Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn but while they were still married, Henry’s eye caught the fancy of another woman, Jane Seymour, which left him in a bit of a pickle.
Could the king get another divorce so soon after divorcing Catherine of Aragon a mere three years earlier and would the king’s subjects be sympathetic to another divorce? Probably not. Considering that during the first divorce, an entire nation was dragged, kicking and screaming, into a new religion, the pope excommunicated the king, and quite a few people lost their heads in the process.
So, what to do, what to do?
Well, if you have God’s servants on your side in the form of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, then divorce is easy. Spread a rumour that the queen is having an affair. And not just with one man. Throw in as many unsuspecting men as possible to give the story credibility and for good measure, add in her brother (who is one of the king’s best mates) into the pot and stir. This scandal would be fodder for the superstitious masses as it would explain why the last baby born to Anne was stillborn. Everybody would agree that it was God’s punishment for an incestuous relationship with her brother and be thankful that their king is rid of the evil Protestant And as none of the spineless court sycophants wanted to displease the king, they all went along with the cockamamie story and Anne lost her head in May 1536, along with the alleged paramours. All the while the merry wedding bells were chiming for Henry and his new wife, Jane Seymour
In 1537, Elizabeth was declared illegitimate and officially removed from the line of succession, and to add insult to injury, she was demoted from Princess to Lady. From that moment on, Elizabeth had little contact with her father when dispatched to Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, where she stayed for the next couple of years in a state of financial flux. Her household received a pittance, and her governess had to repeatedly write to the king requesting that clothing and comforts be provided, thus reducing Elizabeth’s status even further to that of a beggar.
Elizabeth was briefly invited back to court when Henry married the vivacious 19-year old Catherine Howard, cousin to Anne Boleyn and lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves, who the king married and promptly divorced after Jane Seymour died.
Henry was 30 years older than Catherine, so they probably did not have much to talk about outside the bedroom. Catherine, being closer in age to Elizabeth, invited her to stay at the palace on occasion, and went out of her way to make her feel welcome in her father’s house. However, this nurturing relationship didn’t last. When Elizabeth was eight, Catherine was executed, along with her lover, and within six months, Henry married the twice-divorced but very wealthy, Katherine Parr
Due to outbreaks of the sweating sickness and the plague in England during the summer and winter of 1543, Elizabeth was shuffled around from one royal residence to another when finally she ended up at Over Court House with her new governess, Lady Kat Ashley and purse holder, Thomas Parry. Both these “sicknesses” are known to kill within hours, so most people evacuated the city for isolated areas in the countryside during these outbreaks
[On a side note: Sudor Anglicus (sweating sickness) may have been an early version of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome. Headache over breakfast, shortness of breath by lunch, bedridden by dinner and dead at midnight. (COVID-19 with the same symptoms takes a couple of days)]
Over Court was one of the royal hunting lodges in Bisley, Gloucestershire, and it was during Elizabeth’s extended stay there that a rumour started which would pique the curiosity of conspiracy theorists across the world.
One perfectly ordinary day, Elizabeth suddenly took a turn for the worst and died.
One theory abounds that she was struck down with the Sweating Sickness or the Plague. Problem with this theory is that nobody else in the house died during this time of either disease.
Another theory is that she had an accident (from a fall or bump), haemorrhaged and died. Very probable.
A third theory (unheard of until now) implies that she was murdered. Either by somebody with royal connections, or perhaps even by a Catholic fanatic. However, this cannot be considered a possibility unless the whole story is told.
Now Kat Ashley and Thomas Parry are in a conundrum regarding the dead Elizabeth, and as luck would have it, they receive news that Henry is on his way to Bisley. The king and his men are passing through Gloucestershire from one skirmish to another, and feeling melancholic, as he has not seen Elizabeth for quite some time, wants to pop in for a cup of tea and rest his weary bones.
Everybody at Over Court is in a flat spin as there was not a soul alive in England who did not fear the wrath of Henry. He might not have loved his daughter as he should have, but if anything untoward had happened to her, heads would roll. There is a dead princess and a very volatile king arriving in a couple of days, so a dastardly plan was hatched, as after all, desperate times call for desperate measures.
So, while Elizabeth was hastily inurned on the grounds of Over Court, the carers, and whomever they took into their confidence, started a frantic search in the surrounding areas for a look-alike who could pose as Elizabeth for the day. Time was running out, and as they were about to give up in defeat, they recalled that there was actually a dead-ringer for the princess living in the village.
However, there was a slight problem. This doppelgänger, slender with red hair and fair skin was a boy.
But there was nothing to do except scrub him down and dress him up.
Would they be able to carry this off? Surely somebody would notice, either the king or somebody from the court? Well…, maybe not.
The king had no relationship with her to speak off. After her mother’s execution in 1536 when Elizabeth was three, she was sent away to live at Hatfield, for approximately six years, alone and excluded from most royal engagements. There are no portraits commissioned of her during this time as she was no longer was in line for the throne and therefore, of no real interest to the king. She was so insignificant to historians of the time that her stay at Hatfield remains almost undocumented. When invited to visit the court by Catherine Howard, it was only for very brief periods, and it was the same when Katherine Parr arrived. Between the marriage to Howard and Parr, Henry was still trying to sort out the unrest with Scotland and had officially declared war with France. And the fleeting moments when he was at home, he was bedridden due to the festering ulcers in his legs caused by a jousting accident and aggravated by his obesity. So, it is doubtful whether he spent evenings playing Pinochle with Elizabeth. And lastly, from the time she was sent away from the court in 1543, until this unexpected visit, Henry had not seen her for more than a year.
There is a letter attesting to this, dated 31 July 1544, where Elizabeth writes to Katherine Parr, “… Fortune, envious of all good, she who revolves things human, has deprived me for a whole year of your most illustrious presence, and still not being content with that, has robbed me once again of the same good – which would be intolerable to me if I did not think to enjoy it soon…”
So, Henry could be forgiven for not recognising Elizabeth.
Kat Ashley and Thomas Parry feverishly spent the next couple of days preparing the boy for his role. They only had one opportunity to pull the wool over Henry’s eyes, and if they could get through this one visit, they would be safe. Once Henry had left, everybody could sit down and figure out how to deal with the calamity of Elizabeth’s death, and hopefully, in the process avoid being introduced to the executioner’s axe.
However, their well-laid plans went wasted. Henry, so enchanted by the young Elizabeth, impulsively decides that he wants to take her back to London and without further ado, Elizabeth is whisked away.
So it is through this series of unfortunate events, that the story of the “Boy from Bisley” is born. The redheaded kid who pretended to be Elizabeth for a day, became Elizabeth for a lifetime.
End of part 1
PS. Made an interesting discovery in “A History of Epidemics in Britain” that Henry issued a Plague Order in 1543, stating the following:
“… That no person who was able to live by himself, and should be afflicted with the plague, should go abroad or into any company for one month after his sickness, and that all others who could not live without their daily labour should as much as in them lay refrain from going abroad, and should for forty days after [illegible] …”
If you survived COVID-19, then you will know that the illegible words would mean to stay at home. Doubtful that words like quarantine or self-isolate were used in the 1540’s. This was written 500 years ago – in England – and you can bet your bottom dollar that there were no self-righteous hoi polloi storming the Tower of London claiming that their rights were being violated
The Plague Order continues with some really good advice
“…and [any person infected with or recovered the from sickness] should continually carry a white rod in their hand, two foot long, for 40 days”
If this had been implemented early enough in 2020, perhaps most of us might have been able to keep our jobs, save the world economy from tanking and not beaten each other up for the last roll of toilet paper.