When Elizabeth was nine (or perhaps twelve), the plague was raging in London and to avoid it she was sent to Overcourt, a manor house at Bisley, a small village in the Cotswolds. There she befriended a boy of about her own age. He was her nephew, although sometimes described as her cousin: an illegitimate boy fathered by Henry Fitzroy, who was an illegitimate son of Henry VIII. The boy had been sent to Bisley to conceal his existence. Elizabeth died of the fate she had been sent to Bisley to avoid. The servants were terrified to tell the tyrannous but distant Henry VIII, who was about to visit. The illegitimate nephew was pretty, of about the same age and, most important, he rather resembled Elizabeth. It was easy to pass him off as 'Elizabeth' for a visit of Henry who was certainly not affectionate and was rather in a hurry.
However having started the imposture it proved impossible to let it go. The embarrassment of the boy's existence meant that very few questions were asked about his disappearance. An alternate version says that the boy was from the local village and had not actually met Elizabeth.
The replacement Elizabeth became Queen of England, Ireland and France in 1559 after the deaths of her supposed half-brother Edward, and her half-sister Mary. She reigned until she died in 1603 at the age of 69.
She never married; she became bald later in life and wore wigs; she left explicit instructions that there should be no post-mortem on her body; she took suggestions that she was androgynous and made a legend out of them. At Tilbury in 1588 during the crisis of the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth spoke to her troops, saying: "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King".
The story was researched and popularised by Bram Stoker, the theatre manager and author of Dracula, who published it in his book Famous Imposters, 1909. A friend of his came across the legend while looking for a house in the area. Stoker visited the manor house himself, and going over the story point by point, became convinced of it.
The standard biographies of Elizabeth do not bother to refute this thesis, they merely ignore it.
- Bram Stoker. Famous Imposters. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, New York: Sturgis & Walton, Company, ix, 349pp, 10 illustrations. chp X.
- C. J. Bulliet. Venus Castina: Famous Female Impersonators Celestial and Human. Mew York: Covici 308 pp 1928. New York: Bonanza Books. 1956: 179-184.
- Harry Ludlam. A Biography of Bram Stoker, Creator of Dracula. New English Library. p162. 1977
- Chris Hunt. The Bisley boy. London: Gay Men's Press. 1995. A fictionalization of the story.
- Bisley, Gloucestershire: History. http://www.bisleyonline.net/content/view/15/55/ The web page for the village of Bisley certainly retells the story.
- Yvonne Sinclair. The Bisley Boy. yvonnesinclair.co.uk/stories/The%20Bisley%20Boy.html London Transy organizer retells the tale.
- Christopher Stevens. "Is this proof the Virgin Queen was an imposter in drag? Shocking new theory about Elizabeth I unearthed in historic manuscripts". The Daily Mail, 8 June 2013. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2337774/Is-proof-Virgin-Queen-imposter-drag-Shocking-new-theory-Elizabeth-I-unearthed-historic-manuscripts.html.
People have different opinions whether Jackson, Blanchett, Mirren or Richardson was the best cinematic Elizabeth Tudor, but the most appropriate was Quentin Crisp in Orlando, 1992.