The Royal Succession Under Elizabeth
Even before her accession to the English throne Elizabeth was expected to marry and had no shortage of suitors. Once queen her prospective marriage became a matter of national importance and parliamentary debate because it was inseparable from the questions of who would succeed her on the throne and whether they would maintain the Protestant religion of the church established by the Elizabethan Settlement. Although she accepted in theory that it was her duty to provide an heir, Elizabeth clearly had a deep-seated aversion to the idea of marriage and was loath to be advised concerning either matrimony or the succession. Both Houses of Parliament saw fit to petition her repeatedly on these issues despite her evasive answers and attempts to block discussion of all such prerogative ‘matters of state’. In the Commons this was taken to impugn freedom of speech; it remained a source of tension even after pressure on Elizabeth to marry had been eclipsed by the problem of how to exclude undesirable contenders such as the Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, from taking the English throne. By refusing to name her heirs Elizabeth managed to manipulate the succession as a political tool throughout her reign, to the intense frustration of her counsellors, but ultimately as an effective strategy of self-assertion at home and abroad.
An impressive array of European princes including her sister’s widower Philip II of Spain, Archduke Charles of Austria (brother of the Holy Roman Emperor), and Eric of Sweden vied for Elizabeth’s hand at the start of the reign, as did English noblemen such as the earl of Arundel; however, she took none of them seriously. Rumour instead connected her with Sir Robert Dudley†, whom she appointed Master of the Horse upon her accession, and later created earl of Leicester. Marrying Dudley, the son and grandson of executed traitors, would have been unpopular and divisive; it is unclear whether Elizabeth ever really considered it, although many believed that this relationship was the true reason why she refused betrothal to anyone else. It was perhaps to combat scandalous gossip that in her reply to the Commons’ petition of Feb. 1559 she announced: ‘in the end this shalbe for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a queene, having raigned such a tyme, lived and dyed a virgin’. (Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I, ed. T.E. Hartley, i. 44-5.)
By the mid-1560s Elizabeth had certainly ruled Dudley out. Her renewal of interest in the Catholic Archduke Charles’s proposal at this time was at least partly motivated by the desire to avoid pressure from Parliament, having received separate entreaties to marry from both Commons and Lords in 1563. She dispatched ambassadors to Vienna to negotiate terms with Charles ahead of the 1566 session but further clashes over the succcession were unavoidable. Of particular concern was the birth of James Stuart, who had a claim to the English throne via his mother, Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth quashed parliamentary agitation by reminding a delegation from both Houses of the danger of being ‘a seconde parson as I have byn’, arguing that to limit the succession as they requested would entail ‘sum peryll unto yow, and certeyn dangere unto me’. (Procs. i. 145-9.) By 1572 Mary was a prisoner in England; however, Elizabeth refused to put her on trial for conspiring with the traitorous duke of Norfolk, and also vetoed a parliamentary bill excluding the Stuarts from the succession which had passed both Houses.
During the 1570s Elizabeth was courted first by Henri, duke of Anjou and then by his younger brother Francis, duke of Alençon. Parliament petitioned Elizabeth to marry for the last time in 1576 although by this time her prospect of having children was extremely unlikely. In her mid-forties she began to flirt more seriously with Francis her ‘frog’ after learning of the earl of Leicester’s secret marriage; Francis visited the English court in 1579 and his proposal received greater consideration than that of any previous suitor. However, the French match was unpopular, even amongst the privy council. When MPs John Stubbe and Philip Sidney wrote tracts against it Elizabeth was so offended that Stubbe’s right hand was cut off for sedition and Sidney was banished from Court. By the 1580s the marriage question was dead and Elizabeth instead cultivated the image of a glorious virgin queen.
The discovery of further treasonous plots involving Mary Stuart kept the succession in the spotlight throughout the period 1572-87. Following her eventual execution her son James VI of Scotland became the obvious frontrunner to succeed Elizabeth. Parliamentary feelings towards him were mixed; despite his appeal as a Protestant male heir to the throne Job Throckmorton argued against placing too much faith in the ‘younge impe of Scotlande’, while others conceded Elizabeth’s point that it might be dangerous while she lived to have ‘two suns in one firmament’. (Procs. ii. 264, 285.) In 1593 Peter Wentworth, the Commons’ most ardent proponent of free speech who had until recently been imprisoned in the Tower for writing a tract advancing James’ title as the future king of England, concocted a petition ‘for intayling the succession’ with the support of several Members including Henry Bromley. Unsurprisingly Elizabeth was ‘highly displeased therwithall as a matter contrarie to her former strate commaundement’ and Wentworth was recommitted to the Tower where he languished until his death. (Procs. iii. 68.) Over the ensuing decade James’ candidature became increasingly secure. While publicly refusing to formally acknowledge him as her heir Elizabeth and her counsellors, particularly Robert Cecil, did begin to conduct a secret and coded correspondence with James so that his accession to the English throne was automatically proclaimed at her death in March 1603.