There are many historical conspiracy theories that abound (often involving aliens…) but one of my favourite is the peculiar theory that Tudor Queen Elizabeth I was, in fact, a man. Let us explore!
The theory was first written down back in the nineteenth century by Dracula author, Bram Stoker. Bram had visited the village of Bisley in Gloucestershire where he saw a May Day celebration. In this celebration, a young boy was dressed up in Elizabethan female clothing as the May Queen. This of course intrigued Bram, and he questioned the locals. Through talking to the townspeople and doing his own research, he found the curious story that a local boy named Neville had become the famous Tudor Queen.
According to legend, when Elizabeth was around 10 years old she was sent away from London to avoid an outbreak of plague. Henry VIII was famously very paranoid about his health, having almost daily examinations by his physicians, and his concern extended to his children. Elizabeth was sent to the small farming town of Bisley with her governess Lady Kat Ashley and her guardian Thomas Parry. Here, Elizabeth avoided the plague, but instead caught a serious illness and died. Uh oh.
Kat and Thomas were obviously distraught; they did not want to be the ones to tell the infamously ill-tempered and quick-to-execute Henry VIII that his daughter had died in their care. To make things worse, Henry decided he was going to travel to the town to visit his daughter.
Kat and Thomas decided to go for the quick fix answer, and deal with the situation later. They searched the village for a young girl of the same age as Elizabeth that they could pass off as the Princess for the meantime. Unfortunately, no girl of the same age could be found – but a very pretty boy was. He was also of the same size and build as Elizabeth – hoorah!
Kat dressed the boy – Neville – in Elizabeth’s clothes, and somehow Henry was tricked by the ruse. The deception continued, and eventually things had gone too far to turn back, so those involved made a pact never to tell, and ‘Neville’ became ‘Elizabeth’.
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Proponents of the theory say this explains a lot of Elizabeth’s behaviour. She was known to wear heavy makeup, ruffs, and big clothing, all of which could be used to hide masculine features and keep people at a distance. Elizabeth of course was also the “Virgin Queen” who never married or had children – this was necessary as otherwise it would be discovered that she was in fact a man.
Elizabeth was also very protective over her body, and only had a few trusted physicians who she allowed to attend her. Even then, she often waited with ailments for weeks before allowing her doctors to examine her closer. Before her death, she was also emphatically insistent that no post mortem was to be performed on her body. Finally, Kat and Thomas’ involvement seems confirmed by the comment of a Sir Robert Tyrwhitt who wrote in 1549 “I do verily believe that there hath been some secret promise between my Lady, Mistress Ashley and the Cofferer [Thomas Parry] never to confess to death.” Kat and Thomas remained close favourites of the queen and were greatly rewarded by her when she became ruler, seeming to confirm that they were all part of a conspiracy.
Of course, the theory does not stand up to even the smallest bit of scrutiny, but it certainly makes for a dramatic story! The idea that the king wouldn’t notice his child was suddenly very different (even if he was at times a distant father), that a boy from a rural town could swiftly be given the education that Elizabeth had to “bring him up to scratch” (considering her skills in music, needlework, dancing, and her ability to speak and write multiple languages), and that a princess and monarch who was surrounded at all times by servants and courtiers was never noticed to be anything other than a girl and a woman are preposterous. If any further evidence was needed, there are contemporary accounts of Elizabeth’s womanhood later in life. For one marriage proposal, a panel of doctors inspected the queen to ascertain whether she would be capable of bearing children (unlike her sister, Queen Mary I). At another time, her ex-brother-in-law Philip II of Spain bribed her laundress again to see whether Elizabeth would be able to have children, and the laundress confirmed that the queen was menstruating.
The legend that Elizabeth was secretly a man stemmed from rural urban legend and was perpetuated by misogyny – the idea that such a great ruler who fought against the norms of her times could not possibly be anything other than a man. It is safe to say that the story is just that: legend.
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