On 9 August 1588, Queen Elizabeth I appeared before soldiers massed at Tilbury, east of London.


With fears of an imminent land invasion of England by the Spanish Armada high, the Tudor monarch is purported to have delivered a rousing speech that has gone down in history.

“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman,” she professed to them, “but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.”

But were there more to those words than met the eye?

The conspiracy theory: Elizabeth not a virgin queen, but a man

According to the theory, Elizabeth died of a fever in 1542, while approaching her ninth birthday.

Supposedly, the young princess was staying at Overcourt House near the village of Bisley in the Cotswolds. An outbreak of plague in London had forced Elizabeth and her entourage to seek refuge there until it was safe to return.

With her infamously irascible father, King Henry VIII, due to pay the princess a visit at Overcourt, Elizabeth’s governess, Lady Katherine Ashley, panicked. And so, a red-headed boy that resembled Elizabeth in face and stature was found in nearby Bisley and swapped for her after no local girls were deemed passable.

Elizabeth was anonymously buried in the grounds of Overcourt while the imposter was prepped for the king’s visit. The so-called ‘Bisley Boy’ would go on to become one of England’s most celebrated monarchs, Queen Elizabeth I – or so the story goes.

What is the source of the theory that Elizabeth I was a man?

“It has to be one of the most outlandish conspiracy theories in history,” says historian Tracy Borman, who emphasises that its rationale hinges on some of Elizabeth’s most famous characteristics.

“Number one, it explains why Elizabeth never married or had children because if she’d really been this imposter, this man all along, then that would explain the ‘Virgin Queen’ thing pretty well.”

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The notion first came to light in the mid-19th century when the Reverend Thomas Keble, Bisley’s vicar, discovered a stone coffin while Overcourt House was undergoing renovation. Inside were the remains of a girl dressed in Tudor garments.

What seeded the idea that this was the child Elizabeth’s skeleton is unknown. Moreover, Borman has not been able to find any contemporary evidence that Elizabeth was even staying there at the time.

In any case, the local story caught the attention of Dracula author, Bram Stoker, who came across it while house hunting in the Cotswolds for his friend, the actor Henry Irving.

“In 1910, Stoker published his book, Famous Imposters, and the ‘Bisley Boy Legend’ was a big part of it,” explains Borman. “He puts all sorts of arguments into it. He’s really given it some thought. And so it’s Stoker’s account that really brought this conspiracy theory to prominence”.

The reasons why the theory took hold

When Elizabeth I sat on the English throne, the concept of a female monarch was still highly unusual. Monarchy, and statecraft in general, were a male domain in the minds of most of her subjects.

This, coupled with the fact she never married or had children, seemed to transgress all that was expected of women by her contemporaries.

Her childhood tutors took note of her precocious ability. The scholar Roger Ascham even wrote that “her mind has no womanly weakness [and] her perseverance is equal to that of a man”. In his book, Stoker drew heavily on such sources that cited Elizabeth’s ‘masculine’ tendencies.

“Even in Elizabeth’s lifetime … there were these rumours about her sexuality, her gender – she was seen somehow as an oddity,” says Borman. “That you simply couldn’t have a woman this brilliant, this gifted. That she had to have something physically that made her like this.”

When the Bisley Boy theory began to gain traction 300 years later, another queen regnant sat on the throne: Queen Victoria.

Borman believes that the Victorians, like their Tudor forebears, regarded Elizabeth as peculiar, especially when contrasted with their era’s queen. After all, Victoria, although sovereign, “was conventional”.

“She’d married early in her reign; she had nine children. She, herself, said that she was a wife first and a queen second,” explains Borman.

Stoker also claimed that Elizabeth’s handwriting changed between 1542 – when he said she had allegedly died – and 1543.

“He claims there’s a real difference in the style, and in her comprehension,” says Borman. “He points to a letter apparently from one of Elizabeth’s attendants to one of her tutors, saying: ‘You’re going to have to go a bit more slowly in your lessons’”.

But who exactly was the boy that supposedly masqueraded as Elizabeth until 1603 when the queen died? Stoker “claims it was an unknown son of Mary Howard and Henry Fitzroy,” says Borman.

Fitzroy was Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, and it appears that the suggestion of his mysterious progeny later becoming the Elizabeth known to history rests on a supposed family resemblance.

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The evidence that debunks the theory

Despite Stoker’s insistence that such a child existed, Borman points out that Fitzroy died before he and Mary Howard had any children.

She believes that Stoker conjured up such a boy to account for the royal family’s seeming obliviousness to a decoy within their midst.

“He weaves in Henry Fitzroy because he said that this boy had a resemblance to Henry VIII and therefore to Elizabeth,” says Borman, but notes that even though Henry VIII didn’t see Elizabeth all that frequently, it was “certainly frequently enough to have realised that she’d been swapped for an imposter”.

There is, in Borman’s mind, no contemporary evidence of Elizabeth having even been in Gloucestershire at the time, let alone of dying in childhood, or of having become the subject of rumours about being a man.

Elizabeth’s status also meant that she was seldom alone. “She was always attended. She would have been dressed by a whole army of ladies … you couldn’t keep a secret like this [and] even small secrets were found out in the Tudor court,” says Borman.

Indeed, the historian points out that Elizabeth’s role as a royal woman and the coterie of potential suitors and alliances with foreign states throughout her reign means that “there are plenty of testimonies that Elizabeth was functioning as a normal woman”.

“We have quite detailed records, for example, of Elizabeth’s menstrual cycle because ambassadors were enquiring into this … they had to know that she was fertile and she was examined by doctors,” explains Borman. “This was too big a secret to get away with”.

Elizabeth’s private life remains a magnet for scurrilous gossip and outright misogyny, with tales often entailing passionate dalliances with multiple men and an array of love children. Borman contends that this leads to a reductive understanding of a highly intelligent and shrewd woman operating in a patriarchal society.

In other words, that “she had to have either a string of male lovers helping and guiding her, or she had to be a man”.

Borman also sees a tragic parallel between Elizabeth and her mother, Anne Boleyn. “Anne was judged not by her mind or her achievements, or her abilities, but by her body. And I think that’s what it boils down to with both queen consorts and queen regnants – if they don’t fulfil the basic female functions, then people almost [can’t] get past that”.

Speculation about Elizabeth’s private life “takes the spotlight away from what we should be looking at, which are Elizabeth’s achievements [and] also her failures,” says Borman.

“It’s a distraction from studying her foreign policy, her court life, her contribution to English culture. All these are the really important and fascinating subjects.”


Tracy Borman is a royal historian and author of numerous books, including Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II (Hodder & Stoughton, 2021) and The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings, 1066-2011 (Hutchinson, 2011). She was speaking to Rob Attar for this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, part of our Conspiracy podcast series


Danny BirdStaff Writer, BBC History Magazine

Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine. Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine and previously held the same role on BBC History Revealed. He joined the brand in 2022. Fascinated with the past since childhood, Danny completed his History BA at the University of Sheffield, developing a special interest in the Spanish Civil War and the Paris Commune. He subsequently gained his History MA from University College London, studying at its School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)