First of all, we need to determine whether Queen Elizabeth I could have married Robert Dudley. Is the alternate history scenario of her marriage to Dudley probable?
Robert Dudley married his first wife, Amy Robsart, in 1550, three days before her 18th birthday. At that time, the seventeen-year-old Elizabeth was a young unmarried lady, and to marry someone, she needed to get the permission of her younger brother, King Edward VI, her father’s successor; I highly doubt that this permission would have been granted if it was requested. Amy died under mysterious circumstances in 1560, so Robert and Elizabeth couldn’t get married between 1550 and 1560.
Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, when Dudley was still a married man. However, Amy was found dead at her residence, Cumnor Place, near Oxford on the 8th of September 1560, and Dudley became a free man.
Rumors began to spread at court that Dudley had murdered Amy to gain his freedom and marry the queen. In my opinion, it is unlikely that such a smart and intelligent man as Robert murdered his wife: it was clear that if he was implicated, his marriage to Elizabeth would never be impossible. However, I am not intending to go into details about Amy’s death in this article.
Robert Dudley was cleared, but Amy’s death caused the scandal at court and in England. Despite Robert’s established innocence, he was still suspected of his wife’s murder in his lifetime.
Moreover, Dudley was the son of Sir John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, who had been executed for high treason. He himself was incarcerated in the Tower, attainted, and condemned to death, as were his father and four brothers, but only his father went to the scaffold. These events tainted his reputation, and I don’t think that the nobility of England would have accepted their queen’s marriage to him.
Could Queen Elizabeth marry Dudley after Amy’s death? Personally, I think thatthe queen would have never risked doing anything that could cost her the love of her subjects.
Elizabeth took the matter of being queen too seriously, and she would have done everything to keep her throne. It seems that she did really love Robert, keeping him always by her side. I am not sure that Dudley was the love of Elizabeth’s life, for we just don’t know this for sure, but Elizabeth loved England and her subjects more than anyone else, and the love of her subjects was more important to her than her personal life.
The match was strongly opposed by many nobles, including William Cecil. Many nobles considered it inappropriate for the queen to marry a subject and feared the power and influence which Dudley would have over them as Elizabeth’s king consort. Amy’s death made the marriage impossible. But if Elizabeth had done against the wishes of her nobles and married Dudley, she would have had to face the wrath of the whole kingdom – her nobles, both Catholic and Protestant, and the common people.
In the alternative scenario of Elizabeth’s marriage to Robert Dudley, I can see her losing support of many powerful nobles, especially staunch Catholics, and an increase in the number of plots and intrigues against her, each of them aimed at dethronement of her and Dudley and even at their assassination.
Yet, I think that her core supporters, including William Cecil, would have remained loyal to her. There were many plots against the queen in her lifetime, and her loyal subjects would have had to work hard to protect their queen. I can see Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s great spymaster, coming into the picture as the queen’s principal secretary earlier than 1573.
In this AU, the most interesting question is whether Elizabeth and Dudley would have had children who could have continued the Tudor dynasty. We cannot say for certain that one of Elizabeth’s children – her son or her daughter – would have become king or queen after her death.
There are no reasons to assume that the queen was barren or could conceive but not to carry a child to term. I believe that she would have given birth to several children in her marriage to Robert if she married him in several years after Amy’s death, when she was still relatively young even by the standards of Tudor England. But many pregnancies ended up in miscarriages, many babies were stillborn, and many children didn’t live to adulthood.
If Elizabeth married Dudley, there wouldn’t have been any significant changes in Elizabeth’s religious policy that was highly tolerant to Catholics. The Elizabethan Religious Settlement was made at the beginning of her reign: the Act of Uniformity of 1559 set out the groundwork for the Elizabethan church. It happened before Amy’s death, and Elizabeth would have remained the Supreme Governor of the Church of England after her wedding to Dudley. Possibly, the queen would have tried to pacify the anger of displeased nobles and churchmen who would have frowned upon her marriage.
Elizabeth’s marriage to Dudley would have eliminated many opportunities for international alliances with all European countries. As in real history Elizabeth never married, she successfully played her suitors off of one another for about twenty five years, which helped her succeed on the international political arena. Marriage to Dudley would have deprived her of this opportunity, and she would have faced certain difficulties with foreign countries, having to effectively maneuver between them, somehow, to keep a shaky peace with them and England safe. Maybe the Spanish Armada would have sailed to the shores of England earlier than 1588.
It is unknown whether the Union of England and Scotland would have happened in 1603. If Elizabeth birthed a son who lived to adulthood and was still alive at the time of her death, he would have succeeded her.
James VI of Scotland, the only son of Mary Queen of Scots, had daughters, who could have married one of the descendants of Elizabeth’s son since the said son and James’ eldest daughter, Elizabeth, would have had a huge age difference and were unlikely to ever marry. If Elizabeth had a daughter, the girl could have married one of James’ descendants. Such a marriage would have led to the Union of England and Scotland.
I doubt that Elizabeth wanted to marry anyone, even Robert Dudley. Unable to marry the man of her choice, which, in my humble opinion, was Robert, without causing national divisions and losing the love of her subjects, Elizabeth remained single. Maybe Elizabeth didn’t want to marry anyone for a combination of reasons: she couldn’t marry Robert, and she also didn’t want to be anyone’s wife, for she remembered what her father, Henry VIII, had done to his wives, including her own mother, Anne Boleyn.
There was another important reason why Elizabeth chose not to marry. As early as 1559, she made her reasons clear in a message to the House of Commons when Parliament petitioned her to marry:
“Assuredly, if my successor were known to the world, I would never esteem my state to be safe.”
Below, you can find Elizabeth’s speech to Parliament about marriage:
“In a matter most unpleasing, most pleasing to me is the apparent Good will of you and my People, as proceeding from a very good mind towards me and the Commonwealth. Concerning Marriage, which ye so earnestly move me to, I have been long since perswaded, that I was sent into this world by God to think and doe those things chiefly which may tend to his Glory.
Hereupon have I chosen that kind of life which is most free from the troublesome Cares of this world, that I might attend the Service of God alone. From which if either the tendred Marriages of most Potent Princes, or the danger of Death intended against me, could have removed me, I had long agone enjoyed the honour of an Husband. And these things have I thought upon when I was a private person. But now that the publick Care of governing the Kingdom is laid upon me, to draw upon me also the Cares of Marriage may seem a point of inconsiderate Folly.
Yea, to satisfie you, I have already joyned my self in Marriage to an Husband, namely, the Kingdom of England. And behold (said she which I marvell ye have forgotten,) the Pledge of this my Wedlock and Marriage with my Kingdom. (And therewith she drew the Ring from her Finger, and shewed it, wherewith at her Coronation she had in a set form of words solemnly given her self in Marriage to her Kingdom.) Here having made a pause, And do not (saith she) upbraid me with miserable lack of Children: for every one of you, and as many as are Englishmen, are Children and Kinsmen to me; of whom if God deprive me not, (which God forbid) I cannot without injury be accounted Barren. But I commend you that ye have not appointed me an Husband, for that were most unworthy the Majesty of an absolute Princess, and unbeseeming your Wisedom, which are Subjects born.
Nevertheless if it please God that I enter into another course of life, I promise you I will doe nothing which may be prejudicial to the Commonwealth, but will take such a Husband, as near as may be, as will have as great a Care of the Commonwealth as my self. But if I continue in this kind of life I have begun, I doubt not but God will so direct mine own and your Counsels, that ye shall not need to doubt of a Successour which may be more beneficial to the Commonwealth than he which may be born of me, considering that the Issue of the best Princes many times degenerateth. And to me it shall be a full satisfaction, both for the memorial of my Name, and for my Glory also, if when I shall let my last breath, it be ingraven upon my Marble Tomb, Here lieth Elizabeth, which Reigned a Virgin, and died a Virgin.”