Sensational Single Elizabeth

Virginia is named for a queen that never married

Virginia is unique among all the United States for a number of reasons, not least of which is that we’re the only one named for a relationship status. Quiz time for all you longtime residents, history buffs and general know-it-alls: Whom does the name Virginia honor? (Cue the Jeopardy music.) King Virgil the ... no, wait ... Princess Ginny of ... um, hang on.

Time’s up. Did you get it? No doubt the ornamented woman pictured here was a dead giveaway. It is, of course, Queen Elizabeth I. In Hampton Roads, you can’t throw a stone without hitting Elizabeth something, be it a street, city or river. But Virginia? How’d that come about?

It turns out that Queen Elizabeth I, whose reign from 1558 to 1603 coincided with serious English attempts to explore and settle the New World, was well known as the Virgin Queen. Yes, that type of virgin, as in she never ... you know.

Queen Elizabeth remained single her entire life, and while marriage isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for physical intimacy, a woman of her standing, a royal with ladies-in-waiting always at her beck and call, couldn’t have carried on some clandestine affair without dozens of eyes, and gossipy mouths, taking careful notice. A virgin she stayed, and it was a title she proudly took to the grave. She predicted this early in her reign in an address to Parliament: “And, in the end,” she said, “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.”

Now, of course, it seems a bit immodest to put your business out there like that, but what you have to realize is that this whole marriage thing, for Elizabeth, was much more than finding a soul mate. Indeed, love took a back seat to politics. Her choice in a husband had the potential to unite or divide empires, even shake up Christendom. It’s quite likely that people who didn’t like Mr. Right could have started a civil war. And there’s the whole male dominated world at that time. Elizabeth would, in a sense, be handing over the keys to a kingdom.

And speaking of male domination, Elizabeth probably didn’t have a very positive view of marriage anyway. Her dad was the six-times-married King Henry VIII, and a couple years after Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, failed to produce a son (an undisputed heir to the throne), he had her arrested on trumped up charges of adultery, and shortly afterward, beheaded.

That’s not to say that there weren’t men who tried to woo Queen Elizabeth; an Austrian archduke and the King of Sweden, to name a couple, wanted her hand. After all, her wealth and resume were impressive, particularly after her comparatively-undersized navy defeated the Spanish Armada. Elizabeth was aware of the gravity of being a bachelorette but chose to rebuff marriage offers each time.

Conversely, there was at least one man who tugged at Elizabeth’s heartstrings, a childhood friend named Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The two were close, and together they enjoyed intimate conversations, dining and dancing, inciting scandalous rumors that they were lovers. There was a small glitch, though. Dudley was married and when his wife mysteriously died after a fall down a flight of stairs, Elizabeth wisely created more than a little breathing room between them.

So Elizabeth never found the right guy, despite the urging of advisors and countrymen to marry and produce an heir to the throne. When she died, the Tudor dynasty ended. Royal watchers and historians, both contemporary and modern, have searched for explanations. Some theories say that her professed virginity was a sham and that she was not only regularly knocking boots, but that she produced illegitimate children. At least one person came forward claiming to be the son of Elizabeth and Dudley. But the evidence for Elizabeth’s promiscuity is flimsy at best, and most historians roundly dismiss this theory.

There’s more evidence to support the claim that medical issues guided Elizabeth’s refusal to marry, although this, too, is not an open and shut case. Some historians see evidence of infertility, others that she had a condition making sex painful. Her mother had three miscarriages.

Regardless of the reason, however, Elizabeth’s resume never included marriage, and she became known to contemporaries as the Virgin Queen. So when she gave royal permission in the 1580s for Sir Walter Raleigh to explore the New World, he naturally named English claims there after her—Virginia. It was a safe bet; she was way over the hill and most people had given up hope that, barring some miracle, she’d marry and reproduce. Raleigh’s choice of a name ensured that Elizabeth’s name would live on forever without all the joys and frustrations of settling down into family life.

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