There have been many explanations given of some of the peculiarities of the reign of Elizabeth I. Her failure to marry, her early baldness and her strict instructions that no post mortem should be carried out on her body have all attracted their fair share of conspiracy theories. Few, however, are as colourful as the tale of the Bisley Boy.
Bisley in Gloucestershire is the site of Over Court, which in 1542 was a royal hunting lodge and, briefly, the home of Henry VIII’s youngest daughter, Princess Elizabeth, whilst her father hunted at the nearby Berkeley castle. According to the legend of the Bisley Boy, there ensued one of the nation’s greatest royal disasters. The young Elizabeth suddenly developed a fever and died, leaving the courtiers at Over Court and the villagers of Bisley in something of a quandary – how were they to tell Henry VIII?
To say court affairs were volatile at the time would be an understatement. On 13 February of that year, Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, had been beheaded for adultery, an event that had greatly upset the nine-year-old Elizabeth. Not only had Catherine been kind to her, but she was the cousin of Elizabeth’s own mother, Anne Boleyn, who had also suffered execution at Henry’s hands. Telling Henry of the death of his daughter would stir all this up again and so they decided not to tell him at all.
Now Henry’s relationship with Elizabeth varied; sometimes he would be fatherly; at others he would declare her illegitimate and disinherit her. If they were to get away with the deceit, they would definitely need a proxy. While the body of Elizabeth was being secretly buried in Over Court, the village of Bisley was being searched for a replacement. One was indeed found, of the right age and stature and with the necessary red hair. The only problem was that the replacement was male. Nevertheless the ‘Bisley Boy’ was duly dressed up as a Tudor princess and went on to become one of England’s greatest monarchs as Elizabeth I, always carefully eschewing marriage and any other means by which ‘her’ true sex might be found out. Or so the story has it.
One final flourish to this unlikely tale was given in the late nineteenth century by the usually dour vicar of Bisley, the Reverend Thomas Keble. He told his family that during building work at Over Court in 1870 he came across a stone coffin containing the remains of a young girl in Tudor dress. Perhaps with a wry and rare smile from this famously serious man, he added that he had secretly reburied the child when he realised who it must be, so as to ensure the house did not become a melancholic shrine.
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