The latest season of The Crown is stirring up some controversy, thanks to an episode where Queen Elizabeth goes off traveling with her lifelong friend “Porchey,” Lord Porchester, to investigate the latest techniques in racehorse management. She’s not traveling officially as sovereign, creating an aura of off-the-record intimacy that culminates in a private dinner where Elizabeth clearly wonders what might have been. No explicit scandalousness, but at the end of the episode, Philip gets jealously fired-up when he discovers she’s finally home, and the two sort of slink off to bed, presumably for some emotionally charged reunion sex. The insinuation—though deeply muffled by The Crown’s whole heavy velvet curtain aesthetic—is that Elizabeth considered cheating on her husband, or at the very least indulged in some emotionally charged heavy flirtation. The suggestion, which writers scurrying to produce SEO-friendly answers to any questions viewers might have, was controversial.
“This is very distasteful and totally unfounded,” former press secretary Dickie Arbiter told the Sunday Times, adding, “The Queen is the last person in the world to have ever considered looking at another man.” Then he added, presumably by accident: “Not only is this muckraking—this is gossip that’s been washing around for decades. It’s got absolutely no substance.” The rumor, at least, isn’t something that The Crown invented out of thin air, though British tabloids just vaguely acknowledge the rumor sometimes and note that there’s absolutely zero evidence to suppose that the relationship was anything more than a friendship between a couple of people who just really, really love horses. This is the trouble with trying to suss out the truth of the sex lives of queens: They attract gossip like a black sweater attracts white cat hair, demonstrating the ambient anxiety around the body of the reigning woman monarch and whether that body is doing it.
Sex is at the heart of monarchy, because a crucial part of the job is producing little princes and princesses. Those who are queen by dint of marriage to a king, of course, have sex, but only with the king, lest it jeopardizes the succession. One of the many pieces of kindling on the fire that eventually engulfed the Bourbons was the suggestion that Marie Antoinette was having an affair—and therefore that her children, her husband’s dynastic heirs, weren’t legitimate. But it was fairly simple in principle, at least: Don’t, unless it’s with the king, in which case it’s literally in the job description.
It was more complicated for queens in their own right. Historically, sovereigns have mistresses almost as a matter of course, and plenty of kings have left illegitimate children all over the place. Those kids could play major roles in the royal establishment, or they could when monarchs actually ran the country and needed a bunch of trustworthy deputies. But many weren’t comfortable with a woman sitting on the throne, at all; in Europe, Salic Law knocked women out of the succession, most famously in France. Even in England, which is now closely associated with the prominent, even epochal women who’ve worn the crown, it took centuries after the Norman Conquest in 1066 for the country to warm up to the idea of a woman reigning in her own right. Historian Helen Castor’s book She Wolves, on the women who held various forms of royal power before Elizabeth I, tells how they were often received; women’s presumed tendency to sexual immorality was one of the many arguments for why they couldn’t reign.
Then, of course, the Tudors ran out of men to park on the throne, and Mary acceded. Elizabeth I’s older sister was the first regnant queen of England, meaning that she held power in her own right rather than simply being married to a king. She was also a Catholic, following on the heels of her father’s break with the church, and therefore governing in an unsettled time. She also chose to marry—there’s that pesky problem of the heir—which created a new set of problems, because a queen had to marry someone of sufficient rank, but then you’ve got a foreigner dangerously close to the throne. In Mary’s case, she opted for the arch Catholic Philip of Spain, combining her two problems into one particularly enormous lightning rod.
In the end, though, it was a moot point, because she didn’t produce an heir, and so the throne went to her half-sister, who opted for a very different approach: not marrying at all and embracing an iconography that made her a virgin, a king, and a mother of the nation all at once. Of course, the world didn’t exactly buy that lock, stock, and barrel, and so what Elizabeth might be up to behind closed doors was a very hot topic in her day. But much like the later Queen Anne, subject of The Favourite, it wasn’t pure prurience. Proximity to the monarch was proximity to power, and so the question of who she might be favoring at any moment determined the fates of families and fortunes. Also, in Elizabeth I’s case, it was a matter of absolutely vital geopolitical importance.
Queen Victoria, an icon of prim public respectability and strictly marital horniness, was walking a different line. She was nowhere near as formally powerful as Elizabeth I, and so she and Albert reoriented the throne around their dynasty as a royal family, an example to the nation. In contrast to the dissolute example of her wicked Hanover uncles, her sexuality was safely locked up in marriage at 21 and put to the task of producing numerous Saxe-Coburg-Gothas. (Although she hated childbirth and anything else that might keep her from her husband’s physical affections.) But then Albert died when she was in her early 40s, and she became close to her Scottish servant, John Brown, resulting in a steady undercurrent of gossip about just how close they might be.
Ultimately, though, perhaps the reason that Victoria and Elizabeth II are so thoroughly imagined as a couple of grandmothers to the nation is that it’s an image that’s convenient for the throne—a way of projecting a sort of power that’s authoritative but still basically cozy and completely unthreatening. While The Crown is happy to hint and even have Elizabeth and Philip engage in a heated kiss, it’s Princess Anne they actually put into a bed.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)