The Secret of the Virgin King: Was Queen Elizabeth I really a man?

Elizabeth I is remembered for many things – her long reign, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and her unflinching determination.

However, her most eternal legacy is that of the Virgin Queen. Despite countless proposals and opportunities to marry an array of suitable bachelors, Elizabeth resisted and her line died with her. “I have already joined myself in marriage to a husband, namely the kingdom of England,” she claimed, but was this true?

Elizabeth’s vow of abstinence was a very unusual one for her time, and there were those who believe that the real reason was far more biological – Elizabeth was a man.

The theory that the virgin queen was actually the virgin king was first put into print by none other than Bram Stoker, but there’s no doubt that some of Elizabeth’s contemporaries held similar ideas. Known for writing the gothic horror novel Dracula, Stoker first uncovered this theory when he visited the village of Bisley in the Cotswolds. He discovered a peculiar village tradition during May Day celebrations where the May Queen was actually a boy dressed in Elizabethan clothing.

Curious to know more about this strange tradition, he did some digging, uncovered a legend and immortalised it in his 1910 book Famous Imposters.

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Stoker’s conspiracy theory was known as “The Bisley Boy”

The story goes that at some point in her childhood, likely around 1543 or 1544, the young Elizabeth was sent away to Bisley to escape the threat of plague in the city.

The king arranged to come and see his daughter in her countryside retreat, but shortly before he was expected, the young Elizabeth fell ill and died. Knowing how fearsome Henry’s reputation was, and not wishing to feel the brunt of the royal anger, the governess concocted a plan. She hid the child’s body and rushed into town to find a girl to pass off as the princess.

Unfortunately for the panicked governess, there was no female child of the appropriate age who even vaguely resembled Elizabeth. Then she remembered a playmate of the princess, a pretty young child who could well be passed off as her. There was only one problem – he was a boy. With no options left, the governess found the child and dressed him in Elizabeth’s clothes just as Henry arrived.

Amazingly, the con went off without a hitch. Luckily for the governess, Henry didn’t visit his daughter often and she was known for being shy around him, besides, he was in a hurry. After catching a glimpse of her, he was satisfied and went on his way. The deception worked so well that it continued indefinitely, nobody in the know dared inform the king, and most aware of the swap were confined to the tiny remote village in the Cotswold hills, and thus the truth was buried forever.

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This portrait portrays Elizabeth a few years after the supposed switch.

Elizabeth’s (the real Elizabeth that is) body was supposedly never moved from the stone coffin it was hidden in, and more than 300 years later, during building work, it was discovered. Reverend Thomas Keble reportedly told his family that the body found was that of a young girl in Elizabethan dress. Realising what he had discovered, he conveniently reburied her elsewhere – supposedly beginning the legend that intrigued Stoker and created the peculiar May Day drag tradition.

Stoker wasn’t messing around with this conspiracy, he was thoroughly convinced that it was 100 per cent true, and it’s easy to see how he might have come to this conclusion. Elizabeth had many attributes and habits that were very unusual for a woman in her era, not to mention her famous speech to the troops of Tilbury before the Spanish Armada:

“I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”

It was argued that such a rousing speech with such remarkable manly bearing could not possibly come from the mouth of a woman. There was also the fact that she constantly wore wigs, perhaps to hide a receding hairline? She was also known to cake her face in makeup, as well as wear big dresses with a high neckline – perfect for disguising a male form.

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Was Elizabeth’s wardrobe chosen with her manly figure in mind?

There were multiple rumours during Elizabeth’s reign that she was unable to bear children. The Count de Feria, advisor of Philip II of Spain, wrote in 1559, when Elizabeth was 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 will not bear children.”

Was this reason the absence of female reproductive organs? Stoker certainly believed so, and he also maintained that this was a secret that ‘Elizabeth’ closely guarded her whole life. The courtier Sir Robert Tyrwhitt wrote in 1549:

“I do verily believe that there hath been some secret promise between my Lady, Mistress Ashley [Elizabeth’s governess] and the Cofferer [Sir Thomas Parry] never to confess to death. “

Stoker wasn’t the only one to compare Elizabeth to a man. Her tutor Roger Ascham wrote in 1550: “The constitution of her mind is exempt from female weakness, and she is endued with a masculine power of application.” Simply put – she was far too clever to be a woman. Elizabeth’s refusal to see any other doctors but her own was also seen as suspicious. Even when she fell ill during house arrest at Woodstock, she refused to see anyone but her own physicians. This reluctance for others to examine her body continued throughout her life, and she made it very clear that there was to be absolutely no post mortem of her body after her death.

However, like most conspiracy theories, it falls apart if we look a little deeper at the facts. It does seem peculiar that even a father as distant as Henry wouldn’t notice that his little girl was now a little boy – especially considering how obsessed he was about acquiring one of his own.

Although Elizabeth never married, she was romantically linked to men – most notably Robert Dudley. Although she claimed never to actually have done the deed with him (which is believable considering she was constantly surrounded by watchful eyes day and night), it seems unlikely that none of her male favourites would notice that she was a he.

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Robert Dudley, one of Elizabeth’s favourites, though the rest of the royal court did not share such fondness for him.

Another prospective suitor, Philip II, had heard rumours of her infertility and decided to find out the truth for himself by bribing her laundress for details. She reported that the queen was functioning normally as a woman, indicating that she was menstruating. Satisfied that she could indeed bear him an heir, Philip unsuccessfully proposed to Elizabeth.

On another occasion a panel of doctors inspected her during marriage negotiations to ensure she could still bear children – and they confirmed she could. Either they were very ill-trained doctors, or Elizabeth was, in fact, female.

Perhaps what this, most definitely hogwash, conspiracy demonstrates instead is how cemented the views towards women were. In the 1500s a woman’s role was so defined that even the most powerful woman in the country, the queen of England, could not defy it without people questioning her gender.

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Sources: 

  • Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen, Tracy Borman
  • Famous Imposters, Bram Stoker
  • A History of Britain in 100 Mistakes, Gareth Rubin