The Bisley Boy

by Yvonne Sinclair

At various times, many of us at the Group have found ourselves talking about transvestism in history; that is, known facts which have been recorded by historians. For example; the Greek saga of Achilles - who, to avoid the Trojan war, hid with the daughters of Lycomedes; although he was later to die fighting as a hero. We feel that he was, without doubt, a transvestite.

Just after the last war a headline in all the newspapers was the story of a GI who, for the same reasons, hid in skirts, and found fame as a fire-eating act, performing before the late Queen Mary, Grandmother to our present Queen. The whistle was blown by a spurned lover who knew that SHE was in fact a HE. Queen Mary, just like an earlier Royal "was not amused".

History has many kings who did not keep to the straight road of sexual inclinations, marrying only to produce an heir to the throne, seeking the pleasures of the flesh with their own sex. Others seemed to enjoy every maiden who sought favour, resulting, it seemed, in almost as many bastards as there were subjects.

Yet there is one person whose very sex is in question, which, if proven, would have caused the history books to be rewritten and have shaken the foundations of our own society. So much so that our Queen today would not be the Second but the First Elizabeth to sit on the British Throne. I have no wish to attack the Monarchy, or claim the throne, but leave you to read this strange tale which has persisted for over three hundred years.

Bram Stoker based his best known story, of Count Dracula, on the legend of a real prince of Transylvania who reputedly drank the blood of his victims - an example of how fact can be stranger than fiction. For his book "Famous Imposters", Stoker was told by the famous actor, Sir Henry Irving, the first reported beginnings of the story that the rest of England was to hear of as "The Bisley Boy".

In the village of Bisley, for over three hundred years, each May Pageant repeated a strange event. The May Queen was always a boy, dressed in an Elizabethan girl's costume. Like many strange things we have in the dancing or mime of the Morris Dance, we accept it as a tradition, and leave it at that; for this is the charm of the rural English. But if we look into the past closely there is always an answer. There were no scribes then to record the happenings in a small village, but events were woven into song and dance lest they should be forgotten. So we can say that in Bisley's history there was such an event and the memory was kept alive down the centuries by re-enacting the story every year.

Bram Stoker delved into the past and discovered that there was a history that revealed something more than just a local happening, but indeed the history of England was at stake. The following is a resume of the chapter from his book. I make no claim to know which is fact or which fiction, I only record that which I have read.

In London the pestilence of plague was raging, and the twelve-year-old daughter of Anne Boleyn, the Princess Elizabeth, was sent to the Manor of Bisley to escape this cursed blight but unfortunately she succumbed to a fatal illness.

At this very time, the King - Henry VIII - felt a need to see his younger daughter, after ignoring her for years. This was a disaster, as the King was short of temper and to break such grave news to him was a task which no-one was prepared to undertake - a lengthy sojourn in the Tower of London was the likeliest reward to the bearer of such tidings.

The governess of the late Princess was fearful and in despair hid the body and rushed to the nearby village of Bisley to find a young girl to take the place of the late Princess. It was felt the substitution might succeed as the King had only seen his daughter on two known occa­sions, the last being when she was about three years old. It was soon obvious that no suitable girl could be found to take the Princess's place.

So it was decided to take an even greater risk. It was quite common practice in those days for young children to be brought up in households other than their parents', often the bastards of Kings were accorded new households perhaps to become Kings themselves, as William the Conqueror did. There was a youth, believed to be a bastard son of Henry VIII. A boy who had been a fellow pupil, friend and playmate of the Princess - Neville; said to be the son of Henry and Elizabeth Blunt, who later became the Duke of Richmond and Somerset. He seemed the perfect answer, having some of the King's features and colouring, notably the red hair to assist in the deception.

In the few days before the King's visit, the boy was dressed and taught the correct manners of a royal princess; the image of a young lady ready to greet a King and father. He was a King to reckon with; one who was shrewd, and not easily fooled.

If this is true, one can well imagine the immense pressure which existed in that manor house. Yet it is recorded that the King was indeed pleased to find his daughter well versed in Latin, French and Spanish; was a comely lass and "a wise head on young shoulders".

In Bisley Manor, the sigh of relief was surely the loudest ever gusted. But the actions of the governess had not passed unnoticed by the simple village souls and so began the record in the Boy May Queen, to continue, I believe, up to the late nineteen-fifties. I have no idea if this still happens as we so seldom see the Maypole on the village green, or the dance with coloured ribbons weaving their own special magic. Today the ‘May Dance' of father cleaning his car works a different magic - it brings rain!

But the story is by no means over. The boy's masquerade was only just beginning and no one realised that this simple deception would extend to the highest seat in the land, the Throne of England. That in fact this slip of a lad would one day be Queen.

History is made in the deaths of Kings and Queens, and now the eyes of England looked to the Princess. Mary was Queen, Philip the King of Spain, was her husband. Revolts and plots abounded. The two faiths of Protestant and Catholic were at odds. Mary the Queen was Catholic, Elizabeth represented the Church of England to many in the land. Fear drove Mary to have her sister arrested and placed in the Tower.

Elizabeth fell ill during her stay and history records the beginning of a long mystery that started with the statement "I am not minded to make any stranger a privy to my body but commit it to the will of God". She recovered and was released from the Tower some time later.

Mary's health began to fail and she spent a summer at Richmond House with Elizabeth, later paying a state visit to Hatfield House where Sir Henry Bedafield had charge of Elizabeth. It was at this time that Mary told the Court, and the Spanish Ambassador, that Elizabeth would succeed her on the Throne.

So Elizabeth was Queen, one of the greatest in English history. On her death the Tudor line came to an end, the Stuarts taking over. This seems odd, as her father spent his life endeavouring to keep the Tudors on the throne, and sent those who could not give him an heir to an early death. Why did this young queen not marry? There were many suitors. The mystery has puzzled many historians, but knowing what we do now, we may have the real answer.

Why may we believe that the Queen was not what she seemed? Let's look at our own views of transvestism; for here we may gain answers that seem to fit the puzzle. We can use our feelings to add fuel to the fires that down the pas­sage of time can make some sense in our own understanding.

It is not up to me to draw conclusions, but Bram Stoker did, with much the same as you now read, yet without similar statements that, in the last twenty years, have become known to us from repeated press stories.

At Tilbury, Elizabeth spoke to her troops, saying: "I know I have the body of a woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King."

How similar these words are to those heard today from many a TS, "I am a woman trapped in a man's body". It's very close, isn't it?

While history can tell us much, we are not always told the complete truth. Even as late as the early fifties a request to exhume the body for examination was refused. The request to do so came from those who doubt the sex of the great queen who may have been a man. Even this little article helps to keep the rumour alive, the irony that "The Bisley Boy" may have factual grounding.

To end this, let me give you a later detail which Bram Stoker never knew. Around 1960, in a little walled garden of the manor of Bisley, a stone receptacle, the shape of a small coffin, was opened, revealing the mortal remains of a young girl. She had the remains of fine silk and cloth garments. The age was about twelve, and the coffin was found in the garden below the window of the room where the young princess lived during her stay.

The finder was a local churchman, who stated his belief in the story of the Bisley Boy. The fact that the same village has a Boy May Queen must have a reason, even if it is lost in the mists of antiquity.

Whatever view is taken, there are some who will believe and some who will not. Me? Well - I remember the Piltdown Man, and experts who are forever right - until a better expert proves them wrong!

I don't claim to be a historian, I've merely written the facts which I remember reading - in my world, anything is possible. (I even have friends in the Beaumont Society!)


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On The Beach

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Stella and Fanny

The Bisley Boy

Silk Stockings On A Ladder