The Unvirgin Queen

Written by Rebecca Larson

Okay, okay, before you start throwing things at your screen hear me out a minute. For centuries, there have been rumors regarding Queen Elizabeth I of England (the Virgin Queen) having illegitimate children. These rumors began as early as 1549, when Elizabeth was just a teenager, during the reign of her brother King Edward VI.

The After Effects of Henry VIII’s Death

At some point after the death of her father, Elizabeth moved in with her step-mother, Kateryn Parr at Chelsea Manor. While we do not know for certain the timeline, it was at Chelsea that Kateryn may have begun an affair with her former flame, Sir Thomas Seymour. Thomas and Kateryn had thought to marry in 1543, after she became a widow for the second time. Feeling an obligation to her king (or God) outweighed whatever she had with Thomas, because Kateryn married the elderly King Henry instead.

Almost immediately after Henry VIII died, Kateryn and Thomas appear to have picked up where they left off. Kateryn even writing in a letter to Thomas that she would have wished to marry him above all others the time they had considered, but that she felt God had directed her to marry the King. Make what you want of that. Could she really have rejected King Henry? Was she motivated by the power that queen consort brought? We will never know, but it does appear that she did have strong feelings for Thomas, since she did secretly marry him only a couple to a few months after the death of the King, after stating she would mourn him for two years. It is completely possible that Thomas and Kateryn worried the Protector and the Council would hastily arrange a marriage for her to fulfill some sort of political alliance.

Once the marriage was made public, Thomas joined Kateryn and Elizabeth at Chelsea. Splitting his time between Seymour Place, Chelsea Manor and court. As far as we can tell everything was normal during this time. It was not until the arrest of Thomas Seymour in January 1549 that certain members of Elizabeth?s household were taken into custody and questioned, they were: Kat Ashley, Elizabeth?s Governess, and Thomas Parry her Cofferer. It was during the time they were being questioned at the Tower of London that stories of misconduct began to emerge. Kat Ashley told stories of inappropriate behavior on the part of Seymour. Stating that he entered the young woman?s bedchamber in a night shirt, bare-legged and slippers. Stories of Thomas behaving in a way that he had never been accused of prior to his arrest. Now, we must remember as modern readers that prior to his arrest, he was well liked. One of the rare negative comments I found prior to his downfall was written by Charles V to Chapuys and he is mentioning Thomas’ style of leadership in the army after meeting with him:

The marshal has often shown himself more dry and difficult. [I]

It was not until his nephew, Edward VI was on the throne, and his brother the Duke of Somerset taking control of matters (as the Lord Protector), that the two brothers began to quarrel. They quarreled over who should have governorship of the king, and they quarreled about Kateryn Parr’s personal jewels being returned to her possession.? The Lord Protector, and his wife Anne Stanhope seem to have done their best to make both Thomas and Kateryn?s life as miserable as possible – which is odd because prior to Henry?s death there appeared to be no discord between them.

Around the time (21 January) that Kat Ashley and Thomas Parry were being questioned at the Tower of London there were rumors circulating that Elizabeth was pregnant with the child of Sir Thomas Seymour.

On the 28th of January 1549, eleven days after Thomas Seymour had been arrested, Elizabeth wrote to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of the Realm that:

Master Tyrwhit and other have told me that their goith rumors abroad, which be greatly both against my honor, and honesty, (which above all other things I esteem) which be these; that I am in the Tower; and with child by my Lord Admiral. My Lord these are shameful slanders, for the which, besides the great desire I have to see the King’s Majesty, I shall most heartily desire your Lordship that I may come to the court after your first determination; that I may show myself there as I am.”[II]

Were these rumors the beginning of what would become a lifetime of claims of illegitimate children? Were they the catalyst for ideas that she could find herself in an inappropriate position?

Psychology might tell us that Elizabeth had what we call, “daddy issues”. To be fair, after the childhood she had, who could blame her. I see Thomas Seymour as a guardian, not a predator.? All we have are the words of a woman who was being interrogated at the Tower of London. The same woman who had encouraged her charge to show interest in Seymour after Kateryn Parr died. If Thomas Seymour was such a “pervert”, why on earth would Elizabeth’s governess see him as a good match?

Virgin Queen?

There are many people, myself included, who feel it difficult imagine that Elizabeth was indeed a virgin queen. I just find it hard to believe. Her relationship with Robert Dudley lends to many of the rumors. How could two people, who had been so closely connected for so many years, not have a physical relationship?

In 1553, Robert Dudley was arrested and thrown in the Tower of London for his involvement with placing Lady Jane Grey on the throne. Not long after Queen Mary reclaimed her throne did suspicions turn to her sister Elizabeth.

In 1554, Elizabeth was also placed in the Tower. During her imprisonment, Queen Mary allowed her sister to take fresh air in the privy gardens – no one was allowed to speak to her so she was kept alone. There are some who believe a young boy, the son of the warden, would deliver her messages from her Protestant followers…possibly one of the Dudley men. When it was seen that the young boy had delivered Elizabeth a sprig of flowers they were immediately taken from her and destroyed. The paranoia was rampant.

Evidence proves that in 1559, Queen Elizabeth had Robert Dudley’s bedchamber moved next door to her personal apartments. What a convenient way to have your lover discretely enter your bedchamber. This was a scandal at the time because Robert Dudley was a married man. But by 1560, his wife Amy Robsart, was found dead at the bottom of their staircase. The death seemed suspicious and so Robert immediately became a suspect. These events demolished any chance Robert may have had to marry the Queen. Due to scandal, he could no longer be considered as an option for Elizabeth.

Some have even gone so far to suggest that Elizabeth attraction toward Robert Dudley was because he had similar traits to her teenage crush, Thomas Seymour. The Dictionary of National Biography The DNB states that Elizabeth was immediately attracted by Dudley’s ‘very goodly person‘.

Does Illness Equal Pregnancy?

On 11 August 1561, the French ambassador mentioned in a letter to William Cecil that:

[He] would himself have spoken to the Queen on this matter, but is unable to do so on account of illness.

It was during this time period that the Queen was reported to be sick with a mysterious illness, an illness that some believe to have actually been preparing to give birth. Only five days after that 1561 letter, Elizabeth wrote a letter from Hedingham Castle in Essex. At the time, Hendingham Castle was held by the de Vere family.? After that point, all of the Queen’s letters shown in Calendar of State Papers, were in the hand of Cecil and not Elizabeth. As the Queen’s closest adviser, is it not possible that Cecil was aware of the Queen’s condition and was covering for her?


In 1572, Edward Dyer wrote to Sir Christopher Hatton and it appears from the context of the letter that he is referring to a close (maybe sexual) relationship Hatton had with the Queen.

“For though in the beginning when her Majesty sought you (after her good manner), she did bear with rugged dealing of yours, until she had what she fancied, yet now, after satiety and fulness…[III]

In March 1581, Thomas Scot wrote to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester:

Being by profession a preacher, by birth an Englishman, and by baptism a Christian, thinks it right to disclose the traitorous speeches of Henry Hawkins -“that my Lord Robert hath had fyve children by the Queene, and she never goethe in progress but to be delivered.” Papists favoured by Henry Lovell and Sir Henry Bedingfield.

Not only are there theories that Queen Elizabeth had a child, or children by Robert Dudley, but there is also a rumor that she had an affair with Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford resulting in a child – Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. But then again there are theories that de Vere himself was the son of the Queen. Propaganda at its finest…probably perpetuated by the Spanish.


Do you think it was possible for a woman like Queen Elizabeth I to stay a virgin queen her entire reign? Or for that matter her entire life? She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn…in my opinion that either makes her extremely aware of her sexuality, or aware that everyone would be watching her. Once you are a monarch, does that change your perception?


[I] A Collection of State Papers, Relating to Affairs in the Reigns of King Henry VIII. King Edward VI. Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth … from 1542-1570 …???William Cecil (Lord Burghley), Page 90

[II] 22 Oct. R. O. [Spanish Calendar, VI. II., No. 249]

[III] Memoirs of the Life and Times of Sir Christopher Hatton, K. G. pg 18

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27 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Even in Roman times there were potions to prevent pregnancy or remove an unwanted pregnancy. Virgin queen I’m doubtful off a good physician I have faith on. I think she loved greatly but did not allow herself to fall into the trap of allowing a man to take control. A woman that was born to early and was so great

  2. Yes, I believe she remained a virgin all her life. She would not risk losing her throne.

    As for the relationship between her and Robert – there are ways of satisfying one another that do not include actual intercourse. I am sure they were both quite proficient at pleasing each other without risking pregnancy.

    • My 10th great uncle Thomas Butler (Thomas Dubh) the 10th Earl of Ormond who was a cousin of Elizabeth through her mother , and who grew up in the court of Henry the 8th, was a great friend of Elizabeth and there is a story that they had an illegitimate son.

  3. Another story is that Elizabeth and my 10th Great Uncle Thomas Butler the 10th Earl of Ormond had a love child. She and Thomas were distant cousins. Through her mother Anne Boleyn. He was brought up at the court of Henry the 8th .

  4. First Child by Thomas Parr = Earle of Oxford
    2nd child byRobert Dudley 1561= Francis Bacon born while on tour at Lady Cook-Bacon’s residence.
    3rd Child by Robert Dudley 1563= Squire Thomas Dudley mercenary of Spain.
    4th child by Robert Dudley 1565 male son given to Sir John Perrot the Queens 1/2 Brother to raise as his own: My 8th ggfather John Peratt II grey’s in 1580 along with William Perrot, Thomas Perrot and Sir James Perrot. Mary Sidney Herbert born 1561 was Sir Robert’s daughter raised by his sister Mary Sidney, by Lettice Knolley’s the queens Lady in Waiting. Robert was determined to breed with all the eligible Tudor females he could find, and Lettice Knoley’s was the daughter/grand daughter of Henry VIII daughter, Catherine Carey. D. Charles Rice 2nd cousin x 12 removed to Elizabeth Tudor I

  5. Apples and oranges. Catherine the Great was an autocrat firmly seated on her throne. Elizabeth the Canny was a woman centuries earlier whose hold on power was almost constantly challenged.

  6. IIRC, Russia’s Catherine the Great didn’t have anyone in the position of Mary Queen of Scots, and she didn’t have the religious divide, so a scandal would not necessarily bring Catherine down the way it might hurt Elizabeth.
    Also, Elizabeth lost a grandmother and two stepmothers (one of whom at least she loved) due to childbirth. I think Elizabeth did stay virgin (at least technically). She was frightened to death of dying … and childbirth was a major cause of death. Also, she was frightened of being deposed in favor of a son.

    • furthermore, 16th century England can not be compared with 18th century Russia, where Catharine ruled as an autocrat, something Elizabeth could not do. And there were not that many children as far as I know. A son and a daughter officially from her marriage to Peter. No real scandal there. And a later son and daughter; the daughter she did not officially acknowledge as hers. It was kept quiet officially, but the births were pretty widely known. Her son Paul made his half brother a count. Especially the son was treated as other illegal or morganetic offspring. Every one knew they were there, and how…

  7. Great article, the way you presented possible evidence, summed it up and then left it open to the dear reader.
    I think Elizabeth’s primary focus was always the throne. With the childhood she had – and the ever devolving example of Mary of Scots before her – I believe she was too self-disciplined to risk pregnancy. However, was certainly was VERY susceptable to the flattery and charms of men. As she matured and perhaps felt more confident of her position, it may be that she indulged in some risque behavior in her privy chamber. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if she kept herself technically a virgin.

  8. I’m a Tudor, too. Via Jasper. I haven’t done the work to figure out the precise relationship.

    There are some people who aren’t interested in sex, and they aren’t psychotic. From all accounts, Elizabeth was very interested in men. And there were women in her bedchamber every night. Lots of way to satisfy desires.

  9. Queen Elizabeth is my 15 cousin, 3 times removed. And I dont give a Royal damn if she had sex. Sex is normal. Being celibate for your entire life is psychotic.

  10. For all we know maybe she was a lesbian and is cackling at us from the grave for our foolish fancy. Who knows… It was too darn long ago and we can’t even tell whether our neighbours shag let alone some 16th century queen.

  11. There is a another definition of virgin; an unmarried woman who controls her affairs and has no man who she must answer to. I know, I know, everyone knows when Elizabeth is called a virgin, it means she never had sex. But there is a lot of sex that doesn’t not include…well….you know what I mean. Were she and Dudley intimate? There no doubt in my mind. Did they do anything that might get her pregnant? Most probably not.

  12. I believe she was a virgin. Just the logistics alone of keeping a pregnancy quiet (let alone five pregnancies) would be near impossible to achieve. Let alone the fact that no one has ever laid claim to being Elizabeth’s child when during her grandfather’s reign you had pretenders like Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck springing up left and right. Plus, I don’t think Elizabeth was too thrilled at the idea of having James VI as her heir and probably would’ve prevented it if she could. Still, a great topic of discussion to have drinks over.

  13. I don’t think there is much of a chance of Elizabeth having children. There were some serious traditions during this time period when it came to pregnancy & birth including confinement. I would also find it hard to believe that any woman could hide a 3rd trimester baby bump no matter how much clothing she wore. Propaganda and rumors were easily created back in this time period as well…..and just like murder, could have little to no proof before it wss circulated & believed by populations to be true.

  14. Imo the Virgin Queen was her PR persona
    She was chosen and annointed by God to be Queen, as was Mary to carry the son of God
    This raised her above all others and normal human traits..with reglion being the crux of all politics and way of life what better way than this
    It showcased the sacrifices she made for her exalted position and subjects, and her strength in a world dominated by men.
    In the privacy of her own chambers, though this was never in the full context as we know it. I hope Elizabeth did enjoy the love and closeness of an intimate relationship with Dudley at some level.
    As for the rumours surrounding Seymour, we all know he was a charming chancer..but Elizabeth was in a risky situation at this time..all eyes were on her especially Marys, to my mind to succumb to his advances would have definitely been her end
    She also had a great love for Katherine Parr and I can’t imagine she would betray her even after death
    Walls had Ears and Elizabeth knew this more than anyone from a very young age so to presume that Elizabeth could give birth in secret is highly improbable
    Elizabeth had first hand experience when it came to seeing what happens to women when they get caught up in the game of marriage with her mother and 4 stepmothers ..
    All in all Elizabeth was too shrewd to give any reason for her enemies to destroy her…so rumours were invented to discredit a woman who would not conform to religious and political persuasions of those times…

  15. I suspect that she was technically a virgin but did have sexual experiences. In other words, she could have done everything apart from ….to avoid pregnancy.

  16. The Virgin Queen seems to have been a propaganda thing. Was she a virgin? We will never really know and I do not think it is that important. We know all the rumours, up to this day, where a certain nobleman claims to be her descendant (and a descendant of the “real” Shakespeare as well. I do not believe she had children, and certainly not five of them. She was one of the most watched persons in England at the time, and I just do not believe it could have been kept a secret.

  17. Oh dear…this again. I believe she was a virgin but I also believe that Seymour was a charming ladies man and could eventually have seduced her. Perhaps that time the pregnant queen found them kissing may have led to just that. I don’t believe there was any children. It was in the Catholic best interest to discredit the queen and put Mary of Scots on the throne. Unless I am wrong that “sickness” you speak of was smallpox. Mary Sidney caught it from her and was scarred for life. Good article though, however your editor missed that thrown is spelled “Throne”

    • The sickness from Small Pox actually occurred in 1562, I thought of that when I discovered the letter from 1561 as well and then realized it did not line up.

  18. Yes, I can accept that Elizabeth remained virgin.
    I think it highly improbable-maybe impossible-that she ever bore a child without this being known. At all times in her life she was either a candidate for power, or actually in power. She would have been under scrutiny by those who would wish to gain her favor, or extort her favor. There is no way she could have kept a full pregnancy and childbirth a real secret.

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