by Heather R. Darsie
Gloriana, Elizabeth I, is the famous virgin-queen of England. She never took a husband. Much speculation has swirled around Elizabeth’s decision to remain single. Several tragic, if not traumatic, events are cited as reasons why Elizabeth chose not to marry.
Elizabeth was born 7 September 1533. On 19 May 1536, when Elizabeth was not quite three years of age, her mother, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded by order of her father. Elizabeth, a precocious child, stated after the fall of her mother, “how haps it governor, yesterday my Lady Princess, today but my Lady Elizabeth?” Elizabeth’s first step-mother, Jane Seymour, died of puerperal fever in 1537 only days after giving birth to Elizabeth’s little brother. Elizabeth was four years old. Katherine Howard, a cousin of Elizabeth’s on her mother’s side and Elizabeth’s third step-mother, was beheaded for committing adultery, a form of treason that could only be committed by the queen, in February 1542. Elizabeth was eight years old.
As a teenager, Elizabeth experienced poor treatment at the hands of men and also watched her fourth step-mother, Katherine Parr, die shortly after giving birth. While living in Katherine Parr’s household, Katherine’s husband Thomas Seymour was physically flirtatious with the Lady Elizabeth in a way that must have been both confusing and frightening. Elizabeth was confronted by Katherine Parr, who blamed Elizabeth for Thomas Seymour’s dubious actions. Seymour was later executed as it was discovered he had designs on marrying Elizabeth. After Elizabeth became queen, she famously never married. It has been presumed that the reason why is because of all the sadness and destruction of married women that Elizabeth witnessed growing up. However, there is one oft-forgot example of a single life well-lived: the life of Anne of Cleves.
Anna von Kleve, commonly known as Anne of Cleves, who took the escarbuncle as her badge, arrived in England as Henry VIII’s fourth bride and Elizabeth’s second stepmother in January 1540. The escarbuncle, a heraldic device consisting of eight metal rays, took its name from a combination of the French word esmeraude, or emerald, and the Latin word carbunculus, or dark red precious stone; in effect, a green ruby. Anna, an intelligent woman herself, would have met Elizabeth when Elizabeth was six years old. Shortly after her wedding, Anna received a letter from little Elizabeth, who very much wanted to meet her new stepmother:
“Permit me to show, in this billet, the zeal with which I devote my respect to you as queen, and my entire obedience to you as my mother. I am too young and feeble to have power to do more than felicitate you with all my heart in this commencement of your marriage. I hope that your Majesty will have as much goodwill for me as I have zeal for your service.”
So impressed and delighted by this letter was Anna that, she asked her new husband if the Lady Elizabeth could come to court.
Anna was queen consort of England for a mere six months, from January 1540 until July 1540, before her marriage to Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, ended. After Anna made the politically wise move of accepting the divorce from Henry, she had but one request: that Elizabeth would be allowed to visit Anna occasionally. Anna was very fond of Elizabeth and delighted by her intellect, enjoying her position as stepmother to the smart, beautiful girl. At twenty-four years old, Anna was certainly of an appropriate age to be Elizabeth’s mother. And, in fact, it is recorded that Anna asked Henry for permission to visit with Elizabeth because Anna felt, “…that to have had [her] for her daughter would have been greater happiness to her than being queen.” While there is not much information about Elizabeth’s relationship with Anna during her formative years, it seems that there was already a strong mother-daughter relationship between the two.
As part of her divorce settlement, Anna received Hever Castle, which was the childhood home of Elizabeth’s mother. It is possible that Elizabeth and Anna could have spent time together at Hever Castle. Anna also received several properties including that of Richmond, which would be Anna’s primary residence. Anne enjoyed her new life as the Tochter von Kleve, or Daughter of Cleves, and the king’s sister: Anne purchased new dresses, came and went as she pleased, maintained her own household, and frequented Henry VIII’s court. Anna chose to stay in England as Henry’s sister instead of returning to Kleve, where she would have been subject to the desires of her brother, Duke Wilhelm. Instead, Anna never remarried; she was content to live her life as a single noblewoman in England, not truly subject to the will of any man, until she died. While there were some trials and tribulations for Anna von Kleve after her marriage was dissolved, overall she maintained her incredible strength of character and was renowned for her gracious demeanor.
Elizabeth surely spent time with Anna, who could have been the closest woman Elizabeth had to a mother. While Katherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII and Elizabeth’s fourth stepmother, certainly took an interest in the education and upbringing of Elizabeth, Elizabeth had already enjoyed the love and support of Anna. Katherine Parr did not formally come into Elizabeth’s life until July of 1543, when Katherine became Henry’s queen consort.
Anna and Elizabeth were given equal prominence during a very important moment in English history, namely the triumphant ride through London of England’s first queen regnant, Mary I, in September 1553. Anna and Elizabeth rode in the chariot immediately behind that of Mary I. It was written in the Chronicle of Queen Jane and Two Years of Queen Mary that, following Mary I’s chariot:
“ Came another chariot having canapie all of one-covereng, with cloth of silver all whit, and vi horses betrapped with the same, bearing the said charyat; and therin sat at the ende, with hir face forward, the lady Elizabeth; and at the other ende, with her back forwarde, the lady Anne of Cleves.”
For this monumental occasion, it is recorded that Elizabeth and Anna wore matching dresses of crimson velvet. Very sadly, Anna died in July 1557, a mere sixteen months before Elizabeth inherited the throne from Mary I.
Anna’s legacy lived on in Elizabeth I. As Gloriana, the famous Virgin Queen of England, Elizabeth I showed a great cunning and wit that could have been developed through her relationship with Anna. Elizabeth I was also a linguist in her own right, but may have been inspired by the intellect of her beloved stepmother, who learned English quite rapidly upon arriving in England in 1540. Although Elizabeth I certainly was in love with at least one man during her life, she had the excellent example of Anna’s independent, strong, noble lifestyle to follow and chose to remain single. While it is true that Elizabeth I experienced an exceptional amount of trauma as a young girl, she had the iron-will and gracious character of Anna from 1540 until Anna’s death in 1557. Anna, bearing a great shield or escarbuncle as her badge, provided Elizabeth with a glowing example of a powerful, politically savvy, independent noblewoman.
Love learning about the Queens of England? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then pre-order my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anne of Cleves told from the German perspective!
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Sources and Suggested Reading
- Weir, Alison. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. (New York: Grove Press, 1991).
- Norton, Elizabeth. Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s Discarded Bride. (Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 2010).
- Weir, Alison. The Children of Henry VIII. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996).
- Chronicle of Queen Jane and Two Years of Queen Mary.