Herstory at its fucking finest.
“It’s a good thing I was born a girl, otherwise I’d be a drag queen.” Dolly Parton
It stands to reason that Elizabeth I is the subject of many an unorthodox myth. After an unsteady start – dead mother, dead mother who died at the hands of her father, step-mums coming out of her ears, sister locking her in a tower – at the ripe old age of twenty-five, she nabbed the throne and became one of the most charismatic, unique and headstrong women in royal history. Four hundred years later and there’s still loads we don’t know about Liz, and so much of what we assume to know is interpretation rather than fact. She clearly valued her privacy, which is probably one of the biggest points of intrigue; how did she manage to have (if you believe all the gossip, which I so do) as salacious and unprecedentedly independent life as she did, in the public eye? At a time when a queen would have had been told how and when to do everything from go to war to wipe her arse, she lived radically and without apology. Love her or hate her, the girl is a sixteenth century pioneer.
So I accept, dear readers, that an unusual figure, such as Liz, will inspire her contemporaries, and later, writers, historians and history lovers, to get a little creative when they re-imagine her.
What I don’t accept, and to be honest, don’t fully understand, is how so many of these creative little ditties, these rumours, these outright conspiracy theories undermine Liz’s femininity.
An oldie that has very recently resurfaced is the story of The Bisley Boy. If you’ve never encountered the story of The Bisley Boy, allow me to elaborate:
It’s 1543. On a scale of one to 28-Days-Later, London is frothy-mouthed-chimp-ridden with the plague. So being the favourite daughter of Henry VIII, the ten-year-old princess Elizabeth is sent off to the village of Bisley, in Surrey, so she won’t be infected. As she sings ring-a-ring-a-roses in the gardens of her rural sanctuary, Overcourt House, the worst happens, and she gets really sick. After weeks of trying to fight off the disease but instead becoming more and more ill, she dies. That day the king says he’s going to pop by for a visit. The princess’s guardians, Lady Kat Ashley and Thomas Parry, are all “OMG, Henry’s coming, what the flying-fuck are we going to do?”, and in a bid to not end up face down on the chopping block they come up with a plan. They will take a child from the village and dress the child in Liz’s clothes, and seeing as Henry isn’t exactly dad of the year, he will never know the difference. The only child with Liz’s distinctive orange hair is a local boy, so they take him to the castle, Tudor him up and the visit is an absolute bash. Henry goes home satisfied that a small ginger kid about the same age as Liz is alive and well, and Ashley and Parry keep their heads. Thing is, now they’re committed, aren’t they? They can’t just send the king a letter saying “Sorry, Liz died. We covered it up because you’ve got a right mean streak. Kiss and make-up?” Short of fleeing the country, the only option is to maintain the fib. And so the boy poses as Elizabeth I for his entire life.
Now The Wench Front exists for a reason; in the process of documenting and understanding those who’ve shaped humanity, women get a hard time. They do. Rewriting these wrongs is our bread and butter, y’all. That being said, the frequency with which these “theories” questioning Liz’s womanhood reoccur is nineteen to the dozen. And it really does make me wonder if we’re no more tolerant and open-minded than folk were four centuries ago.
The Bisley Boy rumour has been dragged back up thanks to a new historical thriller, The King’s Deception, in which novelist Steve Berry gave said Tudor conspiracy the Dan Brown treatment, and so various sources have tried giving the old drag queen hypothesis some authenticity. But any attempt to argue the “facts” to be found in this story unravels very quickly, when a variation of the following ensues;
“Her most urgent duty, as the last of the Tudor line, was to provide an heir – yet she vowed she would never take a husband, even if the Emperor of Spain offered her an alliance with his oldest son. She stayed true to the oath, provoking a war which almost ended in Spanish invasion in 1588.”
There we have it. The reason that Elizabeth I must have been a man is because she displayed no desire to marry or procreate. Unfortunately, many a nasty deconstruction of Liz’s gender and sexuality is pursued in the name of finally solving the “unmarried” conundrum. And The Bisley Boy isn’t even the nastiest.
In 1983, Dr R Bakan wrote a paper called Queen Elizabeth I: A Case of Testicular Feminisation. In it, he proposes that Liz had a rare genetic condition called Male Pseudohermaphroditism, more commonly known as Testicular Feminisation, and this explains why she never married nor had children.
“The term Testicular Feminisation Syndrome was first used in 1953 and it describes an hereditary disorder of sexual differentiation which is probably transmitted by the mother. Sufferers are phenotypic females, although they have internal testes and X and Y chromosomes, and that the syndrome is rarely accompanied by any other abnormalities. The sufferer’s external genitalia are female, but the uterus and uterine tubes are either rudimentary or absent, and the vagina “ends blindly in a pouch or is absent”. The sufferer is always sterile, although menstruation can occur in a few cases. When the sufferer hits puberty, breasts develop normally and she appears female. Characteristics include slim hips, large hands and feet, thin and elongated fingers, and sufferers tend to be tall and attractive. Their sexual orientation is always female and they enjoy the company of boys, sport and “rough” games in childhood. They also tend to be of above average intelligence and very practical.”
For a more comprehensive look at Bakan’s attempt to create a historical nexus with a bad grasp of medical science, The Elizabeth Files covers it really well. The point is that too many endeavours to understand why Elizabeth behaved the way she did, made the choices she made, are focused on how much of a woman she was. Like there’s a metric measurement for gender. And all the while we foster notions of drag queens and medical conditions, we’re missing the point entirely. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if she was man, woman, or part seahorse, she made an impact. Her story doesn’t stop at the vagina.
My favourite text on Liz is Susan Bassnett’s Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective, which does exactly what it says on the feminist tin. Bassnett looks at Elizabeth’s life, examines her character, strengths and flaws, and most interestingly criticises Elizabethan historiography and the sexism it tends to regurgitate. I can’t recommend it highly enough and so I’ll finish with it now;
“The Parliament of 1559 petitioned the Queen to marry as a matter of national security. Elizabeth replied by declaring that ever since her ‘years of understanding’, she had decided to remain single. She made reassuring noises to the Commons, but stressed the force of her decision: ‘As for mee, it shall be sufficient that a marble stone shall declare that a Queene, having lived and reigned soe many yeeres, died a Virgine’. Elizabeth insisted on her right to remain single in terms that baffled her advisers and many onlookers, and which have interested commentators and biographers for centuries. Even Sir John Neale, whose biography of Elizabeth paints a glowing picture of her capabilities, discusses her refusal to marry in terms that can only be called patronising. He too falls into the trap of suggesting that the Seymour affair had somehow damaged her (he calls it ‘her first cautionary tale’) and that her decision should therefore be seen as deriving more from fear than from self-confidence. Certainly the interest in Elizabeth’s marriage in the first years of her reign amounted to obsession. Doctors made statements about her ability to have children and her monthly periods – even her laundry was investigated for regular traces of menstrual blood. Both her contemporaries and those who have studied her life in later generations have sought rational explanations for behaviour that they deem to have been irrational. Various rumours circulated to the effect that she did not have regular periods, that she was malformed, that she knew she was unable to have children. Others have speculated that Elizabeth’s refusal to marry was the result of an emotional block which derived from the unfortunate experiences of marriage she had known in her life. All these assumptions have been based on the view that marriage is desirable and that without it a woman is unfulfilled. It seems far more fruitful to approach the question from a different perspective. Elizabeth came to the throne at the age of twenty-five, when she had been of marriageable age for more than a decade. By sixteenth-century standards she was a mature woman, and becoming Queen finally gave her a chance to emerge from the coffin-like state she had endured in her early twenties. She had, finally, acquired power, and had moved from a position of powerlessness to one of total control. Had she married, she would have remained Queen but still have found herself in a subservient position to her husband.”
In short – Sister wern’t gon let no man drag her down.