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A Cotswold Royal Tale - The Bisley Boy

Updated: May 8, 2021

Royal connections to the Cotswolds are well established today with Highgrove, home to Prince Charles situated near Tetbury, and 6 miles away Gatcombe is home of his sister Princess Anne. History is no different, with a plethora of Royal connections across the area going back to the burial of Anglo-Saxon Kings in Malmesbury and the imprisonment of Monarch's in Berkeley Castle.

Sudeley Castle is another location steeped in Royal history. Built many years before, the castle was in disrepair when Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn visited in 1535. Anne's fate was beheading in the Tower of London a year later, but the castle maintained Royal engagements for some time longer and is the resting place for Henry's sixth and final wife Catherine Parr. Details of that are for another time, but perhaps the connection with the most intrigue can be reserved for Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn's daughter, Elizabeth I and the small Cotswold village of Bisley near Stroud.

Elizabeths' reign is one of the most celebrated in British history, spanning 45 years between 1558 and 1603. Known as the 'Virgin Queen', Elizabeth never had children or even married. Could her apparent celibacy be connected to something more?

In 1542 the 9 year old Princess Elizabeth was taken to Bisley by her two guardians Thomas Parry and Lady Kat Ashley to escape an outbreak of plague in London. They were staying at an old hunting lodge in the little village deep in the Gloucestershire countryside, known as Overcourt House, a building still present in Bisley today.

It's here the legend begins with the death of the Princess, by means understandably unknown, and the subsequent cover up by Parry and Lady Ashley who were understandably fearing for their lives. Over 500 years of rumour and speculation revolve around the pair convincing a local Bisley boy to pose as the Queen to mask her death. No young girl with ginger hair that could pass for the Princess could be found but there was a ginger haired boy of similar age. The group didn't return to London for a year, time perhaps to train a young boy to behave as a young princess should. Parry and Lady Ashley remained Elizabeth's strongest and closest allies until their deaths, Elizabeth making Lady Ashley her First Lady of the Bedchamber and Parry was knighted and made Privy Counsellor and Controller of the Household.

It was thought a deep secret was held between them. In a letter to Lord Somerset from Sir Robert Tyrwhitt he wrote "I do verily believe that there hath been some secret promise between my Lady, Mistress Ashley, and the Cofferer [Thomas Parry, the principal officer of the court] never to confess to death, and if it be so, it will be never gotten of her, unless by the King’s Majesty or else by your Grace.’

Elizabeth never even took an acknowledged lover and was inclined to proclaim she was more of a king than a queen. Her most famous speech as the Spanish Armada approached was cheered by onlookers as she stated "I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too".

Roger Ascham was her tutor in childhood stated, "The constitution of her mind, is exempt from female weakness, and she is embued with a masculine power of application". 

These are of course just snippets of information taken from the lifetime of a monarch, that point to confirm a rather extraordinary tale but none-the-less present a compelling case.

Elizabeth was renowned for wearing heavy make-up and wigs at all times with high lace ruffs worn around her neck making it easy to cover any signs of masculinity. She was never visible in public without such attire.

Upon the Queens death no autopsy was performed and rather than a grand state funeral you expect for a monarch the nation adored, her remains were interred with those of her sister Mary I [Bloody Mary] in Westminster Abbey in a grave that to this day has never been breached. The answers with modern day science could perhaps lie there or perhaps in another grave, the grave of a 9 year old girl in Bisley.

300 years after the supposed death of a young Elizabeth the local Reverend Thomas Keeble was making renovations to Overcourt House. He supposedly found an unmarked grave on the grounds with the skeleton of a child dressed in opulent female Tudor clothing inside. He is said to have reburied the body in an unknown location. This last bit of information is amazing to me as it was to Bram Stoker, yes the same Bram Stoker who wrote Dracula.

When Bram Stoker visited Bisley in the late nineteenth century, he was intrigued by the village’s strange May Day tradition. Like most villages at the time, the village chose a May Queen every year. But in Bisley, the May Queen was always a young boy in an Elizabethan-style dress. When he asked why, villagers told him about the legend of the Bisley Boy. Bram went on to research the story extensively, and wrote about it in his 1910 book, Famous Imposters.


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