From the 1980s to today, Princess Diana, Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle have been the face of royal tabloid media – and not in a good way. However, the bad press and lies spread about female royals began well before Diana, Kate and Meghan in the past 40 years. Thanks to historians, we can trace royal rumors and negative press all thew ay back to Queen Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth I was the Queen of England, ruling from 1558 - 1603. She was no stranger to rumors; during her reign, doubt, questions and lies related to her queenship, her virginity, and her lack of an heir were circulated among the public. While press in the 1500's differs greatly from the tabloid media of today, one thing they have in common is the way they enabled the people to gossip about royals like Queen Elizabeth I.
Queen Elizabeth was known as the Virgin Queen. Her lack of children led many of her subjects to compare her to the Virgin Mary and Queen Elizabeth, holding her to a higher standard that previous royals. Others, however, didn’t see the symbolism, finding it extremely offensive to the church and their faith. Despite this riff between her subjects, the Virgin Queen nickname stuck throughout history. Elizabeth I’s experience remains as an example of how the press and public can latch on to the private lives of celebrities and torment them – and the truth goes beyond a simple nickname.
From the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth had made the decision to never marry, and thus, never have children. This was unconventional for a woman in her time, if not completely taboo. She experienced pressure from her subjects, advisors, and Parliament to marry, concerned that she would end the line of the Tudors with herself. She needed to marry in order to provide an heir, but also to allow for a King to step in and take on the duties she fulfilled as Queen. In finding a husband, honour would be brought to the Kingdom, because their ruler would no longer be female.
Determined not give in, Elizabeth used her vow to not marry as a way to present herself to her Kingdom as the image of chastity and virginity. Elizabeth made the strategic decision to stay single and motherless in order to not be perceived as the inferior partner and ruler. This decision to remain a Virgin Queen led to extreme rumors that flew about all of Europe trying to understand why she would remain unmarried and without an heir.
For the many decades of her reign, people wondered if she had some deformity or sexual malfunction that would not allow her to consummate her marriages or conceive children. Others believed she had had several illegitimate children with several different men, which would mean that Elizabeth’s honour would be gone. At this time, a women's only source of honour was her sexual credit, so many subjects simply degraded Elizabeth, and saw her as either defective or easy. Obviously, neither of these speculations were very kind, and in tradition royal media fashion, they had long-lasting effects on Elizabeth’s life.
One of the most harmful rumors that Elizabeth encountered involved long-time family friend Robert Dudley. Some believed that they had slept together on several occasions, and that this relationship even resulted in the birth of an illegitimate child between the pair. These rumors ran so deep that, eventually, young men began to come forward as “Arthur Dudley” and claiming to be this son in the hopes of gaining some benefit. Many of those who weren’t convinced by the whole illegitimate son theory believed that Elizabeth never married simply because she could never confine herself to one man.
Others argued that Elizabeth was a virgin and that she had been damaged from birth. A major story about Elizabeth at this time speculated that her family lineage had something to do with her inability to have a child or her refusal to marry. In Elizabeth’s day, it was common knowledge that her father, Henry VIII, was no stranger to affairs; at one point, Henry was even known to have had an affair with Elizabeth's grandmother – the famous Anne Boleyn’s mother. Thus began another rumor: some believed that Anne Boleyn and her daughter Elizabeth I shared the same father, Henry VIII, making Elizabeth an incestuous child born of sin.
Subjects would write letters to Elizabeth, discussing their opinions on the rumors, her virginity, and lack of an heir, almost like the Tweets and Instagram comments we see about the current monarchs on our feeds. Tabloid news stories about Diana and Meghan today replicate the damaging books written about Elizabeth’s private life, where authors would question her handmaids, looking for any information that would lead to an answer about her virginity. Several of her handmaids are credited in stating that Elizabeth had irregular periods. This fact was published in a book and led the public to believe that the Queen could not bear children due to her inconsistent cycle.
These harmful and invasive stories followed the Queen everywhere and throughout her life, but they didn’t end there. For Elizabeth I, the rumors continued well past her death, not unlike the lies and false narratives that continue to live on surrounding Princess Diana even though she’s gone. While the circumstances are different between that of Elizabeth I and Princess Diana or the Duchess Meghan, they are rumors circulating from the public and the press nonetheless. We can see history repeating itself in the lives of royals from Princess Diana to the Duchess Meghan, in this toxic royal media trend dating as far back as the 16th century.