Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and the last Tudor monarch, is probably England’s most famous and decorated ruler. But one of the wildest royal conspiracy theories in history contends that this famous and decorated ruler was actually a bloke called Neville.
In an age of rampant sexism, Queen Elizabeth I was a force to be reckoned with. The first ever English queen, Bloody Mary, spent her short reign burning hundreds of people at the stake for being Protestant, not exactly filling the people of England with confidence in the idea of a female monarch. But Elizabeth – Mary’s sister – engendered a faith in queens that Mary couldn’t. She demonstrated that a female monarch could be just as powerful, skilled and wise a leader as a male, if not more so, and her reign is looked upon as one of the most successful in history.
But was it all a sham? There are some who believe that Elizabeth I was an imposter. The woman who became queen after Mary’s death in 1558 wasn’t the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. She wasn’t a ‘she’ at all. She was a boy called Neville from Bisley, a sleepy village in the Cotswolds.
The Bisley Boy
It’s said that at the age of 10, the real Elizabeth was sent to Bisley to avoid a bubonic plague outbreak in London. Unfortunately she fell sick with an unknown illness and died. Her father, Henry VIII, was due to visit her, and Elizabeth’s governess, Lady Kat Ashley, panicked. She feared that the king would blame her for Elizabeth’s death and that, before long, her head would be on a spike.
So Lady Ashley plotted with Thomas Parry, Elizabeth’s guardian, to find someone who closely resembled Elizabeth to take her place. Henry had seen his daughter rarely throughout her childhood, so the hope was that he would not notice the imposter.
Lady Ashley and Parry searched the village for a girl who looked like Elizabeth, but Bisley had a small population and there were no girls of Elizabeth’s age. They did find an effeminate young boy called Neville who had befriended Elizabeth and bore some resemblance to her. Seeing that they had no other choice, they forced Neville to wear a wig and his dead friend’s clothing and pretend to be her.
The story goes that Henry VIII did not notice that his daughter was now a boy. Neville grew to manhood and pretended to be Elizabeth for the rest of his life, ruling the kingdom for 44 years.
Sounds crazy – but could it be true?
This outlandish conspiracy theory might sound farcical, but it does explain a number of curious facts about Elizabeth, and some mysterious legends that originate in the village of Bisley…
- Elizabeth always wore wigs and heavy make-up and no one was permitted to see her without them.
- She only let a select few trusted physicians attend to her.
- There was a perceived stark difference in the style and content of Elizabeth’s letters before and after her stay in Bisley.
- She refused all offers of marriage and had no children.
- She gave an express directive that no autopsy was to be done on her body after her death.
- Sir Robert Tyrwhitt, a courtier, wrote that he believed that Lady Kat Ashley and Thomas Parry were harbouring a secret, a secret that both of them had agreed to take to the grave.
- A nobleman once wrote about Elizabeth: “For a certain reason which they have recently given me, I understand that she will not bear children.”
- Other Tudor courtiers believed that Elizabeth was keeping a deep, dark secret.
- In Bisley, there are legends that have persisted for centuries that an English monarch was really a child from the village in disguise.
- There are also stories about a Bisley clergyman discovering a coffin in the early 19th century, a coffin containing the skeleton of a girl dressed in Tudor finery.
All of this was enough to convince Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, that the conspiracy theory was true, and it led him to devote a chapter to the conspiracy in his non-fiction book Famous Imposters.
Today few historians subscribe to this theory. People argue that the king would have recognised that the Bisley boy was not his daughter, and apparently it’s known via Elizabeth’s laundress that she menstruated normally. Some also argue that it’s implausible that such a huge secret could have been successfully maintained for so long. Others argue that the conspiracy theory was manufactured by misogynistic men who simply couldn’t accept that England’s greatest monarch was a woman.
Still, the idea that Elizabeth was an imposter in drag has not gone away. A few years ago, author Steve Berry brought the conspiracy theory back to life in a novel called The King’s Deception. He argues that there is only one way to find out the truth: DNA testing on Elizabeth’s bones.
It does all sound pretty outrageous. That being said, there are some intriguing questions here, and a DNA analysis of Elizabeth’s bones could easily settle this, one way or the other. Apparently her tomb has never been opened, so perhaps it’s high time we took a peek inside…
Next week: The story of mysterious reporter David Manning