Did the Virgin Queen have a secret?
She should have become Elizabeth I.
But when she was just 11 years old, Elizabeth Tudor died.
The flame-haired daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn would never sit on the English throne, would never defeat the Spanish Armada, would never reign over England’s Golden Age…
Someone else would do it in her place.
It was 1544. London was in the grip of the plague.
First would come the fever. Then, the diarrhoea, the vomiting, the bleeding from your mouth and nose.
And then, death.
Back then, outbreaks were common in London.
Anyone with the money to escape the infected city did so.
Including the royal family.
Princess Elizabeth, second in line to the throne after her younger brother Edward and older sister Mary, was sent to Overcourt House, outside the small Gloucester village of Bisley with her governess Lady Kat Ashley and her guardian Sir Thomas Parry.
There, she’d wait until the plague outbreak was over.
And there, she’d be safe.
She was, after all, a precious commodity for her father, the king.
He hoped he’d soon marry her to a foreign prince, use her to form an alliance with the kingdom of France, or Spain.
But then, soon after she arrived in Bisley, Princess Elizabeth died quite suddenly. Possibly of a fever or infection.
And that’s how the lie began. Or so many historians believe.
Lady Kat and Sir Thomas were terrified.
The princess’s well-being was their responsibility, their duty. And she’d died in their care.
How would they tell the king?
It’s not like he was known for his compassion and understanding…in fact, he’d had people beheaded for less.
Worse, he was due to visit Bisley soon. To see his valuable daughter.
Kat and Thomas did what they needed to survive.
They decided to trick the king into believing his daughter was still alive.
And for this, they’d need a stand-in.
It would be easy, really. Henry VIII wasn’t a great family man.
He hadn’t seen his daughter Elizabeth since she was 3 years old.
So all Kat and Thomas had to do was find an 11-year old girl with red hair and teach her how to behave like a princess.
There was no 11-year old girl in the whole of Bisley with red hair.
But there was a boy.
Running out of time, Kat and Thomas persuaded the lad to be the stand-in for the dead princess. They dressed him up in her clothes, taught him to curtsey.
And incredibly, they pulled it off.
The king left Bisley after his brief visit believing his daughter, the princess Elizabeth, was alive and well.
If they were ever found out, Kat and Thomas knew they’d lose their heads.
But they’d done the hardest bit. They’d fooled the king.
So when, after a few months, it was safe for Elizabeth to return to London, it was easy to fool the rest of the royal court as well.
The boy from Bisley grew up a princess. And in November 1558, he became Queen Elizabeth I.
And the first thing Queen Elizabeth I did after her coronation?
She made Sir Thomas her Privy Counsellor and Lady Kat First Lady of the Bedchamber.
It was Kat who dressed the Queen, who undressed her, and who kept her secret close.
And in many ways, it was an easy secret to keep.
The corsets, huge dresses and shoulder-pads fashionable at the time would have made it easy to disguise a masculine frame.
The high, lace ruffs worn around the neck would have hidden an Adam’s apple.
And could the wigs Elizabeth I was famous for wearing have masked a receding hairline, her heavy white make-up covered a five-o’clock-shadow?
Throughout her life, Elizabeth refused to see all but a handful of specially chosen doctors.
Were these the trusted few she’s allowed into her secret?
As Queen of England it was her duty to provide an heir. Back then, it was the only way to provide stability.
But Elizabeth rejected every marriage proposal.
When asked why she wouldn’t marry, Elizabeth said, ‘I am already bound to a husband – the Kingdom of England.’
But was the real reason she never married her fear of being found out as a man?
Even at the time, there were rumours things weren’t all they seemed.
I am certain Lady Ashley and Thomas Parry have a secret, wrote the courtier Sir Robert Tyrwhitt in 1589. And there’s a pact between them to take that secret to the grave.
The Bisley Boy died a Virgin Queen in 1603 at the age of 69.
There were strict instructions that no post-mortem was to be carried out on the Queen’s body. Possibly so the secret would be kept, even in death.
Of course, there are historians who believe the story of the Bisley boy nothing more than fantasy, legend or fable.
After all, the Virgin Queen was said to have taken many lovers, she may have worn wigs and heavy make-up because she was vain, and portraits exist of her in low-cut bodices.
Her laundry maids even told spies working for the king of Spain that Elizabeth had periods. They’d seen the evidence of it on her bed linen.
But then, some 300 years after the death of Elizabeth I, there was building work in the grounds of Overcourt House in Bisley.
The local Reverend Thomas Keble wanted to restore a well. But what he found buried there surprised him.
An unmarked grave.
And inside that grave, the remains of a little girl. No older than 11-years old.
Her body was decomposed. But she’d been dressed in the finest clothes of the Tudor times, gold brocade, velvet and lace, her fingers covered in rings.
No one knew who the little girl was. There was no mention of a rich, well-to-do little girl dying in the village during the period.
The reverend had the child reburied.
But the questions remain. Had he unearthed the body of the Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn…a body buried quickly and secretly by Lady Kat Ashley and Sir Thomas Parry shortly after the Princess’s death in 1544?
Was England’s Virgin Queen a boy? Was the Good Queen Bess the nameless Bisley Boy?
And did Lady Kat Ashley and Sir Thomas Parry take her secret to the grave?
The Bisley boy and Bram
When Bram Stoker, writer and author of Dracula, visited Bisley in the late nineteenth century, he was intrigued by the village’s strange May Day tradition. Like most villages at the time, the village chose a May Queen every year. But in Bisley, the May Queen was always a young boy in an Elizabethan-style dress. When he asked why, villagers told him about the Bisley Boy. Bram went on to research the story extensively, and wrote about it in his 1910 book, Famous Imposters.