I look at the theory that Elizabeth I, celebrated Tudor Queen of England and daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn - was actually a man. What do you think? Have a read and let me know what you think...
She may have claimed, in her famous Tilbury speech, that she had the body of a weak and feeble woman - but in recent years, there's been talk that she wasn't just speaking figuratively. Could it be that one of the most successful regnant Queens of England could have actually been a man?
|Elizabeth I, The Rainbow Portrait, Public Domain|
Let's have a look where this story starts.
In a nutshell, the idea is that, in around 1542-3, the 9-10 year old Elizabeth died unexpectedly, while she was being brought up in her household in Bisley. Afraid to tell the king, her then-governess Kat Ashley and guardian Thomas Parry were thought to have hunted around the village for a child that looked similar to the now deceased Princess. There were no local girls that looked like the Princess, but there was a boy that bore some resemblance, with red hair and similar build. They hastily buried Elizabeth's body, took the boy, dressed him in Elizabeth's clothes and then passed him off as Elizabeth. The story was made more famous by Bram Stoker in 1910, when he was told about the legend in the early twentieth century. Since then, writers assert that there are a number of clues from Elizabeth's private life which 'prove' this legend was true.
Possible? Probably not. Here's why.
The secret 'pact'
In contemporary accounts during Elizabeth's life, there' no direct evidence that anyone suspected Elizabeth was male. The only source that alludes to anything vaguely regarding this conspiracy, and is often quoted by its supporters, is a letter from Sir Robert Tyrwhitt dated 1589, that says that he's certain there's a secret between Kat Ashley and Thomas Parry and that "there's a pact between them to take that secret to the grave." (1)
To look at this quote objectively, we need to put what he said in context and that means backing up a bit.
In 1549, with Edward VI on the throne, there were rumours of inappropriate behaviour between the Princess Elizabeth and her stepfather, Thomas Seymour. This was probably true. There are accounts of the teenage Elizabeth flirting with Seymour, him coming into her room in his nightgown and even kisses between them. But Elizabeth was a valuable marriage asset to the young Edward, and her marriage (and exploits in love) must be controlled. There were rumours that she, her governess and guardian were conspiring in a secret marriage between the 16-year old Princess and Seymour without the king's permission. Kat Ashley, Thomas Parry and Elizabeth were investigated. And who was leading the investigation?
Sir Robert Tyrwhitt.
He writes hopefully, to Edward Seymour, in 1549:
"all I have gotten yet is by gentle persuasion, whereby I do begin to grow with her in credit... this is a good beginning, I trust more will follow.'
but then continues, exasperated, in another letter:
'they all sing the same song and so I think they would not do, unless they had set the note before.' (1)
Sir Robert Tyrwhitt clearly believes that Elizabeth, Ashley, Parry and Seymour have conspired to create this marriage. He interviews them all, and although he can find no evidence to charge Elizabeth, Ashley or Parry - Seymour is charged and faces execution on grounds of treason.
Is it possible, then, that Tyrwhitt's comments in 1589 relate to the investigation of 1549? Not of some mysterious secret about Elizabeth being a man, but of the secret marriage he believes was devised between them in the 1540s? I think, when he writes in 1589 about a conspiracy between them, he's referring to this, especially as no one else had questioned the Princess' born sex at this time. In actual fact, this whole episode makes it even more believable that she was female, for the alleged marriage proposals - and Seymour's conduct - to have been taken seriously at all.
The elaborate costumes
Supporters of the legend often rely on Elizabeth's love of elaborate, puffy clothes and chunky jewellery to explain that her Adam's apple, defined muscles and thicker neck could be hidden underneath shaped sleeves and laced ruffs. They also say that Elizabeth's heavy make up and wigs were another disguise - covering up facial stubble.
I don't follow the argument that because Elizabeth wore wigs, this meant that she was a man. Men can grow their hair long too, and if she was switched at a young age - at around nine or ten years old - her governors would have wanted to grow the boy's hair long, to create a good disguise so that they didn't have to rely on wigs in adulthood (the legend states through various sources that they found a boy with red hair to replace the Princess). In the following century, wigs would grow to become a key part of an aristocrat's appearance. And Elizabeth's wig-wearing was for dramatic effect - often studded with jewels and other decorations - and has no serious bearing on this legend in my view.
As for the clothing, Elizabeth often wore low-cut bodices. Would she have done this if she were disguising herself? It would have been a very risky thing if she were found out. An Ambassador reported in 1597, when Elizabeth was well into old age:
'she kept the front of her dress open, and one could see the whole of her bosom, and passing low, and she would open the front of her robe with her hands as if she was too hot.'
He continues, in perhaps a little too detail,
'her bosom is somewhat wrinkled as well as one can see for the collar that she wears around her neck, but lower down her flesh is exceeding white and delicate, so far as one can see.' (2)
This ambassador seems to have spent some time adoring Elizabeth's 'bosom' in her presence - is it possible he was fooled too, up close?
And Elizabeth didn't invent ruffs. They were popular in Europe from the mid-sixteenth century. And it's interesting that her half sister Mary I wore high-necked dresses but so far hasn't provoked a conspiracy like this one. As for the makeup? There's very little evidence that Elizabeth's thick, clown-like make up that we think of today ever existed. She used some make up to hide her pox scars, but even towards the end of her reign, ambassadors describe the tone of her skin - which they wouldn't be able to see if she had very thick, heavy white make up. If this were the case, it would have been mentioned in their often brutally honest ambassadorial despatches a lot more. The ambassadorial account of Elizabeth above later mentions that she looks old (she was 64), and has yellowing and missing teeth - but there's no mention of thick white paint on her face. If he was going to mention those unflattering points, he would definitely have mentioned that, as well.
She never married
Another of the key parts of this theory is that Elizabeth never married during her reign. A number of alliances were certainly proposed to her - and she flirted with some of them - but never actually went through with a marriage, much to the annoyance of her advisors. Without a marriage, there was no heir and without an heir the Tudor dynasty would end. Did she choose not to marry so no husband could unravel her skirts - and the secret plot?
I prefer to look at things a different way.
Her mother - who accounts suggest she had a short, but loving relationship with - was executed by her father when Elizabeth was three years old. Her stepfather Thomas Seymour likely sexually groomed her in her early teenage years, to marry her himself and access power. At the age of eight, she had seen her father behead another, teenage, wife. He had divorced another and another two died in childbirth (Katherine Parr died in childbirth with Seymour's child, after Henry died). She had also seen her half-sister Mary pine for her husband Philip, who had been placed equally on the throne with his wife and given almost equal right to rule at their marriage, but was most of the time absent from the country and polite to his wife, but unloving. He even considered marrying Elizabeth at one time, himself.
Power was fragile, especially within a Tudor court, and Elizabeth knew it. She was clever enough to write to her sister from the Tower, where she was imprisoned, and draw lines across the bottom of her letter, where her writing ended, so no one could add incriminating words to it after it was sent. Elizabeth was wise enough to appreciate that your friends could become your sworn enemies in a split second at court.
So it's easy to see that, to Elizabeth, women didn't come off that well in power with a man by their side - or in marriage in general. It's no wonder she decided not to give half of her kingdom to a suitor from Europe as was expected of her, but continued to reign in her own right.
The whole argument that brings Elizabeth's lack of marriage into the conspiracy is, to me, short-sighted. It presumes that no sexual contact ever took place, as she was too worried about being revealed. Elizabeth definitely had favourites in her court who were very familiar with her - for example the Earl of Essex and Robert Dudley. Did Elizabeth die the Virgin Queen she portrayed? The jury's out on this, and we'll probably never know. The fact that she didn't marry is irrelevant. It seems there's some evidence that she was flirtatious, enjoyed male company at court and it's very possible that she had at least one secret love affair with one of them.
Those close to Elizabeth had to vouch for her reproductive health, too. Philip II bribed her laundress to find out if she was menstruating normally - and after rumours that she was unable to bear children, she was inspected by her doctor who certified to the European marriage market that if she marries 'I will answer for her having ten children, and no one knows her temperament better than I do.' (3)
It was said that Elizabeth requested that no autopsy be held after her death. Conspirators take this to be evidence that she didn't want her body opened and her 'secret' revealed. But could it be that she had other reasons for this? If she had encountered a sexual liaison - or even a hidden pregnancy - at some point in her life, perhaps she was worried that this could be revealed and destroy the image of England's chaste and Virgin Queen that she had worked so hard, for so many years, to promote. Or perhaps it was just her own personal choice, just as it is what we decide for ourselves at death.
The Bisley Girl
In the early nineteenth-century, work was carried out at Bisley church, and a burial was discovered. A young female, bedecked in jewels and elaborate, Tudor clothing was found buried in a grave in the church. Immediately it was thought to have been the 'real' Elizabeth of the legend. The grave was hastily then covered back up. Without evidence or modern archaeological techniques it's difficult to say who this was. But if the 'real' Elizabeth was hastily buried, would Ashley and Parry have gone to the trouble of sliding expensive rings on the little girl's fingers and dressing her in lavish clothes? Would the king not question where her jewels were?
In fact, there's evidence to suggest that Elizabeth was struggling for any sort of clothes during childhood, let alone expensive gowns and rings. A letter from August 1536, a few months after the death of her mother, has her then-governess Lady Bryan writing to Cromwell, desperately asking for clothes for the Princess.
"I beg you to be good lord to her and hers,' she writes. 'And that she may have raiment, for she has neither gown nor kirtle nor petticoat, nor linen for smocks, nor kerchiefs, sleeves, rails, bodystychets, handkerchiefs, mufflers, nor 'begens'.' (4)
If the Bisley Girl did actually exist (strange that she was hastily covered back up on finding her), and was buried in such luxury in an unmarked grave, I don't think that for the reasons above that it was the 'real' Elizabeth. Around the year 1542/43, when the switch was thought to have taken place, remember that Elizabeth was still viewed with derision, as a 'bastard' with no valid claim to the throne herself. So it's unlikely that, at the age of nine or ten, she would have been dressed in great luxury. Closer inspection of the church records could hold a clue to the identity of this child.
Elizabeth lived at the centre of all the prying eyes of the court.
She even once said: 'I do not live in a corner. A thousand eyes see everything I do.'(5)
She had meetings with advisors, attended crowded banquets and loved dancing with her favourites and other nobles of the court. She took part in a number of marriage negotiations and greeted hundreds - maybe even thousands - of ambassadors and subjects throughout her 44-year reign. She had ladies to help her in her most private moments - for washing, dressing and at bedtime. She saw her father - her sister and brother. Isn't it a little unbelievable that Elizabeth could have hidden her secret of being not even just an imposter, but a man - from all these people for so long? In a court where gossip was rife, it's unrealistic to think that no one voiced their suspicions, especially when there were plenty of people willing to remove Elizabeth from power. And don't forget her low-cut bodices, dancing at close-quarters where partners had to lift her into the air - and her flirtations with favourites of the court. Is it madness to state that she fooled them all too?
One thing that history has taught me: where the story is first told says a lot about the story being told in the first place. The legend of the Bisley Boy first took root (thanks to the writings of Bram Stoker) in early-twentieth century Europe, in 1910. This was a time when women did not yet have the vote, were largely expected to be subservient to their husbands and many did not work for a living in their own right. The recent Queen Victoria was an illustrious Queen, but she had Prince Albert by her side. Could it be that the legend of the Bisley Boy came out of a society that could only elevate Elizabeth's achievements by declaring that she was a man? That a woman couldn't possibly have achieved so much?
I firmly believe that the woman who sat at England's throne for nearly half a century in her golden jewelled dresses, curled red wigs and pursed, rouged lips, saw off the Spanish invasion, conducted a clever PR campaign of Virgin Queen Gloriana and was able to connect with the English people from all levels was the woman born to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII in 1533. On her death, her ring was taken to Scotland to show King James that the Queen had died. It was a signet ring, with a clasp. When opened, it revealed two portraits - one of Elizabeth and one that's thought to have been of her mother, Anne, clearly cherished. Is it possible that when the ageing Queen flicked up the clasp, she remembered her mother in the vague, foggy memories of a three-year old girl?
This was Elizabeth I, of England.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.
Please note that links to Amazon are affiliate links, shown with an asterisk. This means that if you decide to click on a link and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission that helps me keep the blog running. Thank you for your support.
1. Spartacus Educational, Katherine Ashley, accessed 24 March 2020
2. Eyewitness History, An Account of Elizabeth I, accessed 24 March 2020
3. * Tracy Borman, The Private Lives of the Tudors, Hodder, 2016, p289-90
4. Henry VIII Letters and Papers, 203, accessed 24 March 2020
5 * Tracy Borman, The Private Lives of the Tudors, Hodder, 2016, page 3