The Bisley Boy
The question has always been ‘Why didn’t Elizabeth 1 marry?’ and many people have speculated. But a few historians believe they have the answer. Even the 19th century author, Bram Stoker, had a theory.
Bram 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. 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. Stoke was intrigued by the fact that the village’s May Day celebrations involved a boy, The May Queen, dressed in Elizabethan costume. Such traditions are generally based on historical events or legends 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’.
According to the legend, a lie began on an autumn morning 470 years ago when panic swept through a manor house in a Cotswold village in Gloucestershire. The 52-year-old king, Henry VIII, was due at any hour, travelling from London to visit his daughter Elizabeth who had been sent there the previous summer to avoid an outbreak of the plague. Unbeknownst to Henry and within days, she had fallen sick with a fever and after weeks of bleeding and vomiting, she was too weak to keep fighting. The night before the king’s arrival, his only child to Anne Boleyn, lay dangerously ill. By morning, she was dead.
Elizabeth’s governess, Lady Kat Ashley and her guardian, Thomas Parry, had good reason to fear telling Henry this awful news. Four of Henry’s children had died in infancy and of the survivors, Edward was a sickly boy of seven and the other was Mary, an embittered, unmarried woman in her late 20s. This 12-year-old child was England’s most valuable child in many ways. She could be married to a French prince, or even a Spanish one, to seal a much-needed alliance and when she gave birth, Tudor blood would continue to flow throughout the coming centuries. It was what Henry had so desperately craved.
It was Kat Ashley and Thomas Parry’s sole duty to keep Elizabeth safe and they knew that when the king discovered that they had failed, there would be a penalty worse than beheading. They would be bound and dragged for miles to a scaffold. They would be hanged, cut down and then disembowelled. Their entrails would be ripped from their bodies and held in front of them until they died. Their limbs would then be hacked off and displayed on spikes to be picked bare by the birds. Henry was quite capable of ordering this sort of punishment and they knew it. Their only chance was to conceal the truth from Henry in some way if they could, giving themselves a few days to flee the country.
Kat Ashley’s first thought was to find a village girl and dress her up to look like the princess and try to fool the king. Henry rarely saw his quiet daughter and when he did, he was used to her seeing her with her chin resting on her chest and saying nothing. The last time she had seen him was when she’d visited his new Queen, Kateryn Parr, and she had been trembling with terror. Elizabeth was known as a gentle, studious child, and painfully shy. Certainly not the sort to speak up to someone who had beheaded her mother. And his arrival would be late in the afternoon at dusk.
By this time in his life, Henry was grossly overweight and crippled by festering sores so once his duty was done and he had seen his daughter, they felt confident that he would eat and then quickly adjourn to his bedroom for the night.
It was an elaborate plan but it was the only one they had.
After searching high and low, they could not find a girl of Elizabeth’s age. And I’m sure they looked very hard. The closest they could find was a boy from a local village of Bisley with the family name of Neville. He was a gawky, angular youth a year or so younger than Elizabeth who had been her companion and fellow pupil for the past few weeks. The best thing was, he knew her mannerisms.
Stoker’s suggestion is that this boy was the son of Henry’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy who had died at almost seventeen of tuberculosis. Henry VIII had allowed the marriage of 15-year-old Fitzroy to 14-year-old Mary Howard, a Neville, but had declared that the marriage was not to be consummated until both of them were older. Of course, unbeknownst to Henry, they did. After Fitzroy died, Mary went to live with her family near Bisley and delivered a baby boy. At the time of Elizabeth’s supposed death, Henry VIII’s grandson had worn his red hair long, his bones were slim and he had a feminine look about him. In any case, there was no time to look further so Parry and Ashley took the desperate measure of donning the boy with his dead friend’s clothes.
Remarkably, the deception worked. In the dimness of an oak-beamed hall lit by latticed windows, it was not so surprising that the king failed to realise the quiet child at the end of the table was not Elizabeth. He had no reason to suspect his daughter had been ill, and he was tired and in pain. It was as short a visit as expected.
But after he left the next morning, the deception began in earnest. Both Parry and Ashley realised without a doubt that they couldn’t admit what they’d done. The king’s fury would be infinite. They may get out the country but their families would surely suffer. On the other hand, few people knew the princess well enough to recognise her (they could simply dismiss anyone who seemed doubtful) and there was no female look-alike to replace the replacement.
The Neville boy’s family didn’t argue. They hated Henry VIII for the terrible things he had put their family through in the past. He had after all beheaded both wives, Anne Boleyn and her cousin Catherine Howard, both cousins and both from the Neville family. It was a twist of fate that after those brutalities, they would have the last laugh and a Neville would sit on the throne after all. As they buried Elizabeth in a stone coffin in the manor grounds, they decided to teach the boy how to be a princess.
Of course, this entire story sounds absolutely absurd and yet many corroborating details around this extraordinary tale about the Neville boy was enough to convince Bram Stoker. Stoker had heard persistent stories that a clergyman from the village of Bisley had discovered a coffin during the 1800s with the skeleton of a girl dressed in Tudor finery with gems sewn onto the cloth. It seemed to blend with legends that persisted for centuries that an English monarch had in reality been a child from the village.
Above all, Stoker believed that it was the most plausible, although not only, explanation why Elizabeth had changed so dramatically at Thomas Seymour’s trial and why at age 25, she had still not married. As written earlier, she knew it was her most urgent duty as the last of the Tudor line to produce an heir. Yet she described herself as a ‘Virgin Queen’ and vowed she would never take a husband. And she stayed true to that oath, almost provoking a war between England and Spain when she refused the offer of marriage to the son of the Emperor of Spain. But she did not waver and never took an acknowledged lover although she declared herself ‘fond’ of Robert Dudley.
She often proclaimed that she was more a king than a queen and ‘I have the heart of a man, not a woman, and I am not afraid of anything’. And then, in a famous speech to her troops at Tilbury as the Spanish Armada approached, she roared ‘I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England, too’. Could she have been telling the literal truth?
Again you may say rubbish, but just stop and think about it for a minute because here’s something else to consider. When the princess reached her early teens, she was assigned a new tutor, Roger Ascham, who was puzzled by her behaviour. He had been led to believe that she was exceptionally bright, poring over her books and learning as quickly as her tutors could teach her. He found she was actually slow at her lessons, and though far from stupid, more an academic plodder than prodigy. He began to make her lessons shorter. He commented that the girl who had been said to soak up facts like a sponge was more a shallow cup: if liquid poured in too quickly, it would simply splash out.
And then we should look at her appearance. An early picture of Elizabeth exists as a pretty child painted by a court painter depicting her with slender shoulders, a delicate neck and a heart-shaped face with ginger hair and eyebrows. In the next portrait, shortly after she was crowned queen, her broad shoulders and neck are disguised with heavy furs, her jaw was heavy and pointed and her lips were pursed. She took to wearing wigs, had her eyebrows plucked bare and she always wore unflattering clothing that concealed her body. She also refused doctors to examine her and she commanded that there would be no autopsy performed after her death.
Kat Ashley and Thomas Parry, two of the select few who were allowed to come close to her, remained loyal to Elizabeth all their lives as the political pendulum swung wildly after the death of Henry VIII. They were her closest friends during Edward VI’s reign and they stood by her during her years of imprisonment in the Tower when Bloody Mary decided that the best place for Elizabeth was under lock and key where she could not threaten the throne.
When her sister Mary died, one of Elizabeth’s first acts as queen was to make Kat Ashley her First Lady of the Bedchamber and for the next seven years, until Kat’s death, she controlled all access to the monarch. Elizabeth began wearing thick white make-up and heavy wigs at all times, and no one was permitted to see her without them.
Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil, may have discovered the truth, as he seemed to have a supernatural ability to read people. He was certainly surprisingly stoic about the queen’s determination never to wed. If indeed he knew, he could not afford to have the secret get out. If it did, the country could be plunged into civil war, as there was no obvious heir. There was only Mary 1’s former husband, Philip II of Spain, Britain’s greatest enemy, or the Catholic, Mary Queen of Scots, in Scotland.
Of course, many readers will be saying ‘Poppycock’ very loudly. But...... In any case, this is certainly an interesting fun story, which will never be proved. Or disproved for that fact.