The Bisley Boy

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 EbooksRead.com, 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

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!

119 thoughts on “The Bisley Boy

  1. One thing that has not been mentioned, which could give credence to this story is simply that you must remember that during this time in history boys dressed as girls were everywhere as they were on stage as no female performed on stage. Also the said drag performers would often appear off stage in female role, as a common occurrence therefore a boy as a girl would be a simple way to hide in plain sight also low necklines can give you cleavage if correctly structured. There is a book called Drag which came out in the sixties and would add validity to the fact that Elizabeth could have been a man

  2. I believe that Elizabeth was sick and they thought she was going to die. While Elizabeth was lying in bed, the king was coming and they decided to dress a boy up and pass him off as Elizabeth to the king. And after the king leaves Elizabeth gets better and possible the little boy gets sick and dies. They bury him with the clothes, since they so-call said they find a female with royal clothes. Are they sure a female? But the rumors already begin and you cannot stop rumors about a boy pretending to be queen Elizabeth. Was there rumors about a little boy missing from the village, and did the servants pay the little boy family to keep quiet? I cannot believe the king did not hear those rumors, especially if someone wanted money or food. Why not tell the king. Also, her sister Mary hated her if she heard the rumors, I believe she would of expose the imposter and off with the imposter’s head. I just got into this story if more info out there please let me know. Who was this Bisley boy and his family? Extraordinary story!

  3. It is a great story but I do not believe it! So much could have gone wrong! Surely the king would have been devastated at the loss of his little daughter but no one would have been killed over it.

    It is an intriguing story though!

  4. I am clearly very late to this comment, but I believe with certainty that a secret can be kept by a select few for life. It is done frequently. How often do we find out about serial killers who lived secret lives no one suspected or people who find out in adulthood that their parents weren’t their true biological parents? When people are afraid enough of the consequences, they will certainly keep a secret. Being drawn and quartered or disemboweled while alive would be pretty good incentive. So would the threat of a bloody civil war in which everyone’s families and friends were at risk of death.

    I do believe that there is evidence for it. First, Henry 8 is noted to have rarely seen his daughter. Kings during that time spent little time with their children… Heck, even queens spent little time with their children! They had wet nurses and nannies to care for them and historical accounts note that Henry 8 was even more distant to Elizabeth than most kings with their offspring.

    Second, Henry 8 was impulsive and cruel. It didn’t have to be true that he would have beheaded the caregivers. They simply had to believe it. By the time she would have died, he was very sick and probably not able to closely examine his daughter. Let’s also not forget that lighting in castles is not great.

    Third, we know the Elizabethean fashion developed around the “ideal” version of Elizabeth’s body shape- very flat chested, tall, with a conical torso. Uhh… that doesn’t sound like a woman’s physique to me. In addition, as a previous commenter said, it’s not that hard to fake small breasts. Go to a drag show. You’ll see how easy it is. In fact, with the costuming of that time period, it would be extremely easy to fake being a woman. I also find it interesting that this is the time period during which plucking became such a trend. And let’s not forget Les Mignons, Henri III’s effeminate “friends”, who were essentially dressing as drag in that very time in France! There are written accounts of these young men which state that it was nearly impossible to tell them from a woman. Clearly, it was possible to do disguise one’s gender. Certainly, from the few paintings of the men I have in books, I cannot tell the difference. (In fact, they appear more feminine than paintings of Elizabeth I does!)

    Fourth, menstrual cycles would NOT be hard to fake. They had no DNA, no way of telling whether the blood was human blood. Not to mention, if you have a female in on the secret, it’s pretty easy for her to help you out in that department.

    Fifth, with the medical knowledge at that time, how else would they suddenly be made aware that Elizabeth wouldn’t bear children? Even women who do not menstruate regularly can get pregnant. To declare with certainty that she would never have children implies that she did not have the proper genitalia, whether it was from a deformity or from being an imposter.

    Sixth, even the most beautiful paintings of Elizabeth look masculine to me and I had thought so even before I was aware of the rumor. In fact, some have a faint 5 o’clock shadow look around the mouth. I don’t know why anyone would have been allowed to live painting such a thing unless it was an accurate representation, and I don’t think (from my limited understanding of how paintings age) that is something that has occurred over the years to the painting.

    Seventh, it seems to me that quite a bit of commentary on Elizabeth was attempting, as best they could without being treasonous, to draw attention to her eccentricies. Elizabeth was not liked by everyone, and one reason traditionally pointed out is that she was not a very “feminine” queen, as opposed to Mary Stuart.

    So, yes. I believe it’s possible this story is true.

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