Elizabeth I – A Virago, Genetically Male or Simply a Strong woman?

Posted By claire on November 12, 2009

My inspiration from this article comes from the comments left on my “Bisley Boy” post, particularly the one left by historian and author Leanda de Lisle who said:

“I’m afraid this kind of sexist myth about Elizabeth is not that uncommon. In the sixteenth century it was believed that women who exercised power over men lost their femininity and were rendered barren. It was an idea drawn from the Greek myth of the masculine women called the Virago, And these beliefs are surprisingly persistent, In 1985 a doctor Bakan went so far as to suggest that Elizabeth’s mental toughness suggested she suffered from testicular feminization and was genetically male. I discuss these theories briefly in my book on the Grey sisters (Jane, Katherine and Mary).”

I just had to research this further and look into the work of Dr Bakan!

A painting of Amazon women by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1751-1829

A Virago

I must admit to knowing the word “virago” but not really knowing what it meant or the story behind it. Here are some dictionary definitions I found:-


Etymology: Middle English from Latin viragin-, virago, from vir man

  1. A loud overbearing woman
  2. A woman of great stature, strength and courage
  3. A noisy or scolding or domineering woman
  4. Amazon – a large strong and aggressive woman
  5. A strong, brave or warlike woman
  6. A strong, large, man-line woman; an amazon

The term “virago” seems to be interchangeable with “amazon” which refers to the Amazons, a race of women warriors in Greek mythology who inhabited Scythia, near the Black Sea. Their society was matriarchal and one myth states that no man was allowed to live in their lands but that they visited a neighbouring tribe once a year to have sexual relations in order to prevent their race from dying out. If male babies resulted from these encounters, they would be killed, left in the wilderness or sent back to their fathers. It is said that they cut off or burned off one breast so that it was easier for them to throw spears.

It is easy to see why Elizabeth may be called a “virago” or “Amazon”, after all, she was tall, aggressive, brave, domineering and scolding, but these terms are not always complimentary terms in that the Amazons were seen as man-haters. Far from being a man-hater, Elizabeth seemed to come alive in the presence of men and enjoyed flirting with them and sharing her wit and intelligence.

Genetically Male

Elizabeth as a teenager

I looked up the work of R. Bakan, from the Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C., Canada. Bakan wrote an article, or medical hypothesis, entitled “Queen Elizabeth I: A Case of Testicular Feminization” in 1985. In this article, Bakan puts forward the idea that Elizabeth I was a case of testicular feminization and that this diagnosis explains why she never married, why it was believed that she had some kind of congenital defect or was barren, and that is also explains her physical appearance, behaviour and character. Bakan says that although many modern historians believe that Elizabeth’s refusal to marry has a psychological explanation, s/he believes that:

“recent advances in our understanding of the process of sexual differentiation, particularly, the description of the testicular feminization syndrome, justify a re-evaluation of the “physical defect evidence” of Elizabeth’s contemporaries.”

Before we go into Bakan’s reasoning as to why s/he believes Elizabeth may have suffered from this syndrome, let’s find out a bit more about it.

What is Testicular Feminization Syndrome?

Bakan explains that the term was first used in 1953 and that it describes an hereditary disorder of sexual differentiation which is probably transmitted by the mother. Bakan goes on to explain that 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, breast develop normally and she appears female. Characteristics include slim hips, large hands and feet, thin and elongated hands and fingers, and sufferers tend to be tall and attractive. Their sexual orientation is always female and they enjoy the company of buys, sport and “rough” games in childhood. They also tend to be of above average intelligence and very practical.

Bakan sums up the characteristics of someone with testicular feminization by saying that:

“testicular feminization individuals typically present attractive, intelligent, practical females, above average in height, slim, active, athletic with notably long and beautiful hands. They have a normal life span and are free of related
illnesses and obvious malformations. The only signs of abnormality are the lack of menstruation and the absence or
foreshortening of the vagina.”

Sound familiar?

Testicular Feminization and Elizabeth I

Bakan says that “the characteristics of persons with this syndrome are strikingly similar to descriptions, by her
contemporaries, and by historians, of Elizabeth’s appearance, personality, and behaviour, as well as of the specific physical defects which they believed made her sterile and unwilling to marry.”

We know from the portrait of the young Elizabeth, which accompanies this post, that Elizabeth had lovely long slender hands with long and elegant fingers, but Bakan also uses the words of P Johnson, who studied portraits of the Queen along with contemporary descriptions and concluded:

“she was a little above average height for her time and class; that she was slim and extremely active;… On one point all authorities written and visual are agreed: she had beautiful hands, with long fine fingers, to which
she loved to draw attention by repeatedly drawing off, and putting on, her gloves. There can be little doubt that, in her day, she was an attractive woman”

A M. de Maisse is also quoted as saying:

“…she drew off her glove and showed me her hand, which is more than mine by more than three broad fingers. It was formerly very beautiful, but it is now very thin, although the skin is still most fair.”

after visiting the Queen in 1597.

Bakan also points out that her gloves, which are now in the Ashmolean Museum,  are evidence of her abnormally long fingers and the fact that her fourth fingers were longer than her index fingers, a common male trait.

As far as her personality is concerned, Bakan talks of how the Queen showed many “male” characteristics in that she was physically aggressive and swore a lot. He quotes her tutor, Roger Ascham, as saying that she was “intellectually masculine” and William Cecil as saying “that if today she was more than a man, tomorrow she would be less than woman”. Bakan also points out her attitude towards marriage. There are many examples of Elizabeth speaking out against marriage and insisting that she would remain a virgin and never marry, and Ascham likened her to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, “for by nature, and not by the counsels of others, she is thus adverse and abstinent from marriage.”

But is there any evidence of Elizabeth I having any reproductive abnormalities to back up Bakan’s claims?

Bakan thinks so. Bakan cites historians J Morris and Alison Plowden as saying that she had either amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation) or irregular periods. Ben Jonson is also quoted as saying:-

“she had a membrane upon her, which made her incapable of any man, though for her delight she tried many. At the coming over of the Duke of Alencon there was a French surgeon who took it in hand to cut it, yet fear stayed her and his death”

and French writer, Brantome, as saying of a woman, thought to be Elizabeth:-

“she was unfit to be a wife having only the smaller opening through which she passed water.”

Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) also remarked in a letter that she had heard from Lady Shrewsbury that Elizabeth was foolish for desiring a marriage with the Duke of Alencon when such a union could not be consummated, and it seems that Quadra and de Feria, the Spanish ambassadors believed that Elizabeth could not bear children.

According to Bakan, the historians Pollard and Mumby concluded that, on the basis of evidence from her contemporaries, that Elizabeth had some kind of physical defect that made childbearing impossible and Pollard points out that Elizabeth, as monarch, would never have willingly refused the chance of producing an heir to carry on the Tudor line and to secure the throne, so she must have had no choice in the matter.

The Psychological versus the Physical Explanation

Many of today’s historians argue that Elizabeth’s refusal to marry and her desire to remain a virgin are to do with psychological reasons, rather than physical ones. Psychological reasons could include:-

  • Elizabeth linking sex with death – Alison Weir writes of how Elizabeth could have linked the two because of her mother and stepmother both being executed for adultery, Catherine Parr dying in childbirth and her Thomas Seymour, the man she first had any type of sexual experience with, being executed also.
  • A fear of childbirth – Her stepmothers, Catherine Parr and Jane Seymour, had both died after childbirth, as had her grandmother, Elizabeth of York.

Bakan discounts these reasons, arguing that we cannot use today’s psychoanalysis and views on marriage to explain the behaviour of a 16th century queen, and that Elizabeth’s characteristics along with her instructions in her will, that her body should not be examined or embalmed, point to her having a physical defect which she believed made her barren and that is why she refused to marry.

My Thoughts

Bakan’s theory is an interesting one but it seems to be flawed in that, according to his/her own words, testicular feminization is hereditary. Anne Boleyn had a few pregnancies and obviously gave birth to Elizabeth, so she must have had a normal, functioning womb, and Elizabeth Howard, Anne’s mother, was said to have given her husband, Thomas Boleyn, a baby every year although only 3 survived childhood. Bakan also talks of how Anne Boleyn had six fingers and that this type of abnormality can be related to developmental disorders. But, I don’t believe that Anne had six fingers anyway. I can’t see Henry VIII moving heaven and earth to marry a six fingered woman who could pass on such a defect to the heir to the throne, can you?

Why, oh why, do we have to think that there was something wrong with Elizabeth for her to choose celibacy? OK, it was seen to be her duty to provide and heir but she was monarch and she was in charge, if she refused to marry and have children then what could anyone really do about it? Why do people need to explain her choice by making out that she was psychologically damaged or had some kind of defect or abnormality?

Also, I find it annoying that Elizabeth is seen to be masculine just because she was strong and courageous. I know that there were very strong views about women and how a woman should behave in the 16th century, but haven’t we moved on from that. Can’t a woman govern a country successfully without being likened to a man? I’m no feminist but I think we are taking so much away from Elizabeth and her incredible achievements if we say that she had male characteristics.

My own opinion is that Elizabeth was a strong woman who was well ahead of her time and her world, and even ours today, could not cope with that.

Well, I’ve rambled on for far too long, what do you think? Please share your opinions below.


  • “Queen Elizabeth I: A Case of Testicular Feminization” by R. Bakan – This can be purchased from http://www.sciencedirect.com/http://www.sciencedirect.com/ for $31.50, just search for the title or author.
  • “Elizabeth the Queen” by Alison Weir
  • Text“The Sisters Who Would be Queen” by Leanda de Lisle


63 Responses to “Elizabeth I – A Virago, Genetically Male or Simply a Strong woman?”

  1. dan says:

    I agree with lexy and claire

  2. Leah says:

    She is not portrayed or suggested to be masculine. You should research testicular feminisation a little more. There are different types, and not always are there sexual difficulties. I don’t think this evidence is trying to suggest she was masculine from her views, but rather an interesting fact that can be observed through different ways, I.e. she was beautiful, and beauty comes with testicular feminisation, etc.

  3. Mrs Herni- The Netherlands says:

    Bravo Claire (or should I say :Brava?;)
    Try “The Warrior Queens: Boadicea’s Chariot” by Antonia Fraser, where you can read how there has always been the idea that women who are either “too masculine, too virgin-like or too much out of the ordinary”are (mis)judged.It’s supposed to be something in their youth (a tomboy) or the men around her are nog strong enough, causing her to take up arms etc
    Elizabeth I in my opinion was a great queen and certianly ahead of her time.
    I do believe that the uncertainty of staying alive when married must have played a part at the back of her mind.

  4. Anna says:

    Well i dont think even for a second that sth was wrong with Elizabeth .she was just a very strong womam who ruled in a time that was belived only men can rule.and its true that we are no longer in 16th century but they are still men who think that if a woman is not married and is leading a great and successful life then there is definitely sth wrong with her.

  5. Elizabeth prosser says:

    Queen Elizabeth was most con spurned with political stability and the cont uance of her reign. She played one group and suitor off againstothers, all for the safety and strength of England and herself. To marry would have been to relinquish control. This, I believe, was the motivation for her spinster status, not some theoretical sexual malformation. As to her unusual heighth, her father was 6-6’4 feet tall, so it is only probable that she inherited her heighth. Additionally, her grandmother Elizabeth of York was famously beautiful and slender despite many pregnancies.

  6. Edward Synge says:

    There is no mention of Elizabeth’s refusal to permit a post mortem which ,perhaps erroneously,I had thought was standard among Royalty at that time?

  7. Trish Whitman says:

    I’m not clear how testicular feminization is passed down by the mother, but obviously the mother is not sterile. Therefore, the fact that Anne Boleyn and her mother had children (few of whom survived) isn’t dispositive. The circumstantial evidence (the hands, height, body build, contemporary rumors of an abnormality, her wish not to be examined after death, and the fact of Elizabeth’s failure to make an effort to conceive despite the universal anxiety about an heir) is intriguing. (Is there any evidence she did NOT have this condition?) In any case, I do not see raising the question as anti-feminist. She defied an expectation everyone, most probably including her, had for rulers of her time, i.e., that they at least try to generate heirs. Why? Other queens managed to come up with potential fathers.

  8. Your speculation that Queen Elizabeth I suffered from a sex-related anatomy is very reasonable, but the diagnosis cannot be correct. The testicular feminizing syndrome produces a person that possesses an X and a Y chromosome and is therefore genetically male, but for reasons unknown the testicles fail to produce adequate quality or quantity of testosterone, so that the victim remains female in terms of appearance, sexual orientation, and intellectual makeup, but with one exception: there is no pubic hair. The first wife of the Shah of Iran suffered from this malady. Such people believe that they are women, but they are rendered sterile by their condition. In Elizabeth’s time, the nature of the syndrome would not have been understood, and she would have preferred marriage and enjoyed sex with males and otherwise behaved as a normal woman.

    The nature of sexual development is poorly understood, probably because it is a subtle but convenient tool of politics. People of power prefer to promote ignorance of such subjects so as to facilitate their machinations and manipulations.

    All vertebrates begin embryological development in the female state; maleness is a more complex order of existence that is imposed by high concentrations of testosterone that are produced by the testicles. The conversion from female to male state remains incomplete until adolescence. There are three aspects of the conversion:
    1. sexual orientation
    2. sexual personality
    3. anatomy

    The conversion of sexual orientation and sexual personality consists of brain changes induced by testosterone during the critical first trimester of gestation. Inadequate quality or quantity of testosterone during this period will result in a person who retains the female personality and sexual orientation.However, if testosterone production is adequate during the later stages of development, then normal anatomical change occurs. This results in a male homosexual. On the other hand, if testosterone levels are exaggerated during the first trimester, the developing fetus will acquire male personality and sexual orientation in accord with the degree of testosterone elevation during this critical period. If, however, the testosterone production is inadequate during later stages of development, then the anatomical conversion fails to take place, and the person becomes a “dyke”. Partial anatomical conversion is fairly common, and results in a hermaphrodite, with an enlarged clitoris and partially formed scrotum and so forth.

    The normal male brain is substantially different from the normal female brain. It is larger and heavier. It is much more sub-specialized than the female brain. This explains why old men are much more vulnerable to lasting damage from strokes. When a man concentrates on a math problem, blood flow will sharply increase in that portion of his brain that specializes in math concepts. A normal woman concentrating on the same math problem will exhibit a global increase in brain blood flow.

    Male sexual orientation is accompanied by anatomical brain change consisting of a distinct swelling at the base of the hypothalamus that can be detected with ordinary brain scans.

    Such disorders of embryological development play a large role in human history, but they are generally misunderstood. Alexander the Great, Julius Caeser, Augustus Caesar, and Napoleon are examples of homosexual males who became very successful at political and military leadership. As homosexuals, such persons crave glory and attention, and they are more willing to accept death-defying risks to get it. Ergo the brilliant military strategies of these people.

    Elizabeth I was most likely a dyke. She had the intellectual attributes of a man, but had no interest in sex with a man. Having spent considerable time in the Tower of London under constant threat of execution, she no doubt understood that she was forever surrounded by dangerous politics, and probably wasn’t willing to risk having sexual relationships with women. Such a fate would have been sad indeed for the victim, but in Elizabeth’s case it produced a very effective queen.

  9. Michael chapman says:

    So many myths. How many people know that the Tilbury speech was never made it was composed by a courtier Sir John Sharp 16 years after Elizabeth’s death

  10. Devon says:

    I love the theory that strong women must be male. Man, all the 5’9″ amazons in my MOM’S family….and they are all “tomboys” too. Lol!

    I’m only short because I took after my dad’s side, but my 4th finger is longer. Boy, explain that one to my husband and 5 kids. I guess my large boobs and curves prove I’m not a man though.

    Never the less, in all these theories I have not seen this one. Because her father married and left so many heirs with so much contempt for each others beliefs, and rulings, maybe she didn’t want any heirs to do the same. Maybe she felt it was time for new reign, just another theory.

  11. JESS says:

    Don’t blame her for not wanting to marry.Her own mother was beheaded. Who could you trust. It better to stand alone and strong.. Too much drama, too much stabbing everyone in the back.

  12. Sarah says:

    Simply being a strong ruler does not make people question the gender of a person. Catarina de Medici was also a pretty strong woman. No one wondered if she was a guy.

    Knowing the pressure that Elizabeth would have been under and the duty of the monarchy to produce an heir is a pretty huge reason to question her steadfast devotion to her celibacy, though. Whether our contemporary minds find it acceptable or not, that was not considered okay with her peers at the time.

    Quite frankly, I find it annoying that people get so defensive and assume it’s an attack on feminism to question why someone would rather throw their entire country into war and potentially thousands of brutal deaths simply because they didn’t want to wed and bare children. I get that the system of monarchy was wretched, but it was just the way it was then. It’s normal to question why she, a 16th century female, would have lived so differently than what was expected of her at the time.

    There are too many feminists who cling to their ideal Elizabeth without allowing themselves to wonder about the details simply because they have this deluded notion that they are somehow betraying their 21st century ethics in doing so.

  13. Ashley says:

    It is said that Queen Elizabeth I had a female servant to keep her in comfort. Maybe she was a lesbian in especially would’ve been suspected of that in today’s terms. She might be had sex relationships with women and kept it hidden under people in plain sight back then in despite of a male lover Dudley.

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