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 “The word of a Prince”: Representations of Virginity in the Speeches of Queen Elizabeth I

“The word of a Prince”: Representations of Virginity in the Speeches of Queen Elizabeth I

Addressing the English Parliament in 1559, Queen Elizabeth I, a few months into her sovereignty and scrutinized for her lack of a husband, attempted to assuage England’s wariness and cease petitions for her to marry with an assertion that she “happily chose this kind of life” [1] and would not seek to marry at that time. Despite her assurance, petitions for her to marry would continuously spew from Parliament for the first decade of her rule and wouldn’t quiet until she furiously addressed these requests. As a result of her persistence, Queen Elizabeth I’s virginity is historically iconic. Her representations of her own aversion to marriage, as publicly expressed through speeches as well as authorized portraits, range from impermanent equivocation to firm profession of eternal chastity over the course of her life as queen. In speeches throughout her reign, Elizabeth asserted her right to rule England by embracing her subversive status as the virginal sovereign — a figure both queer and androgynous that existed outside the expectations of the heterosexual early modern hierarchy.

In the first few years of her rule, Elizabeth expressed disinterest in marrying while also maintaining the possibility for future change given the needs of succession. A reliable (and Protestant) heir would ensure the safety of the throne and of England from political and religious turbulence. In a 1563 speech, she declared her aspiration to have children for the sake of the realm at some point — “otherwise,” she says, “I would never marry” [2]. Elizabeth states in these early speeches that she experienced no reason to marry other than to have children; she insists of marriage, “of mine own disposition I was not inclined thereunto” [3]. Despite her aversion, she was aware that the production of an heir was one obligation that she viewed as owing to her kingdom. She recognized that she would be a “danger… to the whole state” were she to die without a secure successor [4]. However, she reminded Parliament that marriage does not guarantee a suitable heir.

In fact, Elizabeth argued that her “issue may grow out of kind and become, perhaps, ungracious” [5]. The threat of a “monstrous” or perhaps even Catholic heir was a weighty threat. In a conversation with the Scottish ambassador in 1561, she revealed her fears of marriage given the tumultuous history of succession and the English crown — especially considering the situation of her predecessor, her older half-sister Mary; she remarked: “So many doubts of marriage in all hands that I stand awe myself to enter in marriage, fearing the controversy” [6]. Despite her private misgivings, Elizabeth publicly maintained this dedication to her country’s needs. She asserted that her decision was entirely based on the needs of the nation; she drew a comparison between her relationship to England and marriage as a reciprocal relationship which invoked obligations and trust. This comparison also provided an excuse not to marry — she is “already bound unto an husband, which is the kingdom of England” [7]. Her use of “bound” underlined the interdependence of her relationship to her country and her sense of duty.

In one version of Elizabeth’s 1559 speech answering to Parliament’s first request for her to marry, she is depicted as showing her coronation ring to her audience as evidence of this marriage after she highlights the parallel [8]. She drew attention to this ring again in a 1561 speech and maintained that there is constancy in her marriage to her kingdom: “I am married already to the realm of England when I was crowned with this ring, which I bear continually in token thereof” [9]. The coronation ring itself seems to hint at a desire to unceasingly abstain from marriage. Her decision of whether or not to marry and produce heirs was reliant on religion as well as her duty to England. The queen named God as her guidance in all relating to marriage, declaring that she is “born a servitor of almighty God” and indicated that she might marry when it was “most acceptable to God" [10]. She cited external forces as reasons to marry, but maintained that it was her choice in the matter. Though there are several political concerns which drove her toward marriage, working in conjunction with the social classification of women as beings subservient to men — a classification that was already vulnerable given her subversive status as the sole leader — she continued to affirm her own disinterest in marrying; however, in these early speeches she declared that she was willing to change her mind for the sake of her kingdom, an allowance that she would drop after a few years in favor of endurant virginity.

Her public stance of disinterest in marriage allowed her to step outside the early modern hierarchy and occupy what Theodora Jankowski calls “queer virginity”; this queerness creates a sort of androgyny that Elizabeth further emphasized with her employment of androgynous language. Jankowski suggests that women of this period who did not engage with expected heterosexuality, be that by participating in homoerotic acts or simply by not participating in sexuality at all, were queer. Since celibate women and women who left what Przybylo and Cooper call “asexual traces” [11] (i.e. those who resonate as having asexual experiences regardless of whether or not they fit within a strict modern definition of asexuality) did not fulfill heterosexual expectations of submissiveness to masculinity through marriage, they could (and can) be considered queer — and indeed, would have been viewed in the early modern period as not being female. Jankowski states: “In a society that has a place for a woman only as a powerless (sexual) servant of men — wife or whore — the virgin with her intact hymen and unpenetrated body is most definitely not a woman, for she challenges her society’s most basic notion of ‘woman.” [12]. Elizabeth’s androgynous language supports her status as a virgin married to her kingdom — simultaneously both and neither woman and man, wife and husband.

Elizabeth’s use of masculine language was vested in a history of male rulers that provided authority. At various points in her sovereignty, she labeled herself a “gentle prince,” [13] her speech as a “prince’s word,” [14] and urged her Parliament “never to tempt too far a prince’s patience” [15]. Constance Jordan proposes that her status as a “female Prince” [16] was due in part to her predecessor; England had created a “legal fiction” of the queen regent as politically male to account for Mary’s occupation of the throne, and this codex of rulership carried on through Elizabeth’s reign [17]. Similarly, Mary Beth Rose argues that Elizabeth’s usage of masculine-coded sovereignty is inherently tied to her need to establish herself “as the legitimate successor in a divinely sanctioned, symbolically male dynasty” [18]. In one 1563 speech, Elizabeth granted herself the right to speak out — though she acknowledged that it was not “appropriate to my sex” [19] — via the power of the throne: “the princely seat and kingly throne wherein God (though unworthy) has constituted me… boldeneth me to say somewhat in this matter” [20]. On the subject of marriage, she again affirmed that she perceived a difference between the needs of a woman and those of a ruler. Elizabeth wielded vocabulary of male dominion when she stated, “For though I can think it best for a private woman, yet do I strive with myself to think it not meet for a prince” [21]. She recognized the difference between her female physical and male political bodies at several points, often acknowledging the perceived weakness of the first and strength of the latter; she does so in the Tilbury speech in which she famously stated, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too” [22]. Here, she utilizes metaphors of internal strength to emphasize a difference between appearance and personality, body and mind, and lay claim to authority despite her gender. As Jordan points out, virginity led credence to this legal fiction of female rulership and “the spiritual maleness of her second body by obviating the possibility of an actual pregnancy” [23]. Her claim of a traditionally masculine throne is paired with matching vocabulary to create a sense of control.

In contrast, Elizabeth’s use of feminine vocabulary and symbols to assert authority largely relies on imagery of motherhood and femininity to create a perception of emotional openness. She referred to her subjects as her “children,” placing them below her in the hierarchy while also offering a sense of closeness through kinship. While defending her chastity in 1559, she stated: “every one of you, and as many as are English, are my children and kinsfolks, of whom, so long as I am not deprived and God shall preserve me, you cannot charge me, without offense, to be destitute” [24]. She employed the image of motherhood as a symbol of her command over the kingdom, as well as a reason not to marry. “Destitute” is doing fascinating work here; she is defending herself against potential insinuations of barrenness by affirming motherhood over her subjects. Her dominion over England, she asserts, is from a position of love. In 1563, she concluded a speech to Parliament by saying, “though after my death you may have many stepdames, yet you shall never have any a more mother than I mean to be unto you all” [25].

Her femininity is also emphasized in her portraits — particularly in her clothing, which is often accessorized with ribbons and jewels. Louis Montrose points to her usage of pearls, particularly in the Armada portraits, with a symbolic connection to purity and virginity; one painting depicts Elizabeth wearing an elaborate codpiece with an “ostentatious” ribbon and studded with pearls as an expression of her chastity [26]. In a speech from 1566, she made reference to feminine garb explicitly by saying, “If I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat….” [27]. Rose highlights this moment as indicative of Elizabeth’s use of “a female rhetoric of legitimization;” Elizabeth claims dominion through her gender and through the struggles she has endured [28]. Rose continues: “Her goal in public rhetoric is not limited to the appropriation of masculine prestige; rather, she seeks to occupy and to monopolize all dominant gendered subject positions” [29]. She emphasized her femininity in addition to co-opting masculine vocabulary to create a fluid, commanding persona.

Her existence outside of the traditional hierarchy is partially informed by her sole control of her kingdom. The difference between her responses to marriage petitions from Parliament in 1559 versus 1567 illustrate her mastery of this embrace. In 1559, she praised the petitioners for not forcing her into marriage while cautioning against their continued coercion, saying that she is glad that they did not try to “draw my love to your liking or frame my will to your fantasies” [30]. She made it clear that it would be her choice if or when she marries. In a 1566 speech to Lords and Commons, in contrast, she emphasized her dominance over her audience, comparing their relationship to rider and horse with a monarchical pun: “I marvel not much that bridleless colts do not know their rider’s hand, whom bit of kingly rein did never snaffle yet” [31]. By this point, Elizabeth was clearly furious that the question of her marriage continued to be raised despite her assurances that it was her decision to make. She noted that her statements on marriage were regularly being challenged: “But that was not accepted nor credited, although spoken by their prince” [32]. She is again invoking the masculinity of the throne to her advantage in vindicating her power. She passionately defends the authority behind her word:

Was I not born in the realm? Were my parents born in any foreign country? Is there any cause I should alienate myself from being careful over this country? Is not my kingdom here? Whom have I oppressed? Whom have I enriched to others’ harm? What turmoil have I made in this commonwealth, that I should be suspected to have no regard to the same?  How have I governed since my reign? [33]

Her defense of her reign on the basis of her Englishness and benevolent rule pointed to her desire to be perceived as an authoritative queen. “A strange thing that the foot should direct the head,” she continued, calling up the early modern view of the hierarchy as parallel to the body and emphasizing the social monstrosity of her Parliament undermining her word [34]. She utilized this metaphor again in 1567: “who is so simple that doubts whether a prince that is head of all the body may not command the feet not to stray when they would slip?” [35] In 1566, she briefly elected to forbid Parliament from debating succession, so frustrated with their perpetual petitioning [36]. Her reign was built on an expectation of obedience to a woman, which would have been non-intuitive to the patriarchal system of the early modern period, and may, therefore, be considered subversive in the Western context.

Elizabeth’s queer command extended beyond government over her country to government over herself. Her virginity was a source of her authority because her body represented all of England — or, indeed, all of Europe, as depicted in a 1598 Dutch engraving; she was in control of the preservation of her body and her country’s borders. Montrose labels Elizabeth’s jurisdiction over her own person “a vital source of her political power” [37]; he writes, “Her authority over the realm was dependent upon her physical and symbolic control of her own body” [38]. This link was evident in Elizabeth’s speech to the troops at Tilbury in 1588, as the threat of Catholic Spain loomed over England’s shores. In her Tilbury speech, she expressed her drive to defend her kingdom by publicly asserting her will to put her body in peril. She stated that she was “resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live and die amongst you all, to lay down for my God and for my kingdom and for my people mine honor and my blood even in the dust" [39]. The focus on blood lost in battle invokes an image of virgin sacrifice (emphasized by the usage of the word “honor”) paired with the imagery of war; as Montrose observes, this “strategic equivocation between masculine and feminine modalities of honor and of bloodletting” allows for an androgynous symbolic act of preservation [40]. Her virginity was symbolically proposed as an offering for the protection of her country again later in the speech, when she stated, “rather than any dishonor shall grow by me, I myself will venter my royal blood” [41]. Elizabeth specifically connected this image of the heroic virgin sacrifice to the geography of the kingdom: “I…take foul scorn that Parma or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm” [42]. Invasion calls to mind foreignness and war and implies sexual violence. Montrose says of the Tilbury speech, “...the English queen successfully defends her own virginity, the integrity of her state, and the welfare of her people by repelling the royal Spanish rapist” [43]; the connection of protection with control supports Elizabeth’s contention of power through virginity, a concept earned through — as Jankowski states — “militantly resisting women’s traditional ‘position of the dominated’” [44].

Elizabeth’s use of the sieve as an icon of her virginity, beginning in her official royal portraits in the late 1570s, perpetuated this association between her chastity and her kingdom’s safety. She invoked the tale of the Roman vestal virgin Tuccia, who used a sieve to prove her purity, both in her choice of the sieve as a symbol as well as the inscription on its edge in several of the portraits: A terra il ben mal dimora insella, or “to earth the good, bad remains in the saddle” [45]. The use of the symbol in these portraits implies that Elizabeth is a perceptive, wise monarch whose virginity allowed her to separate good from evil. In her analysis of Elizabeth’s sieve portraits, Jordan labels imagery of dismissed lines of suitors as expressions of the Queen’s authority and ability to sift out the undesirable [46]. This impression of control is also invoked by the repeated use of a globe in this series of portraits, which represented Elizabeth’s “intended conquest of the new world, a conquest in which English power was to supersede Spanish power” [47]. Montrose points to the positiontment of the sieve at her midsection in several of the portraits as visually linking it to both Elizabeth’s body and the shape of the globe [48]. He goes on to write, “Both the ‘sieve’ and the ‘Armada” portrait groups make an iconic connection between the English sovereign’s virtuous chastity and the English nation’s emerging power and influence across the globe” [49]. Her choice of symbols in her portraits demonstrates Elizabeth’s command over her person and her country, as well as her colonial aims. The sieve affirms her aims to establish an impenetrable, intact body and country and serve as able protector of both through her rejection of both marriage and foreign bodies.

Elizabeth drew authority from publicly expressing the permanence of her non-traditional, queer body. Her perpetuating virginity is in many ways her power, and in the later years of her rule, she embraced this queer, unique source of influence. The period after the advent of Protestantism is one in which virginity is meant to remain temporary; reformist Martin Luther “suggests that vowed virginity is unnatural” [50]. This speaks to the connection in the early modern period between the non-traditional and the monstrous; anything that did not engage with the hierarchies and binaries as expected was deviant and therefore dangerous. Montrose stresses that “the power ascribed to virginity was always fragile” due to its expected impermanence as a “prelude to marriage and motherhood” [51]. Elizabeth, as the virginal sovereign mother defied these expectations, especially once she became firm in her expressed intention to, in her own words, “life out of the state of marriage” [52]. Her existence outside of the heterosexual system became more publicly permanent later in her reign. In the early 1570s, as Montrose notes, she began using the symbol of the “self-renewing phoenix,” a “unique and self-sufficient being, whose constancy was given verbal form in her motto, semper eadem,” or “always the same” [53]. He continues:

…the phoenix was associated with the quasi-mystical powers inhering in the Queen’s virginity. The prominence of this image and its associated motto in the later years of the reign suggest that the perceived succession crisis was being given imaginary resolution in a fantasy of the Queen’s perpetual self-renewal. [54]

This use of imagery depicting divine immortality and perpetuating virginity marks a significant change from the mentions of mortality and succession fears in the early years of her rule when she worried about jeopardizing the “safety” of the realm [55]. Her adoption of these symbols in representations of herself indicate an ownership of her queer virginity.

Elizabeth’s lack of participation in heterosexuality makes her a notable figure in speculative queer history. Przybylo and Cooper state that in examining these figures, it is reductive and ineffective to seek only those who embody the “true asexual” — i.e., a person whose asexuality is “ever present in the body, more or less unchanging throughout one’s lifetime, and categorically not a ‘choice’” [56]. Rather, we should seek moments of asexuality, traces that connect experiences between eras, to create an asexual archive, instead of “becoming fixed on locating historical or literary figures that might ‘pass’ as asexual by today’s standards” [57]. Regardless of whether or not Elizabeth would have identified as asexual had she lived in an era with that vocabulary, she resonates through history as a person distinctive for her publicly asserted lifelong virginity. Of course, there are those who read about this notoriously virginal historical figure and ask, “Okay, but who was she really sleeping with?” This heteronormative thinking takes away from her power as secured through her very public and very contemporaneously queer rejection of expected feminine submissiveness and sexuality — and also takes away a valuable asexual trace in history. Perhaps we should simply believe Elizabeth when in 1559 she stated her hope for her tombstone’s epitaph: “And in the end this shall be for me sufficient: that a marble stone shall declare that a queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin” [58].



  1. Elizabeth I, Elizabeth I: Collected Works, 56

  2. Elizabeth I, 95.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Elizabeth I, 58.

  6. Elizabeth I, 60.

  7. Elizabeth I, 59.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Elizabeth I, 65.

  10. Elizabeth I, 56

  11. Przybylo et al, “Asexual Resonances,” 305.

  12. Jankowski, “Pure Resistance: Queer(y)ing Virginity,” 229-230.

  13. Elizabeth I, Elizabeth I: Collected Works, 106.

  14. Elizabeth I, 79.

  15. Elizabeth I, 106.

  16. Jordan, “Representing Political Androgyny,” 157.

  17. Jordan, 158.

  18. Rose, “The Gendering of Authority,” 1079.

  19. Elizabeth I, Elizabeth I: Collected Works, 70.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Elizabeth I, 79.

  22. Elizabeth I, 326.

  23. Jordan, “Representing Political Androgyny,” 161.

  24. Elizabeth I, Elizabeth I: Collected Works, 59.

  25. Elizabeth I, 72.

  26. Montrose, The Subject of Elizabeth, 147.

  27. Elizabeth I, Elizabeth I: Collected Works, 97.

  28. Rose, “The Gendering of Authority,” 1081.

  29. Ibid.

  30. Elizabeth I, Elizabeth I: Collected Works, 57.

  31. Elizabeth I, 93.

  32. Elizabeth I, 95.

  33. Ibid.

  34. Elizabeth I, 96.

  35. Elizabeth I, 105.

  36. Elizabeth I, 100-1.

  37. Montrose, The Subject of Elizabeth, 151.

  38. Ibid.

  39. Elizabeth I, Elizabeth I: Collected Works, 326.

  40. Montrose, The Subject of Elizabeth, 151.

  41. Elizabeth I, Elizabeth I: Collected Works, 326.

  42. Ibid.

  43. Montrose, The Subject of Elizabeth, 153.

  44. Jankowski, “Pure Resistance: Queer(y)ing Virginity,” 240.

  45. Montrose, The Subject of Elizabeth, 125.

  46. Jordan, “Representing Political Androgyny,” 168.

  47. Jordan, 169.

  48. Montrose, The Subject of Elizabeth, 125.

  49. Montrose, 146.

  50. Jankowski, “Pure Resistance: Queer(y)ing Virginity,” 223.

  51. Montrose, The Subject of Elizabeth, 150.

  52. Elizabeth I, Elizabeth I: Collected Works, 58.

  53. Montrose, The Subject of Elizabeth, 53.

  54. Ibid.

  55. Elizabeth I, Elizabeth I: Collected Works, 71.

  56. Przybylo et al, “Asexual Resonances,” 300.

  57. Przybylo et al, 305.

  58. Elizabeth I, 58.



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The Emergence of Asexual Identity

The Emergence of Asexual Identity