The Bisley Boy: The royal conspiracy you've never heard of
As members of an institution that is, by its very nature, shrouded in mystery, the royal family are no strangers to a conspiracy theory or two. From the notion that the entire clan are actually humanoid lizard creatures, to those who believe that Princess Diana’s untimely death was no accident, various bizarre suggestions have been put forward over the years by those wishing for a little extra drama. And with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding set to take place this weekend, the rumour mill is in overdrive once again - is the marriage part of a clever ploy for the Brits take back America? Let’s be honest, probably not.
Of course, this obsession with royal conspiracy theories is nothing new. In fact, it’s pretty much existed as long as royalty itself, which is to say, a really really long time. Among the oldest and most enduring of these urban legends, however, is that of The Bisley Boy: the idea that one of England’s most famous and long-serving female rulers was actually a man in drag all along. Can you guess who it is? Here’s a clue: It’s not Queen Victoria, who served for an impressive 63 years and seven months. Nor is it Queen Elizabeth II, who in 2015 surpassed her great-great-grandmother to become the UK’s longest-serving monarch and has now sat steady for over 66 years.
No, it’s her namesake, Elizabeth I, who ruled from 1558 until her death in 1603. Famous for her fiery red locks, for defeating the Spanish Armada and for her unwavering devotion to her country, she is arguably remembered as one of the country’s most outstanding leaders. However, this success is exactly what has led some to believe that Elizabeth surely couldn’t be a woman. After all, military prowess, political shrewdness and a vagina? Nah, not possible.
The theory seems to stem from a local legend originating in the village of Bisley, in the county of Gloucestershire, which states that the then-princess Elizabeth died unexpectedly while living there with guardians, and was secretly replaced with a local red-headed boy so that her father, Henry VIII, would not take vengeance upon those who were supposed to be looking after her. According to Bisley Village’s website: "Rev. Thomas Keble, the then vicar of Bisley, a man not known for his humour, [...] told his family that during renovations at Overcourt, he had found an old stone coffin containing the skeleton of a girl of about nine, dressed in Tudor clothing."
Over the years, the story developed further. Among those who believe in Elizabeth’s secret identity, much has been made of her physical appearance, with some stating that she possessed characteristics more commonly associated with male bodies. The queen’s extensive wig selection has been used as evidence that she was suffering from male pattern baldness, while her penchant for heavy makeup has been used to 'prove' the fact that she had something to hide. In his book, Famous Imposters, author Bram Stoker also theorised that she may have deliberately demanded portraits depicting her with a paler complexion than she actually had in order to reinforce her 'similarity' to her father. This, according to him, “looks rather like Elizabeth concealing her true identity”.
Others have also pointed to Elizabeth’s supposed chastity as evidence that she had something to hide. Often referred to as “The Virgin Queen”, it has been suggested that her refusal to marry and produce an heir - a highly unusual move at the time - was actually motivated by the desire to avoid intimacy, because it would give the game away. However, it is still unclear as to whether Elizabeth actually kept her vow of chastity; her lovers are rumoured to have included nobleman Robert Dudley, who she reportedly vowed to marry if his wife died.
Author Philippa Gregory, who has extensively researched this period of English history and is behind novels like The Other Boleyn Girl, does not agree with the virginity theory, saying: "I don't think so. We have a number of accounts of Elizabeth being intimate, even unsuitably intimate, with her male courtiers." She added: "Are we suggesting that the Bisley Boy played the part of a queen and fell passionately and indiscreetly in love with handsome male courtiers, and was never discovered?"
Perhaps most depressingly, it is Elizabeth’s impressive intelligence and record on policy and military decisions that has led some to question her identity. In a rousing speech ahead of the Spanish Armada battle of 1588, Elizabeth declared that: “I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king”. Theorists have taken this quite literally, also drawing on her tutor Roger Ascham's comments that: "The constitution of her mind is exempt from female weakness, and she is embued with a masculine power of application."
All in all, it’s hard to see The Bisley Boy theory as anything more than a misogynistic smear campaign. As Tudor queen, Elizabeth would have had her every move watched by her ladies in waiting; they even helped to dress her and took her to the toilet. Is it really possible she could have made sure that every woman who ever worked for her never spoke out? Is it really possible that all of her alleged lovers would have kept her penis a secret? More than that, is it really so impossible that a woman, known for her sharp intellect, could not have had the brainpower to make smart decisions?
Whatever your opinion is on all of the modern day conspiracy theories, this is surely one that should have died a death a long, long time ago.