Historians have traditionally held that Elizabeth decided early in her reign that she could rule more effectively in a man's world by not submitting to one sexually. But according to Dr Susan Doran of the University of Surrey, her attempts at marriage were desperately serious.
In her negotiation in 1571 with the staunchly Roman Catholic Henri, Duke of Anjou - later Henri III of France - she was so eager to secure the match that she made concessions that could have been politically explosive. She gave in to Henri's demand that he be allowed to remain a Catholic: he and his entourage would have been allowed to continue with all Catholic rites and ceremonies short of the Mass. As it was, she was rejected anyway.
The concessions are contained in unpublished letters - now in archives at the British Library - which were sent by Elizabeth to her ambassador in France. They indicate that she was prepared to risk heightening religious tensions, already dangerously high.
Elizabeth made two other attempts at marriage with even greater passion and determination, Dr Doran says. Her decision not to wed Lord Robert Dudley, later Earl of Leicester, with whom she was infatuated, has always been explained as a decision of her own choosing. Dr Doran's research suggests that she was in fact obliged to reject him against her will.
Letters written by ministers show how serious they thought she was about marrying Dudley. The entire government opposed the match, and Elizabeth's chief minister, William Cecil, threatened to resign. Sheyielded to their pressure.
Ministerial opposition and a deepening national sense of anti- Catholicism also forced her to give up her last serious attempt at marriage, in 1578-9, to Henry of Anjou's younger brother, Francis.
The cult of the 'Virgin Queen' was invented during the negotiations with Francis of Anjou by some of her ministers to rouse public opposition to the marriage, Dr Doran says.