During a time when female monarchs were assumed to marry and birth an heir, Queen Elizabeth I famously defined standards and never had a husband or children, earning her the nickname of the Virgin Queen.
Seeing her mother Anne Boleyn essentially be sentenced to death for being unable to produce a male heir (she was executed on false charges of incest, adultery, witchcraft and conspiracy against the king, her husband Henry VIII) made Elizabeth immediately cautious about having kids herself. And then, as shown in the upcoming movie Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth witnessed what happened when her cousin, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden).
“I think all those sort of things seeded this paranoia in Elizabeth,” Margot Robbie, who plays Elizabeth in the historical drama, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
After Mary wed Henry and welcomed son James, an heir to both Scotland and England’s throne, Henry conspired with his father and Mary’s male council to take the power for himself.
“Elizabeth saw what happened to Mary, which is that Mary becomes pregnant, bears a male heir, and she says, ‘Here’s the heir to these two crowns,’ and then really, really soon after that, men crowd in, conspire to bring her down,” director Josie Rourke says. “They take that male heir, and they say he is now the king and we’re going to rule on his behalf until he’s old enough.”
As Mary lost her crown and fled Scotland, Elizabeth decided she considered herself a man and declared she was married to her country.
“It was actually quite clever of her to announce that she was married to the country and therefore could not be married to someone else,” Robbie, 28, says. “It was really the only way of protecting herself and protecting her position in that way. It really came from life and death stakes. In her mind, it was a survival technique.”
And eventually, her inner circle stopped pushing her to marry and conceive and realized that it wouldn’t even be possible at a certain point in her 44-year rule.
“By then, Elizabeth has reached past the age of 50 and they did understand that once a woman had passed the age of 50, she was past menopause and therefore could not have children of her own,” says historian John Guy, whose book Mary Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, serves as a historical basis for the movie. “The men stopped pestering her all the time to marry and settle the succession in her own kingdom.”
He continues, “In a sort of ironic sort of way, it actually strengthens her hand and she can feel that she can exercise fully both the masculine and feminine dimensions of the monarchy in a way that she couldn’t really before, because that expectation that somehow her chief function as a woman ruler is to reproduce in order to produce a male heir. That’s out of the equation.”
Though Elizabeth had a quiet romance with one of her earls (played by Joe Alwyn in the film), she was believed to have remained a virgin until she died in 1603 at age 69 — and never named an heir.
- For more on Mary Queen of Scots, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday
“I wanted to show what she sacrificed to become who she became and what she lost in order to be one of the longest reigning monarchs in history and give England one of its longest periods of peace that it ever had,” Robbie says of her portrayal. “She sacrificed a lot in order to be able to do that.”
Mary Queen of Scots hits theaters on Friday.
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