Had Elizabeth produced offspring with a husband, even if a controversial one, there would be little chance of a strong challenge to the Tudor line of succession. The failure of the 1553 ‘Devise for the Succession’ had demonstrated as much by failing to establish Lady Jane Grey as Queen of England, her reign famously lasting for a measly nine days.
The primary reason for Elizabeth’s decision not to marry can be lumped under the nebulous term ‘politics’. This is only to say that the reason wasn’t simply personal romantic disillusionment with suitors, of which there were many. It’s difficult to answer the question of whether Elizabeth would have been willing to marry — for political reasons — someone she didn’t really love, since we can’t get inside her head. To conclude that she definitely would robs her of some agency and underestimates her, yet to conclude that she never would risks ignoring her ability to successfully sail the often treacherous political seas of early modern England. In fact, far from a political failure, her decision not to marry or name an heir may have been one of her greatest political finesses, albeit a risky one.
Religion was probably the primary factor behind Elizabeth’s decision not to marry. Elizabeth was herself a Protestant, famously so, as were many of her closest advisors. Thus, marriage to a Catholic such as the Duke of Anjou — who Elizabeth seems to have been very close with — was pretty much impossible. Many of her other suitors were also undesirable for broader political reasons. To marry a foreign ruler, or an heir to one, came with diplomatic implications which weren’t always desirable and risked leading to English subjugation on an international level if her husband exercised influence over its Queen. Elizabeth was also a strong and ambitious leader who would no doubt have worried that any marriage — but especially a foreign one — could lead to an erosion of her power. Yet, marrying an Englishman was also not an easy decision. Such a marriage lacked international prestige but more importantly brought with it the dangers of factional infighting in her court, as many suitors were unpopular with members of her court.
Her most famous favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was married when Elizabeth ascended to the throne and although the death of his wife, Amy Robsart, in 1560 made him an eligible bachelor, the suspicions of his involvement in it made him a controversial figure who Elizabeth could not marry. Basically, there was no one Elizabeth genuinely wanted to marry and could marry without angering powerful members of her court.
Historian Penry Williams argues that had Elizabeth died ‘at any time before the execution of Mary Stuart in 1587, the most probable outcome would have been civil war.’ It’s hard to deny that this is true to a degree. Between the arrival of Mary, Queen of Scots into England in 1567 and her death in 1587, Elizabeth’s death would have most likely seen armed conflict between Catholics supporting Mary’s claim to the throne as Elizabeth’s first cousin once removed and Protestants opponents. Her death between 1558 and 1567 would have had similar implications but the outcome would likely have been less severe and Elizabeth’s brush with death after catching smallpox in 1562 had come close to making them a reality.
Williams’ conclusion that Elizabeth was fortunate to ‘live as long as she did until the problem had almost solved itself’ is certainly correct insofar as Elizabeth’s death only two decades earlier would have been catastrophic but omits some important considerations. Firstly, Robert Cecil and other administrators had been communicating with James VI (the future King James I of England) since 1601 and, although it was kept secret, had agreed — along with Elizabeth — that James would succeed Elizabeth. There’s no reason to doubt that such negotiations would not have begun earlier had Elizabeth’s health deteriorated at a younger age.
Secondly, Elizabeth’s decision not to marry or name an heir was not simply a lack of decision but rather a political choice in itself. Elizabeth certainly could have married Anjou, Dudley, or the Earl of Essex, but such a decision would have had political, religious, and personal consequences which Elizabeth clearly — and justifiably — considered worse than simply not marrying. In fact, even if not altogether desirable, her status as an unmarried ruler allowed her to entertain marriage with foreign rulers, resulting in diplomatic benefits. Similarly, Elizabeth could have named an heir publicly in James I or any person legitimized by her father’s will, such as William Stanley or his brother Ferdinando, although he died in 1594. Her choice not to name an heir helped guarantee her own safety as such an heir (or their supporters) would have reason to depose her and the safety of the potential heir, who would undeniably become a target, as well as evading the political and religious controversy that would inevitably ensue. In this light, the reasons for Elizabeth’s lack of marriage are clear: any potential suitor was diplomatically disagreeable, religiously repugnant, or lacked her personal preference.
At worst, Elizabeth’s decision not to marry or name an heir was one of strategic indecision: waiting for the problem to go away is certainly not the worst decision if there’s a reasonable chance that it will. At best, Elizabeth’s decisions were deliberate and politically intelligent, minimising potential conflict at a time where it was not only her death which could have sparked civil war but also her choice of a husband or her naming of an heir.