Who Elizabeth I really was: a conspiracy theory from English history

If you’re in the mood for a good conspiracy theory–one that’s unlikely to boost your blood pressure–then come with me to Tudor England. Or to nineteenth-century England. Or to Bisley, in Gloucestershire, next May Day. Or last May Day. We’re dealing with a tradition here, so it doesn’t matter what year we show up. 

Let’s start in Bisley. It’s easier to get to than Tudor England. 

On May Day, instead of picking a May Queen and dressing her up with a flowery crown, Bisley picks a boy and dresses him up like a Tudor-era girl. 

We can link that to the nineteenth century because that’s when Bram Stoker–the guy who wrote Draculawandered into Bisley one May Day and couldn’t help asking why the boy was wearing out-of-date skirts. 

This being the nineteenth century, the boy didn’t say, “I’m nonbinary and what’s it to you, nosyface?” before going merrily on his whaleboned way. Or awkwardly, given what it must’ve been like to move in those clothes. Instead, villagers told Stoker a local legend.

 

If you get as far as the end of the post, you’ll discover that that this photo is entirely relevant, and Li’l Red is, as you can see, horrified.

The legend

The story starts when Elizabeth I was 9, or in another version of the tale 10. (People may not have been able to imagine being nonbinary back then, but numbers could.) Either way, she wasn’t yet Elizabeth the I, so let’s call her Elizabeth the 0, or just plain Elizabeth. 

Whatever we call her, she, her governess, and her guardian were sent to Bisley to get them away from the plague that was rampaging through London. But you can’t fool fate, can you? According to the legend she died there, although not necessarily of the plague.

Exit Elizabeth.

That created something of a problem for the governess and guardian, since their job wasn’t just to educate her and keep her out of trouble but also to keep her alive, and Daddy–a.k.a. Henry VIII–could be unforgiving. So they did what any rational pair of babysitters would do and found the nearest red-headed kid of roughly the same size–who just happened to be a boy named Neville–and swapped him for the defunct princess.

You believed every word of this until I said his name was Neville, right? Anyone would. And so, of course, did Henry when he came to visit. Aristocratic parenting not being a hands-on activity in that period, he couldn’t tell the difference. Even when the kid said, “Hello, Father. I’d like to be called Neville from now on. Have hormones been discovered yet?”

Liz-Neville and their two puppeteers stayed out of London for a year–time enough, presumably, to turn a village boy into an intimidatingly well-educated princess.

Eat your ‘eart out, ‘Enry ‘Iggins. 

 

Spreading the tale

That–minus a few embellishments–was the tale Stoker was introduced to, and he did what writers do, which was to put it on paper and push it as far out into the world as he was able, which may not have been all that far since I only heard the tale recently. But never mind, we are where we are and we’ve heard it now. He included it in his book Famous Imposters.

 

The Evidence

Every good conspiracy theory needs evidence, and this one reminds us Elizabeth never had children and never married. It reminds us she wore heavy makeup, wigs, ruffs, and large clothing that kept people at a distance so they wouldn’t notice that she had, oh, say, a five o’clock shadow.

She trusted either very few doctors or only one (the number depends on which website she was relying on at the moment, or possibly which one I was) and she insisted that there be no post-mortem on her body, even though she’d be dead by the time they performed it.

And at least one contemporary had the impression that Liz and her former governess and guardian had some secret promises between them. 

It relies, silently, on people who have trouble accepting that one of England’s most famous monarchs had no Y chromosome.

Legend has it that 300 years after the alleged swap, a local minister found an unmarked grave on the grounds of the house where Elizabeth and Co. lived, and it held a skeleton of a child in opulent Tudro-era girl’s clothing, but he reburied it someplace else and, conveniently, no one’s found it.

To date, Elizabeth’s grave hasn’t been dug up to demonstrate that its occupant is female.

 

Is there any chance this is true? 

I’d say the odds of it being true are roughly the same as the odds that I was swapped for a cat in infancy. 

Meow.

62 thoughts on “Who Elizabeth I really was: a conspiracy theory from English history

  1. I saw the headline somewhere this week and couldn’t be bothered with reading the story. The number of people involved would have made it very difficult to keep it secret and why would they not have wanted to admit that she was dead? Children, even royal children and heirs to the throne, died all the time. Besides, Bram Stoker is famous for making up historical stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How have I never heard of this tale? I love it. I am thoroughly tickled by the idea of Queen Neville. There is a similar story about James VI and I having died in infancy and swapped out for some Earl’s son. I remember being told about a skeleton baby wrapped in a fine, embroidered cloth being found in the walls of Edinburgh castle (I think). Seems like it might have been a popular conspiracy theory trope of that era.

    I had also never heard of that book by Bram Stoker. I am going to add it to my reading list and see if my library system has a copy. It has the potential to be amusing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As long as you don’t take it seriously–and it doesn’t sound like you’re planning to–yeah, it should be a good read. I wonder if the story doesn’t also go back to all those tales of babies swapped for–was it fairies? I don’t remember, but something that took the place of the baby. I’m sure it says something deep and meaningful about the culture, but I don’t have a clue what it is.

      I don’t know why inserting the name Neville in the story makes me think it’s so much funnier. Maybe it’s that the name, even now, isn’t one I’m used to. Queen Neville makes cranks the absurdity up an extra notch. Thanks for that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes! Changelings! When I was studying ethnology decades ago, the prevailing theory was that changelings were used as a way of explaining congenital abnormalities and undiagnosed conditions that caused a failure to thrive.

        Neville definitely makes the story all the funnier – though Perkin Warbeck still wins the award for imposter with the most amusing name.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is very amazing ! I wonder of JK Rowling made a veiled reference to it with her character “Neville Longbottom.”
    Frankly it seems they could have easily found a red-haired girl to replace Liz 0…
    Do you suppose Twain based :The Prince and the Pauper” on this ?
    I’m off to order the Kindle version of Stoker’s book (link above) ! Thanks for this and – say- a red-haired cat ! What a coincidence ! ;-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed a red-haired cat, who could be swapped for a young red-headed princess with nobody noticing a thing. Except that her Latin had slipped a bit.

      No comment on either Twain or Rowling, since–

      Hang on. I was going to say I have no information, but that shouldn’t hold me back, should it? Yes, absolutely, it was the spark that lit both book and character. Check with me next week and I’ll have found convincing coincidences for both.

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  4. This is fascinating. Evidence that can’t be accessed or recovered. All sorts of rumors and speculations…people been making stuff up for ever, huh? It’s an early conspiracy theory and the pattern is just the same. Maybe a little less grievance, but…

    Liked by 1 person

    • The grievancy tone could well have gotten lost with the passage of a few centuries, but we can’t know. It’s surprising how easy it is to concoct this stuff. For one of my novels, I needed to bring the reality of the Vietnam War into question. It took a small amount of historical research and a large amount of irresponsibility. Stir well, no need to bake, job done.

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  5. “And at least one contemporary had the impression that Liz and her former governess and guardian had some secret promises between them. ”

    Ah, according to Berkshire folklore, a very youngLizzy gave birth to a child at Hampstead Marshall, not far from where I live. That would explain the “sercet promises”!

    :)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a great conspiracy theory. My parents live very near to Bisley so I was particularly interested in this tale. Of course when Elizabeth was 9 or 10 she had both a brother and an elder sister and wasn’t expected to ever become queen.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think this story is “a good old stable”, a bit like speculating about the Ripper’s identity, hurts no one, gets revived regularily. It is harm-less, and the question whether the person we know as Elizabeth I. is actually female or male by sex, may be interesting on the level of personal curiosity, a game.
    Has the story some likelihood or probability ? Yes, why not ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I enjoy the story but don’t think it’s even remotely possible. First, it assumes that no one would notice that one child had been substituted for another. Forget the sex, kids really aren’t interchangeable. Henry might not have been a hands-on father, but it wouldn’t take a genius to notice that his daughter didn’t look like his daughter anymore. Ditto all the many people around him, and around Elizabeth. Second, the privacy was pretty much nonexistent in court circles. Elizabeth would’ve been surrounded by people, from servants to courtiers, who’d know–and I mean this literally–when she bled and when she shit. If she’d shaved every morning and hadn’t bled each month, believe me, someone would’ve noticed.

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      • I’m sorry, I do not want to be boring, and perhaps it should be left alone.
        But nevertheless, it’s a game.
        I think to con old Henry would have been the smallest task. If this “replacement” happened, it would have been in the 1542 or 1543 (Elizabeth was born without doubt in September 1533). Daddy cut mommy short in 1536 when the girl was two or three years old, and she was sent away from his court. In his last years Henry was ill, and lost eyesight (thirty+ years of boar & beer for breakfast take a toll, maybe he was suffering from diabetes). She surely was not around Henry in the years after Boleyn’s decapitation. Did he ever see her after the “vacation” in that country house, id est in the years between 1542/43 and his death in 1547 ? And if so, would he be able to notice a difference ? One may doubt.
        At some point Elizabeth was given her own court / household / menage. In those fifteen years between the “replacement” and the day when the 25 year old ascended the throne legally & rightfully, wouldn’t this be enough time to learn the role ? In her own court she alone sets the rules, especially about privacy. She decides who is around her when & where, the regina virgo, nobody else. And we are talking about a mid 16th century English court, not a late 17th century French court, where the day officially starts when Louis takes his first piss in the pot d’chambre, and the medicus regalis inspects the king’s first shit of the day (“The boy needs more fibre !”). So who would have a chance to register something unusual about her bodily functions, except a hand-picked small group of persons ?
        Of course it is irreal / unrealistic to assume that such a deceit could have been pulled through for decennia. Someone should use it for a novel, maybe someone already did, I have no clue.
        Sorry again for filling your comments with waffle.

        Liked by 1 person

        • No problem. I’m happy to go back and forth on this. I think you underestimate the extent to which Elizabeth could control the amount of privacy she had. At one point, a potential suitor–I don’t remember which of the many–bribed a laundress to tell him whether the queen still menstruated. He wanted to know if she could, potentially, still have a child. She shared her bedroom, and I believe her bed, with other women, for both propriety and security. See Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An intimate History of Elizabeth I’s Court. https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/1609

          By 1544, Liz could read and write multiple languages. That alone speaks to the difficulty of dropping a village boy, who we can reasonably assume wouldn’t read or write English, into her place and not have the switch noticed by the entire household. The more people are in on a secret, the less likely it is to stay a secret.

          It would make a hell of a novel, though.

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          • Am I allowed one last gasp ?
            Thank you for the link, a very interesting collection close along the sources, as described in the recension. The story of that suitor – well, a bloody cloth is a bloody cloth, nothing else. And if he was assured that it is the Queen’s blood, and if this is what he wanted it to be / to “know”, then he got what he wanted, and probably payed for. Mundus vult decipi..
            Unrelated to the “replacement” theory, the ability of the Queen to write / read / speak a lot of languages rings a bit of a bell – where does this come from ? Has the taste of Elizabethan hagiography. If on the other hand the Venetian ambassador writes home that he had a nice chat with Elizabeth in Italian …
            When the “replacers” by chance grabbed the local parish priest’s educated son – ach, ach, und nochmal ach … lame, lame, lame … so many “ifs” and “whens”.
            Of course the best argument for Elizabeth being Elizabeth is that she shares her chamber and her bed with the ladies. The hard-core conspiracist will of course use exactly this as further proof – it’s a cabale of “the” “women”, for whatever (sinister, of course) reason. Then look over the Channel to the French “Weiberwirtschaft” (hadn’t the Italian Queen a “Flying Squad” ?) of the same time, and the local conspiration is part of an international (European that is) network – what prospects ! I only hope that this phantasey stays where it belongs : At the fringe, far out.

            Liked by 1 person

            • You’re welcome to keep going till you run out of Reply buttons, and you’ve got the makings of a fun novel here. For my second novel, I ended up trying to prove that the Vietnam War never happened. It’s amazing how easy it is to punch holes in reality. You don’t actually need to prove anything, just ask questions and cast doubt. The plot involves a radio talk show host who gets bored one night and starts arguing that the Vietnam War never happened, it was all a massive cover-up of she has no idea what yet. She doesn’t particularly believe it until someone starts feeding her information and the claim takes off, with her riding the wave and getting everything she’s ever wanted, only (predictably) not the way she wanted it.

              Yeah, it was a lot of fun to write.

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    • When I’m serious–and I occasionally am–I’m inclined to go with the simplest explanation: A woman gave up too much when she married, and she wasn’t about to allow someone to take power from her. But if we’re building conspiracy theories, that’s a nice one.

      Was I swapped with a cat? Gee, I’m not sure. My parents never mentioned it, but then, they were dog people. Maybe they couldn’t bring themselves to talk about it.

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