Famous Impostors : The Bisley Boy
The Bisley Boy
Queen Elizabeth, the last of the House of Tudor, died unmarried. Since her death in 1603, there have been revolutions in England due to varying causes, but all more or less disruptive of family memories. The son of James I had his head cut off, and after the Commonwealth which followed, Charles I’s son James II, had to quit on the coming of William III, by invitation. After William’s death without issue, Anne, daughter of James II, reigned for a dozen years, and was succeeded by George I, descended through the female line from James I. His descendants still sit on the throne of England.
The above facts are given not merely in the way of historical enlightenment but rather as a sort of apologetic prolegomenon to the ethical consideration of the matter immediately before us. Had Queen Elizabeth had any descendants, they need not have feared any discussion of her claims of descent. The issue of the legality of her mother’s marriage had been tried exhaustively both before and after her own birth, and she held the sceptre both by the will of her dead father and the consent of her dead half-sister who left no issue. But Queen Elizabeth, whatever her origin, would have been a sufficient ancestor for any King or any Dynasty. Still, had she left issue there might have been lesser people, descendants, whose feelings in the matter of personal and family pride would have required consideration; and no person entering on an analysis of historical fact would have felt quite free-handed in such an investigation.
B. The Queen’s Secret
There are quite sufficient indications throughout the early life of Queen Elizabeth that there was some secret which she kept religiously guarded. Various historians of the time have referred to it, and now and again in a way which is enlightening.
In a letter to the Protector Somerset in 1549, when the Princess Elizabeth was 15, Sir Robert Tyrwhitt says:
“I do verily believe that there hath been some secret promise between my Lady, Mistress Ashley, and the Cofferer” [Sir Thomas Parry] “never to confess to death, and if it be so, it will never be gotten of her, unless by the King’s Majesty or else by your Grace.”
In his Girlhood of Queen Elizabeth Mr. Frank A. Mumby writes of this:—
“Elizabeth was as loyal to Parry as to Mrs. Ashley; she reinstated him after a year’s interval, in his office as Cofferer, and on her accession to the throne she appointed him Controller of the royal household. She continued to confer preferment upon both Parry and his daughter to the end of their lives—”conduct,” remarks Miss Strickland, “which naturally induces a suspicion that secrets of great moment had been confided to him—secrets that probably would have touched not only the maiden name of his royal Mistress, but placed her life in jeopardy, and that he had preserved these inviolate. The same may be supposed with respect to Mrs. Ashley, to whom Elizabeth clung with unshaken tenacity through every storm.”
Major Martin Hume in his Courtships of Queen Elizabeth says of the favourable treatment of the Governess and the Cofferer:—
“The confessions of Ashley and Parry are bad enough; but they probably kept back more than they told, for on Elizabeth’s accession and for the rest of their lives, they were treated with marked favour. Parry was knighted and made Treasurer of the Household, and on Mrs. Ashley’s death in July 1565 the Queen visited her in person and mourned her with great grief.”
The same writer says elsewhere in the book:
“Lady Harrington and Mrs. Ashley were, in fact, the only ladies about the Queen who were absolutely in her confidence.”
In a letter to the Doge of Venice in 1556 Giovanni Michiel wrote:
“She” [Elizabeth] “I understand, having plainly said that she will not marry, even were they to give her the King’s” [Philip of Spain] “son” [Don Carlos, Philip’s son by his first wife] “or find any other great prince, I again respectfully remind your serenity to enjoin secrecy about this.”
Count de Feria wrote in April, 1559:
“If my spies do not lie, which I believe they do not, for a certain reason which they have recently given me, I understand that she [Elizabeth] will not bear children.”
At this time Elizabeth was only 26 years of age.
The following extract is taken from Mr. Mumby’s Girlhood of Queen Elizabeth in which is given the translation taken from Leti’s La Vie d’Elizabeth. The letter is from Princess Elizabeth to Lord Admiral Seymour, 1548 (apropos of his intentions regarding her):—
“It has also been said that I have only refused you because I was thinking of some one else. I therefore entreat you, my lord, to set your mind at rest on this subject, and to be persuaded by this declaration that up to this time I have not the slightest intention of being married, and, that if ever I should think of it (which I do not believe is possible) you would be the first to whom I should make known my resolution.”
The place known to the great public as Bisley is quite other than that under present consideration. Bisley, the ground for rifle competitions, is in Surrey, thoughtfully placed in juxtaposition to an eminent cemetery. It bears every indication of newness-so far as any locality of old earth can be new.
But the other is the original place of the name, possessing a recorded history which goes back many hundreds of years. It is in Gloucestershire high up on the eastern side of the Cotswold Hills at their southern end where they rise above the Little Avon which runs into the embouchure of the Severn to the Bristol Channel. The trace of Roman occupation is all over that part of England. When the pioneers of that strenuous nation made their essay on Britain they came with the intention of staying; and to-day their splendid roads remain unsurpassed—almost unsurpassable. In this part of the West Country there are several of them, of which the chief are Irmin (or Ermine) Street, running from Southampton through Cirencester and Gloucester to Caerleon, and Ikenild Street running from Cirencester, entering Gloucestershire at Eastleach. I am particular about these roads as we may require to notice them carefully. There is really but one Bisley in this part of the country, but the name is spelled so variously that the simple phonetic spelling might well serve for a nucleating principle. In all sorts of papers, from Acts of Parliament and Royal Charters down to local deeds of tenancy, it is thus varied—Bisleigh, Bistlegh, Byselegh, Bussely. In this part of the Cotswolds “Over” is a common part of a name which was formerly used as a prefix. Such is not always at once apparent for the modern cartographer seems to prefer the modern word “upper” as the prefix. Attention is merely called to it here as later on we shall have to consider it more carefully.
The most interesting spot in the whole district is the house “Overcourt,” which was once the manor-house of Bisley. It stands close to Bisley church from the grave-yard of which it is only separated by a wicket-gate. The title-deeds of this house, which is now in possession of the Gordon family show that it was a part of the dower of Queen Elizabeth. But the world went by it, and little by little the estate of which it was a portion changed hands; so that now the house remains almost as an entity. Naturally enough, the young Princess Elizabeth lived there for a time; and one can still see the room she occupied. A medium-sized room with mullioned windows, having small diamond-shaped panes set in lead after the pattern of the Tudor period. A great beam of oak, not exactly “trued” with the adze but following the natural trend of the wood, crosses the ceiling. The window looks out on a little walled-in garden, one of the flower beds of which is set in an antique stone receptacle of oblong shape which presents something of the appearance of a stone coffin of the earlier ages. Of this more anon.
Whether at the time of the birth of Elizabeth the mansion of Overcourt was itself in the King’s possession is a little difficult to fathom, for, in the Confession of Thomas Parry written in 1549 concerning a period a little earlier, it is said: “And I told her” [Princess Elizabeth] “further how he” [Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour] “would have had her to have lands in Gloucestershire called Bisley as in parcel of exchange, and in Wales.”
In addition to its natural desirability in the way of hygiene and altitude there seems to have been a wish on the part of family advisers of those having estates in the vicinity of this place, to enlarge their possessions. This was wise enough, for in the disturbed state of affairs which ushered in the Tudor Dynasty, and the effects of which still continued, it was of distinct benefit to have communities here and there large enough for self protection. This idea held with many of the families as well as individuals whose names are associated with Bisley. Henry VIII himself, as over-lord with ownership derived from the Norman Conquest, had feudal claims on the de Bohuns who represented all the local possessions of the Dukedom of Gloucester and the Earldoms of Essex Hereford and Northampton. Also the greedy eyes of certain strong men and families who had hopes that time and influence already existing, might later on bring them benefit, were fixed on this desirable spot. Thomas Seymour, the unscrupulous brother of the future Lord Protector, was high in influence in the early days of the Princess Elizabeth, and even then must have had ambitious designs of marrying her. On the death of Henry VIII he had, when Lord Sudeley, married the king’s widow within a few months of her widowhood, and received a grant of the royal possession at Bisley which, on his attainder, passed on to Sir Anthony Kingston, who doubtless had already marked it down as an objective of his cupidity.
The “Hundred of Bisley” was one of the seven of Cirencester which of old were farmed by the Abbey of Tewksbury. Its position was so full of possibilities of future development as to justify the acquisitive spirit of those who desired it. In its bounds were what is now the town of Stroud, as well as a whole line of mills which had in early days great effect as they were workable by both wind and water power, both of which were to be had in profusion. This little remote hamlet had a progressive industry of its own in the shape of a manufacture of woollen cloths. It also represented dyeing in scarlet and was the place of origin of Giles Gobelin, a famous dyer who gave his name to the Gobelin tapestry.
One other thing must be distinctly borne in mind regarding Bisley in the first half of the sixteenth century; it was comparatively easy of access from London for those who wished to go there. A line drawn on the map will show that on the way as points d’appui, were Oxford and Cirencester, both of which were surrounded with good roads as became their importance as centres. This line seems very short for its importance. To-day the journey is that of a morning; and even in the time of Henry VIII when horse traction was the only kind available, the points were not very distant as to time of traverse. To Henry, who commanded everything and had a myriad agents eager to display their energy in his service, all was simple; and when he went a-hunting in the forests which made a network far around Berkeley Castle his objective could be easily won between breakfast and supper. There was not any difficulty therefore, and not too much personal strain, when he chose to visit his little daughter even though at the start one should be at Nether Lypiat and the other at Greenwich or Hatfield or Eltham.
D. The Tradition
The Tradition is that the little Princess Elizabeth, during her childhood, was sent away with her governess for change of air to Bisley where the strong sweet air of the Cotswold Hills would brace her up. The healthy qualities of the place were known to her father and many others of those around her. Whilst she was at Overcourt, word was sent to her governess that the King was coming to see his little daughter; but shortly before the time fixed, and whilst his arrival was expected at any hour, a frightful catastrophe happened. The child, who had been ailing in a new way, developed acute fever, and before steps could be taken even to arrange for her proper attendance and nursing, she died. The governess feared to tell her father—Henry VIII had the sort of temper which did not make for the happiness of those around him. In her despair she, having hidden the body, rushed off to the village to try to find some other child whose body could be substituted for that of the dead princess so that the evil moment of disclosure of the sad fact might be delayed till after His Majesty’s departure. But the population was small and no girl child of any kind was available. The distracted woman then tried to find a living girl child who could be passed off for the princess, whose body could be hidden away for the time.
Throughout the little village and its surroundings was to be found no girl child of an age reasonably suitable for the purpose required. More than ever distracted, for time was flying by, she determined to take the greater risk of a boy substitute—if a boy could be found. Happily for the poor woman’s safety, for her very life now hung in the balance, this venture was easy enough to begin. There was a boy available, and just such a boy as would suit the special purpose for which he was required—a boy well known to the governess, for the little Princess had taken a fancy to him and had lately been accustomed to play with him. Moreover, he was a pretty boy as might have been expected from the circumstance of the little Lady Elizabeth having chosen him as her playmate. He was close at hand and available. So he was clothed in the dress of the dead child, they being of about equal stature; and when the King’s fore-rider appeared the poor overwrought governess was able to breathe freely.
The visit passed off successfully. Henry suspected nothing; as the whole thing had happened so swiftly, there had been no antecedent anxiety. Elizabeth had been brought up in such dread of her father that he had not, at the rare intervals of his seeing her, been accustomed to any affectionate effusiveness on her part; and in his hurried visit he had no time for baseless conjecture.
Then came the natural nemesis of such a deception. As the dead could not be brought back to life, and as the imperious monarch, who bore no thwarting of his wishes, was under the impression that he could count on his younger daughter as a pawn in the great game of political chess which he had entered on so deeply, those who by now must have been in the secret did not and could not dare to make disclosure. Moreover the difficulties and dangers to one and all involved would of necessity grow with each day that passed. Willy nilly they must go on. Fortunately for the safety of their heads circumstances favoured them. The secret was, up to now, hidden in a remote village high up on the side of the Cotswold hills. Steep declivities guarded it from casual intrusion, and there was no trade beyond that occasional traffic necessary for a small agricultural community. The whole country as far as the eye could see was either royal domain or individual property owned or held by persons attached to the dynasty by blood or interest.
Facilities of intercommunication were few and slow; and above all uncertain and therefore not to be relied on.
This then was the beginning of the tradition which has existed locally ever since. In such districts change is slow, and what has been may well be taken, unless there be something to the contrary, for what is. The isolation of the hamlet in the Cotswolds where the little princess lived for a time—and is supposed to have died—is almost best exemplified by the fact that though the momentous secret has existed for between three and four centuries, no whisper of it has reached the great world without its confines. Not though the original subject of it was the very centre of the wildest and longest battle which has ever taken place since the world began—polemical, dynastic, educational, international, commercial. Anyone living in any town in our own age, where advance and expansiveness are matters of degree, not of fact, may find it hard to believe that any such story, nebulous though it may be, could exist unknown and unrecorded outside a place so tiny that its most important details will not be found even on the ordnance map of an inch to the mile. But a visit to Bisley will set aside any such doubts. The place itself has hardly changed, in any measure to be apparent as a change, in the three centuries and more. The same buildings stand as of yore; the same estate wall, though more picturesque with lichen, and with individual stones corrugated by weather and dislocated by arboreal growths, speak of an epoch ending with the Tudor age. The doors of the great tithe-barns which remain as souvenirs of extinct feudalism, still yawn wide on their festered hinges. Nay, even the very trees show amongst their ranks an extraordinary percentage of giants which have withstood unimpaired all the changes that have been.
Leaving busy and thriving Stroud, one climbs the long hill past Lipiat and emerges in the village, where time has suddenly ceased, and we find ourselves in the age and the surroundings which saw the House of York fade into the Tudor dynasty. Such a journey is almost a necessity for a proper understanding of the story of the Bisley Boy, which has by the effluxion of time attained to almost the grace and strength of a legend. It is quite possible that though the place has stood still, the tradition has not, for it is in the nature of intellectual growth to advance. One must not look on the Gloucestershire people as sleepy—sleepiness is no characteristic of that breezy upland; but dreaming, whether its results be true or false, does not depend on sleep. In cases like the present, sleep is not to be looked on as a blood relation of death but rather as a preservative against the ravages of time—like the mysterious slumber of King Arthur and others who are destined for renewal.
It may be taken for granted that in course of time and under the process of purely oral communication, the story told in whispers lost nothing in the way of romance or credibility; that flaws or lacunæ were made good by inquiry; and that recollections of overlooked or forgotten facts were recalled or even supplemented by facile invention. But it may also be taken for granted that no statement devoid of a solid foundation could become permanently accepted. There were too many critics around, with memories unimpaired by overwork, to allow incorrect statements to pass unchallenged. There is always this in tradition, that the collective mind which rules in small communities is a child’s mind, which must ever hold grimly on to fact. And that behind the child’s mind is the child’s nature which most delights in the recountal of what it knows, and is jealous of any addition to the story which is a part of its being.
Major Martin Hume writes in his Courtships of Queen Elizabeth:
“Elizabeth was only three when her mother’s fall removed her from the line of the succession…. In 1542, however, the death of James V of Scotland and the simultaneous birth of his daughter Mary seemed to bring nearer Henry’s idea of a union between the two crowns. He proposed to marry the baby Queen of Scots to his infant son and at the same time he offered the hand of Elizabeth (then nine) to a son of Arran—head of House of Hamilton, next heir to the Scottish crown…. Mary and Elizabeth were restored to their places in the line of succession…. In January 1547 Henry VIII died, leaving the succession to his two daughters in tail after Edward VI and his heirs. Queen Catherine (Parr) immediately married Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of Protector Somerset and uncle of the little king (Edward VI). To them was confided Princess Elizabeth then a girl of 14.”
Elizabeth was three in 1536. The story of the Bisley Boy dates probably to 1543–4. So that if the story have any foundation at all in fact, signs of a complete change of identity in the person of Princess Elizabeth must be looked for in the period of some seven or eight years which intervened.
E. The Difficulty Of Proof
In such a case as that before us the difficulty of proof is almost insuperable. But fortunately we are dealing with a point not of law but of history. Proof is not in the first instance required, but only surmise, to be followed by an argument of probability. Such records as still exist are all the proofs that can be adduced; and all we can do is to search for such records as still exist, without which we lack the enlightenment that waits on discovery. In the meanwhile we can deduce a just conclusion from such materials as we do possess. Failing certitude, which is under the circumstances almost impossible, we only arrive at probability; and with that until discovery of more reliable material we must be content.
Let us therefore sum up: first the difficulties of the task before us; then the enlightenments. “Facts,” says one of the characters of Charles Dickens, “bein’ stubborn and not easy drove,” are at least, so far as they go, available. We are free to come to conclusions and to make critical comments. Our risk is that if we err—on whichever side does not matter—we reverse our position and become ourselves the objects of attack.
Our main difficulties are two. First, that all from whom knowledge might have been obtained are dead and their lips are closed; second, that records are incomplete. This latter is the result of one of two causes—natural decay or purposed obliteration. The tradition of the Bisley Boy has several addenda due to time and thought. One of these is that some of those concerned in the story disappeared from the scene.
The story runs that on Elizabeth’s accession or under circumstances antecedent to it all who were in the secret and still remained were “got rid of.” The phrase is a convenient one and not unknown in history. Fortunately those who must have been in such a secret—if there was one—were but few. If such a thing occurred in reality, four persons were necessarily involved in addition to Elizabeth herself: (1) Mrs. Ashley, (2) Thomas Parry, (3) the parent of the living child who replaced the dead one; the fourth, being an unknown quantity, represents an idea rather than a person—a nucleated identity typical of family life with attendant difficulties of concealment. Of these four—three real persons and an idea—three are accounted for, so far as the “got rid of” theory is concerned. Elizabeth never told; Thomas Parry and Mrs. Ashley remained silent, in the full confidence of the (supposed) Princess who later was Queen. With regard to the last, the nucleated personality which includes the unknown parent possibly but not of certainty, contemporary record is silent; and we can only regard him or her as a mysterious entity available for conjecture in such cases of difficulty as may present themselves.
We must perforce, therefore, fall back on pure unadulterated probability, based on such rags of fact as can be produced at our inquest. Our comfort—content being an impossibility—must lie in the generally-accepted aphorism; “Truth will prevail.” In real life it is not always so; but it is a comforting belief and may remain faut de mieux.
A grave cause of misleading is inexact translation—whether the fault be in ignorance or intentional additions to or substractions from text referred to. A case in point is afforded by the letter already referred to from Leti’s La Vie d’Elizabeth. In the portion quoted Elizabeth mentioned her intention of not marrying: “I have not the slightest intention of being married, and … if ever I should think of it (which I do not believe is possible).” Now in Mr. Mumby’s book the quotation is made from Leti’s La Vie d’Elizabeth which is the translation into French from the original Italian, the passage marked above in italics is simply: “ce que je ne crois pas.” The addition of the words “is possible” gives what is under the circumstances quite a different meaning to the earliest record we have concerning the very point we are investigating. When I began this investigation, I looked on the passage—neither Mumby, remember, nor even Leti, but what professed to be the ipsissima verba of Elizabeth herself—and I was entirely misled until I had made comparison for myself—Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The addition of the two words, which seems at first glance merely to emphasise an expression of opinion, changes the meaning of the writer to a belief so strong that the recital of it gives it the weight of intention. Under ordinary circumstances this would not matter much; but as we have to consider it in the light of a man defending his head against danger, and in a case where absolute circumspection is a necessary condition of safety so that intention becomes a paramount force, exactness of expression is all-important.
The only way to arrive at probability is to begin with fact. Such is a base for even credulity or its opposite, and if it is our wish or intention to be just there need be no straining on either one side or the other. In the case of the Bisley Boy the points to be considered are:
1. The time at which the change was or could be affected.
2. The risk of discovery, (a) at first, (b) afterwards.
It will be necessary to consider these separately for manifest reasons. The first belongs to the region of Danger; the second to the region of Difficulty, with the headsman’s axe glittering ominously in the background.
F. The Time And The Opportunity
(a) The time at which the change was or could have been effected.
For several valid reasons I have come to the conclusion that the crucial period by which the Bisley story must be tested is the year ending with July 1544. No other time either earlier or later would, so far as we know, have fulfilled the necessary conditions.
First of all the question of sex has to be considered; and it is herein that, lacking suitable and full opportunity, discovery of such an imposture must have been at once detected—certainly had it commenced at an early age. In babyhood the whole of the discipline of child-life begins. The ordinary cleanliness of life has to be taught, and to this end there is no portion of the infantile body which is not subject to at least occasional inspection. This disciplinary inspection lasts by force of habit until another stage on the journey towards puberty has been reached. Commercial use in America fixes stages of incipient womanhood—by dry goods’ advertisement—as “children’s, misses’ and girls’ clothing,” and the illustration will sufficiently serve. It seems at first glance an almost unnecessary intrusion into purely domestic life; but the present is just one of those cases where the experience of women is not only useful but necessary. In a question of identity of sex the nursemaid and the washerwoman play useful parts in the witness box. Regarding Elizabeth’s childhood no question need ever or can ever arise. For at least the first ten years of her life, a woman’s sex need not be known outside the nursery and the sick room; but then this is the very time when her attendants have direct and ample knowledge. Moreover in the case of the child of Queen Anne (Boleyn) there was every reason why the sex should have been unreservedly known. Henry VIII divorced Katherine of Aragon and married Anne in the hope of having legitimate male issue to sit on the throne of England. Later, when both Katherine and Anne had failed to satisfy him as to male issue, he divorced Anne and married Jane Seymour for the same purpose. In the interval either his views had enlarged or his patience had extended; for, when Jane’s life hung in the balance, owing to an operation which the surgeons considered necessary, and the husband was consulted as to which life they should, in case of needful choice, try to save, his reply was peculiar—though, taken in the light of historical perspective, not at variance with his dominating idea. Gregorio Leti thus describes the incident (the quotation is made from the translation of the Italian into French and published in Amsterdam in 1694):—
“Quand les médécins demandèrent au Roi qui l’on sauverait de la mère ou de l’enfant, il répondit, qu’il auroit extremement souhait de pouvoir sauver la mère et l’enfant, mais que cel n’étant possible, il vouloit que l’on sauvat l’enfant plutôt que la mère parce qu’il trouveroit assez d’autres femmes.”
It had become a monomania with Henry that he should be father of a lawful son; and when the child of his second union was expected, he so took the consummation of his wishes for granted that those in attendance on his wife were actually afraid to tell him the truth. It would have been fortune and social honour to whosoever should bear him the glad tidings. We may be sure then that news so welcome would never have been perverted by those who had so much to gain. As it was, the “lady-mistress”—as she called herself—of the little Princess, Mrs. (afterwards Lady) Bryan, wrote in her letter to Lord Cromwell in 1536—Elizabeth being then in her third year:—
“She is as toward a child and as gentle of conditions, as ever I knew any in my life.”
The writer could have had no ignorance as to the sex of the child, for in the same letter she gives Cromwell a list of her wants in the way of clothing; which list is of the most intimate kind, including gown, kirtle, petticoat, “no manner of linen nor smocks,” kerchiefs, rails, body stitchets, handkerchiefs, sleeves, mufflers, biggens. As in the same letter it is mentioned that the women attending the child were under the rule of Lady Bryan—an accomplished nurse who had brought up Princess Mary and had been “governess to the children his Grace have had ever since”—it can be easily understood she was well acquainted with even the smallest detail of the royal nursery. Had the trouble of the lady-mistress been with regard to superabundance of underclothing, one might have understood ignorance on the part of the responsible controller; but in the plentiful lack of almost every garment necessary for the child’s wear by day or by night there could be no question as to her ostensible sex at this age.
Thence on, there were experienced and devoted persons round the little Princess, whose value in her father’s eyes was largely enhanced since he had secured, for the time, her legitimacy by an Act of Parliament.
After Elizabeth had been legitimised, she became one of the pieces in the gigantic game of chess on which Henry had embarked. Despite the fact that the son for whom he had craved was now a boy of six, it was only wise to consider and be prepared for whatever might happen in case Prince Edward should not live, and if, in such a case, Mary should die without issue. The case was one of amazing complexity, and as the time wore on the religious question became structurally involved. England had declared in no uncertain voice in favour of Protestantism, and the whole forces of Rome were arrayed against her. Mary was altogether in favour of the religion of her injured mother, and behind her stood the power of Catholicism which, even in that unscrupulous age, was well ahead in the race of unscrupulousness. And as Elizabeth stood next to the young Prince Edward in the forces of Reformation, on her was focussed much of the suspicion of polemic intrigue. The papacy was all powerful in matters of secret inquiry. Indeed in such an inquest its powers were unique, for unscrupulous spies were everywhere—even, it was alleged, in the confessional. How then could such a secret as the sex of a little girl of not a dozen years of age, who was constantly surrounded by women necessarily conversant with every detail of her life, be kept from all who wished to solve it. In such a state of affairs suspicion was equivalent to discovery. And discovery meant ruin to all concerned, death to abettors of the fraud, woe and destruction to England and a general upheaval of the fundamental ideas of Christendom. It may, I presume, be taken for granted without flaw or mitigation of any kind that up to July, 1543, the “Princess Elizabeth” was what she appeared to be—a girl.
At the time of her first letter to the new Queen, Catherine (Parr), she was just a trifle under ten years of age and a well-grown child, quick, clever, rather precocious, and well grounded in the learning of her time. The exact date of this letter is not given by Leti—of which more anon—but it must have been somewhere between July 12 and 31, 1543. Henry VIII married Catherine Parr on 12 July, and in her letter of 1543 Elizabeth calls Catherine “your Majesty.” In her letter of 31 July, 1544 she writes to the same correspondent:
“… has deprived me for a whole year of your most illustrious presence.”
The whereabouts of Elizabeth during this last year appears to be the centre of the mystery; and if any letter or proof is ever found of Elizabeth’s being anywhere but in her own house of Overcourt in Bisley Parish, it will go far to settle the vexed question now brought before the world for the first time.
(b) The opportunity
The year 1542 was a busy time for Henry VIII. He had on hand, either pending or going on, two momentous wars, one with Scotland the other with France. The causes of either of these were too complicated for mention here; suffice it to say that they were chiefly dynastic and polemic. In addition he was busy with matrimonial matters, chiefly killing off his fifth wife Catherine Howard, and casting eyes on the newmade widow of Lord Latimer. In 1543 he married the lady, as his sixth wife. She herself can hardly be said to have lacked matrimonial experience, as this was her third union. Her first venture was with the elderly Lord Borough, who, like Lord Latimer, left her wealthy. Henry had by now got what might be called in the slang of the time “the marriage habit,” and honeymoon dalliance had hardly the same charm for him as it usually is supposed to have with those blessed with a lesser succession of spouses. The consequence was that he was able to give more attention to the necessary clearing up of the Scottish war, which finished at Solway Moss on December 14th, with the consequent death from chagrin of the Scottish King James V. The cause of the war, however, continued in the shape of a war with France which went on till 1546 when peace was declared to the pecuniary benefit of the English King. For the last two years of this time Henry carried on the war singlehanded, as the Emperor Charles V, who had begun it as his ally, withdrew.
There is a paragraph in Grafton’s Chronicle published in 1569 which throws a flood of light on Elizabeth’s absence at this time, 1543: “This yeare was in London a great death of the pestilence, and therefore Mighelmas terme was adjourned to Saint Albones, and there it was kept to the ende.”
In his Girlhood of Queen Elizabeth, Mr. Mumby says: “For some obscure reason Elizabeth seems to have fallen out of her father’s favour again very soon after Catherine Parr had obtained his consent to her return to Court” (1543). No such cause for the removal of the Princess from London was necessary. It was probably to the presence of the pestilence in London that her removal to a remote and healthy place was due. Failing Prince Edward, then only five years of age and a weakly child, the crown must—unless some constitutional revolution be effected in the meantime or some future son be born to him—devolve on his female heirs, a matter pregnant with strife of unknown dimensions. Mary was now twenty-seven years old and of a type that did not promise much for maternity. At the same time, Mary, though his eldest living daughter, was the hope of the Catholic party, to which he was in violent opposition; whereas in Elizabeth lay the hope of the whole of the party of the Reformation. Her life was to her father far beyond the calls of parental affection or dynastic ambition, and she had to be saved at all costs from risk of health. Henry’s own experience of child-life was a bitter one. Of his five children by Catherine of Aragon only one, Mary, survived childhood. Elizabeth was the only survivor of Anne Boleyn; Edward, of Jane Seymour. Anne of Cleves had no children, and if report spoke truly no chance of having any. Catherine Howard was executed childless. And he had only just married Catherine Parr, who had already had two husbands.
On July 12, 1543, Henry married Catherine and in due course devoted himself to the war. On the 14 July, 1544, he crossed from Dover to Calais to look after the conduct of affairs for himself, and on the 26th began the siege of Boulogne. This lasted for two months when having reduced the city he returned home. On the 8 September he wrote to his wife to that effect. During his absence Queen Catherine was vicegerent and had manifestly as much public work on hand as she could cope with. Bisley was a long way from London, and there were no organised posts in the sixteenth century. Moreover, ever since his last marriage, Henry had been an invalid. He was now fifty-two years of age, of unhealthy body, and so heavy that he had to be lifted by machinery. Catherine was a devoted wife; and as Henry was both violent and irritable she had little time at command to give to the affairs of other people. There was small opportunity for any one then who was sufficiently in the focus of affairs to be cognisant of such an imposture as the tradition points out. Doubtless hereafter, when a story so fascinating and at first glance so incredible begins to be examined and its details thoroughly threshed out, more items of evidence or surmise than are at present available will be found for the settlement of the question, one way or the other. In the meantime, be it remembered, that we are only examining offhand a tradition made known for the first time after three centuries. Our present business is to consider possibilities. Later on the time may come—as it surely will; if the story can in the least be accepted—for the consideration of probabilities. Both of these tentative examinations will lead to the final examination of possibility, of probability, and of proof pro or contra.
At this stage we must admit that neither time nor opportunity present any difficulty in itself insuperable.
G. The Identity Of Elizabeth
The next matter with which we have to deal is regarding the identity of Elizabeth. This needs (if necessary) a consideration of the facts of her life, and so far as we can realise them, from external appearance, mental and moral attitudes, and intentions. On account of space we must confine this branch of the subject to the smallest portion of time necessary to form any sort of just conclusion and accepting the available records up to 1543, take the next period from that time to anywhere within the first few years of her reign—by which time her character was finally fixed and the policy on which her place in history is to be judged had been formulated and tested.
This implies in the first instance a brief (very brief) study of her physique with a corollary in the shape of a few remarks on her heredity:
Grafton’s Chronicle states, under the date of 7 September 1533, “the Queene was delivered of a fayre Lady” which was his Courtly way of announcing the birth of a female princess, blond in colour. In all chronicles “fayre” means of light colour. In Wintown the reputed father of Macbeth—the Devil—is spoken of as a “fayre” man; evil qualities were in that age attributed to blondes.
In a letter dated from Greenwich Palace, 18 April, 1534, Sir William Kingston said to Lord Lisle: “To-day, the King and Queen were at Eltham” (where the royal nursery then was) “and saw my Lady Princess—as goodly a child as hath been seen. Her Grace is much in the King’s favour as a goodly child should be—God save her!”
In 1536, when Elizabeth was but three years old, Lady Bryan, the “Lady-mistress” of both Mary and her half-sister, wrote from Hunsdon to Lord Cromwell regarding the baby princess. “For she is as toward a child and as gentle of conditions, as ever I knew any in my life. Jesus preserve her Grace!” In the same letter she says “Mr. Shelton would have my Lady Elizabeth to dine and sup every day at the board of estate. Alas! my Lord it is not meet for a child of her age to keep such rule yet. I promise you, my lord, I dare not take it upon me to keep her Grace in health an’ she keep that rule. For there she shall see divers meats, and fruits, and wines, which it would be hard for me to restrain her Grace from. Ye know, my lord, there is no place of correction there; and she is yet too young to correct greatly.”
Testimony is borne according to Leti to the good qualities of the Princess Elizabeth in these early years, by the affectionate regard in which she was held by two of Henry’s queens, the wronged and unhappy Anne of Cleves and the happy-natured Catherine Parr. Anne, he says, though she had only seen her twice loved her much; she thought her beautiful and full of spirit (“pleine d’esprit.”) Catherine, according to the same writer who had seen her often before her marriage to Henry, admired her “esprit et ses manières.”
If Leti could only have spoken at first hand, his record of her would be very valuable. But unhappily he was only born nearly thirty years after her death. His history was manifestly written from records and as Elizabeth’s fame was already made before he began to treat of her his work is largely a panegyric of hearsay. There is, regarding the youth of the Princess, such an overdone flood of adulation that it is out of place in a serious history of a human life. In his account of the time which we are considering, we find the child compared in both matters of body and mind to an angel. She is credited at the age of ten with an amount of knowledge in all branches of learning sufficient to equip the illustrious men of a century. The fact is the Italian has accepted the queen’s great position, and then reconstructed her youth to accord with it, in such a way as to show that whatever remarkable abilities she possessed were the direct outcome of her own natural qualities.
 Amongst other branches of knowledge he credits her with knowing well “Geography, Cosmography, Mathematics, Architecture, Painting, Arithmetic, History, Mechanics.” She had a special facility in learning languages; spoke and wrote French, Italian, Spanish, Flemish. She loved poetry and wrote it, but regarded it as a useless amusement and, as it was distasteful to her, turned to history and politics. Finally he adds: “She was naturally ambitious and always knew how to hide her defects.”
The details above given are not merely meagre but are only explicable by the fact that during the earlier years of her life the child was not considered of any importance. The circumstances of Anne’s marriage—which in any case was delayed till it became a necessary preliminary to the legitimacy on which any future claim to the throne must rest—did not make for a belief in the public mind for its permanency. Things were fluctuating in the religious world and few were inclined to the belief that the Pope (with whom lay the last word and whose political leanings in favour of Catherine of Aragon and the validity of her marriage to Henry were well known) would be overthrown by the English King. And in any case, were Henry to be the final judge of appeal in his own case no great continuity of purpose could be expected from him. The first important event which we have to consider with reference to the question before us is Elizabeth’s first letter to Queen Catherine (Parr) in 1543. In this the girl then ten years old writes to her new step-mother, at whose marriage she together with her half-sister Mary had been present. It is in form a dutiful letter, not entirely without an apparent compulsion or at least intelligent supervision. As it stands, it is impossible to believe that it emanated from a child of ten quite free to follow out its inclinations. The dutifulness is altogether, or largely, due to the training and self-suppression of the royal child of an arbitrary father with absolute power. But it remains for each reader to consider it impartially. The points which we should do well to note here are its plain form of expression, and its entire absence of personal affection. The latter is all the more marked in that it was a letter of thanks for a kindness conferred. Elizabeth was very anxious to come to her father, and Catherine had furthered her wish and secured its fulfilment. After the marriage, the child, as is shown (or rather inferred), had been sent away for more than a year, which absence had been prolonged for at least six months—as already shown.
There is little evidence of Elizabeth’s inner nature in these early days; but we have every right to think that she was of a peaceable, kindly and affectionate nature. Lady Bryan her first nurse or governess (after Lady Boleyn, Anne’s mother) thought highly of her. Catherine Ashley, who had charge of her next, loved her and was her devoted servant, friend and confidant till her death.
Thomas Parry her life-long friend was devoted to her, and when the circumstances of their respective lives and the happenings of the time kept them apart, she restored him at the first opportunity and made his fortune her special care.
There is little base here on which to build an inverted pyramid; our only safety is in taking things as they seem to be and using common sense.
Let us now take the years beginning with 1544. From this time on, more is known of the personality of Elizabeth; in fact there is little unknown, that is, of matters of fact, and to this only we must devote ourselves. Whatever may have been Elizabeth’s motives we can only infer them. She was a secretive person and took few into her confidence, unless it was of vital necessity—and then only in matters required by the circumstance. The earliest knowledge we have of this second period of her history is in her letter to Queen Catherine (Parr) written from St. James’ Palace on 31 July, 1544.
In the year which had elapsed since her last recorded letter Elizabeth’s literary style had entirely changed. The meagre grudging style has become elegant and even florid with the ornate grace and imagery afforded by the study of the Latin and French tongues. Altogether there is not merely a more accomplished diction but there is behind it a truer feeling and larger sympathy. It is more in accord with the letter accompanying the gift to the Queen, of her translation of the Mirror of the Sinful Soul which she had dedicated to her.
Historians have given various rescripts of certain earlier letters of the Princess Elizabeth, but none of them seem in harmony of thought with this, whereas it is quite in accord with her later writings. Metabolism is an accepted doctrine of physiology; but its scope is not—as yet at all events—extended to the intellect, and we must take things as we find them within the limits of human knowledge.
It will perhaps be as well to reserve the consideration of any other point, except the change in actual identity, till the complete analogy of all natural processes is an established fact.
(c) Her personality
We have no letters of Princess Elizabeth before 1543 which are not open to grave doubt as to date, but there is one letter to which allusion must almost of necessity be made. It is a letter from Roger Ascham, tutor to the Princess Elizabeth, to Mrs. Ashley. No date is given by Mr. Mumby, but he states in his text that it was written “during Grindal’s term of office” as tutor to the Princess. Mumby quotes from the Elizabeth of Miss Strickland, who in turn quotes from Whittaker’s Richmondshire. Now Grindal’s term of office lasted from 1546 (probably the end of that year) till it was cut short by his death from the Plague in 1548, so that he could not have known his royal pupil before 1544. The text of the letter leads a careful reader to infer that it was written after that date. The important part of the letter is as follows:
“… the thanks you have deserved from that noble imp by your labour and wisdom now flourishing in all goodly godliness…. I wish her Grace (Elizabeth) to come to that end in perfectness and likelihood of her wit and painlessness in her study, true trade of her teaching, which your diligent overseeing doth most constantly promise…. I wish all increase of virtue and honour to that my good lady, whose wit, good Mrs. Ashley, I beeseech you somewhat favour. Blunt edges be dull and dure much pain to little profit; the free edge is soon turned if it be not handled thereafter. If you pour much drink at once into a goblet, the most part will dash out and run over; if ye pour it softly you may fill it even to the top, and so her Grace, I doubt not, by little and little may be increased in learning, that at length greater cannot be required.”
If this letter means anything at all—which in the case of such a man as Roger Ascham is not to be doubted—it means that Mrs. Ashley, then her governess, was cautioned not to press the little girl overmuch in her lessons. It is an acknowledgment of the teacher’s zeal as well as affection, and in the flowery and involved style of the period and the man, illustrates the theory by pointing out the error of trying to fill a small vessel from a larger one by pouring too fast. She is not a backward child, he says in effect, but go slowly with her education, you cannot give full learning all at once.
Compare this letter with that of the same writer to John Sturmius, Rector of the Protestant University of Strasbourg, on the same subject in 1550:
“The Lady Elizabeth has accomplished her sixteenth year; and so much of solidity of understanding, such courtesy united with dignity, have never been observed at so early an age. She has the most ardent love of true religion and of the best kind of literature. The constitution of her mind is exempt from female weakness, and she is endued with a masculine power of application.
“No apprehension can be quicker than hers, no memory more retentive. French and Italian she speaks like English; Latin with fluency, propriety and judgment; she also spoke Greek with me, frequently, willingly, and understanding well. Nothing can be more elegant than her handwriting, whether in the Greek or Roman character. In music she is very skilful but does not greatly delight. With respect to personal decoration, she greatly prefers a simple elegance to show and splendour, so despising the outward adorning of plaiting the hair and of wearing of gold, that in the whole manner of her life she rather resembles Hippolyta than Phædra.”
That such a scholar as Roger Ascham makes the simile is marked. Hippolyta was a Queen of the Amazons and Phædra was an almost preternaturally womanly woman, one with a tragic intensity of passion.
The Elizabeth whom we know from 1544 to 1603 certainly had brains enough to protect her neck. In 1549 Sir Robert Tyrwhitt wrote to the Protector Somerset, apropos of the strenuous effort being made to gain from her some admission damaging to herself concerning Thomas Seymour’s attempts to win her hand:
“She hath a very pretty wit and nothing is gotten out of her but by great policy.”
In a letter from Simon Renard Ambassador to the Emperor Charles V dated London September 23, 1553, there is incidentally a statement regarding Elizabeth’s character which it is wise to hold in mind when discussing this particular period of her history. Writing of Elizabeth’s first attendance at Mass he said: “she, Mary, … entreated Madame Elizabeth to speak freely of all that was on her conscience, to which the Princess replied that she was resolved to declare publicly that in going to Mass as in all else that she had done, she had only obeyed the voice of her conscience; and that she had acted freely, without fear, deceit, or pretence. We have since been told, however, that the said Lady Elizabeth is very timid, and that while she was speaking with the Queen she trembled very much.”
Compare with this the letter of 16th March, 1554 to the Queen (Mary) written just as she was told to go to the Tower. In this letter which is beautifully written and with not a trace of agitation she protests her innocence of any plot. Her mental attitude was thoroughly borne out by a calm dignity of demeanour which is more in accord with male than female nature. In very fact Elizabeth appears all her life since 1544 to have been playing with great thoughtfulness and yet dexterity a diplomatic game—acting with histrionic subtlety a part which she had chosen advisedly.
A good idea of the personality of Elizabeth during the period beginning with 1544 may be had from a brief consideration of the risks which a person taking up such an imposture would run, first at the time of beginning the venture and then of sustaining the undertaken rôle. At the outset a boy of ten or eleven would not think of taking it seriously. At first he would look on it as a “lark” and carry out the idea with a serious energy only known in play-time. Later thought would give it a new charm in the shape of danger. This, while adding to his great zest, would sober him; thence on it would be a game—just such a game as a boy loves, perpetual struggle to get the best of someone else. To some natures wit against wit is a better strife than strength against strength, and if one were well equipped for such a fray the game would satisfy the ambition of his years. In any case when once such a game was entered on, the stake would be his own head—a consideration which must undoubtedly make for strenuous effort—even in boyhood.
The task which would have followed—which did follow if the Bisley story is true—would have been vastly greater. If the imposture escaped immediate detection—which is easily conceivable—a new kind of endeavour would have been necessary; one demanding the utmost care and perpetual vigilance in addition to the personal qualities necessary for the carrying out of the scheme. Little help could be given to the young boy on whom rested the weight of what must have appeared to all concerned in it a stupendous undertaking. From the nature of the task, which was one which even the faintest breath of suspicion would have ruined, the little band, originally involved, could gain no assistance. Safety was only possible by the maintenance of the most rigid secrecy. All around them were enemies served by a host of zealous spies. If then the story be true, those who carried such an enterprising situation to lasting success, must have been no common persons. Let us suppose for a moment that the story was true. In such case the Boy of Bisley who acted the part of the Princess Elizabeth could have had only two assistants—assistants even if they were only passive. Whatever may have happened we know from history that both Mrs. Ashley and Thomas Parry were ingrainedly loyal to Elizabeth, as she was to them. For convenience we shall speak of the substitute of the Princess as though he were the Princess herself whom he appeared to be, and for whom he was accepted thenceforth. That the imposture—if there was one—succeeded is a self-evident fact; for almost sixty years there was no question raised by any person of either sex and of any political opinion. The statecraft of England, France, the Papacy, and the German Empire were either unsuspicious or in error—or both. It is reasonable to imagine that a person of strong character and active intelligence might have steered deftly between these variously opposing forces. It is conceivable that in the case of a few individuals there might have been stray fragmentary clouds of suspicion; though if there were any they must have come to those who were held to a consequent inactivity by other dominating causes. We shall have occasion presently to touch on this subject but in the meantime we must accept it that there was no opinion expressed by any one in such a way as necessarily to provoke action. Of course after a time even suspicion became an impossibility. Here was a young girl growing into womanhood whom all around her had known all her life—or what was equivalent—believed they had. It is only now after three centuries that we can consider who it was that formed the tally of those who knew the personality of Elizabeth during both periods of her youth, that up to 1543–4 and that which followed. Henry VIII manifestly not only had no doubt on the subject but no thought. If he had had he was just the man to have settled it at once. Anne Boleyn was dead, so was her predecessor in title. Anne of Cleves had accepted the annulment of her marriage—and a pension. Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard were both dead. Nearly all those who as nurses, governesses, or teachers, Lady Bryan, Richard Croke, William Grindal, Roger Ascham, who knew the first period were dead or had retired into other spheres. Those who remained knowing well the individuality of the Princess and representing both periods were Mrs. Ashley, Thomas Parry and the Queen (later dowager) Catherine Parr.
We know already of the faithfulness of the two former, the man who was a clever as well as a faithful servant, and the woman, who having no children of her own, took to her heart the little child entrusted to her care and treated her with such affectionate staunchness—a staunchness which has caused more than one historian to suspect that there was some grave secret between them which linked their fortunes together.
As to Catherine Parr we are able to judge from her letters that she was fond of her step-daughter and was consistently kind to her. Those who choose to study the matter further can form an opinion of their own from certain recorded episodes which, given without any elucidating possibilities leave the historians in further doubt. Leti puts in his Life, under the date of 1543, “before her marriage to Henry, Catherine Parr had seen often Elizabeth and admired her.” The Italian historian may have had some authority for the statement; but also it may have been taken from some statement made by Elizabeth in later years or by some person in her interest, to create a misleading belief. In any case let us accept the statement as a matter of fact. If so it may throw a light on another branch of this eternal and diverse mystery. Martin Hume and F. A. Mumby approaching the subject from different points confess themselves puzzled by Elizabeth’s attitude to men. The former writes in his Courtships of Queen Elizabeth:
“No one can look at the best portraits of Elizabeth without recognising at a glance that she was not a sensual woman. The lean, austere face, the tight thin lips, the pointed delicate chin, the cold dull eyes, tell of a character the very opposite of lascivious.”
Mr. Mumby writing about Mrs. Ashley’s “Confession” and of the horse-play between Elizabeth and Lord Seymour (whom Queen Catherine had married immediately after the King’s death) makes this remark:
“The most surprising thing about this behaviour is that the Queen should have encouraged it.”
There is plenty of room for wonder, considering that Admiral Seymour had earlier wanted to marry Elizabeth. But Catherine was a clever woman, who had already had three husbands—Seymour was her fourth—and children. If any one would see through a boy’s disguise as a girl she was the one. It is hard to imagine that Seymour’s wife had not good cause for some form revenge on him of whom Hallam speaks of as a “dangerous and unprincipled man” and of whom Latimer said “he was a man farthest from the fear of God that ever I knew or heard of in England” as it was believed at the time of her death that he had poisoned his wife, the Queen dowager, to make way for a marriage with Elizabeth, with whom according to common belief he was still in love, it would be only natural that a woman of her disposition and with her sense of humour, should revenge herself in a truly wifely way by using for the purpose, without betraying the secret, her private knowledge or belief of the quasi-princess’s real sex. Such would afford an infinite gratification to an ill-used wife jealous of so vain a husband.
We now come to the crux of the whole story—the touchstone of this strange eventful history. Could there have been such a boy as is told of; one answering to the many conditions above shown to be vitally necessary for the carrying out of such a scheme of imposture. The answer to this question is distinctly in the affirmative; there could have been such a boy; had the Duke of Richmond been born fourteen or fifteen years earlier than he was, the difficulties of appearance, intellect, education, and other qualifications need not have presented themselves.
If the question to be asked is: “Was there such a boy?” the answer cannot be so readily given. In the meantime there are some considerations from the study of which—or through which—an answer may, later, be derived.
H. The Solution
The Duke of Richmond
The points which must be settled before we can solve the mystery of the Bisley Boy are:
(1) Was there such an episode regarding the early life of the Princess Elizabeth?
(2) Was there such a boy as was spoken of?
(3) How could such an imposture have been carried out, implying as it did—
(a) A likeness to the Princess so extraordinary as not to have created suspicion in the mind of anyone not already in the plot.
(b) An acquaintance with the circumstances of the life of the Princess sufficiently accurate to ward off incipient suspicion caused by any overlooking or neglect of necessary conditions.
(c) An amount of education and knowledge equal to that held by a child of ten to twelve years of age who had been taught by some of the most learned persons of the time.
(d) A skill in classics and foreign tongues only known amongst high scholars and diplomatists.
(e) An ease of body and a courtliness of manner and bearing utterly foreign to any not bred in the higher circles of social life.
If there could be found a boy answering such conditions—one whose assistance could be had with facility and safety—then the solution is possible, even if not susceptible of the fullest proof. Following the lines of argument hitherto used in this book, let us first consider reasons why such an argument is tenable. I may then perhaps be allowed to launch the theory which has come to me during this investigation.
(a) His Birth and Appearance
A part—and no small part—of the bitterness of Henry VIII in not having a son to succeed him was that, though he had a son, such could not by the existing law succeed him on the throne.
Nearly ten years after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and after a son and other children had been born to them, all of whom had died shortly after birth, Henry had in the manner of mediæval kings—and others—entered on a love affair, the object of his illicit affection being one of the ladies-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, Elizabeth, daughter of John Blount of Knevet, Shropshire.
The story of this love affair is thus given in quaint old English in Grafton’s Chronicle first published in 1569 which covers the period from 1189 to 1558:
“You shall understande, the King in his freshe youth was in the cheynes of love with a faire damosell called Elizabeth Blunt, daughter of Syr John Blunt Knight, which damosell in synging, daunsing, and in all goodly pastimes, excelled all other, by the which goodly pastimes, she wanne the king’s hart: and she againe shewed him such favour that by him she bare a goodly man childe, of beautie like to the father and mother. This child was well brought up lyke a Princes childe.”
(b) His Upbringing and Marriage
This son of an unlawful union—born in 1519 it is said—was called Henry Fitzroy after the custom applicable in such cases to the natural children of kings. Naturally enough his royal father took the greatest interest in this child and did, whilst the latter lived, all in his power to further his interests. A mere list of the honours conferred on him during his short life will afford some clue to the King’s intention of his further advancement, should occasion serve. The shower of favours began in 1525 when the child, as is said, was only six years of age. On the 18th of June of this year he was created Earl of Nottingham and Duke of Richmond and Somerset, with precedence over all dukes except those of the King’s lawful issue. He was also made a Knight of the Garter—of which exalted Order he was raised to the Lieutenancy eight years later. He was also nominated to other high offices: the King’s Lieutenant General for districts north of the Trent; and Keeper of the city and fortress of Carlisle. To these posts were added those of Lord High Admiral of England, Wales, Ireland, Normandy, Gascony and Aquitaine; Warden General of the Marches of Scotland, and Receiver of Middleham and of Sheriff Hutton, Yorkshire. He was also given an income of four thousand pounds sterling per annum. In 1529, being then only ten years of age, he was also made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Constable of Dover Castle and Warden of the Cinque Ports—three of the most important offices of the Nation. A few months before his death in 1536 there was a general understanding that Henry VIII intended to make him King of Ireland and possibly to nominate him as his successor on the throne of England. That some such intention was in Henry’s mind was shown by the Succession Act passed just before the close of the Parliament which was dissolved in 1536. In this Act it is fixed that the Crown is to devolve on the King’s death to the son of Jane Seymour and in default of issue by him, on Mary and Elizabeth in succession in case of lack of issue by the former. In the event of their both dying before the King and without issue he is to appoint by will his successor on the throne.
The various important posts conferred on the young Duke of Richmond were evidently preparations for the highest post of all, which in default of legitimate issue of his own legitimate children he intended to confer on him.
The education which was given to the little Duke is of especial interest and ought in the present connection to be carefully studied. It was under the care of Richard Croke, celebrated for his scholarship; who in the modern branch was assisted by John Palsgrave the author of the earliest English grammar of the French language “Lesclarcissement de la langue Francoyse.” In spite of the opposition of his household the Duke of Richmond devoted his young life to study rather than to arms. Whilst still a young boy he had already read a part of Cæsar, Virgil and Terence, knew a little Greek, and was fairly skilful in music—singing and playing on the virginals. There was much talk in Court circles as to whom he should marry and many ladies of high degree were named. One was a niece of Pope Clement VII; another was a Danish princess; still another a princess of France; also a daughter of Eleanor, dowager Queen of Portugal, a sister of Charles V. This lady was afterwards Queen of France.
Early in 1532 the Duke resided for a while at Hatfield. Then he went to Paris with his friend the Earl of Surrey, son of the Duke of Norfolk. There he remained till September, 1533. On his return to England he married by special dispensation, on 25 November, 1533, Mary Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk by his second marriage and sister of Surrey. Incidentally he is said to have been present at the beheading of Queen Anne (Boleyn), May 19, 1536. He did not long survive the last-named exhibition, for some two months later—22 July, 1536, he died. There was at the time a suspicion that he had been poisoned by Lord Rochford, brother of Queen Anne (Boleyn).
Henry Duke of Richmond and Somerset had no legal issue. As a matter of fact though he was married in 1533, nearly three years before his death, he never lived with his wife. It was said that he was not only young for matrimony, being only seventeen; but was in very bad health. It was intended that after his marriage he should go to Ireland; but on account of the state of his health that journey was postponed—as it turned out, for ever.
A light on this ill-starred marriage is thrown in the quaint words of another chronicler of the time, Charles Wriothesley, who wrote of the time between 1485 and 1559.
“But the said younge duke had never layne by his wife, and so she is maide, wife, and now a widowe; I praie God send her now good fortune.”
In this summarised history certain points are to be noticed:
(1) The Duke of Richmond was like his father (Henry VIII) and his mother who was “fayre.”
(2) A Dispensation was obtained for his marriage to Lady Mary Howard which took place in 1533 but with whom he never cohabited.
There is a side-light here of the hereditary aspect of the case. Both the Duke and Duchess of Richmond were “fayre,” and in the language of the old chroniclers “fayre” means blonde. Wintown for instance speaking of Macbeth’s supposed descent from the Devil says:
“Gottyne he was on ferly wys “Hys Modyr to woddis mad oft repayre “For the delyte of halesum ayre. “Swa, scho past a-pon a day “Tyl a Wod, hyr for to play: “Scho met at cas with a fayr man.”
And Grafton thus speaks under date 7 September 1533 of Elizabeth’s birth: “The Queen was delivered of a fayre Lady.”
Now Anne Boleyn is described as small and lively, a brunette with black hair and beautiful eyes, and yet her daughter is given as red-haired by all the painters.
It is somewhat difficult to make out the true colours of persons. For instance Giovanni Michiel writing to the Venetian Senate in 1557 puts in his description of Elizabeth “She is tall and well formed, with a good skin, although swarthy” but in the same page he says “she prides herself on her father and glories in him; everybody is saying that she also resembles him more than the Queen [Mary] does.” As to the introduction of the word “swarthy” as above; it may have been one of the tricks of Elizabeth to keep the Venetian ambassador from knowing too much or getting any ground for guessing. If so it looks rather like Elizabeth concealing her real identity—which would be an argument in favour of an imposture; if she was the real princess there would be no need for concealment.
It is only common sense to expect, if the paternal element was so strong in Henry as to reproduce in offspring his own colour, that had the Duke of Richmond had any issue especially by a fair wife it too would have inherited something of the family colour. Holbein’s picture of the “Lady of Richmond,” as the Duke’s wife was called, shows her as a fair woman.
These are two points to be here borne in mind; that Henry VIII was probably bald, for in none of his pictures is any hair visible. It would hardly be polite to infer that Elizabeth wore a wig for the same reason. But it is recorded that she always travelled with a stock of them—no less than eighty of various colours.
But there are other indications of such concealment. Why for instance did she object to see doctors? So long as she was free and could control them she did not mind; but whilst she was under duress they were a source of danger. Perhaps it is this which accounts for her taking the Sacrament on 26 August, 1554 when she was practically a prisoner at Woodstock in the keeping of Sir Henry Bedingfield. About the third week in June the Princess asked Sir Henry to be allowed to have a doctor sent to her. He in turn applied to the Council who made answer on the 25th that the Queen’s Oxford physician was ill and Mr. Wendy was absent and the remaining one, Mr. Owen, could not be spared. The latter however recommended two Oxford doctors, Barnes and Walbec, in case she should care to see either of them. On July 4th Sir Henry reported to the Council that Elizabeth in politely declining said: “I am not minded to make any stranger privy to the state of my body, but commit it to God.” Then, when through her submission to the Queen’s religious convictions she had obtained her liberty, she took no more concern in the matter.
The Duchess of Richmond
Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, married twice. His second wife was the lady Elizabeth Stafford, eldest daughter of the Duke of Buckingham, and he had issue by both marriages. In 1533 the only surviving daughter of the second marriage was Mary, who was thus the Lady Mary Howard, sister of the Earl of Surrey. It was this lady with whom the uncompleted marriage of the Duke of Richmond took place. Doubtless they were early friends. In her youth she used to spend the summer at Tendring Hall, Suffolk, and the winter at Hunsdon, Hertfordshire, where was one of Henry’s palaces; in addition Henry was one of the closest companions of her brother, the Earl of Surrey. Lady Richmond’s part in the historical episode before us is hardly direct. It only comes in through two circumstances not unattended with mystery. It is not necessary that the two were correlated; but no student can get away from the idea that there was some connection between them, especially when there is another inference bearing on the subject with reference to the second marriage of the Duchess. This took place after an interval of some years to Gilbert, son of Sir George Talboys of Goloths, Lincolnshire. The name of the second husband is variously spelled in the chronicles as Tailboise or Talebuse. She died in the year before Elizabeth came to the throne. The two things to examine closely with regard to this marriage to the Duke of Richmond were the Dispensation for the marriage (together with the date of it), and its non-fulfilment. The Dispensation was dated 28 November, 1533, but the marriage took place three days earlier. Whether this discrepancy had anything to do with her later marriage to Talboys we can only guess—unless of course more exhaustive search can produce some document, unknown as yet, which may throw light on the subject. It is a matter of no light mystery why a Dispensation was obtained at such a time and by whom it was effected. At this time Henry VIII was engaged in the bitterest struggle of his life, that regarding the supremacy of the Pope, so that it was a direct violation of his policy to have asked for, or even to recognise such a Dispensation in the case of his own son whom he intended to succeed him as King. Before a year had passed he had actually thrown over the Papal authority altogether, and had taken into his own hands the headship of the National Church. What then was behind such a maladroit action? If it had been done as a piece of statecraft—the ostensible showing that there was as yet no direct rupture between the British Nation and the Papacy—it would have lost its efficacy if it might be cited as a Court favour rather than a national right. Moreover, as it was to sanction by then existing canonical law a marriage of Henry’s son with a daughter of the head of the most powerful Catholic House in England, it could not be expected that Rome would not use this in its strife for the continuation of its supremacy. If Henry was directly concerned in the matter, it was bad policy and unlike him to conciliate Catholicism by a yielding on the part of one who would be in the future the Head of the Reformed Church. Altogether it leaves one under the impression that there must have been a more personal cause than any yet spoken of. Something to be covered up, or from which suspicion should be averted. There was already quite enough material for a controversy in case Henry Fitzroy should come to the throne and it might be well to minimise any further risk. But in such case what was there to be covered up or from which suspicion should be averted? Already Richmond held under his father all the threads of government in his own hand. If he ever should need to tighten them it would be done by himself as ruler. There must still be some reason which must be kept secret and of which Henry himself did not and must not know. Beyond this again was the question of the personal ambition of “Bluff King Hal.” It was not sufficient for him that a barren heir should succeed him—even if that heir was his own son. He wanted to found a dynasty, and if he suspected for an instant that after all his plotting and striving—all his titanic efforts to overcome such obstacles as nations and religions—his hopes might fail through lack of issue on his son’s part he would cease to waste his time and efforts on his behalf. It is almost impossible to imagine that the Duke of Richmond had not had some love affairs—if indeed he was only seventeen (of which there is a doubt)—it must be borne in mind that both the Lancastrians and the Yorkists who united in the Tudor stock matured early. On both his father’s and mother’s side Henry Fitzroy was of a pleasure-loving, voluptuous nature, and as the masculine element predominated in his make-up there is not any great stretch of imagination required to be satisfied that there was some young likeness of him toddling or running about. But in a case like his masculine mis-doing does not count; it is only where a woman’s credit is at stake that secrecy is a vital necessity. We must therefore look to the female side to find a cause for any mystery which there may be. So far as a boy of the right age is concerned with a decided likeness to Henry VIII it would not have required much searching about to lay hands on a suitable one.
But here a new trouble would begin. It would be beyond nature to expect that any mother would consent, especially at a moment’s notice, to her child running such a risk as the substitute of the dead Princess Elizabeth was taking, without some kind of assurance or guarantee of his safety. Moreover, if there were other relatives, they would be sure to know, and some of them to make trouble unless their mouths were closed. Practically the only chance of carrying such an enterprise through would be if the substitute were an orphan or in a worse position—one whose very life was an embarrassment to those to whom it should be most dear.
Here opens a field for romantic speculation. Such need not clash with history which is a record of fact. Call it romance if we will; indeed until we have more perfect records we must. If invention is to be called in to the aid of deduction no one can complain if these two methods of exercise of intellect are kept apart and the boundaries between them are duly charted. Any speculation beyond this can be only regarded as belonging to the region of pure fiction.
In one way there is a duty which the reader must not shirk, if only on his own account: not to refuse to accept facts without due consideration. Wildly improbable as the Bisley story is, it is not impossible. Whoever says, offhand, that such a story is untrue on the face of it ought to study the account of a death reported at Colchester in Essex just a hundred years ago. A servant died who had been in the same situation as housemaid and nurse for thirty years. But only after death was the true sex of the apparent woman discovered. It was masculine!
* * * * *
Here I must remind such readers as honour my work with their attention that I am venturing merely to tell a tradition sanctioned by long time, and that I only give as comments historical facts which may be tested by any student. I have invented and shall invent nothing; and only claim the same right which I have in common with every one else—that of forming my own opinion.
Here it is that we may consider certain additions to the original Bisley tradition. How these are connected with the main story is impossible to say after the lapse of centuries; but in all probability there is a basis of ancient belief in all that has been added. The following items cover the additional ground.
When the governess wished to hide the secret hurriedly, she hid the body, intending it to be only temporarily, in the stone coffin which lay in the garden at Overcourt outside the Princess’s window.
Some tens of years ago the bones of a young girl lying amidst rags of fine clothing were found in the stone coffin.
The finder was a churchman—a man of the highest character and a member of a celebrated ecclesiastical family.
The said finder firmly believed in the story of the Bisley Boy.
Before Elizabeth came to the throne all those who knew the secret of the substitution were in some way got rid of or their silence assured.
The name of the substituted youth was Neville; or such was the name of the family with whom he was living at the time.
There are several persons in the neighbourhood of Bisley who accept the general truth of the story even if some of the minor details appear at first glance to be inharmonious. These persons are not of the ordinary class of gossipers, but men and women of light and leading who have fixed places in the great world and in the social life of their own neighbourhood. With some of them the truth of the story is an old belief which makes a tie with any new investigator.
The Unfulfilled Marriage
The remaining point to touch on is the unfulfilled marriage of the Duke of Richmond. This certainly needs some explanation, or else the mystery remains dark as ever.
Here we have two young persons of more than fair presence, and graced with all the endearing qualities that the mind as well as the eye can grasp. We have the assurance of Chronicles regarding Henry Fitzroy; and from Holbein’s picture we can judge for ourselves of the lady’s merits. They are both well-to-do. The lady, one of title, daughter of one of the most prominent Dukes in England, the man then holding many of the most important posts in the State, and with every expectation of wearing in due course the purple of royalty. They both come of families of which other members have been notorious for amatory episodes; voluptuousness is in their blood. They have been old friends—and yet when they marry they at once separate, she going to her own folk and he to Windsor. Seemingly they do not meet again in the two and a half years that elapse before his death. The story about his youth and health preventing cohabitation is all moonshine. The affair points to the likelihood of some ante-matrimonial liaison of which, as yet, we know nothing. Applying the experiences of ordinary life in such cases, we can easily believe that Mary Howard, egged on by her unscrupulous and ambitiously-intriguing brother, was for ulterior purposes either forced or helped into an intrigue with the young Duke. There is no doubt that Surrey was unscrupulous enough for it. A similar design on his part—only infinitely more base—cost him his head. He had tried to induce his sister, Duchess of Richmond, to become mistress of Henry VIII—her own father-in-law!—so that she might have power over him; and it does not seem that there was any wonderful indignation on the part of the lady at the shameful proposal.
We are told that when Sir John Gates and Sir Richard Southwell, the royal Commissioners for examining witnesses in the case of the charge of treason against the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Surrey, arrived at Kenninghall in the early morning and made known their general purposes in coming, the Duchess of Richmond “almost fainted.” But all the same when she knew more exactly what they wanted she promised without any forcing to tell all she knew. As a matter of fact her evidence (with that of Elizabeth Holland, the mistress of the Duke of Norfolk), whilst it helped to get Norfolk off, aided in condemning Surrey. There must have been some other cause for her consternation. She had been bred up in the midst of intrigues, polemical and dynastic as well as of personal ambition, and was well inured to keeping her countenance as well as her head in moments of stress. The cause of her “almost fainting” must have been something which concerned her even more nearly than either father or brother. It could only have been fear for her child or herself—or for both. It is possible that she dreaded discovery of some sort. Omne ignotum pro magnifico. Suspicion has long flexible tentacula, with eyes and ears at the end of them, which can penetrate everywhere and see and hear everything. She knew how to dread suspicion and to fear the consequences which must result from inquiry or investigation of any sort. If she had had a child it must have been kept hidden, and if possible far away—as the unknown Boy was at Bisley. Indeed the Howards had immense family ramifications and several of them had collateral relationships in and about Bisley. There were Nevilles there, and doubtless some of them were poor relations relegated to the far away place where living was cheap and where they might augment their tenuous incomes by taking in even poorer relations than themselves whose rich relatives wished to hide them away. It is only a surmise; but if there had been a case of a child unaccounted for, which any member of so great a family as the Howards wished to keep dark, it would be hard to find a more favourable locality than the little almost inaccessible hamlet in the Cotswolds. If there were such a child, how easy it would all have been. When the Duke was married he was fourteen or perhaps sixteen at most—an age which though over-young for fatherhood in the case of ordinary men seemed to offer to the Plantagenet-York-Lancaster blood no absolute difficulty of taking up such responsibility. As Elizabeth was only born some two months before the Duke’s marriage there was not any time to spare—a fact which would doubtless have been used to his advantage if Henry’s natural son had lived. In all probability Richmond’s marriage was a part of the plot for aggrandisement of the Howards which began with the unscrupulous securing by Surrey of the son of Henry VIII at the cost of his sister’s honour; and ended with the death of Surrey as a traitor—a doom which his father only escaped by the King dying whilst the Act of Attainder was lying ready for his signature. If this reasoning be correct—though the data on which it is founded be meagre and without actual proof—as yet—the risk of Duchess Mary’s child born before her marriage must have been a terrible hazard. On one side perhaps the most powerful sceptre in the world as guerdon; on the other death and ruin of the child on which such hopes were built. No wonder then that Duchess Mary “almost fainted” when in the early dawn the King’s Commissioners conveyed to her the broad object of their coming. No wonder that freed by larger knowledge from the worst apprehension which could be for her, she announced her willingness to conceal nothing that she knew. That promise could not and would not have been made had the whole range of possibilities, which as yet no one suspected, been opened to their investigation. For even beyond the concern which she felt from the arbitrary power of the King and at the remorseless grip of the law, she had reason to doubt her own kin—the nearest of them—in such a struggle as was going on around them when the whole of the Empire, the Kingdom of England, France and Spain, and the Papacy were close to the melting-pot. It would have been but a poor look-out for a youth of a little more than a dozen years of age had fate made him the shuttlecock of such strenuous players who did not hold “fair play” as a primary rule of the game in which they were engaged.
In his Life of Elizabeth, Gregario Leti concludes a panegyric on the Queen’s beauty with the following: “This was accompanied by such inward qualities that those who knew her were accustomed to say that heaven had given her such rare qualities that she was doubtless reserved for some great work in the world.” The Italian historian perhaps “builded better than he knew,” for whether the phrase applies to the one who is supposed to have occupied the throne or one who did so occupy it, it is equally true. The world at that crisis wanted just such an one as Elizabeth. All honour to her whosoever she may have been, boy or girl matters not.
The Wandering Jew
Arthur Orton (Tichborne claimant)
Chapter VIII. Hoaxes, etc.
A. Two London Hoaxes
B. The Cat Hoax
C. The Military Review
D. The Toll-Gate
E. The Marriage Hoax
F. Buried Treasure
G. Dean Swift’s Hoax
H. Hoaxed Burglars
I. Bogus Sausages
J. The Moon Hoax
The Bisley Boy