Strange Bedfellows: The Mooted Marriage Between Elizabeth I and James VI

by Steven Veerapen

Few people’s love lives have been as closely scrutinised, commented upon, and fictionalised as Queen Elizabeth I. Entire volumes have been written about her suitors. The hapless band of luminaries who, at one point or another, sought her hand includes her great favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; her greatest enemy, Philip II of Spain; the ill-starred Eric XIV of Sweden; and her ‘frog’, the Duke of Anjou. Yet there is one who has received little attention.

      England’s old enemy, Scotland, was not slow to suggest candidates for the role of Elizabeth’s consort. Early in her reign, when Scotland was being torn apart by Anglophilic religious reformers and Francophilic Catholics, the Earl of Arran was proposed as a suitable match. This scion of the Hamilton family – whose side-switching patriarch was argued as heir presumptive to the Scottish throne – represented the hope of the reformers, whose goal was to ensure Scotland’s future as a Protestant state allied staunchly with England. In a few short years, the reformers would win, pushing through the Scottish Reformation when the beleaguered Regent Mary of Guise died. However, Arran would not profit by marriage. Elizabeth refused his suit, preferring instead to influence Scottish affairs by mischief, money, and diplomacy. His insanity, which eventually broke all restraint, hardly helped. Under Mary of Guise’s daughter, Mary Stuart, it resulted in his imprisonment.

      Whilst Mary Queen of Scots’s colourful marital history brought about her downfall and captivity in a succession of English country houses and castles, Elizabeth’s single status ensured that she remained first prize on the international marriage market for decades. Yet the English Queen had never been inclined to marriage. Elizabeth had voiced her intentions with regard to the institution as early as 1559. Speaking to the House of Commons, she declared and, in the end, 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.

The House of Commons did not listen. Neither did the Queen’s ministers. Neither did the princes of Europe. It was, after all, the first duty of a monarch to secure the succession. Realising that speculation about – and demands for – her marriage would continue regardless, Elizabeth decided to play the marriage game for all it was worth, coyly acknowledging that though a single life was her preference, she might well be induced to take a husband. The consequence was a parade of suitors, each with his eye not on the ageing Queen but on England’s crown.

      Generally, historians have recognized that the increasingly farcical charade ended in the early 1580s, when the Queen passed childbearing age and the Duke of Anjou sailed out of her life. At his going, she famously penned a poem: ‘On Monsieur’s Departure’. This melancholic verse provided a meditation on her queenship: a position to which she had devoted herself at the expense of personal happiness. In most biographies of the Queen, the Anjou courtship is held up as the last of her marriage games (which, in a sense, it was, as far as realistic prospects go).

      Yet Monsieur was not, in fact, the last candidate thrust forward.

      Throughout her reign, Elizabeth had grappled with the problem of Scotland. Unlike her father, she had no delusions of owning or having any right to govern the country as its suzerain (the myth of English suzerainty being one Henry VIII peddled, whenever the mood struck him, in the teeth of Scotland’s hundreds of years of hard-won autonomy). Much to her credit, the Queen was continually averse to claiming authority over nations and territories which did not pertain to the English crown (though, on the debit side, she was quixotically fervent in her desire to press English dominion over lands she believed did, such as Ireland and Calais). 

      All Elizabeth wanted was a friendly, Protestant Scotland – independent, to be sure, but unlikely to act too independently. Luckily, in Anglo-Scottish negotiations, she held the trump card. Her unmarried status left the question of the English succession open, and dynastic history meant that the Scottish Stuarts (or Stewarts) had a strong claim to be her successors. This was a claim which kept Mary Queen of Scots – most of the time – in amity with England (Mary’s Catholicism notwithstanding). So too did it ensure that Mary’s son, James, who was thrust on to the throne by the coterie of Protestants who had rebelled against his mother, was in the invidious position of seeking a foreign power’s approval to gain a second throne. Elizabeth had no need to conquer Scotland when she could interfere in its running with alacrity, using the carrot of the English succession and the stick of hard lectures delivered from the position of an older, more experienced sovereign.

      James is one of the most interesting monarchs to ever have occupied a British throne. A highly-educated know-it-all, he cared nothing at all for what people thought of him; he lived a life of open bisexuality, loved indiscriminately, bore vengeful grudges, and spent wildly (his favourite adornments being fabulous jewels). As is well known, he married, in 1589: his choice was the tall and attractive Anna, second daughter of Frederick II of Denmark and his redoubtable wife Sophie. However, before he made his choice and sailed to Norway to claim his young bride, the question of whom he would marry had been as much debated in the courts of Europe as Elizabeth’s choice of husband.

      And, rather surprisingly, one of his potential brides was his English cousin.

      James’s youth had not been easy. In the early 1580s, he had been seduced – we would now say ‘groomed’ or ‘abused’ – by his older cousin, the French-born Esmé Stuart, whom he ennobled as the 1st Duke of Lennox. Lennox, who was in his late thirties, had evidently read something of the thirteen-year-old’s sexual tastes on his first coming to Scotland. To the fury of the Scottish Kirk, the Catholic Lennox soon took over the boy-King’s life, reorganizing the royal household along French lines, with himself at its head. Despite giving a show of conversion to Protestantism, which remained Scotland’s official religion, few trusted the Duke. In 1582, James was thus kidnapped in what became known as the ‘Raid of Ruthven’ (so called for one of its ringleaders, the Earl of Ruthven). Lennox was expelled, but James remained in captivity for a year. During this time, the faction of Raiders began, desperately, to formulate some means of securing their own futures. Chief amongst them was a bizarre proposal. In May 1583, they sent delegates to Elizabeth (who had favoured the Ruthven Raid as a means of ridding Scotland of unsuitable French influence). Their suggestion was simple: would she, at forty-nine, be willing to marry her sixteen (going on seventeen) year-old Scottish cousin, thereby taking him off their hands and out of Scotland? Elizabeth, presumably after she had stopped laughing, politely refused, on the grounds that she was accustomed to the single life (she having only just seen off Anjou).

      The matter might have rested there. It is, after all, unlikely that the Raiders (or Lords Enterprisers, as they called themselves) consulted James on this match. It would therefore be nothing more than a curious historical footnote: not Anjou but King James VI was Elizabeth’s last suitor.

      But it did not end there.

      The mid-1580s, at least in Britain, is known chiefly for two things: the religious tensions which led to Mary Queen of Scots’s execution at Fotheringhay, and the Spanish Armada. It was the former which led to a grim resurrection of the James-Elizabeth marriage question.

      By 1586, James had decisively abandoned the mother whom he had never really known. Whilst earlier in the decade – under Lennox’s influence – he had toyed with the idea of her return to Scotland (under conditions), by the middle of the decade he had been bribed by Elizabeth’s agents to leave his mother imprisoned. Rather than having to house a difficult Catholic mother, he instead achieved a new Anglo-Scottish Treaty and an English pension (or ‘annuity’ as he preferred to term it). This left Elizabeth’s spymasters Walsingham and Burghley free to finally achieve their goal of ridding England of Mary by means of the executioner’s block. Conveniently, channels of communication were opened to the hapless Scottish Queen, and persuasive double agents were induced to work up plots in which she could be implicated. The trap was sprung and Mary, by this time a dropsical and sad figure, cut off from most of the world, was caught.

      This was deeply troubling to James. As much as he did not wish his mother sharing his throne, he certainly did not want her executed like a criminal by a country with whom he had just signed an alliance; he quaked at the thought of what his subjects might do if he allowed Mary to be killed by a nation which still appeared, in many eyes, to be ‘the auld enemy’. Nor did Elizabeth want Mary’s blood on her hands – she would have much preferred the Scottish Queen to have been quietly murdered by a convenient scapegoat. Even accused, Mary Queen of Scots was a source of problems to those in power north and south of the border.

      Obviously, on hearing that his mother was to be tried, James was required to send some form of representation south. His choice was Archibald Douglas, the man who (though James probably did not know it) had suffocated his father, Darnley, before going on to become a spy for Walsingham. Hidden among Douglas’s instructions was a request to make a proposal of marriage between James and Elizabeth: a revival of the Lords Enterprisers’ offer back in 1583. 

      Such a marriage – between a twenty-year-old King hoping for heirs and his post-menopausal fifty-two-year-old cousin – would have been as fruitless in 1586 as is had been three years prior. Almost certainly, the proposal was simply a tasteless attempt on the part of a desperate James to create a last-minute diplomatic distraction and thereby halt proceedings against his mother (who would, if such a match had come to pass, have become Elizabeth’s mother-in-law, despite being younger and a prisoner awaiting condemnation). Naturally, the offer – if it was ever officially made by Douglas – was again turned down. Proceedings continued apace and, despite further diplomatic attempts to prevent the execution (James’s preferred solution was for Mary to be kept in stricter confinement, with sureties placed for her future good behaviour), the Scottish Queen went to the block in February 1587. Elizabeth immediately denied all knowledge of what she called a ‘miserable accident’. James, in genuine panic, cut off relations with England upon hearing the news, refusing even to let Elizabeth’s ambassador enter his country.

      Yet the allure of the much-promised recognition of the Stuart succession rights proved to be too tempting. Relations were restored, with the King choosing to accept Elizabeth’s flimsy assurances that Mary’s execution had been against her will. James, for his part, would never receive anything official from Elizabeth regarding his succession and, in the end, he never needed it; all he needed was the administrative genius of the English Queen’s last secretary, Robert Cecil, son of the Burghley who had engineered Mary’s fate. Nor, of course, did James need to wed his cousin.

      Nevertheless, the offer was made not once but twice. Elizabeth’s history of suitors ended not with a French Duke, but with a Scottish King.


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