There are many truths we will never know. I have been asked surprisingly often whether the Virgin Queen was truly a virgin and I’m always surprised that people think I might know something that historians have not got to the bottom of in hundreds of years of poring through the historical record. Such a question was even posed during Elizabeth’s lifetime when rumour and scandal ran rife and many sought to discredit her by destroying her reputation. As she plays a large part in my Tudor trilogy, which covers her life from girlhood to old age I had to engage with the problem of how to convey an unknown in a convincing way in my fiction. Had Elizabeth been a central character I would have been compelled to take a position on the question of her love life but as she inhabits the margins of my novels and is only seen through the eyes of other characters it was possible to show her from a perspective of partial view.
When, as a fourteen year old, and living in the household of the dowager Queen Katherine Parr, Elizabeth had something on the spectrum between a flirtation and a full blown affair with the man in the position of stepfather to her, Parr’s fourth husband Thomas Seymour. We know a certain amount about this ‘affair’ thanks to Elizabeth’s close companion and mother figure Katherine Astley’s testimony at Seymour’s subsequent treason trial. Astley describes in detail the mornings when Seymour would visit Elizabeth in her bedchamber in which a certain amount of slap and tickle took place, sufficient for Astley to have words with Seymour. It is also suggested that Parr joined in some of these ‘games,’ in particular a puzzling scene in which Parr is said to have held Elizabeth down while Seymour cut her dress into ‘a hundred pieces’. Finally we learn that Parr discovered Elizabeth and Seymour in ‘an embrace’, which precipitated the girl being sent away from the household.
In describing this episode in Queen’s Gambit I chose to cut the scene of the shredded dress as I wanted to suggest that Elizabeth had lied to Astley about the event to cover for the fact that she had been alone with Seymour, which I felt was plausible, but it would have required a good deal of setting up and would have taken away from the main thrust of the story which was, after all, Katherine Parr’s. But the scene in which Katherine Parr discovers the pair embracing needed to be described as a turning point in Parr’s story, so I took the liberty of setting it in a bed with the guilty couple naked, but deliberately held back from showing the sexual act as I wanted to leave it up to the reader to decide what had really happened. The only evidence we have from the horse’s mouth, as it were, is in a reported conversation in which Elizabeth confesses to Jane Grey that she ‘lay with’ Seymour, another statement that remains open to interpretation by the reader. Alison Weir, however, in The Lady Elizabeth trod an entirely different path, fully exploiting contemporary rumour and depicting the Seymour affair as ending in a secret pregnancy. Interestingly, as Anna Whitelock points out in Elizabeth’s Bedfellows, Elizabeth left strict instructions that she was not to be disembowelled or examined after death, fuelling notions that she had something to hide, and most sources agree that her wishes were obeyed. I occasionally wonder whether, if some evidence should emerge of an early pregnancy, my own interpretation in Queen’s Gambit might seem incomplete.
This piece was initially published on THE HISTORY GIRLS blog 13th November 2013