Did Elizabeth I Really Hate Other Women?

Did Elizabeth I Really Hate Other Women?

There has long been an “urban rumor” that Elizabeth Tudor hated other women. It’s true that she was a female monarch in a time which greatly preferred sovereign men. {Note the extent to which her father, Henry VIII, extended himself to get a male heir, as well as the contents of John Knox’s much-circulated pamphlet, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” which railed against sitting queens and regents of the era.} Elizabeth didn’t forestall imprisoning women for long periods of time, such as her Grey cousins and Mary Queen of Scots, when she felt they threatened her throne, which admittedly may have seemed unfeminine and harsh.

Because of her ruling position, Queen Elizabeth was never really able to be an equal companion with anyone. William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, who dedicated his life to her service, once said the queen was “more than a man and, in truth, something less than a woman.” And yet, perhaps that was a man’s perspective, or one man’s perspective of a woman with power. Elizabeth knew how to dress like a woman, flirt like a woman, fall in love like a woman, and there were certainly women who were in every sense her lifelong friends.

Katherine Carey, Lady Knollys

Katherine Carey, Lady Knollys

 Take for example, Katherine Carey Knollys, daughter of Mary Boleyn. Shortly after Elizabeth became queen, she installed this cousin as Chief Lady of the Bedchamber and kept her close at hand, perhaps to the detriment of Knollys family, till the day Lady Knollys died.
Katherine “Kat” Ashley and Blanche Parry stayed with Elizabeth from her childhood until each woman died. Because Elizabeth was deprived of her own mother as a young girl, Ashley and Parry became surrogate mothers to her. Ashley spoke bluntly to Elizabeth when no one else dared, and Parry continued on in Elizabeth’s household in positions of honor and affection long past her abilities warranted them.

Anne Russell Dudley married Lord Ambrose Dudley, the brother of Elizabeth’s longtime love, Robert, and became the Countess of Warwick. But even before then, Anne served Elizabeth as a maid of honor. They became great friends, and Anne stayed by her mistress’ side until Elizabeth died in 1603. Catherine Carey, the Countess of Nottingham, was the eldest daughter of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, Mary Boleyn’s son and therefore a cousin to Elizabeth; she died shortly before Elizabeth did, and it was said that her death was the loss Elizabeth was unable to bear, eventually leading to the queen’s lack of will to live.

And then in 1566, Elin von Snakenborg came from Sweden to England. The queen intervened, unusually, with another monarch in order to allow Elin to remain in England. Elizabeth, as famous for counting her pennies as her grandfather Henry VII, atypically awarded rooms, a servant, and a horse to Elin (later Helena) within months of her arrival. Throughout her service, Helena was known as someone who couldn’t be bribed. She became a great friend of the queen and the highest ranking woman in England after Elizabeth, though that friendship was tested perhaps more than many of the queen’s confidantes.

Elin von Snakenborg

But what about all those women Elizabeth is supposed to have precluded from getting married, insisting that they remain virgins like herself? There is no doubt that from time to time Elizabeth expressed, sometimes forcefully, her preference that her ladies not marry. Anne Somerset, in her biography, Elizabeth I, states, “The Queen’s opposition to her ladies marrying stemmed from more than mere jealousy that they should attain contentment of a sort that she would never know. Although she occasionally lamented her spinsterhood, simultaneously she entertained an altogether contradictory conviction that matrimony was an undesirable condition for women, a view not altogether surprising when one recalls that her father had executed her mother and stepmother, and the marriage of her sister had been a fiasco. It may well have been her early experience that instilled in her that instinctive aversion to the married state.”

While the Queen clearly enjoyed her power, she perhaps also keenly felt the loss of the kind of social and emotional intimacy that all people, and especially women, desire in a family. And yet she had no mother or father, no siblings, no husband, no children and her (Tudor) cousins all had claim to her throne. Historian and author Antonia Fraser said, “Her [Elizabeth’s] household resembled a large family, often on the move between residences, and as a family it had its feuds when factions formed around strong personalities. It was not out of malice that Elizabeth opposed her maids of honors’ plans to marry, but because marriages broke up her own family circle.”

Thought to be Catherine Carey Howard, Countess of Nottingham

Thought to be Catherine Carey Howard, Countess of Nottingham

 The queen did, sometimes, help them to marry and marry well. Somerset says, “She (Elizabeth) could point out in the course of her reign no less than 13 of her maids of honor contracted prestigious marriages within the peerage, and this might seem to justify her claim that it was only unsuitable matches of which she disapproved.” The trick, of course, is that one never knew if the queen would approve or not. The consequences of the latter could be severe and long lasting.
In the whole, though, it certainly cannot be proved that Elizabeth Tudor hated women; in fact, the handful of long term, devoted friendships we know about prove otherwise. She gifted those women with rents, properties, perquisites, trust, affection, gowns and jewels, and emotional intimacy. Oxford University historian Susan Doran states in her book, Queen Elizabeth I, “It should also not be forgotten how loyal and gracious she could be to her intimates and that the turnover of her household was very low. The majority of women served until death or severe illness intervened.”
{Main photo credit: Attributed to Isaac Oliver [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, By Attributed to Isaac Oliver – http://www.marileecody.com/gloriana/elizabethrainbow1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3074044}

{Lady Knollys photo credit: Steven van der Meulen [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons, By Steven van der Meulen – Yale Center for British Art B1974.3.22, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7803507}

{Elin von Snakenborg photo credit: Robert Peake the elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, By Robert Peake the elder – pinterest, claiming origin from flickr, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46367710}

{ Catherine Carey Howard photo credit: Attributed to Robert Peake the elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, By Attributed to Robert Peake the elder – Weiss Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16951003

30 Comments On This Topic
  1. Lizzie V.
    on May 31st at 4:48 pm

    I understand how Elizabeth I could become jealous of other women marrying, and I don’t think you could really fault her for that. She was a real flesh-and-blood woman after all! I personally like how you portrayed her in the book-sometimes pettily acting out of jealousy as any of us probably would, but tempering that by also acting in kindness and love as well.

    Thanks so much for hosting this! It would be fun to win the necklace, and since I already have a copy, I’d love to pass on and/or give away the book to keep spreading the word!

  2. Vesper
    on Jun 1st at 8:59 am

    My favourite female monarch so paranoid, wanting someone to be her equal but afraid to lose any of her power

  3. Sarah
    on Jun 2nd at 4:33 pm

    I agree with the assessment of Elizabeth I! To me it seems that she saw her role as a leader as her primary focus and that by marrying that could jeopardize it, or at least weaken it.

  4. Lizz
    on Jun 3rd at 1:33 pm

    This is definitely interesting, and it seems to fit. Though I don’t have much knowledge in her history, it does seem as if Queen Elizabeth would have no ill inhibitions against marrying her ladies.

  5. Lisa Medeiros
    on Jun 3rd at 2:24 pm

    Wow… That is interesting! It is amazing the research you do for your books! 🙂
    Lisa deiselbuffs(at)yahoo(dot)ca

  6. Katie Carrico
    on Jun 3rd at 2:54 pm

    She must have been an amazing woman. I would imagine it have been very hard for her to have close relationships with women because she could never really be their equal. It does seem like she had those few who she clung to for many years.

  7. Pam K.
    on Jun 3rd at 4:54 pm

    Thank you for this interesting information. I certainly do not envy Elizabeth or the ladies in her court. I admire you for doing all this research and keeping it straight! I get rather confused with all the similar names, especially when they change their names to something else.

  8. KC Frantzen
    on Jun 3rd at 5:38 pm

    What an interesting article, Sandra. Thank you.

    How they can keep all the family ties straight, and who went where when and what… Did they have a cheat sheet? Talk about intelligence – just to know who came into the room…

    I guess when you grow up with it, perhaps its easier.

    She surely was an amazing lady. Thank you for writing the stories you do. We’re all the richer for them! 🙂

  9. sandrabyrd
    on Jun 3rd at 5:51 pm

    Hey there! I’m so glad you all stopped by to comment. Vesper, I think she was anxious, but I’m not sure about paranoid. I think people really *were* out to get her, maybe! I agree, Sarah, I think she saw her role as Queen as her primary focus and wouldn’t do anything else – even marry the man she loved – if it jeopardized that.

    Thank you, Lisa – and I totally agree, Katie. Pam and KC, I think when it was the system they were born into, it was all second nature. I agree completely, when they get new titles it is very hard to keep track. But they referred to themselves that way, so we try!

  10. Kim Tucker
    on Jun 3rd at 8:36 pm

    It must have been very difficult for her to trust anyone male or female as so many were trying to claim her crown. And with having as many step-mothers who ultimately did not last long in her life surly made her think that marriage was one sided. I believe that she may have wanted her Ladies to remain single and virgins so that she didn’t have to loose a friend to someone else. Having someone in your life that you love and trust and then taken away is heart wrenching. That feeling of loosing someone hasn’t changed in from her time to ours.

  11. Meg
    on Jun 3rd at 9:21 pm

    I had never thought that Elizabeth had problems with women actually. I do think perhaps she was jealous at some point of her ladies though. Perhaps she lived through them in a way. I love the story of the Marchioness of Northampton however. She came as a maid-in-waiting to Princess Cecilia of Sweden on a state visit in the autumn of 1565 and stayed on when Cecilia left in May 1566. She was being courted by Sir William Parr, Marquess of Northampton (brother of the late Queen consort Katherine Parr) who had asked her to marry him. Queen Elizabeth stepped in, taking Helena into her keeping at court, as a maid of honor. Helena was given private quarters at Hampton Court Palace. Later she was a gentlewoman of the privy chamber, although without pay. Helena and Parr finally married in May 1571, after the death of his first wife, from whom he had been separated (and annulled) for decades. The Queen attended the wedding which took place in the queen’s closet at Whitehall Palace with pomp and circumstance. The Marquess died soon after, leaving Helena a wealthy widow and, as Dowager Marchioness of Northampton, senior to every other lady at court save the queen and the queen’s cousin, Lady Margaret Douglas. Helena would take up the role of chief mourner at the funeral of the queen.

  12. Samantha Mays
    on Jun 3rd at 9:42 pm

    If you look through her life, the women she loved who played tremendous roles in her life, almost always suffered. Did she hate Women, no, I do not think she did! She knew the hurt involved, so she set herself apart! As Queen she didn’t have as much time for the “things” women did then. That sets her apart.. It’s not hate.. It’s time that she did not have!

  13. Taryn anderson
    on Jun 3rd at 10:41 pm

    As monarch in that era she had to be constantly on guard due to the threat of plots against her, especially by Catholics who wanted a Protestant off the throne! Women who married were usually made use of by their husbands – look at how Henry VII’s mother plotted with her husband when she was close to the throne! Single women would be more loyal in her eyes!

  14. Louise
    on Jun 3rd at 11:14 pm

    I don’t think Elizabeth hated women. There seem to have been a number of women she was very close to. I do think she was sometimes selfish in the demands she made on them, but that also applies to her relations with men.

  15. Jen Eagles
    on Jun 3rd at 11:46 pm

    Thank you for posting this very interesting insight into Elizabeth. It is hardly surprising that she never married, given both the history of marriages within her family and the high mortality rate of women in childbirth. At least she had a choice.

  16. Ti Colluney
    on Jun 4th at 12:22 am

    It is well documented the love and friendship Elizabeth had with Bess of Hardwick. Bess was tested many times with this friendship when her husband was awarded guardianship of Mary Queen of Scots. Bess’s own granddaughter became a legitimate claimant to the throne after Elizabeth and that strained the friendship more. But there are many letters proving the love and affection the two women had for each other that survives today. Though Elizabeth was an amazing woman for her time and what she achieved, I am also just as impressed by Bess. I think a movie of her would be fab!

  17. Sherri Bradley
    on Jun 4th at 3:05 am

    I am sure she loved many women in her lifetime, but her treatment of Catherine and Mary Grey after learning of their secret marriages was horrible. By all accounts, Catherine’s oldest son should have been heir to the throne according to Henry V111’s will. Catherine ended up dying from depression and self induced starvation from being imprisoned and seperated from her husband. Sure, Elizabeth should have been angry at first but could she not forgive eventually?

  18. Eliza
    on Jun 4th at 4:42 am

    I don’t think she hated women in general… She had many women friends and confidants. Of course she had trust issues- she passed the first 25 years of her life being persecuted/ignored. She almost lost her head- she was imprisoned in the Tower. I can totally understand her behaviour.

  19. Regina Danca
    on Jun 4th at 6:37 am

    I find it hard to believe that a woman with as much of a passion for knowledge as Elizabeth had would have remained a virgin. I believe she had affairs with the men in her life and it was only her position as monarch and not only not having an equal in her life, but also her desire not to be ruled by a man, that kept her from marriage. So, my point is that I don’t believe she prevented other women from marrying because of jealousy. I don’t speculate on what reasons may have had, but as the article indicates, she did have women companions and arranged for many marriages. In any event, there has never been a ruler her equal.

  20. Vickie
    on Jun 4th at 7:39 am

    Very interesting . Elizabeth I was
    a smart woman. Thanks for the information .

  21. Lexy
    on Jun 4th at 8:10 am

    A very interesting article, and very pertinent; I totally agree with the idea that Elizabeth considered her ladies in waiting and her household as her family, interweaving what remained of her “blood family”( the Careys, the Knollyses) with it. One can also ad to her refusing to allow marriage her association of marriage and death, due to what she witnessed in childhood ( executions of her mother and Catherine Howard, death in childbirth of Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr). The constant threats to her crown by Mary Stuart certainly didn’t help. I wonder if she ever knew that Philip II planned to replace her with his own daughter, not by a son or a royal blood relative?

  22. Patricia
    on Jun 4th at 10:03 am

    Thank you for the great information and also your writings.I don’t think Elizabeth hated women at all. So had to protect herself and her throne so she was always careful. Obviously she rewarded those she trusted or who served her faithfully. I was curious about something Meg said. She mentioned Helena was a gentlewoman of the privy chamber without pay. What did women of the court do for money if they were not wealthy on their own or if the family had little money? Thanks for this interesting article and discussion.

  23. sandrabyrd
    on Jun 4th at 1:52 pm

    So many amazing comments, and I find we are definitely on the same page! Ti, I would love to see a movie about Bess and her amazing house of windows. Have you been? Sherri. I agree with you for sure where Mary Grey is concerned, that was poorly handled, but Katherine was playing a dangerous game, so close to the throne, to marry without permission, and with the Seymours involved. I think she carried a terrible punishment for her “crime” but I don’t think she went into it blindly, and didn’t take care to ensure her marriage was properly documented.

    Interesting speculation, Lexy! And Patricia, the ladies were either not paid or not paid well; their families were expected to sustain them financially outside of the odd gown or jewel the queen passed along to them. It was supposed, then, that they would marry so well for having been at court that it would all be worth it in the end.

  24. Patricia
    on Jun 4th at 5:25 pm

    Thank you Sandrabyrd. That’s kinda what I thought. Marry well or suffer.LOL

  25. christine Grinkevich
    on Jun 5th at 3:20 am

    I love your books, keep up the good work.

  26. Darya Miller
    on Jun 5th at 1:10 pm

    Thank you so much for this article!!! I have always been frustrated at how maligned ER I has been in regards to her relationships with women. I have always felt that she was very tender and protective of her favorite ladies and it is such a pleasure to read an article that vindicates that line of thinking. I LOVE this blog, i look forward to it!!!

  27. Libby
    on Jun 5th at 1:36 pm

    This is a great article with some great points! I love how you placed some of Elizabeth’s most intimate and lesser known female relationships side by side. I agree that I don’t think she hated women, and I’ve always been infuriated with those who say otherwise. Thanks for the great post!

    (Also, I find Regina’s comment “I find it hard to believe that a woman with as much of a passion for knowledge as Elizabeth had would have remained a virgin” really fascinating. I remain to believe she was a virgin, but I had never thought if that way before!)

  28. Phyllis Wolf
    on Jun 5th at 2:34 pm

    I believe that Elizabeth’s childhood experiences with marriage left her with a deep seated fear of marriage and it is completely understandable that she would have great issues with marriage. That she keep close reign on her Ladies when marriage was involved was probably a manifestation of this fear and approval was difficult to achieved. I have often thought that the marriages she approved of went through a grueling period of questions and the man would have had to win her over through compliments – perhaps even convincing her that she was his first choice but since he could not have her, he would settle for someone else! I feel a great deal of sympathy for Elizabeth’s attitude toward marriage; she gave up a great deal to be independent and free.

  29. sandrabyrd
    on Jun 5th at 8:51 pm

    I love this interaction – and find myself agreeing with you all! 🙂 Libby, what finally convinced me of Elizabeth’s virginity were two things:

    1. I think she was a great flirt, but because of the history of her mother, and Kateryn Parr, and the whole Thomas Seymour incident, I think she was afraid of marriage and perhaps sex.

    2. She said in her later life that if it would please God, she would like to have been known to have died a virgin. I think she was smart enough to have figured out a way around lying if she really had slept with Dudley, for example, and people in those days did not take lying to God lightly.

    And I love the name of your blog, Libby. I am an Anne fan, too. Phyllis, I agree with you!

  30. sandrabyrd
    on Jul 13th at 5:01 pm

    Hi all! Darya is the winner of the necklace, but I’m just about to post another blog with another necklace, so please comment to enter. Darya, I’m sending an email to you to verify your mailing address. Thanks everyone, for posting.