Myths & Legends

Was Queen Elizabeth I a Man?

was queen elizabeth a man

Was Queen Elizabeth I actually a male impersonator?

Monarchs and presidents are no strangers to conspiracy theories. From ancient times there are dark rumors about world leaders who were doing something behind the scenes, were not actually dead, had secret knowledge, or were not who they said they were.

Perhaps one of the wildest conspiracy theories involved the Renaissance queen of England, Elizabeth I. There is a once-believed story that the woman who ruled over England and its colonies was not the daughter born to King Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, but was, in fact, a male in disguise (now known as The Bisley Boy).

The story unfolds like this: It is known that Elizabeth was sent away at the age of ten to a village called Bisley to avoid an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in London. It was hoped that being away from the metropolis, where people were dying left and right, would ensure that she did not succumb to the disease.

Unfortunately, an unknown illness soon caught Elizabeth in its clutches and she died.

Soon after, it was announced to the household that King Henry VIII would arrive in Bisley in the near future and would visit his daughter.

Elizabeth’s nurse panicked. Would the king blame her for his daughter’s death? If so, would she be punished? Would she lose her head? The nurse came up with a bold plan: bury Elizabeth secretly and find a local girl who closely resembled Elizabeth and present the imposter to the king as his daughter.

She quickly searched Bisley for a ten-year-old girl with fair complexion and, most importantly, red hair similar to Elizabeth’s. But none were found. But the nurse did find an effeminate young boy who looked somewhat like the dead royal. The nurse had no other choice. She dressed the boy in Elizabeth’s clothing and added a wig and prayed that the king wouldn’t notice any difference.

If this theory is true, the king apparently did not notice the deception and the young boy would grow to manhood and would eventually rule the kingdom.

It sounds farcical, but some serious historians believed this story was true. They based their conclusion on a variety of facts:

  • The grown Elizabeth never consented to the marriage, despite legitimate offers.
  • A perceived stark difference in the form and content of letters she wrote before and after her stay in Bisley.
  • She wore wigs at any occasion where she would be seen.
  • She would only be seen by carefully selected doctors and would thus suffer the effects of an illness for long periods of time until one of her few trusted physicians could attend to her.
  • A nobleman had once written regarding Elizabeth that “for a certain reason which they have recently given me, I understand that she will not bear children.”
  • Elizabeth’s clear directive not to have an autopsy done on her after she died.
  • The report from a cleric of his discovery of a coffin in Bisley in the 1800s which contained the skeleton of a young girl dressed in clothes typical of the Renaissance upper-classes.

This seemingly preposterous legend would probably have vanished into time if it had not been championed by a most unlikely supporter: Bram Stoker, the author of the seminal novel “Dracula.”

It is not known how Stoker first came across the story, but he would come to believe it strongly. He even devoted an entire chapter to the conspiracy in his non-fiction book entitled “Famous Imposters.” Stoker believed that “Elizabeth” was, in fact, the son of one of Henry VIII’s illegitimate male offspring, making the imposter Henry VIII’s grandson. Stoker believed this royal connection would explain the imposter’s physical resemblance to Elizabeth, a member of the royal family.

Once Stoker published his book, the reaction was not kind. Very few people believed his assertion of a cross-gender substitute ruling England during the 1500s. And later, Internet historian Claire Ridgway would outline several reasons this story is fiction, including:

  • It is unlikely someone as intelligent as the king would not recognize the substitution of his daughter with a fake of a different gender.
  • It is known via the Queen’s laundress that Elizabeth menstruated normally.
  • The queen occasionally wore dresses that clearly showed she had normal female breasts.
  • No matter how many doctors and nobles were taken into confidence and sworn to secrecy, a secret so substantial would undoubtedly have been leaked by at least one person who knew the truth.

It all ends in a mystery of why a man as intelligent as Stoker would have put any credence into this conspiracy theory. It is now safe to believe that the Virgin Queen was exactly who she claimed to be.

Sources:
“The Bisley Boy”, The Elizabeth Files website, pulled 2-10-15.
“Political decoy”, Wikipedia, pulled 2-10-15.
“Is this proof the Virgin Queen was an imposter in drag? Shocking new theory about Elizabeth I unearthed in historic manuscripts”, Daily Mail website, pulled 2-10-15.

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Doug MacGowan

Doug MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published five books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading.

Historic Mysteries