The Dangers of Marriage for a Queen Regnant in the Sixteenth Century

Marriage among the monarchies of sixteenth-century Europe was usually a means to produce a male heir who would accede to the throne and make alliances between countries, usually with the daughter of a king being offered as a potential wife to the young male heir of another country. For kings, a successful marriage was essential in order to ensure the continuation of their dynasty. When it came to a Queen Regnant, a woman who was able to rule in her own right, a marriage could be potentially disastrous and result in the Queen having her power undermined because, once married, a woman became the property of her husband because of a lack of legal protection for women. There were concerns that, if a Queen were to marry a foreign prince, it would mean foreign interference in a way that could not happen if a king had married a foreign princess or noblewoman. These concerns could not be circumvented by marrying a noble, either, because that could be seen among the nobility as ‘favouring’ one family over the other, and as the monarchy still relied on the noble classes to provide an army in times of war it was in their best interest to keep as much of them on side as possible.

Image Credit: Maia C via Flickr

Female heirs to the throne were aware of the potential danger of losing agency and authority, and this is likely why both Mary I and Elizabeth I were hesitant to marry. In a letter written by Charles V’s ambassador, Simon Renard, he says that Mary told him that she had not intended on marrying once she became Queen as she wanted to ‘end her days in chastity’, but she understood it was her duty to do so and to try to produce a Catholic heir to continue her counter-reformation work. However, Mary did ensure that she protected her rights in the marriage agreement, and Philip II had no actual power in England, Mary was an independent leader despite her status as a wife. The fact that this protection was necessary demonstrates how threatening marriage could be for a Queen’s authority if the correct precautions were not taken. Elizabeth chose never to marry, and Susan Brigden, who specialises in the English Reformation, attributes this to there being no real advantage to marrying any of the available suitors. This is because marrying an Englishman would only create issues within the nobility and Brigden suggests that Elizabeth preferred to pretend to entertain marriage proposals from foreign princes in order to gain support from them without any real commitment that could have limited her ability to make alliances with other European powers. For female monarchs, getting married almost required a cost-benefit analysis wherein the Queen would have to consider whether the risks involved in getting married were worth it. In the case of Mary, it was beneficial to her at the time she married because she needed the support of another Catholic monarch and to produce a Catholic heir, whereas Elizabeth’s prospects were not as powerful as an alliance with Spain and offered little extra security in comparison to Mary’s marriage to Philip II.

Female monarchs had unique problems in relation to producing an heir, which was a vital part of a successful marriage in early modern England, because death in childbirth was common, and in the case of Mary and Elizabeth, this would have led to a minor inheriting the throne again, which would have caused the political turmoil that was seen during Edward VI’s short reign. Alternatively, there may have been a situation where both the mother and baby died, leaving no heir to the throne, which could have caused issues for the stability of the government. However, producing a child who could succeed the throne was one of the key aspects of being a monarch as they needed to secure the dynasty. Mary and Elizabeth had differing approaches to this problem. Mary had a husband and she wanted to have a child with him so that her child could inherit the throne, but she was unable to have a child. It was reported that Mary even experienced phantom pregnancies because there was so much pressure for her to have a child who would grow up to be the next Catholic monarch of England. On the other hand, Elizabeth never tried to have a child, instead choosing to name an heir from the existing line of succession, although she constantly delayed naming an heir. This may have been a way of protecting herself, though, as she had seen that in Scotland Mary Queen of Scots had been deposed within a year of her having a son, and Elizabeth did not want that to happen to her. As women, both Mary and Elizabeth were constantly at risk of losing their throne to male claimants, even if it was their own hypothetical child.

Lauren Gannon

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