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American author Steve Berry tackles the legend of the Bisley Boy

By Weekend  |  Posted: August 30, 2013

Elizabeth Cowen, owner of Overcourt

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She's the monarch who famously claimed to have “the body of a weak, feeble woman but the heart and stomach of a king”; the Virgin Queen who never married and would not allow doctors to examine her.

Rumours have long hinted that the last of the Tudors was, in fact, a man. Indeed, generations of people in Bisley, near Stroud, have gone as far to assert that not only was there more to Elizabeth than met the eye, but that the person purporting to be the daughter of King Henry VIII was actually a male child from their village.

The legend of the ‘Bisley Boy’ has featured in several books over the years, including Famous Imposters, published in 1910 by the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker.

Now American writer Steve Berry has dusted off the story and placed it at the heart of his latest fast-paced, Dan Brown-esque novel, The King’s Deception.

Steve, who depicts the legend as an historical incident that ‘The Establishment’ wants to keep buried, says he is convinced there is much truth to the tradition of the Bisley Boy.

“How else can we explain the strange idiosyncrasies of Elizabeth?” he says.

“All her life she wore wigs, heavy face paint, and clothes that did not flatter her body. She refused to allow doctors to examine her and left orders that, after her death, her body should not be viewed nor autopsied. Her number one duty as queen was to have an heir, yet she refused to marry, refused to birth a child, and proclaimed herself the Virgin Queen.

“Then, when she dies, she’s buried in the same grave as her sister, Mary, so their bones might mingle together, which is stated on the tomb. All of that adds up to a lot of questions. Every legend comes with truth. This one is no exception.”

Nobody can pinpoint when talk of the Bisley Boy first emerged, although the tradition can certainly be traced back as far as the discovery of a stone coffin containing the remains of a young girl said to have been dressed in fragments of fine Tudor-style clothing in the grounds of Overcourt, a large manor house in the village, sometime during the early 1800s.

This historic property had at various times belonged to the wives of King Henry VIII and the Crown and the young Princess Elizabeth was known to have stayed there, all of which added credence to the claim that the bones belonged to none other than the daughter of the infamous sovereign and Anne Boleyn.

In Famous Imposters, Bram Stoker describes how Princess Elizabeth was sent with her governess to Bisley, “where the strong sweet air of the Cotswold Hills would brace her up.”

If the Bisley Boy tradition is to be believed, the young princess developed a fever and died shortly before Henry VIII was due to visit.

Fearing for their heads, Elizabeth’s governess Lady Kate Ashley and controller of her household Sir Thomas Parry substituted a boy who looked very much like the dead child.

Tangible links to the story remain at Overcourt to this day, including the room in which the young princess stayed, which was forever afterwards known as the Queen Elizabeth Bedroom, and, lying in the garden, the actual stone coffin in which the remains were found.

For the owners of the house John and Elizabeth Cowen, the legend of the Bisley Boy has long been a source of great debate, attracting correspondence from the likes of film makers and authors.

“The legend is no secret, it comes and it goes,” says Elizabeth, who has no plans to open Overcourt to the public.

“Historians have told us that there was a house on this site in Saxon times and the house that’s here today has 14th century timbers.

“There are a lot of stories that build up within a house that has been around for a long time.”

John’s family purchased Overcourt as a family home more than 50 years ago and over the years he and Elizabeth have heard many theories as to the veracity, or otherwise, of the tradition.

“It’s a fact that Princess Elizabeth lived here and in those days it was more possible to have a cover up,” says Elizabeth, a barrister.

“Now we have a far more open society and we don’t live in fear of having our heads chopped off.

“On the other hand, Mary A Rudd, who wrote the book Historical Records of Bisley, described the legend as a ‘fable’ and said it was a fiction invented by the vicar, Canon Thomas Keble, and others purely for their own amusement.”

Elizabeth prefers to keep an open mind as to the truth or otherwise of the legend of the Bisley Boy.

“I think we cannot write it off; I wouldn’t like to say one way or the other,” she says. “Looking at the history at that time, Henry VIII broke with Rome, which was a truly traumatic thing to do, because he felt so strongly about having a legitimate male heir.

“After he went to such extreme lengths, it seems extraordinary that Queen Elizabeth I never made any attempt to carry on the Tudor dynasty, even though she knew she was the last one.

“In addition, it’s surprising that in her will, she gave the throne to the son of her arch enemy Mary Queen of Scots. To me it seems very inconsistent really.”

For Steve Berry, the only way that the legend of the Bisley Boy can be proved or disproved is to carry out DNA tests on the bones of Mary and Elizabeth.

“Opening the tomb could lay to rest a lot of the doubt,” he says. “It’s one of the few royal tombs that have never been breached. For 400 years it has remained sealed. Inside will be the bones of Mary, but will they be accompanied by a 70-year-old female or male skeleton, or perhaps a thirteen-year-old girl’s bones are there? Why not open it? Nearly every other royal grave has been breached, yet this one has remained inviolate. Why?”

The King’s Deception, by Steve Berry, is published in paperback by Hodder and Stoughton, priced £12.99.

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