Elizabeth I is remembered as the Virgin Queen, but her reputation was far from spotless. At fourteen, she fell in love with a man who was attractive, charming and exciting. He was also three times her age, her stepmother’s husband and the most dangerous man in England. The Seymour Scandal destroyed Elizabeth’s family, challenged her claims of virginity and threatened her life. Most damagingly, it hampered her chances of ever wearing the English crown.
Elizabeth’s path had crossed Thomas Seymour’s before. Aged only two, her mother’s execution saw her disinherited. At the same time, Edward and Thomas Seymour, brothers to Elizabeth’s new stepmother, began their ascent to power. Their position was assured with the birth of their nephew, Prince Edward, whose mother died in childbirth. Elizabeth was pushed back further into the shadows.
With the boy king’s accession, Edward Seymour became Lord Protector. There was no role in the regency for his brother, a man who was ‘fierce in courage’, but ‘somewhat empty in matter’. Cut off from power, he sought a royal bride. Princess Mary refused him, but Elizabeth was prepared to listen. On the cusp of womanhood, the pretty red head felt obliged to decline ‘the happiness of becoming your wife’.
In his disappointment Seymour remembered Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr. Soon, they were meeting secretly in her gardens at night. Within weeks, they had married. Catherine hoped that her new husband would become a stepfather to Elizabeth. She had no inkling that Seymour had only recently courted her young charge.
Living in the same house, Elizabeth began to blush when she touched Seymour’s hand in dancing. He entered the girl’s bedroom every morning, clad only in a nightshirt. If he found her still in bed, he joined her there, tickling her as she struggled. If she was already up, he smacked her playfully on the back or buttocks. Once, in the gardens, he cut the dress that she was wearing into a thousand pieces. Events moved quickly, with a shocking intensity. Elizabeth, when questioned, would only say ‘how could I help it?’
Finally Catherine, who had turned a blind eye, could bear no more. After finding her husband embracing her stepdaughter, she sent her away. Amidst rumours of a concealed pregnancy and a murdered baby, Elizabeth wrote to Seymour bringing the relationship to an end. It was only truly the beginning.
With Catherine’s death in September 1548 and Seymour’s own arrest for treason in 1549, the scandal exploded into the open. Without her stepmother’s protection, the princess was alone and in danger. As contemporaries whispered, her servants were sent to the Tower. Was the princess still a virgin? Was there a child? Had she promised to marry? The king’s regency council demanded to know as Elizabeth was closely questioned.
In her relationship with Seymour, Elizabeth had fallen into a trap, but the danger brought out the best in her. In her replies to the council, she showed the shrewdness and spirit she would later be famous for. She survived the scandal. Thomas Seymour was not so lucky.
The Seymour Scandal and its fallout led to the creation of the Virgin Queen. On hearing of Seymour’s beheading, Elizabeth sagely observed ‘This day died a man of much wit, and very little judgement’. His fate remained with her. She would never allow her heart to rule her head again.
Elizabeth Norton has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Cambridge, in which she achieved a double first. She also has a Masters degree from Oxford University. She is currently writing up a PhD thesis on the Blount family in the long sixteenth century at King’s College London, where she also teaches History. She lives in Esher with her husband and three children.
Elizabeth is particularly interested in the Tudor period and the queens of England. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Lives of Tudor Women (Head of Zeus, 2016) and The Temptation of Elizabeth T...
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