My Thoughts

Was Queen Elizabeth I Really a Man?

Known as the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I expanded the empire, fought off rebellions and invasions, encouraged literacy and the arts and was much loved by her people. Yet, she never did the one thing expected of all monarchs, her most profound duty: to marry and produce an heir. Perhaps there was an undisclosed reason. Did she wear a neck ruff to hide an adam’s apple; heavy makeup to hide a five o’clock shadow?

Queen Elizabeth I

There have been many who believed so, foremost among them, Bram Stoker of Dracula fame. In 1910, Stoker published a non-fiction book called Famous Imposters, in which he recounted the legend of “The Bisley Boy”:

Village of Bisley

Young Elizabeth was sent to Overcourt House in the village of Bisley to escape plague-riddled London around 1543-1544. During her visit, she fell ill and at this time her governess received word that the king was coming to see his daughter. Unfortunately, before he arrived, Elizabeth died.

Fearing for her life (Henry VIII was known for his explosive temper), the governess scoured the local countryside for a girl to replace Elizabeth. Unfortunately, there was no girl of the right age and colouring; however, there was a young boy who had been a playmate to Elizabeth. She dressed him up in the princess’s clothes and passed him off to the king as his daughter.

King Henry VIII

The governess was able to get away with it because the king only saw his daughter infrequently and didn’t know her very well. The king was never told the truth and Elizabeth’s body was never moved from its original hiding place.

Over three hundred years later, the Reverend Thomas Keble discovered a girl’s body in a stone coffin in Overcourt. The remains were covered in remnants of fine Tudor clothing.

That is the legend.

Why Bram Stoker Believed It

  • Elizabeth’s refusal to marry
  • A letter written by the Count de Feria in 1559, when Elizabeth was only 25: “If my spies do not lie, which I believe they do not, for a certain reason which they have recently given me, I understand that she [Elizabeth] will not bear children.”
  • A significant change in Elizabeth’s writing style between 1543 and 1544
  • Elizabeth’s refusal to see doctors other than her own
  • Stoker believed the Bisley boy to be the son of the Duke of Richmond, himself an illegitimate son of Henry VIII, which would explain his resemblance to Elizabeth

My Take on It

I didn’t think it possible, but I have finally found a far-out oddball theory that even I have trouble entertaining.

First of all, it might have been possible to fool the king for one visit, if he was prevented from looking at the “princess” too closely, but how dumb would he have had to have been to never notice the switch?

Then there’s the problem of keeping it secret for decades. Certainly, the entire population of Overcourt, including the staff, would have known of, or at least suspected, Elizabeth’s death. In later years, surely her ladies-in-waiting would have noticed something off about her, especially if she went through puberty as a male. And doctors. It is true that Elizabeth preferred to use only her own doctor; however, one time during marriage negotiations she was examined by a panel of doctors and pronounced fit to bear children. An odd statement for doctors to make about a man.  Sure, as monarch, she was capable of paying for silence (or threatening for it or both), but how well would this really have worked after her death?

My suspicion is that this theory arose because Elizabeth I was a strong, powerful leader at a time when women were not considered capable. In addition, she was a brilliant scholar, fluent in several languages including (besides English), Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and Welsh. This perception of women as the weaker sex endured into Stoker’s Victorian age (Queen Victoria herself notwithstanding) and beyond. Well, if she was doing all these things women aren’t capable of doing, and on top of it all choosing to live without a man, then she must have been a man.

By that logic, I must be a man. But since I’m not, I tend to believe Queen Elizabeth I wasn’t, either.

Nevertheless, it is an interesting theory and not without supporting evidence. And I have to concede that if Bram Stoker was capable of Victorian bias, perhaps I am capable of modern feminist bias.

So what do you think? Queen Elizabeth I: man or woman?

22 Comments

  • Dale Long

    1

    This would make a great novel. That aside, I'm with you, it's far fetched at best. Intriguing, yes, plausible, no. But a skilled writer could make it plausible.... So do you have plans to rule? ;)

    • Lisa

      2

      I also thought it would make a great novel, which is why I wrote about it. I have no plans to do so, though, so if it strikes your fancy, go for it.

  • Sharon Overend

    3

    Hum, a strong woman who doesn't bear children. Crazy, right? Since Liz was queen, and no one was the boss of her, why not have what she wanted? Nope, my voite is she was a woman. Did this dude Stoker write for the National Enquirer?

    • Lisa

      4

      If the National Enquirer had existed in 1910, Stoker may very well have been a contributor. Seriously, though, just because Elizabeth was queen, doesn't mean she could do anything she wanted. Getting married likely would have meant she would lose her power, which I suspect is the real reason she didn't marry. Likewise, the religious climate of the day meant she would have lost her power had she produced children outside of marriage, even though her father did so with both regularity and impunity. However, there is a rumour that she did bear a son in secret and there is a very distinct possibility that rumour might appear in my blog at some future date.

  • Dave Jones

    5

    Well, I gotta agree. She was a woman and maybe ahead of her time. Is Margaret Thatcher a man? Hmmmm... why not? Is Lisa a man? Hmmmmmmmmm.................

    • Lisa

      6

      Thanks for the excellent analogy with Margaret Thatcher. I don't remember much about her time in power, but I recently saw "Iron Lady" and if that's anywhere near the truth, then she was certainly as intelligent, strong and powerful as Queen Elizabeth I. And, as far as I know, no one ever questioned Margaret Thatcher's gender.

  • Laurie

    7

    There were some very interesting Canadian women who took on men's names and attributes to become physicians and soldiers in the American Civil War. If you are interested in writing a historical novel, check out Dr. Barry of Montreal, 1857, who went to Edinburgh University in 1809 as a male (they did not accept female students), rose through British army medical ranks and served as Assistant Surgeon to the Colonial Inspector and Physician to the Governor's Household during his/her first overseas posting in Cape Town, South Africa. She received many promotions, serving in the West Indies, Corfu and Crimea, before undertaking a reform of Canadian barracks and dietary conditions - among other things, insisting on feathers instead of straw in the pillows!

    • Lisa

      8

      Thanks for sharing that, Laurie. I agree - that would make a much better book than Elizabeth I as a man.

  • D. Singh

    9

    Please everyone leave the queen's soul to rest in peace ; she has long passed. Think about your own lives and who are you all for real? You all do not have anything better to do than to think about stupid things. Learn to pray and do better for yourselves; do better in the world also. God bless!

    • Lisa

      10

      I write fantasy fiction. Thinking about strange, alternative theories is part of my job description. With all due respect to the outstanding monarch she was, Queen Elizabeth I, along with dozens of other historical figures, provide great inspiration.

    • Rachel

      11

      I do not think that discussing history is stupid, and as a non reigious person, I find your suggestions offensive! thank you Lisa for your interesting blog

      • Lisa

        12

        I am glad you enjoy it, Rachel.

  • Leonie

    13

    Quote by Queen Elizabeth 1, "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too."

    • Jon

      14

      That must've been some operation then Leonie ;-)

    • Lisa

      15

      Yes, I have heard that quote. It's a good one.

  • Lisa

    16

    LOL, Jon

  • Mike Richfield

    17

    I am going to say something which also applies in many other contexts. We do not know everything about the past. Particularly, we do not know everything about medicine and about knowledge carefully kept secret in its day, and now totally forgotten even with the careful scrutiny of modern scientific scholarship now falling on just about everything. How do we know that there was not some kind of primitive gender reassignment surgery existing in that era producing a result that might have passed the "eyeball" test. It could have been associated not with early Western medical practice; rather with the technology of eunuch creation practiced in other parts of the world. Still it could have been known to a few select people in the West. Depending on the age of the boy it was performed on, the subject, helped along by some brainwashing and psychological conditioning, might adapt to it very strongly. Another theory is that Elizabeth suffered from an abnormality identified as "testicular feminization". The subject would be externally a female but have testicles internally. Women with this condition show specific patterns of development which Elizabeth did display. Those with this condition may menstruate, but are sterile. Between the two, the latter obviously is more possible. But that doesn't mean that one or the other. had to be true. Nor does allowing the possibility of something mean that a probability has been assigned to it. Still, when reasons of dynasty and reasons of state are in play, there are a lot of things people will do. The suggestion is, some of Henry's close advisers and highly placed supporters were in on it. For those who do not understand what is under discussion here, the theory has been proposed that Henry VIII's daughter Elizabeth died in childhood and a available boy with similar hair and features was substituted for her, to deceive Henry so that those charged with her care would fall victim to Henry's wrath. A second theory is that Elizabeth suffered from some undisclosed developmental problem which left her unable to bear children.

    • Lisa

      18

      I have heard the theory about testicular feminization. I haven't heard the theory of gender reassignment. That is quite interesting, and I believe, possible. I also appreciate your assertion that we can say a thing is possible without saying it is probable.

  • rader mccrae

    19

    Early pre-puberty castration would and could throw a wrench into your strong woman theory. If the male child was castrated, it would have eventually grown breast and there would be very little resulting male facial or chest hair. Queen Elizabeth may very well have been a biselboy Eunuch

    • Lisa

      20

      That is certainly possible. The question is, is it likely? I don't think so, but I could be wrong. The fun thing about mysteries such as this is that we'll never know for sure, so we can keep theorizing.

  • Paul T

    21

    There is a book that entertains this theory of Queen Elizabeth I being a male. 'The King's Deception' by Steve Berry. Lots of details about this subject and quite a plot.

    • Lisa

      22

      I am aware of it. This blog post, done a couple of years ago, has gotten a lot of recent attention because of Berry's book. It's on my to-read list.

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