Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries a historical conspiracy continues to crop up in historiography; the idea that Elizabeth I was actually a man and consequently we have all been deceived for the last 470 years about our history and triumph of the ‘Golden Age’. But why was this a possibility, and is it really a plausible one?
Conspiracy theorists assert that in Gloucestershire, when Elizabeth was only ten years old and Henry VIII was due to visit, his daughter fell sick, and died. Lady Kay Ashley and Thomas Parry, who were charged with Elizabeth’s care, went into absolute panic. They knew the implications of Elizabeth’s death; the king’s fury, possible execution, and the loss of a potential queen of England. In the nearby village there were no girls of Elizabeth’s age, and so a Bisley boy was taken and dressed up in her attire in order to deceive the king. It worked, since Henry did not often visit his daughter, and her new features could be attributed to simply adolescence. They say that the real Elizabeth Tudor was buried in a stone coffin on the manor grounds. In the early 1800s it is said that a body of a young girl dressed in jewelled robs was discovered in Bisley.
Kat Ashley and Parry realised it was too late to abandon the whole facade once it was done, and decided that the best opportunity to protect themselves was by teaching this new imposter how to be a princess; luckily because of the law accusing a royal of not being a royal was treason itself – nobody ever dared to question Elizabeth’s authenticity.
Stoker believed this conspiracy to be the primary cause of why Elizabeth never married and gave herself the image of ‘The Virgin Queen’. “Elizabeth’s” obsessive use of wigs, and lead makeup of which she would allow no courtier to see her without, was proof that underneath it all she had the features of a man. Her words ‘I have the heart of a man, not a woman, and I am not afraid of anything,’ are to be taken literally.
However, surely this isn’t enough evidence to justify Elizabeth actually being a man. First of all, in Tudor times it was not treason to ‘allow’ a royal children to die. Mortality rates were so high in England that half of all children would usually pass away before adulthood. Therefore it would have been more dangerous to commit actual treason by bringing in an imposter rather than announcing Elizabeth’s death.
It is also true that the ladies in waiting, with their close proximity to the child, would have noticed a difference; they washed her, and assisted her to the bathroom for example. Even if her masculine features could be attributed to adolescence, it would certainly not have happened overnight and would have been noticed. It is also worth remembering her suspected intimate relationships with male courtiers at court; Dudley and Essex in particular. Her choice to remain unmarried was primarily because there was no suitable candidate for her to marry and the risks of childbirth could strip Tudor rule in England instantaneously. The memories of her father with his six wives, and the fate of her mother Anne Boleyn, also clearly contributed to her personal distaste of marriage.
Ultimately, then, the conspiracy of Elizabeth I actually being a man remains only a conspiracy; as well as one that remains highly implausible due to lack of evidence.