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This Side of the Pond

Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman


March 9, 2023

Honestly, leave it to a man to decide that, if a woman has done great and wonderful things, it must be because she’s secretly not a woman at all. I came across an old conspiracy theory this week involving my second favorite queen – a tall tale that was originally spread by none other than Bram Stoker.

This latter fact is not too surprising. The man who invented Dracula was likely blessed in the imagination stakes (see what I did there?).

It’s also not shocking that Queen Elizabeth I has attracted such a wild and wonderful theory. Considering she reigned in the sixteenth century – a time when women rulers were few and respect for the ladies was even scarcer – she achieved remarkable things.

Elizabeth was not perfect, but there’s a reason her reign is known as the Golden Age. England (not yet the United Kingdom) increased its wealth, status and culture under the rule of the Virgin Queen.

She cleared the debts of a bankrupt state, introduced the idea of religious tolerance, built an effective and centralized government, was victorious against the Spanish Armada and enabled explorers to thrive and open up global trade routes, beginning the expansion of the British Empire. That’s not to mention how the arts flourished during her reign – Shakespeare, anyone?

She got a lot done for someone who was never meant to take the throne in the first place. The daughter of Henry VIII and his unfortunate second wife, Ann Boleyn, was almost killed off by her older sister, “Bloody Queen Mary”, who spent most of her reign executing Protestants as she tried to drag the realm back to Catholicism and certainly didn’t want a Protestant inheriting her throne.

But inherit Elizabeth did, and we were all the better for it. She spent her reign delicately balancing the friendships of her European neighbors by suggesting various marriages as a way to kindle and maintain alliances, but never quite following through – hence her nickname.

And so we come to Bram Stoker, who was once the personal assistant of actor Henry Irving and accompanied him to the village of Bisley in Gloucestershire. Here, he came across the legend of “The Bisley Boy” and decided it was likely enough he should write about it.

According to this myth, the Lady Elizabeth was sent to Overcourt House in Bisley at ten years old to escape the plague in London. She was taken ill despite the precautions and died from acute fever.

Her governess was then told that King Henry VIII was on the way to visit. Understandably, considering that Henry is not remembered for his even temper, she didn’t want to tell him the truth.

And so, fearing for her life, she searched the village for a replacement, but couldn’t find a girl with the right red hair in the right age range. Instead, she remembered that the Duke of Richmond had a son who had similar coloring – unsurprising, according to Stoker, because the duke was Henry’s illegitimate son.

The boy was dressed in Elizabeth’s clothing and the king failed to notice the deception. He was never told what had really happened, and Elizabeth’s body was never moved from its hiding place, so a boy pretending to be a girl became a king pretending to be a queen.

Stoker wrote a book about this theory that the New York Times described as “tommyrot” in its review. In this book, he listed many pieces of “evidence” to support his beliefs.

Elizabeth was secretive, for example, and Stoker felt this was for a reason. She maintained a close relationship with her governess and, of course, refused to marry (although, as previously mentioned, promising alliances through marriage with her fractious neighbors was the strongest political tool she had at her disposal and, the second she’d actually picked a suitor, she’d have lost any hope of alliance with all the rest).

Stoker notes that there were rumors she couldn’t bear children, although how anybody would know that of a woman who never claimed to be trying to conceiving one, I’m not sure. He also points out that the style of writing in her letters changed around the time she was supposedly replaced.

Also on the list is that she allegedly refused to see any doctor other than her own and she owned a lot of wigs, which Stoker thought might have been to cover male pattern baldness. She liked to wear big dresses and use a lot of makeup – but then, she was a queen, of course she needed to be larger than life. Also, have you seen the fashion of that time? It wasn’t exactly chinos and a fitted blouse.

Finally, there’s the fact that her tutor said she was basically as clever as a man. Her mind, he wrote, was “exempt from female weakness”, while she had a “masculine power of application”.

Apparently, the concept of women having brains hadn’t quite come to fruition at this point.

Stoker, ever the author of chilling tales, also claimed that the remains of a girl’s body were found in a stone coffin at Overcourt House three centuries later…and they included rags of fine Tudor clothing.

Damning evidence? There’s a lot to suggest it’s a bunch of old nonsense.

For example, would Henry VIII really not have recognized his own daughter? Elizabeth was also not bald: she was attempting to disguise the aging process and maintain her image; there’s a famous story of the Earl of Essex bursting into her chambers to find her grey-haired without her wig.

We also know she had the usual female cycles thanks to King Philip II of Spain, one of her suitors, who bribed her laundress for details on her “health” and was informed she was “functioning normally”.

She was also examined quite thoroughly at one point during a marriage negotiation to be sure she could still bear children. The doctors decided she could, which, you will notice, would have required them to be confident she was in possession of a womb.

Elizabeth herself knew she would always be regarded as less than a man. Her famous speech to the troops as the Armada neared English shores even included the oft-quoted words, “I know I have the body of a weak and 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.”

But I’m not sure she could have foreseen that, a few hundred years after her death, the man who became famous for inventing vampires would also impose on her a gender swap. On the other hand, I am sure the woman who kept Spain and France at bay and maintained one of the longest periods of peace in the country’s history would have dealt with his balderdash swiftly and decisively, had she had the chance.

And that would have been a tale I’d really have enjoyed hearing told.


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