QUEEN ELIZABETH I AND
THE LEGEND OF THE BISLEY BOY
Most legends take on a life of their own. Even after hundreds of years, people still believe them. This is one such legend. It has to do with Queen Elizabeth I (1533 -1603). Was she the true daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn; and was this “Virgin Queen” of England a woman or a man?
Here is the legend. Elizabeth was three years old when her mother, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded. Henry VIII showed little interest in his child. When Lady Elizabeth was 10 years old, a plague was ravishing London. In her father’s absence, it was decided to take her to the country to escape illness. She resided at a hunting lodge at Overcourt near the village of Bisley. About 1544, Henry desired to see his daughter again and planned to visit Elizabeth at Bisley; but tragedy struck before he arrived. The young princess developed a fever and died shortly after. Her closest attendants feared for their own lives. Henry was a man known to fly into a rage upon hearing bad news. The royal caretakers might face time in the Tower of London, or worse. Elizabeth’s governess, Kat Ashley, hid the child’s body.
Then she had an idea, and rushed into the village of Bisley to find a young girl that could play the part of Elizabeth - at least until the crisis passed. They would tell Henry of his daughter’s death at a later time. The plan might just work because Henry had only seen Elizabeth twice and not since she was three years old. But the plan was in jeopardy because no suitable girl could be found. With time running out, Ashley took a risky step. She found a young boy of the same age as Elizabeth and with the same red hair and skin coloring. This child was a school mate and friend of the dead princess as well. As it turned out, the boy was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Richmond (who in turn was the illegitimate son of Henry himself). This made the boy the nephew of the late Elizabeth.
Before Henry arrived, the boy was dressed in girl’s clothing and briefed in royal manners. There was intense pressure when Henry finally appeared; but amazingly the King was pleased to find his “daughter” so pleasant and dutiful. The child was actually his own illegitimate grandson. He was known to have said of the alleged princess, “a wise head on young shoulders.”
But the legend had just begun. The deception lasted beyond Henry’s death in 1547 and the death of Elizabeth’s sister, Queen Mary, after whom the princess (or her imposter) succeeded to the throne. Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth I in 1558 and ruled for almost 45 years. She is considered one of the greatest monarchs in English history. Was Elizabeth a woman or a man? You will have to decide for yourself. There are arguments on both sides. In 1910, Bram Stoker, the Irish novelist and author of Dracula, became fascinated with the Bisley Boy Legend and discussed it in his book “Famous Impostors.” He was convinced it was true. His work shed light on the story of Elizabeth I and added a hint of conspiracy theory to it.
For those who believed Queen Elizabeth I was in fact a MAN, here are the facts most often cited.
1. Elizabeth refused to marry in spite of many suitors, including Robert Dudley with whom she was suspected of having a romance. The Tudor family desperately needed an heir to continue in power but she/he was unable to provide one.
2. Elizabeth had a secret nature; her actions suggested that she had a closely guarded secret (according to Stoker). In 1549, Sir Robert Tyrwhitt wrote, “I do believe that there is a secret promise between my Lady, Kat Ashley and Sir Thomas Parry never to confess unto death.” Ashley was thought to be at the center of the cover up.
3. During her reign, she associated with few of the ladies-in-waiting, but preferred to spend time with seamen and privateers.
4. Elizabeth decreed that after her death no doctors were to examine her body.
5. The portraits of her almost always depict her wearing elaborate gowns, jewels, and heavy makeup. Was this to cover a man’s physique?
6. There were persistent rumors that Elizabeth could not bear children. In 1559, Count de Feria wrote, “If my spies do not lie, and I believe they do not . . . I understand that she will not bear children.”
7. Elizabeth usually wore ruffled collars that extended upward to her chin. Was this to cover up an Adam’s apple? She grew bald in middle age (much more common in men) and used wigs to cover her head.
8. The Rector of the Protestant University wrote in 1550, “The constitution of her mind is exempt from female weakness, and she is endued with a masculine power of application.”
9. In 1588, she led her troops against the expected invasion by the Spanish Armada. She addressed the troops by saying, “I know I have the body of a woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King.”
10. As recently as 50 years ago, requests to exhume her body for examination (as to its sex) have been denied.
11. In 1960, in a small walled garden in Bisley, a stone box in the shape of a coffin was discovered and opened. It revealed the remains of a young girl of about 10 or 12 wearing fine silk garments. The box was found beneath the window of the room that Elizabeth stayed in while in Bisley.
Of course, there are many who believe that Elizabeth I was who we thought she was; and certainly a WOMAN. They state that Henry VIII would certainly have recognized his own daughter (remember, he hadn’t seen her since she was three years old). Some say that she was not bald but only wore wigs to cover her grey hair. There are reports that Elizabeth menstruated regularly; a Spanish emissary bribed a palace laundress for that information. Also, could a teenage boy have hidden all the signs of puberty from people he had contact with on a daily basis? And finally, if there was a conspiracy, it couldn’t have been kept secret for all those years (but if only 3 or 4 people knew the truth, as Bram Stoker concluded, it might have never been revealed).
An interesting final note: for over 300 years, the village of Bisley has celebrated the May Day festival. Their May Queen has always been a young boy dressed in a girl’s Elizabethan costume. The tradition existed until the mid-twentieth century.