Was Elizabeth I a man? Did she consider a military alliance with the ruler of the Ottoman Empire? Assistant Curator Zoe Mercer-Golden sifts the top Elizabeth I facts from the fiction surrounding one of the most iconic British monarchs



Queen Elizabeth I myths

1.     Elizabeth I was a man

Many misogynists and conspiracy theorists have argued that, due to her extraordinary leadership qualities, noted academic brilliance, and financial acumen, Elizabeth must have been a man. An overwhelming amount of evidence declares this notion to be false and discriminatory.

 Portrait of Elizabeth I of England

2.    Elizabeth wrote Shakespeare’s plays

Conspiracy theorists have proposed that Elizabeth, a gifted wit and writer herself, might have written some or all of Shakespeare’s plays. This argument often has classist origins – many scholars have been reluctant to ascribe some of the greatest works of literature of all time to the son of a glover from Stratford – and is almost certainly false.

Portrait_of_Shakespeare_

3.    Elizabeth had many lovers

Famously, Elizabeth lived and died as the Virgin Queen, resistant to being married off and obviously childless. However, Elizabeth had many favourites and close friends who were men, including Robert Dudley, Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, and Robert Devereux, as well as many prominent suitors, including many of the crown rulers of Europe and their heirs. We may never know if Elizabeth had non-platonic relationships with any of them, though no evidence has ever conclusively proved that she took lovers or companions before or after taking the crown.

Painting of Queen Elizabeth I Dancing with Robert Dudley

Queen Elizabeth I facts

1.     Elizabeth was declared illegitimate by her father Henry VIII and was re-legitimated over the course of her childhood.

Painting of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein

2.    Reputedly, Elizabeth spoke and read at least seven languages: English, Welsh, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, and Italian. Supposedly, she spoke five fluently by the age of eleven, and continued to learn bits of other languages, including German, as she grew older.

3.    Thomas Seymour, the husband of her father Henry VIII’s final wife, Catherine Parr, and the uncle of her younger half-brother, Edward VI, was executed for attempting to get the young Elizabeth to marry him. While to this day we only have partial accounts of what took place between them, this episode has been much-discussed in both historical and fictional accounts of the Queen’s reign.

Read more about the Seymour scandal

4.    Portraits of Elizabeth typically depict the queen with flaming red hair and an extremely white complexion. Earlier depictions of Elizabeth suggest that her red hair was natural; her ultra-white face was created through lead-based make-up that may have led to health issues in her later life.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes,

5.    Elizabeth came under suspicion when the wife of her favourite, Robert Dudley, died under mysterious circumstances. This story has become a favourite for writers of mysteries and thrillers to explore in their novels.

6.    Despite ruling as a Protestant monarch, Elizabeth adhered to her sister’s Catholicism during Mary’s reign.

7.    Mary’s husband, Philip II of Spain, proposed to Elizabeth after Mary’s death. Mary and Philip were cousins, and Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had divorced Mary’s mother in part because he became convinced it was wrong for a man to marry his brother’s wife. Philip apparently had less compunction about creating a parallel situation with Elizabeth. Elizabeth turned Philip down, and eventually fought a war against him, the Spanish Armada.

Launch of fireships against the Spanish Armada, 7 August 1588

8.    Elizabeth once considered a military alliance with the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Murad III, and the sultan of Morocco, Abd al-Malik, against Spain. While these countries never officially went to war together, Elizabeth and her courtiers did initiate trade relations with the greater Islamic world that provided highly lucrative for England through much of the Stuart period.

9.    Elizabeth had a notoriously big sweet tooth, and had a particular taste for candied violets. Eventually, the sugar caused many of her teeth to go black.

10.  Queen Elizabeth survived smallpox as a young woman, though none of the portraits of her show the scars she probably had from the disease. 

The Armada Portrait

Recently saved for the nation, the Armada Portrait commemorates the most famous conflict of Elizabeth I's reign – the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in summer 1588. This iconic portrait is now back on public display in the Queen's House after careful conservation.

Find out more and visit The Armada Portrait

Image of Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I