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

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

  1. I’m with you, Claire and clearly many women buy into the idea that women in charge have to be in some way masculine. When women began to enter the workforce in the U.S. in larger numbers and in higher, authority-carrying jobs, I saw too many wearing pin-stripped suits in order to fit in. Why was that? Perhaps because only males or male-substitutes had the authority in this culture to be decision makers.

    A strong woman must have been equally inexplicable in the Sixteenth Century. We see it from the beginning of her reign when the Spanish ambassador Count de Feria remarked: “She gives orders and has her way like her father before her.”

    The idea of Amazons, viragos goes back beyond written history. It seems that the single and most enduring of explanations for a strong, commanding woman has to be that she is in some hidden way more like a man.

    It’s the only explanation that makes sense to too many writers of history. In that way, how far have we advanced from Elizabethan times?

    Jeane Westin, The Virgin’s Daughters: In the court of Elizabeth I

    P.S. Claire, why aren’t you writing books?

  2. Gosh! I’ve heard of some pretty weird explanations for somebody not wanting to marry, but this takes the biscuit. Geneticist must dream one day of finding a genetic explanation for everything, every decision taken in life. Elizabeth didn’t marry for many reasons. She saw what it did to others, especially her mother and later Mary Queen of Scots. To be a woman and Sovereign, and head of the Church was a unique position, and called for unique solutions. The one that fitted the bill on all counts was to remain single. She was just too smart – which is another reason why she didn’t saddle herself with a waste of space sitting at her right hand.

    Funny, no one ever questions why Mistress Blanche, Elizabeth’s life-long confidante, never married and why she too died a maid. It was probably just not that unusual to take that choice.

    Maybe it was a little like the expectations, pre-reformation, that a priest would not marry. It gave them an air of mystery and exclusivity – as if they had other things to think about than sex. Perhaps Elizabeth used this in her own way, to earn the respect of her people. Wedded to the realm, as she stated to Parliament. I wonder what she would have made of Mr Bakan and his ideas? Probably would have eaten him for breakfast.

  3. Hi Jeane,
    I really agree with you and I also think that women in positions of power who are ruthless are seen as b****es, yet men who act in a similar manner are just seen as doing their job properly. We haven’t come on at all, have we?

    By the way, I wrote my first book “The Secret Island” at aged 11, my second book at 13 “Death on the Slopes” and many unfinished manuscripts since. They’ve never seeen the light of days and are probably in a box somewhere in my house. I’d love to write a book but just wouldn’t know where to start now!

    Hi Rochie,
    I think she would have boxed Mr Bakan’s ears, while swearing and spitting at him!

  4. Very interesting article Claire. I never heard of this condition and it does not make much sense. Sounds like more insecure males who can’t cope with strong independent women.

  5. I don’t buy this either. Men don’t like strong women, and since Elizabeth was so strong, that they have to “medicalize” her to try and belittle her. I don’t think Elizabeth would have made a good friend to women, but heck was she a damned good monarch!

  6. Actress Jamie Leigh Curtis has been rumoured for years to be what’s known as an XY Female, essentially what Bakan is claiming about Elizabeth. There are apparently different degrees of the condition, ranging from being female but having a Y chromosome to full hermaphroditism. But I agree with Claire-just because someone is strong, doesn’t make her less feminine!

  7. The idea of a vestigal penis was thought of while Elizabeth reigned. One of the ambassadors wrote to his kind that it was said she had one and was therefore not capable of bearing children. Again, so obvious now that it was unacceptable to be a strong woman without such an explanation.

    I’m sure she swore and hit out at people because she could and there was no one to check her. And it was accepted that underlings, servants could be physically punished at that time. Everyone was subordinate to the queen.

    Rochie, you’re right about Blanche. When she didn’t marry it was thought to be loyalty to the queen, but Elizabeth could have been just as loyal to her people.

    And Claire, you start a book at the beginning.

    Jeane Westin, The Virgin’s Daughters: In the court of Elizabeth I

  8. I totally agree with you. In all almost all times, women who did so called “men’s job” and did it well were seen as losing feminity, in apparence, in attitude and even in their very body. Since this type of successful women is often associated whith female homosexuality ( another chauvinist prejudice), i’m surprised that nobody created the theory that lizabeth was in fa

  9. You really see how ‘good’ women are supposed be submissive and ‘bad’ ones are powerful in the way that the character of Frances Brandon (the mother of the Grey sisters) was re-invented from pious mother to a female Henry VIII .Even her supposed (invented) characteristics are those more normally associated with men – lustful, cruel, and ambitious (bad bad. although in men not so bad as they translate also as virile, ruthless and er ambitious.) Historians even use a picture of Lady Dacre and son, claiming it is Frances and a toy boy husband. The woman is heavy and narrow eyed and we are told – ah – look at this – Frances looked like Henry (her uncle) By contrast Jane (good) is the poor, blindfold child on the scaffold I think Elizabeth had very good political reasons not to marry at different periods in her life , Leanda

  10. The physical attributes that they talk about could be attributed to many women, including Mary Queen of Scots (a paternal relation). Not only was she tall for her time, but her height continues to be above average today (she was 6 foot tall). She too was attractive, and had long slender fingers. They were both intelligent, and both queens. The only thing that differed between Mary Queen of Scotts and Elizabeth, was how they thought. Mary ruled with her heart (and married Lord Darnley against Elizabeth’s wishes), while Elizabeth ruled with her head.

    Mary Boleyn, like her mother Elizabeth Howard, had no problem producing children, so to say that this a defect is something that comes from the maternal bloodline appears to be be a non-issue in this case.

    In regards to not having a medical exam/ embalming of her body post mortem, I feel that might have something to do that she didn’t like the idea of anyone slicing up her body (the body of a royal). There are plenty of people today who select not to have autopsy done after death, and no one accuses them of having a genetic defect.

    So, I would have to agree with Claire. The idea of Elizabeth having testicular feminization is “poppycock.” I think that then, as in today- people just have a hard time seeing a woman in position of power not being ruled by their emotion. Amazing how sometimes little changes in 500 years.

  11. Oops, something went wrong! I’m surprised that nobody created the theory that Elizabeth was in fact a lesbian, using Dudley and her other suitors to cover her unnatural acts with her maids and ladies in waiting. A theory that Retha Warwicke would certainly like!

  12. I agree, women who are strong, powerful, and intelligent are usually frowned upon and seen as masculine. Even in today’s society to some extent. I’ve noticed that in many fairy tales and Disney movies the smart, ambitious, independent woman is the evil villian, while the “damsel in distress” who needs a prince to save her is the good one. However, that has been changing, thankfully.

  13. Sheena, Darnley was deliberately sent to Scotland with Elizabeth’s approval so Mary Stuart (not Mary Queen of Scots – a Victorian invention to try and clean Mary’s filthy reputation. ) would be otherwise engaged and stay out of Elizabeth’s hair.

  14. Despite the fact that the Privy Council sent Darnley to Scotland, everything I have read said their union infuriated Elizabeth because they did not have her blessing to marry (Darnley was an English subject, and due to both Mary and Darnley’s relation to Margaret Tudor, their marriage was a real threat to Elizabeth.) Go figure that it would be their child, James, who would succeed Elizabeth on the throne.

  15. I think it was probably more of a psychological issue that Elizabeth never married. Look what happened to the women of that era and her maternal family. I’m sure she had issues with men because she certainly had to be aware from a young age about the duties of a woman particularly if those duties were not fulfilled. I doubt the woman was celibate though because of her love affairs. There were standards that were pretty rigid for the time.

  16. Surely if this was the case it would have been idenified when she was child? And then used against Anne Boleyn when they wanted to get rid if her, claiming she had given Henry a deformed child etc etc so was definitley a witch! Just a thought anyway!

  17. I agree, Gemma. It is said that Henry showed a naked baby Elizabeth on a pillow throughout the court and especially to foreign ambassadors…this propbably in preparation for marriage offers from European countries.

    Henry ruined Elizabeth’s chances of an early marriage by declaring her a bastard. Not too many princes wanted a bastard wife.

    Jeane Westin, The Virgin’s Daughters: In the court of Elizabeth I

  18. Sheena, Elizabeth was very good at being “outraged” by what her council did. It made her appear blameless , but It was all done for a very good reason. Yes, James went on to rule England and Scotland, but given child mortality at the time, the murderous state of Scottish politics and Elizabeth’s own disinclination for Mary and James, it was by far a foregone conclusion at the time James was born.

  19. Wow, brilliant comments, guys! Gemma, I’m not sure that if Elizabeth had this condition, which I’m pretty sure she didn’t, that it would be noticed because it would be internal defects rather than obvious ones, I think. It’s a load of poppycock anyway!!
    Love the lesbian theory, Lexy!
    I do think it’s sad that we have to explain away Elizabeth’s “Virgin Queen” status by saying that she was incapable of a sexual relationship, that she was a man or that actually she was promiscuous on the side. Can’t we just accept that she was what she said she was? Perhaps I’m too naive but I’m inclined to believe her.

    Yes, Julie, I think you could call what Thomas Seymour did to Elizabeth sexual abuse. He used to get into bed with her, tickle her and stroke her buttocks and once he slashed her dress to pieces. Weird!

  20. But it was rumored that Mary Tudor had an unusually gruff man-like voice— and Anne boleyn reportedly had a goiter which may have indicated some hormone-related condition. When she was dying, Elizabeth refused to go to bed– was it because she was afraid of being undressed. Reportedly, only three women ever entered her private chamber— and the condition did not have to severe–just severe enough to prevent conception. Also, didn’t Elizabeth suffer from pattern baldness— a trait usually associated with males? The problem is not totally beyond the realm of possibility

  21. As one who has numerous books on Elizabeth, I was amazed to read this webpage. Ordinarily, I would scoff at such a supposition about her, but, as one who has a related condition, CAH, making me an intersexed person, I know that intersex is a much more common condition than anyone could imagine. About 1.7 births in a hundred today are intersex! Considering that these conditions are genetically carried, and that royalty are notoriously interbred, this story makes sense. Also, consider how Henry VIII turned on Anne Boleyn after her two children were born (one stillborn), saying that she was a witch. Intersexed children at that time were decried as ‘monsters” and one who produced them would be suspect. Having a royal child with this condition would greatly upset the order of things.
    Just because Elizabeth was brave and intelligent does not make her a male – I certainly agree, but there is still some cause to consider the supposition that Elizabeth I was born intersexed, as was the later monarch, Christina of Sweden.

  22. Hi R.Susan,
    Thank you so much for your comment and sharing your thoughts and experience with us. We will never know the truth of the matter but I find it frustrating that some people cannot accept Elizabeth for the way she was without thinking that she was a man, that she had male “characteristics” or that she had a condition. Can’t we just accept that she was a strong woman and chose not to get married rather than thinking that she had something “wrong” with her or that there was a medical reason for her not getting married?
    I do take on board your points regarding intersex and perhaps Elizabeth was, it will always be a mystery!

  23. Very interesting theory, obviously it has awakened all the feminists. Don’t discount it, you all say it’s about men not liking a strong woman, I say it’s about debating something which has been debated since before her death. Stop looking at things through modern eyes, perhaps then your minds will open a bit.

  24. Hi Sam,
    I’m certainly not a feminist and I don’t say that it’s about men not liking a strong woman, I just don’t think that there is enough evidence to support this theory. My mind is very much open and being someone who spends my days immersedn on 16th century documents I certainly don’t think that I just look at things through modern eyes, what I do is look at the primary sources to see if they support various theories and they just don’t support this one.

  25. Interesting to read all this. I just saw a program on National Geographic Channel that mentioned this and wanted to find more information.

    I’m with you, Claire. It does seem unnecessary and almost insulting to justify Elizabeth I’s legacy as a medical condition. I’m glad I stumbled on to this site.

    They did the same kind of thing with Abraham Lincoln, claiming he had Marfan Syndrome.

    In either case, the supposed conditions are pretty rare people need to remember that the odds are more likely that Elizabeth I just didn’t want to marry. I don’t know about you, but I know quite a few people who never married or didn’t have children by choice. But I can’t think of a single person who had such a a condition as Testicular Feminization Syndrome..or Marfan Syndrome for that matter.

  26. As a man, I have to admit that there are, and probably have always been men who look for reasons why some women are successful. These reasons are planned to suggest that there is something wrong with a women who is not meek and weak! Women, they think, cannot be good at their job unless they are ill. There is of course no logic in this reasoning.

    This story has arrived in my e-mail in tray at an appropriate time. The football commentators who hit the headlines by poking fun at a femail Assistant Referee come from this long line of males who cannot accept that a woman can be good in what is seen as a man’s world.

    This story is just as much Poppycock as the Bisley Boy legend, and like it should be shot down on the ranges of Bisley.

  27. I don’t think this has been mentioned – it’s known that Henry VIII had the infant Elizabeth displayed nude to courtiers and ambassadors to show how “perfectly formed” she was. Obviously people who think she didn’t have normal female sex organs, or a vestigal penis, must have disregarded this.

    I agree that the theory is incredibly sexist and implies that a “regular” woman couldn’t have done what Elizabeth did!

  28. I think that Elizabeth Tudor had some deep psychological issues about marriage and chldbirth. Who could blame her? In addition, Elizabeth was a very shrewd woman. In an era where women had no real power, I’ll bet that she was wary losing hers by marrying. I can’t see Elizabeth Tudor deferring to a husband in matters of state.

  29. Fascinating theory. I think it’s viable although I’d heard of this condition as AIS – Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. I don’t understand how such a condition can possibly be hereditary when it makes you sterile. If Anne Boleyn had had it, then she couldn’t have had Elizabeth in the first place. I thought it was simply an inability of the foetus to react to the male hormones so it goes into default development mode which means they end up as female (didn’t know that until I saw a TV programme). They may have a small vagina but there is no womb or ovaries as they have XY instead of XX chromosomes. There’s often small lumps in the groin which are residual testicles and which are now removed to ensure they don’t become cancerous later.

    It certainly would give poor Elizabeth a truly tragic life if she had to go through life, hiding this even from all who loved her most. It would also suggest why she got so jealous of those who married behind her back and why she proclaimed she was ‘of barren stock’ when Mary Queen of Scots had James.

    I do agree though that thinking she must be some sort of man was very typical of long ago when only men could be thought to be competent rulers.

  30. A question- If a body at oversite was found in the walls of a young girl in fine Tudor dress. Did not the reverend organise a proper buriel on sacred ground. If so where is this young girl buried?
    If it was the princess and a close cousin, a boy took her place. Then it is far more likely hie male parts would of been totally removed. Not un-usual in those days when choir boys and boy actors who played girls were castrated or had their parts removed, one so they would remain soprano and the other so they would not develop any male traits. Very few people were allowed close to the queen. She was secretive and dominant, at least in public. Can you even imagine what would of happened to anyone who dared to profess the queen a man. One would say though that Mary saw Elizabeth as a rival. She had her locked in the Tower for awhile and then sent away under the protecterate of one of her trusted people. So whilst living in the tower and under this protectorate, such anomalities would of undoubtedly been found and Elizabeth dis-credited, unless the alteration was that good.
    One would do better to look at the fact her mother, Katherine Howard and lady Jane Grey all fell to the executioner. All were relations. She came from a family where both sides wer strong willed. her father was a man capable of great genorosity and kindness and equally capable of great cruelty. She had a childhood where she could trust no-one. Once Mary came to the throne Elizabeth was surrounded by spies looking for reason to have her executed. When in power she survived many assassination attempts. Cecil and a very select few were ever allowed to get close to her. Is it surprising. She had to be strong, her vision was to see the friction between catholic and protistant finished. She wanted to unite England and she did.
    Her skin being pock marked and her hair falling out, would of been caused by the lead based make up.she used.
    This was all done to help create the look of the virgin queen. and it succeeded. She married herself to England and in that moment smashed the schemes of many a gent who wanted her hand. There was no doubt that her father must have appeared to her as a fearful character. The men in her mother’s family had schemed to get her mother on the throne and by so doing had cost her life. Ever since she was a child, she had men not seek her friendship for her, but for what she possessed. Her life was devoted to her country and she knew if she married her power would be broken.
    As a man, I respect a queen who overcame the impossible, gave up her own wants for those of a nation and united a nation.

  31. Although I agree that it may be slightly out of line to medicalise her actions, I think the theory is an interesting one and has considerable evidence to support it. The idea that she was intersexual should not undermine that she was a powerful woman – a lot of people on here have commented that it undermines her feminine power, but it shouldn’t. There’s still a stigma attached to intersexuals which makes us rush to Elizabeth’s defence when she’s accused of being one, but if it was found that she was it wouldn’t be a bad thing. Hermaphrodites are a lot more common than we are led to believe, and it doesn’t make anyone a weaker or less effective ruler. If anything it’s good – she can be a positive role models for those who experience what she (might have) experienced. Elizabeth was a passionate woman, and knowing what her grandfather had gone through to establish the dynasty, and that her father moved heaven and earth to continue it, I can hardly believe that she would voluntarily end the Tudor monarchy. While psychology does provide a slight explanation, which I support fully, I don’t think that alone would have stopped her doing what she wanted. I believe that it is highly likely that she did have some sort of gender confusion, and that that shouldn’t be considered a bad thing! Diversity is what makes the British monarchy interesting.

  32. She was brilliant. IMO she refused to marry or have an heir because she refused to be regarded as a brood mare, which would have diluted her authority. Did she not say, in her Speech at Tilbury, that she might have the “body of a week and feeble woman, but the heart and stomach of a king”? This was a very sexist world. She had to be a perpetual virgin in order to seem “impenetrable,” and incorruptible. These strange theories about her physiology certainly didn’t hurt that reputation. Brilliant to the end, and beyond.

  33. “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.”

    Its important to actually understand the genetics of AIS before denying the possibility on such a basis. A child with AIS is genetically XY but because the body does not respond to the androgens they exhibit physically and developmentally as a female. The undescended testes in the persons body produce a small amount of estrogen that is sufficient in puberty to allow breast development. (This is normal, all men produce some estrogen and women produce some testosterone just in different quantities).

    Individuals with AIS inherit the syndrome on their X chromosome that they get from their mother, their other chromosome being Y. The mother is a carrier and whilst she may have some mild symptoms is generally still fertile as she is protected by her other normal X chromosome. 50% of her XY conceived children will have AIS. Their Y chromosome does not protect them, so their bodies are unable to respond to the androgens produced through the genetics of the Y chromosome that under normal circumstances would cause them to develop into a physical male. The lack of response to the androgens means that they develop looking like a female externally, including undergoing some aspects of female puberty (breasts etc) but as they do not develop any female internal organs other than a partial vagina (to varying depths) they do not menstruate and cannot conceive children.

    Some people with AIS do have a low level response to androgens. If this is the case they are born looking female and when puberty arrives there is some enlargement of the clitoris giving it the appearance of a small penis. Breast development still occurs. In some instance the testes that are usually retained in the body of full AIS people may descend into the labia in those with partial AIS.

    Thus if there are historical accounts of lack of menstruation and an odd appearance to Elizabeth’s genitalia such as a shallow vagina, enlarged clitoris or odd shaped labia then that evidence along with the other physical characteristics would be highly suggestive. I have heard of possible evidence of lack of menstruation but am not familiar with any other physical descriptors. If they do exist then they may add emphasis to actual and anecdotal evidence that support her having AIS, but if such accounts do not exist they only way to be sure would be to get a DNA sample from her corpse and see if it is XX or XY.

  34. Sutely the key point in all this was the lack of a post mortem.

    Why on earth this should upset the feminist lobby I cannot thnk. She was all woman with a strong masculine side. There are many normal men with equally powerful feminine leanings. It is pretty obvious she had some of the charactaritstics of a Virago. Hands,fingers,height boyishness and possibly a malfunctioning vagina.

    1. Edward, her fingers were like those of Anne Boleyn, who was known for her long fingers, she wasn’t at all boyish from what I can see, and her father was tall. Those characteristics do not mean that she was a virago.

  35. She was not very tall. Considering her father was Henry VIII who was very tall this is even surprising.

    Compare with known AIS, Duchess of Windsor, for example.

    Thank you Dee for your explanation on AIS. Helps us understand how it can be hereditary and still AIS persons are, of course, sterile.

    I´ve often wondered if there was *some* kind of defect Elizabeth knew about that made her either fear marriage or made her know it was impossible.

    Does anyone know if the doctors would have been able to actually examine her? I´ve read somewhere doctors could not touch or look at the royal women, so would there ever have been an internal examination as we know it? I seem to remember a story about a doctor having to look at his “patient” as she walked by on the other side of the open door.

    Is there a link or material somewhere on the “gyneological exam” Elizabeth had
    when she considered (or not) the French marriage? Wiould that have been a real examination or, rahter, the doctor maybe just discussing things with her in polite terms?

    I do not think she was an AIS person anyway.

    I´ve often wondered why Henry VIII wasn´t able to have more live children though. He didn´t even have but one royal bastard, and he did have mistresses. There´s a mystery!! Also, he had a very high tenor voice, and Mary I had a gruff voice.

    I admire Elizabeth I and think she was a very, very clever, strong woman. And, it must have been extremely difficult to stay celibate all her life!

  36. It was documented by Elizabeth’s physician that she was all normal and more than capable of bearing children. Why didn’t she??? Well theory goes that she was a bit traumatized by her fathers constant marriages and what she knew of her mothers fate as well as the fact that she could never marry any of the men she loved due to governmental restrictions. She was not as absolute a monarch as her father, she relinquished some of her rights to her cabinet and her parliment, something Henry VIII would never have done, so she was not able to just marry any man she wanted. Though it was well said that she desired to marry her long time lover Lord Robert Dudly, who she was intimate with and that is also documented, However knowing her position an unexpected pregnancy would have caused such chaos in her rule and realm she backed off. She is called the Virgin Queen out of her sacrifice she made to her realm in not marrying and reducing her power by taking a husband and relinquishing her authority, she chose her people over her own happiness. That is why she is so remembered, for only a monach who truly loves her realm and people would do that. It is well recorded she had lovers.

  37. At first when I was reading this and I read about the traits matching I was seeing a somewhat decent case being made. But Jonson’s words and the others are probably a reaction of the time to the burning question of why Elizabeth refused to marry. When the real reasons were more simple; she’d never had a good example of it in front of her and she knew the inevitable power struggles that would happen on bearing a succession of children, not to mention the high likelihood of death in childbirth and another disastrous regency to befall her country.

    Then I realized that the description also matches myself to a T, although I’m fairly quiet. It also matches about half my friends. The fact is if you are very tall, you’re also likely to have the other characteristics – strong, large hands and feet! I always get comments on my finger and toe length; I’d be horrified if people thought that made me genetically male. The fact is the disorder is extremely rare and just one type of hermaphroditary, albeit a much more ‘livable’ kind sort in which less people are aware and therefore judge.

  38. Hi,
    AIS is hereditary! It is possible to be a carrier of the gene without having AIS itself. This is where your arguement is a little flawed. Anne could have been a carrier of the AIS gene without being sterile.
    Also, it was said that ALL AIS people identify as female. This is false. I know many AIS people who identify as male. They are all born female looking female and have male chromosomes but some feel more male than female.

    That being said. I do agree with you. I think that a woman should be able to be strong without being associated with physical and psychological conditions she doesn’t have.

  39. Hi, I just came across this post and found it really interesting. It is absurd to try and find physical and psychological ‘fault’ with this Queen because she demonstrated strong qualities that were were not allowed for women in the 16th Century. I thought that your post was excellent. Your response very well thought out. My only qualm is your discouraging statement…. “I’m no feminist” as if that is a bad thing. A feminist being someone who supports equality and gender parity for women, you sounded very much like a feminist. Bravo!

  40. The medical stuff not withstanding, I think the reasons Elizabeth did not marry were political. It is easy for us to say with the benefit of hindsight that hers was an extremely successful reign and an age of great glory, but it must have felt very different at the time. The religious question was open still, thethreat of Spain omnipresent, and, if combined with that of the Auld Alliance, lethal. Then there was the dynastic threat of Mary, Queen of Scots, which added considerable legal weight to the threats. When Mary was arrested, Elizabeth was 35, and when Mary was executed, Elizabeth was 54 and Mary’s son, James, was 19. He was already king since he was an infant, and had practically not seen his mother at all. Furthermore, he was raised a Protestant and was in the custody of Protestant lords thoughout his minority. By allowing him to be her heir presumptive, Elizabeth proved a master of politics: she severed the Auld Alliance forever, made sure that her only legitimate dynastic rival became her successor, and removed the threat of a Catholic restoration. And she did all that simply by doing nothing! One would think that, once Elizabeth had Mary under her power, she would have dealt with her immediately. She was such a huge threat to her throne and to everything else. The fact that Elizabeth tarried for almost twenty years proves that she did not feel secure enough and wanted to give her enemies no pretext for an invasion. Yet she did not avoid one, as the Armada set sail against her right after Mary was beheaded.

  41. AIS is divided into three categories that are differentiated by the degree of genital masculinization: complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) is indicated when the external genitalia are that of a normal female; mild androgen insensitivity syndrome (MAIS) is indicated when the external genitalia are that of a normal male, and partial androgen insensitivity syndrome (PAIS) is indicated when the external genitalia are partially, but not fully, masculinized.Androgen insensitivity syndrome is the largest single entity that leads to 46,XY undermasculinized genitalia.


  42. Im very interested in Elizabethan times, so many things to keep your mind active and interested. Your information was fascinating. Of course people have made thier own reasons for her outward personality and power. In those days people were quite small, Elizabeth on the other hand was tall and quite masculine and to not marry would cause minds to wonder and invent their own reasons. Elizabeth was far beyond her time. She never felt the need to marry (which nowadays is quite common). She enjoyed the flirtations and the physical contact but had no need for a husband, she ran her life with full confidence and chose to commit her life to God, there was no time or room for a husband, which caused people to wonder. How many got the chance to look under her skirt to prove she wasnt proportioned right, not many. So they invented reasons. She had large hands and long fingers, well so do I, I have chosen not to marry, i guess i must resolve to the fact im a man, people can be so nieve. Cant they just except the fact she was a strong, confident woman and felt no need to share her bed with one man and in later years with no man at all, she had many people to help her in anyway she so desired. We should all be so lucky to have her strength and convictions

  43. I have found all this fascinating! I love the Tudor era – never a dull story! I spent the morning researching Elizabeth to find out she could have had up to 5 children fathered by Dudley and then I read this. Surely Henry VIII would have used Elizabeth’s supposed malformed genitalia as another excuse to rid himself of her mother?

  44. I have after some years of research found two old friends who feel they fulfil the physical requirements to be called a Virago. To Begin with we just used the points madle on this site then moved on to more personal revelations.
    Both parties are perfectly happy with their discovery.

  45. Apart from the already stated, very valid aspects explaining Elizabeths refusal to marry
    a) needing to divide power with a potential husband
    b) psychological barriers given her family history and upbringing

    there is another, simpler and more plausible theory than AIS or testicular feminization.

    Henry VIII most probably suffered from syphilis which reached epidemic proportions in 16th century Europe after it had been imported from the New World.
    A syphilis infection of the unborn child in its mother’s womb can lead to miscarriages or stillborn child, a sickly child that will later suffer from syphilis itself or to the child being sterile if it reaches adulthood.

    A syphilis infection of Henry VIII would explain many aspects of Tudor family history: Why Henry VIII had so few children that reached adulthood despite not only numerous wives but also several mistresses. The sickliness and early death of Edward VI. from symptoms that pass not only as tuberculosis, but also syphilis – and Mary and Elizabeth being barren.

    Knowing or intuiting – like from irregular or missing periods – that she was barren, and having seen with her sister Mary that in those days nothing undermined a sovereign’s authority more than the inability to produce a legitimate heir, cautious and deliberating politician she was, she will have deemed it safer to play the ‘virgin queen’ card.

  46. There are many birth anomalies associated with inability to bear children or even have sex, which are not herreditary i.e. genetic, but fetal development errors. Any of them, from imperforate hymen to vaginal aplasia, while treatable today to the point of allowing the patient to bear healthy children, or at least have normal sex, would have been incorrigable in Elizabeth´s time and a terrible predicament.

    I tend to agree that psychological reasons alone might not have sufficed to prevent a woman of that day and age to get married, but, combined with even a minor defect by today´s standards, it would be the advisable course of action. Let´s not forget that birth defects were not treated lightly or kindly at the time – people with birth defects were often perceived as “marked by god” in a negative sense. And a negative religious interpretation could be fatal for a monarch.

    By the Virgin Queen herself –
    “I am, and not; I freeze and yet am burned,
    Since from myself another self I turned.”

    “I am, and not” – a woman?

  47. 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.

  48. 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.

  49. 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.

  50. 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.

  51. 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?

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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

  55. 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.

  56. 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.

  57. 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.

  58. 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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