Historians' Interest in Elizabeth and Her Successors
Elizabeth Tudor is considered by many to be the greatest monarch in
English history. When she became queen in 1558, she was twenty-five
years old, a survivor of scandal and danger, and considered
illegitimate by most Europeans. She inherited a bankrupt nation, torn
by religious discord, a weakened pawn between the great powers of
France and Spain. She was only the third queen to rule England in her
own right; the other two examples, her cousin Lady Jane Grey and
half-sister Mary I, were disastrous. Even her supporters believed her
position dangerous and uncertain. Although there was widely held
discomfort with England having a female ruler, this did not translate
into active opposition as most believed that she was monarch by the
will of God. But this did not mean they were not concerned.. She
herself proved the biggest challenge to this statement and historians
have debated ever since on why Elizabeth did not marry or choose an
heir until so late in her reign.
As long as anyone could remember there had been public concern over
England’s political future and until Elizabeth produced an heir, the
future was unclear. When Elizabeth mounted the throne, it was taken
for granted (particularly by the House of Commons) that she was to
marry, and marry with the least possible delay. A speech to the
Commons contained “God incline Your Majesty’s heart to marriage…. that
we may see the fruit and child that may come thereof.” This was
expected of her, not merely because in the event of her dying without
issue there would be a dispute whether the claim of Mary Stuart or
that of Catherine Grey was to prevail, but for a more general reason.
In patriarchal Tudor society the acceptable role for women was as a
wife, or if they were unmarried, a wife-in-waiting.
The complex issue of who might have been chosen as a husband for
Elizabeth has greatly interested historians, as there was no shortage
of candidates. However, candidates had to be approved by both
Elizabeth and her council, which proved harder than they had imagined.
Potential partners fell into two categories: Englishmen and
foreigners. There were unfortunately drawbacks in both categories. If
Elizabeth were to marry an Englishman he would be of non-royal stock
as there were no remaining male Tudor relations of a marriageable age.
However, Mary’s marriage to Philip II of Spain meant now that “many at
Court disliked the prospect of the Queen marrying a foreigner.”
Although Mary had signed a pre-nuptial contract limiting Philip’s
powers, she was reluctant to enforce it and the common opinion was
that this led to the loss of Calais. The xenophobic feelings of the
council (and public) were heightened in 1554-1558 and they were
determined that this situation would not arise again,...