Secrets of the Virgin Queen – Part 1

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Dubbed the “Virgin Queen” for her alleged fidelity, Elizabeth I is one of the most well-known English monarchs, the last of the Tudors.  But… was she a virgin?

(Due to complaints about the length of some of my posts, I’ve decided to do this topic in parts; this post is over 1000 words, BUT I’ve only reproduced a single, to-the-point article – and on a single part of this topic.  IF you’re not up to reading it right now, I’ve included several links at the end AND I’m looking at making an audio/video version of it.)

From the Daily Mail:

Unkempt and exhausted, 800 miles from England the shipwrecked young man prepared to meet his interrogators in a Madrid courtroom one June day in 1587. Suspected of spying after his ship ran aground just days earlier in the Bay of Biscay, the unshaven sailor feared for his life.

But it was not the threat of incarceration that troubled him, but the repercussions of the secret he was about to reveal. Asked to identify himself, he replied: “I am the bastard son of Queen Elizabeth of England and her lover Robert Dudley.”

At the time, his confession threatened to undermine the already-tense relationship between Catholic Spain and Protestant England, just a year before the Spanish Armada set sail, intent on conquering her enemy.

Courtiers moved swiftly to dismiss it as fantasy, part of a plot by the Roman Catholic interrogator – Sir Francis Englefield, an English exile in Spain – who recorded the statement, to overthrow Elizabeth I. And there it might have remained, a footnote in history, were it not for a new investigation by an Oxford-educated historian and author of 70 historical novels.

During the course of his research, Dr Paul Doherty re-examined the original account of the so-called ‘bastard son’ and unearthed what he insists is corroborating evidence.

Could it really be true that the monarch known as The Virgin Queen carried out an illicit affair, bore her lover a child, then abandoned him – rather than face a public scandal?

In November 1558, Elizabeth, last surviving child of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, became England’s sovereign. The nation was on the verge of a religious war between Catholics and Protestants and needed peace and stability.

In the first week of her reign, the unmarried Elizabeth, aged just 25, sought to allay the fears of her subjects by promising them her devotion, insisting there would be no marriage or children to distract her from duty.

Holding her coronation ring aloft, she declared: “Behold the pledge of this, my wedlock and marriage with my kingdom. And do not upbraid me with miserable lack of children: for every one of you, and as many as are Englishmen, are children and kinsmen to me.”

It was one of history’s most enduring images and set the stage for one of the most talked-about reigns in England. When the Queen died 45 years later, the coronation ring was so embedded in her skin that it had to be filed from her finger.

She knew only too well the dangers of being a woman ruler in a man’s world. Her own mother had been executed on suspicion of adultery, when Elizabeth was just two years old.


Nevertheless, there were rumours of affairs even during her lifetime – the majority of which surrounded her intense friendship with Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, a cousin of the Queen’s and a friend from childhood.

Although Dudley married a woman called Amy Robsart – a union of convenience between two wealthy families – he and Elizabeth remained close in adulthood. In 1559 she had his bedchamber moved next to her personal apartments, further igniting rumours of a sexual liaison.

In a famous encounter, reported at the time, the Queen’s childhood governess Katherine Ashley begged her to prove she was still chaste and not involved with Dudley.

So worried were courtiers of an illicit relationship that William Cecil, the Queen’s most trusted adviser, wrote at the time that he feared the pair were planning to marry, and predicted the “ruin of the realm”.

“To say it was a platonic love is to use 21st-Century notions to describe 16th-Century practices,” says Doherty. “In the 16th Century, sex was seen as the expression of love, of chivalrous love and I don’t think Elizabeth was against that. She would have seen it as a logical conclusion.”

Gossipgathered speed a year later on September 8, 1560, when Dudley’s wife Amy died in suspicious circumstances at the couple’s Oxfordshire home, House, near Abingdon. Earlier that day she had sent all the servants out for the day to a local fair and shortly after was found at the bottom of a flight of stairs, her neck broken.

The scandal tarnished Dudley’s reputation and put paid to any likelihood of him marrying the Queen. But by the end of 1561 Elizabeth was confined to bed with a mysterious illness – one that suggests any relationship between the two remained ongoing.

According to witnesses she was suffering from dropsy – now known as oedema – an abnormal swelling of the body due to a build-up of fluid.

The Spanish ambassador reported she had a swelling of the abdomen, and Doherty insists it is not too much of a jump to imagine this might also have been due to a pregnancy. After all, it is known that several ladies-in-waiting at the Queen’s court successfully concealed their own pregnancies at the time.


But by far the most compelling evidence is the testimony of the man who claimed to be the product of that pregnancy.

Shortly after his shipwreck in the Bay of Biscay, Arthur Dudley was brought to Madrid to be questioned by Sir Francis Englefield. Sir Francis’s accounts of the conversation were recorded in three letters, known collectively as the Englefield Papers.

The story they contain is an intriguing one of shame, subterfuge and ultimately exposure. According to Arthur Dudley, one of the royal governess Katherine Ashley’s servants – a man called Robert Southern – was summoned to Hampton Court one night in 1561 and asked to obtain a nurse for a newborn infant.

Staff at the palace told him the child was the offspring of a careless employee and must be quickly concealed before news of the birth reached the Queen. On this proviso, Southern was asked to take the boy, christened Arthur, with him to London and raise him as one of his own children.

The only guidance he was given was that the youngster was to receive the education of a gentleman. Arthur learned of the controversy surrounding his birth only in 1583, when Southern, the man he thought of as his father, lay on his deathbed.

The old man confessed the truth to a bewildered Arthur, in front of a witness, a local schoolmaster. Throughout this time, Elizabeth was revered as the Virgin Queen, and maintained a public facade of chastity. Yet there were hints that she was not as pure as she professed.

In 1562 the Queen contracted smallpox and was not expected to survive. Delirious and fearing death, she made a number of unusual demands from her bedchamber. Rallying what remained of her ebbing energy, she implored her advisers to make Robert Dudley Lord Protector with a pension of £20,000 a year, fuelling speculation that he had indeed been her lover.

Even more strangely, she insisted on a £500-a-year stipend for a servant of Dudley’s, a man called John Tamworth. Was he, asks Doherty, being rewarded for his part in the concealment of an illegitimate child?

In fact the Queen did survive her brush with smallpox, but later the same year wrote an astonishing set of prayers which deviated greatly from her usual, rather bland, style. She suddenly composed a very personal set of prayers that seemed to refer to a great sin she had committed.

“For my secret sins cleanse me,” she wrote. “For the sins of others spare your handmaiden. Many sins have been forgiven her because she hath loved too much.”

This, says Doherty may be evidence of a breakdown, prompted by the abandonment of her child. “Elizabeth was writing about herself and it makes you pause and think,” he says.

“She made some harsh decisions during her reign – dispatching fleets and waging wars – but in these prayers she is confessing to a sexual sin and one of the greatest sacrifices of her life: the abandonment of a child by its mother.”

Three other documents unearthed by Doherty seem to bear out his claim. The first is a letter in the British Library dated May 28, 1588, from an English spy – known only as BC – to his bosses in London. In it, BC describes the interrogation of Arthur Dudley and hints that the Spanish authorities took his claim seriously – housing him at the court of King Philip II and giving him a pension.

Not only that but the spy, who previously served in the court of Queen Mary, said that Arthur Dudley bore more than a passing resemblance to the man he claimed was his father. (This is not something Sir Francis Englefield, who was blind and ageing, would have been able to confirm.)

The second piece of corroboration Doherty highlights is the will of Robert Southern, a document that not only confirms Southern’s existence, but also a series of personal details such as where he lived, names of friends, his occupation and so on – details that Dudley relayed later under interrogation.

“If Arthur Dudley was a fake,” says Doherty, “why would he have gone to the trouble of naming a genuine person (Southern) as his guardian, and providing so many personal details?

“Surely, if we have been able to prove that this part of his statement was true, it is not too difficult to imagine that the rest of it was.”

Finally, Doherty travelled to Simancas in Northern Spain, site of the country’s National Archive, where he found a letter Arthur Dudley wrote, begging to be kept safe. The letter, however, makes no demands for money, position or special treatment – proof, says Doherty, of the sincerity of his plea.

For if Arthur Dudley truly was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth, he had every reason to be afraid. Had it been publicised at the time, the story of his lineage would surely have sparked an international crisis, a civil war and an astonishing revision of history.

Only Robert Dudley and the Queen knew the truth. Dudley died in September 1588, a year after Arthur made his claims. The woman he loved followed him to the grave 25 years later on March 24, 1603.

Her passing marked the end of one of the most controversial reigns in English royal history. Few monarchs have been subject to as much speculation as she was. Buried a virgin and lauded for sacrificing her own happiness for her country – the truth about Elizabeth’s romantic life and possible parenthood will continue to fascinate generations to come.

For some more details:  (Gives a possible portrait of Arthur Dudley.)

8 thoughts on “Secrets of the Virgin Queen – Part 1

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