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Bram Stoker–the guy who wrote Draculawandered into Bisley one May Day and couldn’t help asking why the boy was wearing out-of-date skirts.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.