Elizabeth I was famously known as the Virgin Queen: in an age where sexual scandal could ruin a woman, Elizabeth knew as well as anyone that she could not afford to face any accusations of anything untoward. After all, her mother, Anne Boleyn, had paid the ultimate price for her rumoured infidelity during her marriage to King Henry VIII.
However, under the roof of her former stepmother, Catherine Parr, the teenage Princess Elizabeth was nearly engulfed in a scandal which could have cost her everything.
The Seymour Scandal, as the episode has been dubbed, saw Catherine’s husband, Thomas Seymour, make advances on Elizabeth as part of a wider plot to seize the throne – a potentially deadly mix of sexual intrigue, power and conspiracy.
Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving the crown to his 9-year-old son, the new King Edward VI. Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was appointed as Lord Protector, to act as regent until Edward came of age. Unsurprisingly, the position came with a lot of power and not everyone was happy about Somerset’s new role.
Princesses Mary and Elizabeth found themselves somewhat lost after Henry’s death: his will had returned them to the succession, meaning they were Edward’s heirs, now in line for the throne. Mary was a grown woman at the time of Henry’s death and remained fiercely Catholic, whereas Elizabeth was still just a teenager.
Within weeks of Henry’s death, his widow, Catherine Parr, remarried. Her new husband was Thomas Seymour: the pair had been in love for years and had planned to marry, but once Catherine had caught Henry’s eye, their marriage plans had to be put on hold.
Catherine’s stepdaughter, Elizabeth Tudor, also lived with the pair at their home, Chelsea Manor. The teenage Elizabeth had gotten on well with her stepmother before Henry VIII’s death, and the two remained close.
After Seymour moved into Chelsea Manor, he began visiting the teenage Elizabeth in her bedroom early in the morning, before either of them were dressed. Elizabeth’s governess, Kat Ashley, raised Seymour’s behaviour – which apparently included tickling and slapping Elizabeth whilst she was still in her nightclothes – as inappropriate.
However, her concerns were met with little action. Catherine, Elizabeth’s stepmother, often joined in with Seymour’s antics – at one point even helping to hold Elizabeth down while Seymour cut her gown to shreds – and ignored Ashley’s concerns, disregarding the actions as harmless fun.
Elizabeth’s feelings on the subject are not recorded: some suggest that Elizabeth did not reject Seymour’s playful advances, but it seems hard to imagine that the orphaned princess would have dared challenge Seymour, the Lord High Admiral and head of the household.
At some point in the summer of 1548, a pregnant Catherine reportedly caught Seymour and Elizabeth in a close embrace, and she finally decided to send Elizabeth away to Hertfordshire. Shortly after, Catherine and Seymour moved to Sudeley Castle. Catherine died in childbirth there in September 1548, leaving all her worldly possessions to her husband.
However, the scandal had already been set in place. The newly widowed Seymour decided that marriage to the 15-year-old Elizabeth would be the best way of furthering his political ambitions, granting him more power at court. Before he could follow through on his plan, he was arrested trying to break into the King’s Apartments at Hampton Court Palace with a loaded pistol. His precise intentions were unclear, but his actions were perceived as seriously threatening.
Seymour was questioned, as were those associated with him in any way – including Elizabeth and her household. Under immense pressure, she denied charges of treason and of all and any romantic or sexual involvement with Seymour. She was eventually exonerated and released without charge. Seymour was found guilty of treason and executed.
A sobering lesson
Whilst Elizabeth was proved to be innocent of any intrigue or plotting, the whole affair proved to be a sobering experience. Despite still only being 15 years old, she was viewed as a potential threat and the Seymour scandal had come dangerously close to tarnishing her reputation and ending her life.
Many consider this to be one of the most formative episodes in Elizabeth’s life. It showed the teenage princess exactly how dangerous a game of love or flirtation could be, and the importance of having a completely untarnished public image – lessons which she would carry with her for the rest of her life.