Elizabeth often received offers of marriage, but she only seriously considered three or four suitors for any length of time. Of these, her childhood friend Robert Dudley probably came closest. During 1559, Elizabeth's friendship with the married Dudley seems to have turned to love. Rumour spread through the court that she was sleeping with him; William Cecil, Elizabeth's most trusted advisor, made clear his disapproval. When Dudley's wife, Amy Robsart, was found dead in 1560, under ambiguous circumstances, a great scandal arose. For a time, Elizabeth seriously considered marrying Dudley; but after several months, she put duty ahead of her feelings and decided against the marriage. Dudley, whom she made Earl of Leicester and appointed to the Privy Council, retained a special place in her heart, though her infatuation mellowed in time to a special and lasting friendship. After Elizabeth died, a note from Dudley, who had died in 1588, was found among her possessions, marked "his last letter".
After the Dudley affair, Elizabeth kept the marriage question open but often only as a diplomatic ploy. She appears to have considered marriage out of duty rather than personal preference. Parliament repeatedly petitioned her to marry, but she always answered evasively. In 1563, she told an imperial envoy: "If I follow the inclination of my nature, it is this: beggar-woman and single, far rather than queen and married". In the same year, following Elizabeth's illness with smallpox, the succession question became a heated issue. Parliament urged the queen to marry or nominate an heir, to prevent a civil war upon her death. She refused to do either. In April, she prorogued the Parliament, which did not reconvene until she needed its support to raise taxes in 1566. The House of Commons threatened to withhold funds until she agreed to provide for the succession. In 1566, Sir Robert Bell boldly pursued the issue despite Elizabeth's command to desist and became the target of her anger, saying, "Mr. Bell with his complices must needs prefer their speeches to the upper house to have you my lords, consent with them, whereby you were seduced, and of simplicity did assent unto it."
In 1566, she confided to the Spanish ambassador that if she could find a way to settle the succession without marrying, she would do so. By 1570, senior figures in the government privately accepted that Elizabeth would never marry or name a successor. William Cecil was already seeking solutions to the succession problem. For this stance, as for her failure to marry, she was often accused of irresponsibility. However, Elizabeth's silence strengthened her own political security: she knew that if she named an heir, her throne would be vulnerable to a coup.
Elizabeth's unmarried status inspired a cult of virginity. In poetry and portraiture, she was depicted as a virgin or a goddess or both, not as a normal woman. At first, only Elizabeth made a virtue of her virginity: in 1559, she told the Commons, "And, in the end, 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". Later on, particularly after 1578, poets and writers took up the theme and turned it into aniconography that exalted Elizabeth. In an age of metaphors and conceits, she was portrayed as married to her kingdom and subjects, under divine protection. In 1599, Elizabeth spoke of "all my husbands, my good people"