The Secret Lives of Elizabeth’s Ladies (Guest Post)

Guest Post by Sarah Clement

If the ladies of the Elizabethan court thought her accession would provide them with rare opportunities to involve themselves politically, they would be disappointed. Whereas, while male courtiers had traditionally found themselves at the centre of political life, it was now the ladies who controlled access to the monarch and naturally surrounded her. In theory, they could put across their opinions on the state of the realm, advise the Queen on what to do, and determine whose cases should be presented to her, for some reward of course. The reality, however, was quite different. Elizabeth forbade her ladies to discuss politics with her. While they were able to assist their friends at court (through small acts of patronage or by reporting on their mistress’ moods), they played a minute role on the English political stage, though Elizabeth was not above using them as pawns for her own political ends.

Elizabeth’s treatment of her ladies was not much better beyond the political scope. Those appointed to salaried positions found their income lower than might have been expected, though this was supplemented with gifts of clothing or jewellery from the Queen when she saw fit to bestow them. Although they received bed and board as well as their wages, their living conditions were often cramped and unpleasant. This was especially true when on progress, finding themselves in hastily arranged accommodation; sometimes this could extend to temporary beds in a recently cleared barn. As well as this, Elizabeth could be a difficult mistress who would berate or even beat her ladies when they riled her. Despite all this, competition for a position in the Queen’s retinue was fierce, encouraged by the scarcity of available positions.

Elizabeth encouraged long service and initially rewarded the loyalty of those who had supported her during her sister Mary’s reign. Once in her service, Elizabeth was loath to lose an attendant (particularly her favourites) for any reason. Permission had to be sought for absences, and ladies who left to have a child were expected to return shortly after the birth, leaving the baby with a wet-nurse. Over her forty-five year reign, only twenty-eight women would be appointed to salaried positions within the Queen’s household. Beyond Elizabeth’s retinue, women were largely barred from court unless they had specific business with her. Wives of courtiers, however prominent, were discouraged from accompanying their husbands and their husband’s lodgings were not extended to them. As a result, the Queen’s household was the most obvious option for a woman wanting to be seen at court.

Perhaps the greatest source of conflict between Elizabeth and her ladies was the issue of marriage. The Queen’s aversion to marriage was well-known, apparently even beyond the prospect of her own. Her permission was notoriously hard to gain, and even when it was granted she was known to delay the nuptials for the smallest reasons. She was reticent to allow marriages for her attendants, for fear of losing their services, and her perceived antagonism towards romance among her court meant that many of her ladies conducted their dalliances in secret. Thus, scandals of secret marriages or illegitimate children were fairly commonplace. In 1591, half of Elizabeth’s ladies would be dismissed due to such behaviour and the disrepute they subsequently brought to the court. On one hand, it was Elizabeth’s role as monarch and head of her ladies to ensure their conduct and make good marriages. On the other, she doesn’t seem to have made it easy for them to do so.

The first scandal of its kind broke within just a few years of Elizabeth’s accession. As Queen, Elizabeth was obliged to give her cousins Catherine and Mary Grey positions at court. Their sister, Jane, had been the ill-fated nine-day Queen and for as long as Elizabeth had no children they were her likely heirs. Within two years, however, Catherine had forfeited her potential claim to the throne when she secretly married Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford. When Seymour was dispatched abroad, he left his new wife written proof of their marriage, which Catherine later claimed she had lost. When their only witness died soon after, the now-pregnant Catherine realised her marriage was impossible to prove and her geographically distant husband unable to support and guide her. After a failed and hasty attempt to secure another husband whom she could pretend was the baby’s father, she was forced to seek help from the Queen’s favourite, Robert Dudley. Fearful of implication in her behaviour, Dudley not only refused to help but revealed the situation to the Queen the following day. Catherine was consigned to the Tower of London, and her husband recalled to join her in imprisonment while the validity of the marriage was investigated. Even after the marriage was pronounced invalid, the two remained in prison. Only to be separated when a second child was born to Catherine.

Catherine’s sister Mary at least made sure that there were witnesses to her marriage to Thomas Keyes, a minor gentleman in the Queen’s employ. Elizabeth found out just a week later and had the two imprisoned, but this time separately. The couple would never see each other again, for even after their release their separation was enforced.

While Elizabeth’s imprisonment of her cousins was understandable given their proximity to the throne and the political implications of their marriages, she would frequently resort to imprisonment when her ladies behaved improperly. Anne Vavasour, who had been a maid of honour for just a year, found herself in the Tower after becoming the mistress to the Earl of Oxford and bearing him a son. Another, Bess Throckmorton, was imprisoned there for having fallen pregnant by and then marrying the Queen’s favourite Walter Ralegh. In these instances, the offending husband would also find himself imprisoned, but it would not always be as comfortable in the Tower. For marrying in secret after falling pregnant, Elizabeth Vernon and her new husband the Earl of Southampton were placed in Fleet Prison, the conditions of which had led Mary Grey’s husband Thomas Keyes to a premature death through ill-health. The Earl of Pembroke also found himself in Fleet Prison after an affair with Mary Fitton, who fared somewhat better, being placed in a noble household to birth their child.

Time served, however, was no guarantee that the Queen would be appeased and many found themselves barred from her presence. Banishment could last anywhere from a few days to a lifetime, though often a husband would be welcomed back to court long before his wife, if she ever was. Elizabeth was also prone to banishing her favourite ladies who had liaisons without her knowledge, possibly because she was too well-disposed toward them to imprison them. Initially enthusiastic over the courtship of her favourite, Helena Snakenborg, and her suitor Thomas Gorges, Elizabeth stopped short of giving them permission to marry. When she discovered that they had married anyway, both were banished from court. Later, Helena would be welcomed back, restored to favour and given a permanent residence near court so she and her husband could serve with their family close by.

Elizabeth had clearly demonstrated the low regard in which she held these secret liaisons between her ladies. As she was considered notoriously unreasonable when it came to marriages, her ladies felt they had little choice but to resort to secrecy. Especially brave were those ladies who involved themselves with the Queen’s favourites.

When Robert Dudley married his pregnant mistress Lettice Knollys, the fallout (for Lettice at least) would last the Queen’s lifetime. Lettice remained on the fringes of court life and the subject of Elizabeth’s enmity even after Leicester had died. Walter Raleigh had thus been fully aware of the implications of his marriage to Bess Throckmorton. He went to great efforts to protest it when it became rumour, and continued his normal routine even as she gave birth to his son. After their release from the Tower, Bess would remain banished from court ,while Raleigh returned to court. Providing he didn’t mention his wife.

But it was Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex and ironically son of the banished Lettice, who would scandalise the court with his romantic entanglements. In 1590, he married Frances Walsingham, and she soon fell pregnant. Eager to keep his marriage a secret, he managed to find reasons for Frances to remain away from court and hide the pregnancy. Elizabeth discovered the event later that year, but although initially furious, her reaction was comparatively muted and Essex was restored to favour within a fortnight.

Even though he had run a great risk by marrying Frances, Essex did not remain faithful, and risked further controversy by conducting affairs with several of the Queen’s ladies.

He took Elizabeth Southwell as his mistress and had a son by her. Southwell must have feared the repercussions after she returned to court, for she pretended the father was Thomas Vavasour when the baby was discovered. The pretence was maintained for four years (even after Vavasour had been imprisoned for the offence) before the Queen discovered the truth, by which time Southwell had already been permanently banished from court.

Elizabeth was quick to reprimand any of her ladies that attempted to attract the Earl’s affections. When Elizabeth Brydges (supposedly having an affair with Essex) and Elizabeth Russell (also rumoured to be having an affair with Essex) stole away to watch him playing tennis, both found themselves expelled from court for three days. The Queen was similarly riled when Lady Mary Howard attempted to catch the Earl’s eye by wearing a particularly extravagant dress. When Mary next attended the Queen, she found her wearing the same gown, having had another lady steal it from Mary’s closet. Elizabeth paraded the gown, despite the spectacle it must have caused given the difference in their statures, before declaring it too fine for the girl.

By now, Elizabeth was an old woman and wearied by the scandalous lives of her young attendants, even though the scandals were less numerous after the Earl of Essex’s execution and the dissolution of his particularly wild circle. Elizabeth might have been gratified (or more likely horrified) to learn that the declining standards did not end when her reign did. The court of her successor, James I and his wife Anne, was notorious for its sexual immorality and extravagance. The scandals of Elizabeth’s court seemed tame by comparison to daily life under James which seemed to be dominated by heavy drinking and sex; described by one observer as, “a nursery of lust and intemperance”.

About the Author

Shwmae! I’m Sarah. I pursued my interest in History to university where I specialised in Anne Boleyn, the role of mistresses and the hagiography of women. With a masters degree under my belt, I returned to my natural habitat to write about women in history. I can now be found somewhere in South Wales running a business, attempting to parent and when I can manage it, plonked in front of a games console to unwind.]

You can find more of my work at?

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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. A neat summary. There’s a typo re the Earl of Essex – he’s Robert Devereux. (Walter was his father, and Lettice’s first husband.) I think Robert Devereux has had an unfair press – in more ways than one. And while he did have the occasional affair after his marriage to Frances Sidney (nee Walsingham) the historian Paul E.J. Hammer suggests that some of the scandals may have arisen from no more than flirtations – of which there would have been plenty at Elizabeth’s court.
    Worth reading is Paul Hammer’s paper “Sex and the Virgin Queen: Aristocratic
    Concupiscence and the Court of Elizabeth I” which can be accessed online at JStor.

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