The Bisley Boy

Posted By claire on November 4, 2009

Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker

Don’t you just love conspiracy theories?! 911, Roswell, the moon landing, JFK, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson…the list goes on, but did you know that there is a conspiracy theory relating to Elizabeth I which, if true, would make our present day Queen actually Queen Elizabeth I rather than Elizabeth II?

Before I go into the story, I must say a big thank you to Elizabeth Files visitor Jenny for mentioning this long forgotten legend or conspiracy and making me research it some more. I had heard that there were those who believed that Elizabeth I was actually a man but I had never really looked into it before and now I’m glad I did, it’s a fascinating story.

Bram Stoker and Bisley

This conspiracy theory has its roots in the writings of Bram Stoker, the famous writer of the Gothic novel Dracula (one of my favourite books!).

Stoker wasn’t just an author, he was also the personal assistant of the actor Henry Irving who had been looking for a house in the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire, England. It was in the village of Bisley that Irving came across the legend of “The Bisley Boy” and he passed the story on to Stoker who was keen to investigate. Both Stoker and Irving were intrigued by the fact that the village’s May Day celebrations involved a boy May Queen dressed in Elizabethan costume. Such traditions are generally based on an historical event or legend and Stoker wanted to find out more about this one – why a male Queen? His digging resulted in a chapter of his book “Famous Imposters” being devoted to “The Bisley Boy”.

You can read the whole story of The Bisley Boy legend in Bram Stoker’s “Famous Imposters”, which can be read online at Internet Archive or downloaded at, but I will give a synopsis of the story here and why some people have given credence to this conspiracy theory – Stoker seemed to be convinced of it!

The Bisley Boy Legend

The Story

According to legend, Princess Elizabeth (or rather the Lady Elizabeth) was sent to Overcourt House in Bisley sometime around 1543/1544 to get away from London, where the plague was rife, and enjoy the Cotswold country air. Unfortunately disaster struck and the ten year old princess was taken ill. As the princess lay gravely ill, her governess received word that the King was on his way to visit his daughter and while the house was preparing for the royal visit the princess died from acute fever. What on earth could the governess do? The King was famous for his awful temper and rages and the child’s governess was in a state of despair and complete panic – how could she tell the King of the death of his daughter?

Fearing for her life, the governess searched the local village for a suitable girl to replace Elizabeth so that they could delay this bad news, hide Elizabeth’s body and tell the King at a later date. Her search was utterly futile, no girl of the right age and colouring could be found but suddenly a thought struck her, there was a fair, red headed boy that had actually been a playmate to the little princess. He was a pretty boy, had the right colouring and was close at hand. In desperation, the governess dressed him in the princess’s dress and the deception began.

According to legend, the King, who did not frequently visit his daughter, did not notice the substitution, after all, Elizabeth had always been wary of him and he was in rather a hurry any way. The plan worked and worked so well that the King was never told the truth and Elizabeth’s body was never moved from the stone coffin in the garden at Overcourt where it had initially been hidden. Over three hundred years later, the Reverend Thomas Keble told his family of the discovery of the remains of a girl’s body in a stone coffin at Overcourt while building work was being carried out at the manor house. The remains included rags of fine, Tudor style clothing – cue “Twilight Zone” music!!

The Reasons Stoker Gave it Credence

Well, you can be forgiven for calling this story”tommyrot”, which is what The New York Times said of it in in its 1911 review of Stoker’s book, but here are some of the reasons why Stoker gave it so much credence:-

  • Elizabeth’s secretive nature – Her actions during her lifetime seemed to suggest, according to Stoker, that she had a closely guarded secret. Sir Robert Tyrwhitt wrote to Protector Somerset in 1549: “I do verily believe that there hath been some secret promise between my Lady, Mistress Ashley [Elizabeth’s governess] and the Cofferer [Sir Thomas Parry] never to confess to death. “
  • Elizabeth’s close relationship with Kat Ashley, Thomas Parry and Blanche Parry – She treated them all with favour and kept them close to her.
  • Elizabeth’s refusal to marry
  • Rumours that Elizabeth could not bear children – In April 1559, when Elizabeth was only 25, the Count de Feria wrote: “If my spies do not lie, which I believe they do not, for a certain reason which they have recently given me, I understand that she [Elizabeth] will not bear children.”
  • A significant change in literary style between the letters Elizabeth wrote Catherine Parr in 1543 and 1544.
  • Roger Ascham’s warning in one letter to Kat Ashley not to be too zealous in her teaching of Elizabeth and to go slowly and then a later letter written by Roger Ascham to John Sturmius, Rector of the Protestant University of Strasbourg in 1550 where he writes: The constitution of her mind is exempt from female weakness, and she is endued with a masculine power of application. No apprehension can be quicker than hers, no memory
    more retentive. French and Italian she speaks like English; Latin with fluency, propriety and judgment; she also spoke Greek with me, frequently, willingly, and understanding well. Nothing can be more elegant than her handwriting, whether in the Greek or Roman character. In music she is very skillful but does not greatly delight. With respect to personal decoration, she greatly prefers a simple elegance to show and splendour, so despising the outward adorning of plaiting the hair and of wearing of gold, that in the whole manner of her life she rather resembles Hippolyta than Phaedra.”
  • Catherine Parr’s encouragement of the “horseplay” between her husband, Thomas Seymour, and Elizabeth – Did she know that Elizabeth was a boy and this was her idea of  revenge on her husband?
  • Elizabeth’s huge stock of wigs – Were they to cover male baldness?
  • Elizabeth’s refusal to see other doctors – Stoker cites the occasion when Elizabeth was ill during her house arrest at Woodstock. Apparently, Elizabeth’s usual physicians were not available and Elizabeth refused to see anyone else.

Others who believe this conspiracy theory have also pointed out that Elizabeth left instructions for no post mortem to be carried out on her body and that she liked to wear big dresses and high necklines, which would have hid her male body and use thick drag queen-like makeup.

Henry Fitzroy

Henry Fitzroy

Who was the Boy?

You must read Stoker’s chapter on “The Bisley Boy” to fully understand this, it’s rather long-winded and complicated, but Stoker believed the boy to be the Duke of Richmond’s son by Mary Howard. As the Duke of Richmond was Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, this would explain the boy’s colouring being similar to Elizabeth’s, the resemblance and the intelligence.

Reasons to Discredit this Theory

As much as I love Bram Stoker, I have to say “Poppycock!” very loudly.

I just cannot believe this story has any truth in it whatsoever and I think it’s just people’s attempts to try and understand how a woman can live life without sex and marriage – she must have been a man!

Here are some of my reasons for not believing:-

  • Henry VIII was not thick – Surely he would have noticed a change in his daughter even if he hadn’t seen her for a while!
  • Elizabeth was not bald – She chose to wear wigs for her image and then to hide her greying hair. When the Earl of Essex famously burst into her bedchamber, he saw a grey haired Elizabeth and according to courtier Rowland Whyte the Queen was “newly up, her hair about her face”.
  • Elizabeth had periods – When Philip II’s emissary bribed the Queen’s laundress for details on Elizabeth’s health, the woman reported that the Queen was functioning normally, i.e. menstruating regularly.
  • According to Tracy Borman, Elizabeth delighted in wearing low necklines, even into old age. If she was trying to hide a lack of breasts then this was not the way to do it!
  • Puberty – Could a teenage boy really have hidden all of the changes involved in puberty?
  • Robert Dudley – Whether or not you believe that Elizabeth and Dudley had an intimate relationship, surely Dudley would have noticed that she was a man. I guess you could argue that this was why they never married or why Elizabeth never got pregnant – they could have been gay lovers! – but I’m sorry, I just don’t believe that.
  • The secret would have got out – As much as Stoker argues that Bisley was very cut off and that Kat Ashley and the Parrys kept this secret to their graves, I cannot believe that they could have got away with it.
  • Doctors – I know Elizabeth was very fussy about her doctors but a whole panel of doctors once examined her during marriage negotiations to see if she could still bear children and they decided that she could. Wouldn’t they have noticed that she was actually a he!

What do you think?

Is this just a story to satisfy those who can’t believe that a woman could rule England so successfully or live without marriage and children or do you think there’s some truth in it?

I do love conspiracy theories!


107 Responses to “The Bisley Boy”

  1. Michelle says:

    No, there have been many “conspiracy theories” kept secret for a century or more. For example. Jefferson really DID have children with Sally Hemings.

    Elizabeth was born in 1533. Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond was born in 1519 and lived 17 years. Apart from being 24 years older than she was, (and not at all in a position to be mistaken for a ten year old girl), Fitzroy had been dead since 1536. That doesn’t mean some random red-headed ten year old boy wouldn’t have done every bit as well, and kept silent to keep his parents alive.

    But the body in the stone coffin was examined on a documentary I saw, and found to date from the 13th century.

  2. Kerry Endacotte says:

    Whether, this is true or not let us look at some options, possible evidence.
    1/Periods could easily be faked, with a quantity of fresh blood reality easily at that date easily aquired. That to site that as a reason does’nt hold up!
    2/Also, although people think on ‘Elizabethian England as a free and wonderful era, which it untimatly saw great achievements but it was also by modern standards ‘a police state’,! with ‘the fear of Catholic’s under the bed! , as America’s parniod fear of Commie’s in the 1950’s, that media sources were xarefully guarded and controlled!!
    3/The modern image of Elizabethian England to some degree, was manifactured propergander, during WWII, when appropreate hero’s were sought to forfill, the image of ‘a nation alone’
    4/Modern People also readily mix up what they believe to be Elizabethian England to actually be the early era of James I of England and VI of Scotland like people percieve, the supposed image of wild Sixities as being the whole Decade, when so much that sums up the 1960’s is the Early 1970’s
    If, you wanted to paint a portrate of Elizabeth I, you had to apply and pay for a licence, which you were provided with ‘a stencil’, of ‘the desired image’. It is known that some unoffishial or unsantioned portrates of Elizabeth I were broken up and destroy’d

    So do I believe the legend, unlikely but there are enough facts in peoples perception of image of what was actual history and what was not, along with mefia malipulation in the C20th and C16th to give this a creadence of possibility!

  3. I read the story of the Bisley Boy in an ex-library edition of Stoker’s book and of course the whole thing looks very dubious. Claire’s comments are accurate and sensible and it is much easier to disbelieve than accept. Perhaps the most interesting point is – where did Stoker get tyhe story? Was it really passed on to him by Irving or did Stoker make the whole thing up?

  4. Robin says:

    I know I got into this conversation late but wanted to say…

    With that outside of the box thinking (sarcasm), it’s a wonder that Stoker never accused H8 of secretly being a woman.

    If Elizabeth was too “manly” to be a woman because she ruled as a ruler should instead of being weak and fragile, then H8 must have been a woman by Stoker’s logic.

    I do not believe back word of this “secret”. She was a good and strong ruler who just happened to be a woman.

  5. Robin says:

    Also wanted to add:

    If heads did not roll when Fitzroy died (I actually don’t know if anyone was put to death over his death, so please correct me if I am wrong), why in the world would anyone believe that H8 would freak out and behead a woman over a 10 year old girl which he himself made a bastard by murdering her mother?

    I am 100% positive that H8 understood that children can fail suddenly if the right illness came along.

    He didn’t even think of beheading COA, the wetnurse and or anyone else over all the babies which died while married to COA.

    Not to mention the fact that he would have known that the child was not his. Even if he didn’t notice, Mary definitely would have and would have used that against Elizabeth when she was taken to the tower.

    What I think may have happened (just my opinion), was that Elizabeth may have indeed had a fever. There may have been talk of using a changeling had she died. Then it snowballed from there. People love gossip and everyone knows that stories have a way of getting embellished to make them more interesting.

    But that is my opinion only.

  6. Drew says:

    Check out the novel “King’s Deception” by Steve Berry. Whether the legend is true or not, Berry incorporates it into this Cotton Malone novel in a most entertaining way and uses plenty of real history to support his case that this is more than a legend.

  7. Pippit Temple-Cox says:

    I have found this “story” fascinating. The purported changeling in the above explanation was supposedly the CHILD of Fitzroy and Lady Mary Howard (see other articles). There is a school of thought that, taking into account you can not apply 20/21st century psychological reasons to persons living in the 16th century, there may have been an actual physical defect with Elizabeth (I refer to “testicular feminisation” – source Greenblatt, R. 1986, British Journal of Sexual Medicine, (The Virgin Queen) and also a paper by Professor Bakan). I would never wish to de-feminise Elizabeth and hold her in the highest esteem. With regard to defaming her memory, we all tend to agree Elizabeth had no progeny so therefore no direct living descendants to upset and if she did “suffer” from this “affliction” I believe Elizabeth should be elevated higher for triumph against adversity. The author Deryn Lake touches on this in her novel, “Pour the Dark Wine”.

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