Known as the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I expanded the empire, fought off rebellions and invasions, encouraged literacy and the arts and was much loved by her people. Yet, she never did the one thing expected of all monarchs, her most profound duty: to marry and produce an heir. Perhaps there was an undisclosed reason. Did she wear a neck ruff to hide an adam’s apple; heavy makeup to hide a five o’clock shadow?
There have been many who believed so, foremost among them, Bram Stoker of Dracula fame. In 1910, Stoker published a non-fiction book called Famous Imposters, in which he recounted the legend of “The Bisley Boy”:
Young Elizabeth was sent to Overcourt House in the village of Bisley to escape plague-riddled London around 1543-1544. During her visit, she fell ill and at this time her governess received word that the king was coming to see his daughter. Unfortunately, before he arrived, Elizabeth died.
Fearing for her life (Henry VIII was known for his explosive temper), the governess scoured the local countryside for a girl to replace Elizabeth. Unfortunately, there was no girl of the right age and colouring; however, there was a young boy who had been a playmate to Elizabeth. She dressed him up in the princess’s clothes and passed him off to the king as his daughter.
The governess was able to get away with it because the king only saw his daughter infrequently and didn’t know her very well. The king was never told the truth and Elizabeth’s body was never moved from its original hiding place.
Over three hundred years later, the Reverend Thomas Keble discovered a girl’s body in a stone coffin in Overcourt. The remains were covered in remnants of fine Tudor clothing.
That is the legend.
Why Bram Stoker Believed It
- Elizabeth’s refusal to marry
- A letter written by the Count de Feria in 1559, when Elizabeth was only 25: “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 Elizabeth’s writing style between 1543 and 1544
- Elizabeth’s refusal to see doctors other than her own
- Stoker believed the Bisley boy to be the son of the Duke of Richmond, himself an illegitimate son of Henry VIII, which would explain his resemblance to Elizabeth
My Take on It
I didn’t think it possible, but I have finally found a far-out oddball theory that even I have trouble entertaining.
First of all, it might have been possible to fool the king for one visit, if he was prevented from looking at the “princess” too closely, but how dumb would he have had to have been to never notice the switch?
Then there’s the problem of keeping it secret for decades. Certainly, the entire population of Overcourt, including the staff, would have known of, or at least suspected, Elizabeth’s death. In later years, surely her ladies-in-waiting would have noticed something off about her, especially if she went through puberty as a male. And doctors. It is true that Elizabeth preferred to use only her own doctor; however, one time during marriage negotiations she was examined by a panel of doctors and pronounced fit to bear children. An odd statement for doctors to make about a man. Sure, as monarch, she was capable of paying for silence (or threatening for it or both), but how well would this really have worked after her death?
My suspicion is that this theory arose because Elizabeth I was a strong, powerful leader at a time when women were not considered capable. In addition, she was a brilliant scholar, fluent in several languages including (besides English), Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and Welsh. This perception of women as the weaker sex endured into Stoker’s Victorian age (Queen Victoria herself notwithstanding) and beyond. Well, if she was doing all these things women aren’t capable of doing, and on top of it all choosing to live without a man, then she must have been a man.
By that logic, I must be a man. But since I’m not, I tend to believe Queen Elizabeth I wasn’t, either.
Nevertheless, it is an interesting theory and not without supporting evidence. And I have to concede that if Bram Stoker was capable of Victorian bias, perhaps I am capable of modern feminist bias.
So what do you think? Queen Elizabeth I: man or woman?