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.
Over the years, people have said that the entire clan are actually humanoid lizard creatures, and then there are those who believe that Princess Diana’s untimely death was no accident. Since then, bizarre suggestions have been put forward over the years by those wishing for extra drama.
Of course, this obsession with royal conspiracy theories is nothing new. In fact, it’s pretty much existed as long as royalty itself.
What is the Bisley Boy legend?
If you were wondering what the oldest and most enduring of these urban legends was, it's the Bisley boy legend.
It details that one of England's most famous 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.
No, it’s 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.
Where does the legend come from?
The theory seems to stem from a local legend originating in the village of Bisley, in the county of Gloucestershire.
Proponents of the theory believe 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."
The queen's infamous wig collection added fuel to the fire
Over the years, the story has developed further.
Those who believe in Elizabeth's secret identity, tend to point to her physical appearance. Some have even gone so far as to state 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. And her penchant for heavy makeup is used by people to 'prove' 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”.
As did her alleged chastity...
Others believe that it is Elizabeth's supposed chastity, which provides evidence that she had something to hide.
It's been suggested that Elizabeth's refusal to marry and produce an heir, something that was a highly unusual move at the time, was motivated by her desire to avoid intimacy because it would give the game away. She is, after all, remembered as the "Virgin Queen".
However, it is still unclear 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.
Historical novelist, Philippa Gregory, weighs in
Author Philippa Gregory has extensively researched this period of English history and is behind novels like The Other Boleyn Girl
She 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?"
No small amount of sexism appears to be at play...
If this wasn't depressing enough, 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:
''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. And have drawn 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."
The bottom line
I am sure that many people today would find it hard to see The Bisley Boy theory as anything more than a misogynistic smear campaign.
Elizabeth as a Tudor queen would have had her every move watched by her ladies in waiting. They even helped to dress her and took her to the toilet.
I don't believe that it is possible that she could have made sure every woman who ever worked for her never spoke out. And neither do I believe that all of her alleged lovers could have kept her penis a secret.
Ultimately, a woman - known for her sharp intellect - of course, could have had the brainpower to make smart decisions.