Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I

D.G. Hewitt - January 19, 2019

When she was born in 1533, Elizabeth was a great disappointment to her father. King Henry VIII of England had hoped for a son and heir and was distraught and angry when Anne Boleyn gave birth to a little girl. Before long, the King ordered the mother’s execution. Elizabeth was cast away. But, as every student of history knows, that was not the end. Elizabeth would go on to be crowned Queen. What’s more, she’s widely-acknowledged as one of the greatest monarchs to ever sit on the English throne, ruling for an incredible 43 years.

To her fans, Queen Elizabeth I was the finest of the Tudor monarchs. She was well-read and highly intelligent. Under her, a ‘Golden Age’ of English culture flourished, while she even managed to establish a ‘middle way’ between extreme Catholicism and extreme Protestantism, bringing to an end many years of sectarian discord. However, to her detractors, Elizabeth was not all she appears to be. For them, she has benefited from centuries of revisionism when, in reality, she allowed England to become almost ungovernable.

Not surprisingly, a number of myths and misconceptions about Elizabeth have been put forward over the years, and many of them endure to this day. So, here we separate the historical fact from the historical fiction:

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth ruled England for 43 years, but she remains something of an enigma. Pinterest.

16. MYTH: Elizabeth died as a young child and was replaced by a boy – and he went on to rule as a Queen

One of the most bizarre – and most enduring – myths surrounding Queen Elizabeth is that she was actually a man. Some scholars attribute this to simple chauvinism – that is, over the centuries, some people have refused to believe a woman could rule in such a wise and dignified manner. Notably, however, even learned, intelligent people have believed in such a conspiracy theory. For instance, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, was one of many who believed that Elizabeth died at a young age and was secretly replaced by a young boy who grew up to sit on the throne.

It is true that Elizabeth was sent away from London, to the small city of Bisley, at a young age. Her father, Henry VIII, wanted her to be safe from the plague that was sweeping through the cramped city. According to the legend, she still fell ill and died. Distraught and worried that the King would have her executed, Elizabeth’s nurse found a young, girlish-looking boy, wrapped him in blankets and pretended that he was really the Princess. It’s also alleged this is the reason why Elizabeth remained unmarried – she couldn’t be intimate with anyone, lest her secret be revealed. However, all serious historians have dismissed the theory as pure fantasy – after all, it would have been almost impossible to keep such a secret, especially since the Queen had many enemies.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth was no pampered princess, and was even disowned by her own father. Wikimedia Commons.

15. FACT: The young Elizabeth was a neglected and her governess even had to beg King Henry for clothes for the child

Unlike most princesses, Elizabeth didn’t enjoy a life of luxury as a young girl. Just before her third birthday, her father, King Henry VIII, ordered the execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn. Young Elizabeth, who had been doted on by both parents even though they had both hoped for a boy, was suddenly declared to be illegitimate. The child’s governess, Lady Bryan, feared for her safety, so she took her away from the royal court, away from the unpredictable and often violent King Henry. The king spared his daughter’s life, but he cut of all support for her.

According to sources from the time, Lady Bryan, Elizabeth’s governess, was forced to petition the King, asking for his help. The young girl had been so neglected that she had out-grown her clothes and was in desperate need of new ones. After her fourth birthday, however, Elizabeth’s fortunes changed. Lady Bryan was replaced by a new, younger governess called Katherine Champernowne. She oversaw her young charge’s early education and ensured that she grew up in the relative comfort of a stable family home.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother, was executed after being charged with treason against King Henry. Wikipedia.

14. MYTH: Elizabeth swallowed Henry VIII’s propaganda campaign and completely disowned her own mother

Elizabeth was just three years old when her mother, Anne Boleyn was executed on the orders of King Henry VIII. The king had been disappointed that his second wife had given him a daughter instead of a son. And, according to the official statement of the time, Anne had also been disappointed that her child was a girl and that she had ‘failed’ to give her husband a male heir. After her death, the royal court issued lots of propaganda aimed at tainting the name of Anne, accusing her of treachery and even witchcraft. Since she grew up in such an environment, some have speculated that Elizabeth grew up to resent her own mother.

All the evidence suggests that this was simply not the case. Famously, while a young woman, and indeed for much of her adult life, Elizabeth wore a special ring. The ring was fitted with a little door. When this was opened, she could look at a tiny portrait of her mother. She had the picture painted by an artist who had known Anne Boleyn personally, and she managed to keep the commission a secret from Henry. There’s also a famous family portrait in which the young Elizabeth is seen wearing a necklace with the letter ‘A’ on it – proof that she was honoring her mother’s memory, right under the nose of her tyrannical father?

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth’s time in the infamous Tower of London has inspired many writers and artists. Wikimedia Commons.

13. FACT: Elizabeth spent several weeks locked up in the infamous Tower of London, though was allowed to take her servants with her

In August of 1553, Mary Tudor rode proudly into London to be crowned the Queen of England. Elizabeth, her half-sister was by her side. One of Queen Mary I’s first acts was to require all her nobles, and fellow royals, to attend Catholic mass. Elizabeth, a Protestant, went along with this. In February of 1554, however, she was implicated in the Wyatt’s Rebellion, a Protestant plot to overthrow Mary and make England a Protestant stronghold once again. Elizabeth vehemently denied any involvement. Despite a lack of concrete evidence, she was found guilty of sedition and sent to the Tower of London.

Elizabeth entered the infamous prison on boat, through Traitor’s Gate. Given the circumstances, it’s probable that she believed she would either be executed or else live out the rest of her natural life in the Bell Tower. However, the Tower guards treated her well. Several of her closest servants joined Elizabeth in the prison, and she was given a small but comfortable room, with enough natural light to read, and was permitted to take daily exercise. Supporters petitioned Queen Mary to release her half-sister. And in May she did just that. Elizabeth was sentenced to live under house arrest – and the records show huge crowds lined the streets as she was transported to the home where she was to spend more than a year.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Would Henry really have taken Anne as his wife if she had six fingers on one hand? Pinterest.

12. MYTH: Elizabeth had six fingers on one of her hands, and she inherited the deformity from her mother, Anne Boleyn

In the years following her execution, rumors that Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand started to spread throughout England and beyond. The first reference to this was made by Nicholas Sander in 1530. And it soon gained currency across the continent, as did similar rumors that the second wife of Henry VIII even had three breasts as well as the extra digit. Since she was Anne’s only child, the rumors even went so far as to say that Elizabeth had inherited her mother’s physical deformities but managed to hide them from the public and even from those closest to her, for instance by refusing to get married.

All serious historians refute such allegations. Notably, Sander, who was the first to mention the ‘six fingers’ thing was a Catholic and was intent on slandering the Protestant Anne Boleyn. Since physical deformities were widely assumed to be a sign of evil, this would have been an effective line of attack – as it would have been for Elizabeth. However, there’s no evidence to suggest that either Anne or Elizabeth had any extra fingers or breasts. What’s more, it’s highly unlikely Henry VIII would have taken Anne as his wife is she wasn’t conventionally attractive – after all, this was a monarch who had his marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, annulled on the grounds that he found her too ugly to consummate the union.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth suffered from smallpox as a child and had scars for the rest of her life. The Royal Family.

11. FACT: Elizabeth was a sickly child and was unwell for the remainder of her life, even though she tried to cover up her weaknesses

From an early age, Elizabeth realized that, in order to survive in a man’s world, she needed to present herself as tough and unshakable. And, for the most part, she succeeded. However, the impression she gave was a mask covering the reality. According to some recent biographers of the Tudor queen, Elizabeth suffered from bad health from childhood, most notably with a bad case of smallpox. And as she got older, her health only got worse. In the end, the queen of England was a frail old lady using every possible trick to cover up the truth.

Ironically, it was her attempts to hide her frailty that most likely caused the Queen’s health to decline so rapidly in her later years. Each morning, she would apply bright red blusher to her face and neck to hide her wrinkles and her smallpox scars. This was made from mercuric sulfide. So, every time Elizabeth licked her lips, she would have been slowly poisoning herself. As we now know, mercury poisoning affects the brain, causing slurred speech, memory loss and a lack of coordination. And, of course, the worse she looked, the more toxic make-up her ladies-in-waiting slapped on her every day!

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth’s enemies tried to question her reputation, tainting her as a man-eater. Wikimedia Commons.

10. MYTH: Elizabeth, like Catherine the Great, was promiscuous and took a number of her male court favorites into her bed

From middle-age onward, Elizabeth I actively encouraged the popular perception of herself as ‘the Virgin Queen’. However, not everyone was convinced the monarch was quite as chaste as she said she was. Both during her reign as well as in the years following her death, rumors circulated that, far from being a virgin, Elizabeth was a wildly promiscuous woman, with a voracious sexual appetite. Above all, it’s alleged that she took the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Leicester, as well as Robert Devereux and Sir Walter Raleigh to bed with her.

According to most scholars with deep knowledge of Tudor England, it’s highly unlikely that even the Queen would have been able to conceal an affair and keep it secret. It’s true that she did have male favorites, and while the accounts of the time do reveal that Elizabeth not only liked to surround herself with handsome young men, but she also gave them nicknames and openly flirted with them. What’s more, she was also a keen dancer and loved foreign, more risqué dances, such as jigs from Italy. However, there’s simply no evidence to suggest that the queen invited her favorites or dance partners into the royal bedchamber.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth always wanted one of her ladies to be beside her during the night. Pinterest.

9. FACT: She may have been all-powerful, but Elizabeth I was afraid of mice and terrified of being alone in the dark

As Queen of England, Elizabeth’s power might have been absolute, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t human. Indeed, just like everyone else, the monarch suffered from fears and phobias. The records do show that she was terrified of mice. According to accounts from certain members of her court, whenever she spotted a tiny rodent, Elizabeth would climb up on a chair or any other easily-reached piece of furniture and call for her guards. She would only come down once the offending mouse had been killed.

As well as her fear of mice, Queen Elizabeth I also suffered from a crippling fear of the dark. It’s possible that this started in childhood and was almost certainly made worse by the time she spent locked up in the Tower of London. Elizabeth was so scared of the dark that she refused to sleep alone. Each night, one of her trusted ladies-in-waiting would be ordered to sleep in the Queen’s bedchamber. According to one famous episode, when Elizabeth’s usual bed companion, a lady named Dorothy Stafford, broke her leg in a horse-riding accident, the monarch demanded that another friend, Mary Scudamore, be fetched at once. Her trusted ally the Earl of Sussex was undoubtedly well-rewarded for ensuring Scudamore reached the royal bedchamber before dark.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth adored the Earl of Leicester, but did they really have a secret child together? Wikimedia Commons.

8. MYTH: The ‘Virgin Queen’ had at least one secret, illegitimate child, probably fathered by her cousin and one true love, the Earl of Leicester

Even now, many people refuse to accept that Elizabeth I was happy without the love of a man. Ever since she was a young lady, rumors concerning her love life – and, indeed, sex life – have abounded. And, according to some, not only did Elizabeth not die a ‘virgin Queen’, she even had a child out of wedlock. Moreover, she conspired to keep the illegitimate son or daughter a secret all her life. Above all, it’s alleged that her close friendship with her cousin Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, had produced a child.

Upon her coronation, Elizabeth argued that having children would just be a distraction. She said: “Do not upbraid me with miserable lack of children, for every one of you, and as many as are Englishmen, are children and kinsmen to me.” But more compellingly, most historians agree that it would have been almost impossible to keep any pregnancy secret. Elizabeth lived her life in a bubble, with no real privacy. What’s more, it’s believed the King of Spain – a Catholic keen to undermine Protestant Elizabeth any way possible – had spies in the English court, including maids who would check the royal bed sheets to ensure the monarch was menstruating.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth II planted a new tree on the site where Elizabeth I learned of her fate. Pinterest.

7. FACT: The legend that Elizabeth was sat under her favorite oak tree when she was informed she had become Queen is most probably true

Many legends regarding royals are believed to be, if not completely made-up, then certainly exaggerated. However, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Princess Elizabeth was indeed stood underneath a mighty oak tree when she learned she was Queen. The tree in question stood in the grounds of her childhood home, Hatfield House, just outside of London. It was some distance from the palace, making it a favored spot for the Princess when she wanted to enjoy some rare solitude with her beloved books.

According to the accounts of the time, Elizabeth was with her closest ladies-in-waiting and sat under the tree on the afternoon of November 17 1558. A rider from London had to ask the Hatfield Staff house where she was. When he did find her, he informed the young Elizabeth that Queen Mary I was dead. She would inherit the throne. What’s more, though the coronation wouldn’t be for another two months, Elizabeth assumed the powers of the monarch there and then. Sadly, the actual tree died and was removed many years ago, though another oak has been planted in its place, with a plaque explaining the historical significance of the location.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth had a wild temper, as her servants often found out the hard way. The Spectator.

6. MYTH: Elizabeth was quiet, calm and rational, unlike her hot-tempered famous father

In some movie depictions of Queen Elizabeth I, the monarch is portrayed as calm and collected at all times. Even when she is shown to be displeased, she nevertheless keeps her cool, preferring a look of contempt or understated but sharp put-down to a full-on tantrum. However, by all accounts, such an image of Elizabeth is highly inaccurate. She was, it should be remembered, the daughter of King Henry VIII, a man not known for his patience and gentleness. Similarly, her mother, Anne Boleyn, was independent and often outspoken – qualities that at first attracted Henry and then repulsed him. It seems their daughter inherited her fierce temper from both her parents.

From the available evidence, it seems that Elizabeth’s fits of temper were relatively frequent, and always unpredictable. She especially hated hearing bad news. According to one account, when her private surgeon advised her that a chronic pain in her arm was the result of a “cold, rheumatic humor”, she interpreted this as a sign of aging. She was livid and banished the surgeon not only from her sight but from the royal court. As she continued to get older and suffer health problems, including a crippling leg ulcers, she became even less patient with her underlings, and her temper tantrums became more frequent and more violent.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth suffered from terrible oral health, caused largely by her candy habit. Daily Mail.

5. FACT: Elizabeth had black teeth, and far from being embarrassed about it may even have smiled at foreign dignitaries with pride

Not one of the many portraits made of Queen Elizabeth show the monarch with black teeth. After all, the artists were always keen to show their subject in the best possible light – to do otherwise might have seen them thrown in the Tower of London. But that doesn’t mean Elizabeth had excellent oral health. Quite the opposite, in fact. There are a number of examples of visiting ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries commenting on the state of Elizabeth’s teeth. According to most accounts, while she had a full set – quite an achievement for the 16th century – her teeth were almost completely black.

But while today such blackened teeth might be the cause of shame, for Elizabeth and other European royals, it was a source of pride. According to the accounts of the time, the Queen had a notoriously sweet tooth and was especially fond of candied violets. She ate so much sweet stuff that, inevitably, her teeth started rotting from a relatively young age. But since only the rich could afford snacks made with sugar imported from the New World, black teeth were widely-regarded as a status symbol and an indicator of not just great wealth but also cosmopolitan tastes.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
The Queen loved theater, but the theory she was a great playwright is just wild speculation. Pinterest.

4. MYTH: Elizabeth was educated, literary – and even wrote Shakespeare’s plays but let the Bard take the credit

From the mid-19th century onward, certain literary – and some not-so-literary – critics have argued that William Shakespeare didn’t actually write most of the works attributed to the Bard. That is, it’s thought that he could have taken credit for another writer’s work. Among the names most commonly put forward as the ‘real Bard’ are Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, Francis Bacon and Edward De Vere. However, the argument for Queen Elizabeth writing plays such as Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing has also been put forward – and it’s a theory that, whatever the evidence presented to the contrary, refuses to go away.

Much of the doubt surrounding the authenticity surrounding Shakespeare’s plays may be down to simple snobbery. After all, he was from a relatively lowly family from small town Stratford-upon-Avon. In comparison, Queen Elizabeth was well-educated, well-read and, according to her tutors as well as to the many diplomats and dignitaries she corresponded with over the years, she was an excellent writer. However, there is zero evidence that the literary monarch actually wrote plays or fictions of her own, let alone allowed Shakespeare to take credit for her work. What’s more, several of Shakespeare’s plays were released in he months and years after Elizabeth’s death in 1603.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth is entertained by the leading occultist of the age, John Dee. Wikimedia Commons.

3. FACT: Elizabeth had a fascination with the occult and even invited astrologers and seers into her inner circle

Elizabeth I may have been a well-educated lady with a keen interest in science, but she also had a fascination with the occult and magic. By the standards of the 16th century, however, this was perfectly normal. At that time, there was no contradiction between having a scientific mind and a passion for reason and at the same time placing faith in astrology. However, Elizabeth was unique among English monarchs in that she surrounded herself with mystics and self-proclaimed seers. Chief among them was John Dee. The most famous occultist of the age, Dee was personally invited to the royal court by Elizabeth. She read his key work, Monas Hieroglyphica, and wanted him to explain it to her personally.

Dee was by no means the only practitioner of magic or astrology in Elizabeth’s close circle. She would regularly welcome visiting occultists to her palace, granting them an audience and allowing them to read her star charts or try and predict her future. Notably, such was her faith in astrology that she even ruled that she was to be officially crowned Queen of England on 15 January 1559, a date specifically chosen for her by Dee. At the same time, however, Elizabeth was a devout Christian and helped place the Protestant Church at the heart of the English state.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth took great pride in her appearance, though her vanity probably poisoned her. Wikimedia Commons.

2. FACT: Elizabeth was vain and her determination to stay beautiful became more intense as the years passed

Queen Elizabeth might have been well-educated and highly intelligent, but she also possessed great pride in her appearance. How other people thought she looked mattered a lot to the monarch. As a young woman, she didn’t need to make much of an effort to impress. According to the accounts of the time, Elizabeth was one of the most-desirable young ladies in all of Europe, and not just due to her social status and wealth. However, as the years passed and her youthful beauty began to fade, the Queen worked extra hard to hold onto her reputation as being blessed with both brains and beauty.

According to the accounts of her ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth needed a long time to get ready each day. She would line her eyes with charcoal and her face, hands and neck were then painted with a mixture of white lead and vinegar. And, of course, like many ladies of the time, she wore a wig every day. What’s more, Elizabeth was always determined to be the most eye-catching woman in the room. She would always dress in colorful gowns made from rich materials, while she would insist that her ladies-in-waiting would only wear plain black or white gowns.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
When Elizabeth welcomed the Dutch ambassador, she spoke in his own language. Wikimedia Commons.

1. FACT: Elizabeth I was a genuine a polyglot, capable of speaking 10 languages like a native

Over the centuries, England has been ruled by monarchs of varying intelligence. But Elizabeth I was almost certainly one of the kingdom’s most intellectually-blessed rulers. She was well-read, especially for a woman in the 16th century. What’s more, her reputation as being an expert in languages is well-deserved. According to the records, Elizabeth was a true polyglot and her expertise in a number of different tongues helped her rule over a divided kingdom and negotiate directly with foreign allies and potential enemies.

As a young girl, Princess Elizabeth learned Welsh from her nanny and mistress. She was then taught French, Latin, Greek and Italian by her private tutor. Such an education would have been pretty standard for a girl of her social standing at the time. On top of this, however, Elizabeth could speak Spanish, Dutch, Scottish, Irish and even Cornish, bringing her total up to 10. Notably, foreigners commended the Queen for her linguistic skills. For instance, when Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli, the Ambassador of Venice, visited England in 1603, he and the Queen conversed in Italian. He remarked “she possessed these languages so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue.”


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Elizabeth I: Reputations and Reconfigurations.” History.ac.uk.

“Queen Elizabeth I, facts and myths.” Royal Museums Greenwich.

“Was Elizabeth I England’s cleverest monarch?” Almost History, November 2012.

“Was Queen Elizabeth I A Man?” History Answers UK.

“7 things you (probably) didn’t know about Elizabeth I).” History Extra.

“Elizabeth I’s love life: was she really a ‘Virgin Queen’?” History Extra.

“Did the Virgin Queen have a secret love child?” Daily Mail, June 2006.

“Elizabeth I: the monarch behind the mask.” History Extra.

“Queen Elizabeth’s Oak: A Tree of Legend.” Royal Museums of Greenwich.