Of course this entire theory sounds absurd, given that every child grows up with tales of our glorious Virgin Queen, celebrated by Shakespeare and venerated in innumerable plays, songs and films over the centuries.
And yet the many corroborating details around this extraordinary tale about the Bisley boy were enough to convince the 19th-century writer Bram Stoker, most famous as the author of Dracula. He included the story as the final chapter in his book, Imposters.
Stoker had heard persistent stories that a coffin had been discovered by a clergyman at Bisley during the early 1800s, with the skeleton of a girl dressed in Tudor finery, even with gems sewn onto the cloth.
It seemed to chime with local legends persisting for centuries that an English monarch had been, in reality, a child from the village.
Above all, Stoker believed, it was the most plausible explanation why Elizabeth, who succeeded to the throne in 1558, aged 25, never married.
Her most urgent duty, as the last of the Tudor line, was to provide an heir — yet she described herself as a Virgin Queen, and vowed she would never take a husband, even if the Emperor of Spain offered her an alliance with his oldest son.
She stayed true to that oath, provoking a war which almost ended in Spanish invasion in 1588. But Elizabeth did not waver — and never even took an acknowledged lover.
She was fond of proclaiming that she was more of a king than a queen. ‘I have the heart of a man, not a woman, and I am not afraid of anything,’ she declared.
Her most famous speech, to her troops at Tilbury as the Spanish Armada approached, was cheered to the skies as she roared: ‘I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too.’
American author Steve Berry believes Elizabeth could have been telling the literal truth — that she had the heart of a man, because her body was male. He has spent 18 months researching the conspiracy for his novel The King’s Deception, a Dan Brown-style thriller set in 21st-century London.
For Berry, who has written 12 thrillers, the trail began with a chance question during a tour of Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire three years ago. ‘I always ask if there are any secrets or mysteries, and the guide told me: “There’s nothing at Ely but I’ve heard an incredible rumour in the Cotswolds.” ’
Sceptical at first, Berry uncovered tantalising hints and references in books and ancient manuscripts.
When the ‘princess’ reached her teens, for instance, she was assigned a tutor named Roger Ascham, who was puzzled by her behaviour.
‘The constitution of her mind,’ he wrote, ‘is exempt from female weakness, and she is embued with a masculine power of application … In the whole manner of her life she rather resembles Hippolyte than Phaedra.’
That last, classical allusion was quite venomous: Phaedra was an ancient princess driven mad by her lust for men, while Hippolyte was queen of the Amazons, who lived without any need for men at all. Most convincing to Berry were the contemporary portraits, which are reproduced in his novel.
One picture exists of Elizabeth as a child, attributed to the court painter William Scrots. She had slender shoulders, a delicate neck and a heart-shaped face with ginger hair and eyebrows.
In the next known portrait, shortly after she was crowned queen, her broad shoulders and neck are disguised with heavy furs. She is wearing a wig, and her eyebrows are plucked bare. Her jaw is heavy and square.
All subsequent pictures of the queen were painted to an ideal, showing Elizabeth as she wished to be seen, not as she was.
Even the official portrait commissioned after her death by her chief adviser, Sir Robert Cecil, conformed to what was known as ‘The Mask Of Youth’ — the idealised face of the monarch, which never aged.
Many Tudor courtiers suspected that Elizabeth had a deep secret. Lord Somerset was the power behind the boy king Edward VI’s throne, after Henry VIII died in 1547 when Elizabeth was just 13.
One of his spies, Sir Robert Tyrwhitt, wrote to him: ‘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.’
In modern English: ‘I am certain Lady Ashley and Thomas Parry have a secret, and that there is a pact between them to take it to the grave. If that’s the case, the only people who could force them to divulge this secret are you and the King.’
Those were ominous words: only Somerset and the King had the right to put a suspect to the rack, using torture to extract information.
Bram Stoker believed it was the sheer scale of the deception that made it possible. When Elizabeth returned to London from Bisley, more than a year after she first left the court, it would have been treason for any sceptics to suggest ‘she’ was not the king’s daughter.
‘It is conceivable,’ Stoker remarked drily, ‘that in the case of a few individuals, there might have been stray fragmentary clouds of suspicion.
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