The new film Anonymous seems to have scholastic knickers in a wad. I cannot say that I blame them, considering it proposes the much-disputed notion that William Shakespeare did not write his plays. I’m actually rather keen to see the movie, merely as a cinematic experience and Tudor costume drama (what can I say, I have one love and that time period is certainly it), but I’m a bit annoyed by another aspect of it, rather than the primary thing which has critics and historians alike crying foul in the streets. The source of my frustration is not its premise that Shakespeare the man was an illiterate play actor, oh, no… rather its stance on Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen… who isn’t such a virgin in this story. In film, she never is, and I’m rather tired of it.
Granted, I was willing to somewhat overlook it in the Elizabeth film series with Cate Blanchett in them because she’s so magnificent. I was already a fan of hers before I ever saw those films, but her depicting my favorite queen pretty much cemented her in my “book of awesomeness.” Granted, Helen Mirren gave her a darn good run for the money a few years ago in her miniseries with HBO, but Cate reigns supreme – and certainly dominates Judi Dench, who won an Oscar for… what, exactly? Six minutes of delivering lines in her usual deadpan manner? Blow me over, what a performance. (Sorry, I think I am the one person on the planet who thinks Judi Dench is overrated and wishes she would retire, simply because I’m sick of her. There, I said it. Cast your mud in my direction now. Let her retire and give Maggie Smith all her roles.)
Even so, though, the movies (and a great many books as well) seem to be incapable of presenting Elizabeth onscreen without some implication that she wasn’t quite the virgin everyone thought she was. This opinion, as well as our modern view that my goodness me, no woman could go her entire life never having had sex, has tainted modern opinion so much that if you shouted out “Was Elizabeth I a virgin?” in a crowded room, you’d have an array of different responses, most of them starting with “No, because…”
Well, call me old-fashioned, but I think she lived and died a virgin, and I think the evidence supports this view. This is the woman who ruled England single-handed against all odds and transformed a divided country into a great nation of prosperity and respect once more. Every mistake her father made, she avoided. Every mistake her sister made, she avoided. (Well, except for executing her cousin, who happens to have been an ancestor of mine, but I’m not bitter.) Elizabeth chose not to marry because she had seen what marriage (and sex) had done to her family. She lost her mother at a young age; she was old enough to know what was happening when Katherine Howard went to the scaffold; she came very near to losing Catherine Parr as well. She saw what marriage to Philip did to her sister and how deeply unpopular it made Mary. Every association with “marriage” that transpired in her life from a very young age up until her monarchy was negative, with a result of blood and death. If knowing your father hacked your mother’s head off isn’t enough to put anyone off marriage, the idea of being “owned” or “controlled” would have been.
Elizabeth was adamant that she was supreme ruler and would submit to no one. (This is one of my favorite moments in the Blanchett film, actually – “I will have one mistress here, and no master!”) Elizabeth knew that a husband would have a certain amount of influence, also that she could not find anyone that would suit all of her subjects. She came very close to marriage on one occasion but did not pursue it to its natural end. One could argue that she loved Robert Dudley and I think she did in her own way, but I also think that if she had given herself to him, she would have lost her allure to him in time. Elizabeth inherited her mother’s natural flirtations, and tormented men much as Anne Boleyn had – by withholding what they wanted most.
Not only did she defy convention and refuse to marry, I find it very difficult to believe that she would risk scandal – or an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. There are also no reports of anything inappropriate from her ladies in waiting, and considering Elizabeth was never alone as a monarch, they would have known. Court secrets were hardly secret in those days. Her only opportunity for lovemaking would have been on the occasional long rides into the country she took with Sir Robert Dudley, but would a cautious and intelligent queen really resort to that? I rather doubt it, considering she was not a milkmaid.
Then there was the matter of Thomas Seymour. History tells us that he molested Elizabeth while she was in the household of his wife, Catherine Parr, after Henry’s death. He seemed to have more interest than was prudent in the princess and would enter into her room early in the morning and “tickle her,” often when she was “in a state of undress.” There is also the infamous incident in which Catherine Parr held her down, while he cut Elizabeth’s dress “to ribbons.” Elizabeth did not enjoy his attentions and at times would rise and dress early so that he could not catch her. The film Young Bess tried to transform this sick relationship into a forbidden romance, but in reality it was a form of sexual abuse.
Last but not least is the religious component, which most scholars would dismiss, since they have very little respect or understanding for the role religion plays in our lives. However controversial in her decisions, Elizabeth did profess a belief in God that would have influenced her views on morality, and since her court was not known for debauchery, we must assume that she held her ladies in waiting (as well as herself) to a certain moral standard.
Contrary to what secular modern society would have us believe, we are not governed by our sexual urges. We can restrain them, and psychology does have an impact on them. Choice also has an impact, since most urges can be controlled with a strong will, sometimes to the extent that they vanish completely. Elizabeth chose to remain unmarried except in a metaphorical sense to England. Her reasons for doing so are unknown – had they anything to do with her traumatic childhood? Or maybe her negative experiences with Seymour? Were they bound up in fear of what marriage might mean for her, or was it a decision formed of wisdom and determination not to repeat the mistakes of her sister and father?
We will never know the truth about Elizabeth, but I would rather err in giving her too much credit than not enough, and live in hope that one day the movies will do her justice.