Towards the end of Elizabeth I’s long reign rumours ran rife about the promiscuous behaviour of the ‘flouting wenches’(1) in the royal household where affairs, illegitimate births and shot-gun marriages abounded. The Queen, concerned that her own reputation would suffer by association and beset by deep anxieties about her position, meted out stringent punishments for women who transgressed her strict codes of behaviour.
In the sixteenth century a woman’s social value was dependent on her appearance of modesty and sexual continence; but if she wore the crown, and was subject to the world’s scrutiny, this was essential. That we know of Elizabeth I as ‘the Virgin Queen’ is the enduring effect of an Elizabethan public relations machine that carefully engineered her reputation to counter damning enemy propaganda from Catholic Europe, which deemed her a whore, a bastard and a heretic.
Throughout her long reign she was subject to accusations of wantonness with scandalous stories spread far and wide. Her behaviour as a teenager with the ambitious and married Thomas Seymour was a topic of speculation for decades, the details of their flirtation becoming increasingly exaggerated with each retelling. Rumours even circulated that she had given birth in secret to Seymour’s child. Indeed, if Elizabeth had had all the secret babies she was rumoured to have had she’d have been almost permanently pregnant.
Elizabeth’s long and close relationship with Robert Dudley, later the Earl of Leicester, a man for whom there is no doubt she had a deep affection, was the subject of almost fanatical speculation all over Europe. Her spotless reputation was a matter of great importance for the well being of the realm, because her value as a prize in the European royal marriage market meant she was able to forge powerful alliances with potential suitors, who she cleverly played off against one another as the political climate changed.
In the light of this it was crucial that her female household behaved impeccably and she kept her maids on a very tight reign to this end. However when you throw young, sometimes very young, women together with dashing men, often well schooled in the art of seduction, it is inevitable that reputations will become compromised.
Take the case of Lady Katherine Grey, who married in secret, became immediately pregnant and, terrified of the Queen’s wrath, managed to conceal her condition throughout a long royal progress through East Anglia. By the time the Queen’s party reached Ipswich in the blistering summer heat, Lady Katherine’s pregnancy had come to the Queen’s attention. The poor girl was sent to the Tower to have her baby. Her transgression was complicated by the fact that she was a close royal cousin with a claim on the throne, meaning she was never to be released.
Cases such as Lady Katherine’s were the exception in Elizabeth’s early reign but as time wore on the Queen’s grip on her household became increasingly tenuous and the reputation for lewd behaviour became problematic. Elder statesman Sir William Knolly’s talked of being kept awake by the high jinks in the maid’s dormitory next to his bedchamber. His response was to intrude on their fun and pace the room reciting obscene Italian sonnets (2). The foolish fifty-something soon developed an unrequited passion for the fifteen-year-old Mary Fitton who had just arrived in the Queen’s household. Before long the wanton Miss Fitton was dressing as a boy to tryst with her lover William Herbert. Somewhat inevitably she soon became pregnant and her days at court were over (3).
Indeed banishments and incarcerations proliferated as the century wore on. There was Anne Vavasour who gave birth to the married Earl of Oxford’s baby in the maids’ dormitory at Whitehall Palace and was summarily sent to the Tower. Frances Walsingham had the audacity to wed Queen’s favourite, the Earl of Essex, without royal permission and was cast out of court in perpetuity once her pregnancy became apparent. Essex was forgiven but went on to seduce a number of the Queen’s other maids, fathering at least one bastard.
Elizabeth felt particularly betrayed when one of her closest women, Bess Throckmorton, found she was having the child of another royal favourite, Sir Walter Ralegh, who as a result married her in secret. Bess managed to find an excuse to leave court to have her baby but when Elizabeth eventually discovered the truth she was enraged and the disgraced couple were sent packing. Such incidences were numerous and it was always the women who took the brunt of the blame.
A notable exception was Penelope Devereux. Penelope was married at a young age, against her will, to the wealthy, and aptly named, Lord Rich but by the time of her marriage she had attracted the amorous attentions of Philip Sidney who took her as the inspiration for his deeply passionate sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella. We don’t know if there was ever an affair, in the conventional sense, between them but if you read Sidney’s sonnets it is absolutely clear that his feelings for her were profound and not simply a poetic exercise. Sidney died, a tragic hero, and Penelope went on to begin an affair with Charles Blount (Later lord Mountjoy and Earl of Devonshire).
Despite being a married woman she had a number of children with Blount and latterly didn’t take particular care to conceal their origins, naming one of them Mountjoy. Lord Rich, for reasons we can only speculate upon, turned a blind eye to the open secret of his wife’s adultery, as did, remarkably, the Queen, who continued to welcome Penelope at court even when her brother, the above mentioned Essex, fell from grace and was executed for an insurrection in which Penelope was deeply involved. Hers is the fascinating story of a woman who defied expectations, living her life as she wished and getting away with it, in a time when this was an almost impossible feat.
In spite of the antics of her wanton household, posterity has been kind to ‘Good Queen Bess’; she is remembered as one of England’s greatest monarchs. But Penelope Devereux’s fate changed in the reign of James I, who labelled her ‘a fair woman with a black soul.’ Her problematic story was deliberately forgotten, so as not to stain by association the reputations of two great Protestant hero figures, Sidney and Blount(4). But now perhaps we can read her deliberate and open flouting of the conventions of female virtue as a courageous and brilliant act of defiance.
Elizabeth Fremantle’s novel about Penelope Devereux, Watch the Lady, the final part in a Tudor trilogy, is out now.
(1)Tracy Boorman, Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen, 2010, Vintage.
(2)Anna Whitelock, Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court, 2013, Bloomsbury.
(4)Sally Varlow, The Lady Penelope: The Lost Tale of Love and Politics in the Court of Elizabeth I, 2007, Andre Deutsch.