Was Elizabeth Tudor, Queen Elizabeth 1st, a man ?

by Veronica

Elizabeth 1st stubbornly refused to marry even though she was the last Tudor monarch and desperate for an heir to continue the line. Why was that ? Was she a man in disguise?

A legend has continued for centuries in the English village of Bisley that when Elizabeth Tudor was about 10 year old and living with some courtiers there, she died of plague and her carers were so scared of the evil King Henry 8th that when the King was due on a very rare visit to his daughter, they substituted a boy from the village to pretend to be Elizabeth. This was not unusual. Henry hardly knew his daughter. Once done though, the courtiers had to continue the pretence, little suspecting that Elizabeth would one day be monarch; in fact arguably England's greatest monarch.

So entrenched in village life is the story of “The Bisley Boy “that their annual May Queen was traditionally a boy dressed in Tudor princess clothes. The story so intrigued Dracula fiction author, Bram Stoker, that he even included it in his book on Famous Imposters.

Was Elizabeth 1st a man? Decide for yourself!

Background to Elizabeth Tudor

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn was Henry 8th's second wife. He divorced his first wife, Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, a Catholic, because she had only given him a daughter. He wanted a son. Anne was pregnant at the time of their marriage. She had several miscarriages and still births before giving birth to another daughter. Henry wasn't going to divorce another wife so Anne was falsely charged with adultery. This was paramount to treason and Anne was executed by beheading. Henry married his third wife, Jane Seymour, shortly after the execution. 

Until the birth of Jane's son, Edward, Elizabeth was Henry 8th's heir as he had had his marriage to Catherine annulled thereby disbarring their daughter Mary from the line of succession. Once a son was born, Henry lost interest in Elizabeth and declared her to be illegitimate too. 

Elizabeth spent much time with her aunt, Henry's former mistress Mary Boleyn and her family and also with Kat Ashley who remained her close companion to her death. 

Young Elizabeth aged 13

A famous picture of Princess Elizabeth
A famous picture of Princess Elizabeth

A portrait believed to be when Elizabeth was approx 17

17 years old
17 years old
c/o luminarium

Elizabeth in Bisley

Imagine the scene, Lady Elizabeth had been sent away from London to avoid the plague. But she caught plague anyway and was very ill. Unexpectedly, King Henry VIII, sent news of an unannounced visit to a daughter he had not seen for some time...

The legend goes that the night before the king came, Elizabeth died and in frantic panic Lady Kat Ashley and Elizabeth's guardian Thomas Parry tried to find another girl to substitute as Elizabeth. Unfortunately, no girls of Elizabeth's height and red haired colouring lived in the village, only a boy. So, the boy was substituted and Henry who was not close to his daughter and had not seen her for some time, didn't notice the difference. He stayed a short while and left. 

The ploy and deceit had to be maintained though. Who would have thought that Elizabeth would become queen ? 


Elizabeth's suitors

Elizabeth had many suitors but was believed to have fallen in love with her childhood friend Robert Dudley. He was married but when his wife died, it was suspected that they would marry but the marriage would have been unpopular in England. 

Also Elizabeth had many European kings and prices anxious to marry her and become King of England. These included, Philip, King of Spain, King Eric of Sweden, An Austrian archduke and two French princes. Throughout it all, Elizabeth remained unmarried even though she was the last Tudor monarch and had no heir. 

Rev Thomas Keble

Rev Thomas Keble, a Victorian vicar of Bisley, some three hundred years later stated that he was having some work done in his vicarage garden and found a stone coffin with the skeleton of a young girl dressed in lavish, jewel encrusted clothes. This he believed was Lady Elizabeth's skeleton. He buried the body in a secret location. 

Arguments for her being a man

What arguments are there for Elizabeth being a man ?

  • ·         Elizabeth went bald quite early in life and wore wigs. 

    ·         She always wore large ruffs around her neck. Was this to hide her Adam's apple? 

    ·         She stubbornly refused to get married even to secure the succession. 

    ·         Elizabeth would not allow any doctors to see her naked. 

    ·         She left instructions that must be no autopsy after her death.

    ·         She asked for her body to be put with that of her sister Mary in her tomb so their bones would be mingled. Why was this? The sisters disliked each other- for obvious reasons.

  •            Rev Keble's discovery.  

  •            Elizabeth wore heavy make up to hide pock marks and also facial hair.

Arguments against

  • Elizabeth was reputed to have had lovers. 
  • She is reputed to have an illegitimate child.
  • She staunchly maintained that she was " married to England " and did not want a man to take away her monarchy. Her choice of a foreign husband might provoke unrest. 
  • Her laundry maids maintained that she did menstruate. 
Queen Elizabeth 1st
Queen Elizabeth 1st

Do you think Elizabeth 1st was a man in disguise ?

To conclude

There can be no conclusion. Other than opening the coffin of Mary and Elizabeth and checking the bones, we will never know. Is this an elaborate story to explain why she never married? Is it a tale to promote tourism to the village?  Or is it a cleverly concealed cover up for hundreds of years?

Updated: 03/27/2019, Veronica
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Veronica on 03/27/2019

That is a good observation but of little relevance . Hands are notoriously difficult to put into a painting and can not be taken as evidence of anything other than the skill of the painter. Many mediaeval artists didn't include hands. Paintings could not be given the same import as a photo. She might have had squat hands but wanted them long and slender.

frankbeswick on 03/27/2019

I have looked closely at the picture above and noticed that she has a woman's hands. If you compare male and female hands you note that in males the finger next to the little finger is longer than the index finger.In females the two fingers are the same length, as they are in both pictures of Elizabeth. This is not an absolute rule, but it is true in most cases, and in high testosterone males this secondary sexual characteristic can be quite pronounced. She also has the slim hands of a woman as opposed to the bulky hands of a male.

frankbeswick on 03/27/2019

In terms of strength she is up there with Alfred, William the Conqueror and Henry the Second, but in ethical terms of that bunch only Alfred meets the standards; and only she and Alfred were scholars. She was very intelligent. She was by no means as cruel as her father was.

Her speech at Tilbury as the Armada approached hints at gender confusion, for she declared that she had the body of a woman, but the heart of a king.

Veronica on 03/27/2019

Yes, it seems that intersex can manifest itself at puberty if not at birth. She left details that her body wasn't to be uncovered even after death .
What ever the reasons, there is certainly something secretive in this situation.
Ty for the comment.

Veronica on 03/27/2019

Cruel as she was, she was in my opinion the strongest monarch England ever had, and all in a time when women were overlooked.
There are reasons why her body must never be looked at even after death.

Veronica on 03/27/2019

Yes indeed. Monarchs were greedy, murderous and cruel people.
Great comment.

frankbeswick on 03/27/2019

I have just done a bit of research into intersex, and it seems that 1 in 2000 children are born with it, though it exists to varying degrees. Considering how many children royals have produced it is likely that one or more would be intersex.

Before the Reformation an unmarriageable girl in an upper class family, especially one who was as Elizabeth was an able scholar, would have been sent to a convent to live quietly. But the Reformation put an end to the conventual path for women. Allied to the fact that Henry produced only a feeble son, it meant that Elizabeth was catapulted into the role of monarch.

Mira on 03/27/2019

Intersex sounds very plausible given the info you have given here. Thanks for an enjoyable read :)

Tolovaj on 03/27/2019

Thanks for this intriguing story. While I still believe she was a she, there are definitely many skeletons in the closets (pun intended) of all royal families.

Veronica on 03/27/2019

General comment.
I have always held that every legend has a grain of truth about which a whole tale has been developed. Henry would not have visited a place with plague but children died of other illnesses at that time. …. flu …. chickenpox.... measles....

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