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January 30, 2012 / Mathew Lyons

Henry VIII and his bastard children

I was asked on Twitter the other day (by the estimable @rocio_carvajalc) how many illegitimate children Henry VIII had. It’s an interesting question and, for obvious reasons, it’s also one to which the answer isn’t altogether clear. However, I am going to write about three possible candidates. One was certainly Henry’s child; another more likely than not; and the third rumoured but, on balance, unlikely. If anyone has any other candidates, please do let me know!

Henry Fitzroy

The only bastard child acknowledged by Henry was the son named Henry Fitzroy – the given name being something of a clue – who was born to Henry’s then mistress, Elizabeth Blount in the summer of 1519. The newborn boy was, therefore, three years younger than Henry’s legitimate daughter, Mary, born in February 1516. Mary’s mother, Katherine of Aragon, had lost two baby sons by that time: one born on New Year’s Day 1511 and christened Henry, who died on February 22 the same year; and another stillborn in the closing weeks of 1514.

Henry Fitzroy (1519–1536)

Henry still very much hoped to father a legitimate son, and the arrival of a healthy son to Elizabeth Blount was welcome evidence that he was capable of doing so; but there was no question of his not acknowledging paternity. Cardinal Wolsey was made the boy’s godfather, and by the time Henry Fitzroy was six, the young boy had been elected knight of the garter and awarded the earldom of Nottingham. More significantly, he had been made the premier nobleman in the country, with the dukedoms of Richmond and Somerset, and – for good measure – he had also become lord admiral of England.

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that despite the manifest recognition of his status, he was not made Prince of Wales, an honour that had been accorded his brief-lived namesake in 1511.

This paternal ambivalence continued throughout Fitzroy’s life, and it is interesting to speculate what might have happened had he lived. There had certainly been no let up in the favour which Henry showed him – something that can in no way be said about his poor legitimate sister Mary – and Wolsey’s fall in 1529 brought him under the protection of the Howard family. Fitzroy was particularly close to the poet Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, who later eulogised their friendship, and he married Mary, a younger daughter of the duke of Norfolk, in 1533. The extent to which Fitzroy was also an official surrogate for the king can be seen – among many other things – in the fact that he attended the execution of Anne Boleyn on 19 May 1536.

A little over two months later, however, Fitzroy himself was dead, aged just 17. He had been taken ill in early July, and died on the 23rd at St James’ Palace. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, given his evident and unarguably public status as a royal child, his death was dealt with in some secrecy. His body was taken from London in a plain wooden coffin, itself obscured from sight with straw, and he was buried at Thetford Priory. After the Dissolution it was moved to its current resting place in the parish church at Framlingham, among the other tombs of the Howard dynasty.

It surprises me that his life has not attracted more attention; the only full length study I know of is Beverley Murphy’s The Bastard Prince, which I believe is adapted from her PhD thesis, and which is well worth seeking out. (Much of the above comes from Murphy’s DNB entry for Fitzroy.)

It is certainly a fascinating exercise in counterfactual history to wonder what might have happened if Fitzroy had lived; and there were certainly many who expected him to become the legitimate heir to the throne. If one objects that his bastardy might have made that politically difficult, it’s worth pointing out that both of Henry’s legitimate daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, also experienced periods in their lives when their father’s marital problems rendered them illegitimate: Mary when Henry’s marriage to Katherine was nullified, and Elizabeth following the execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn. Indeed, for many years to come there those who considered Elizabeth to be, in the words of the Venetian ambassador to Mary’s court, ‘the illegitimate child of a criminal who was punished as a public strumpet’.

UPDATE: I’ve just noticed that Gillian Jack has an excellent post about Henry Fitzroy on her fascinating blog.

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10 Comments

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  1. susie / Jan 30 2012 2:53 am

    Interesting! you addressed what was my first thought when I saw the opening question–both Elizabeth and Mary were considered illegitimate at different points. Such a complex genealogy!

  2. Giuseppe Longo / Jan 30 2012 2:09 pm

    Great post, looking forward to the others. btw, surely a clue to Henry Fitzroy’s paternity lies not just in the given name but also the surname: “Fitz” meaning “son (of)” and “roy” meaning king. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitzroy_(disambiguation)

    As for his death, it makes me wonder… I mean, I know infant and youth mortality was higher in those times, but I wonder how the mortality rate of children of Henry VIII (specifically) and royalty in general compare to average mortality rates of the times. Were royal offspring dying at a higher rate? Were they being bumped off for political reasons?

    • Mathew Lyons / Jan 30 2012 2:45 pm

      Hi Giuseppe, thanks very much for taking the time to comment – and for your kind words too!
      Yes, you’re quite right. I was thinking of the Fitzroy part of his name, rather than the forename. My apologies for not making that clear.
      I think, looking at the Tudor bloodline, there may well have been some kind of genetic weaknesses/flaws. After all, Henry VIII’s older brother Arthur, Henry Fitzroy and Edward VI all died exceptionally young, and, as we all know, Henry’s first wife Katherine suffered numerous miscarriages and stillbirths. Mary I, meanwhile, was never able to produce an heir and Elizabeth, despite the salacious gossip, never tried. (As you may know, there were rumours at the time that she was incapable of doing so.)
      They were, as a family, either remarkably unlucky, or there were other problems inherent in their inheritance.

  3. Claudia Funder / Feb 2 2012 10:44 am

    Hi Mathew. I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I’ve just finished reading Alison Weir’s 2011 Bio on Mary Boylen where she poses that Mary’s daughter Katherine Carey could well be an illegitimate child of Henry’s. I’ve not taken much notice of the rumours of Katherine and Henry Carey’s father being Henry VIII, but Alison Weir outlines a very detailed argument. I’ve also recently been enjoying “Elizabeth I and the Culture of Writing”. I’m sure there is much research yet to be done on Henry Fitzroy yet. Had a great lute lesson today and am re-inspired for the year. Now to find some lute playing in London when I’m there in July! See you on Twitter.

  4. Joan / Feb 6 2012 2:48 pm

    In Spain (Castile) & Portugal illegitimate children succeeded, too, when the main line was without heirs, while both a King of Scots & a Prince of Wales in medieval times married an illegitimate daughter of an English King. It’s possible Fitzroy would have succeeded.

  5. Janinwonderland / May 27 2013 5:45 pm

    Hi! I’m an Anglophile from Louisiana (USA) and appreciate your article for its information as well as its readability.

  6. Joanne / Jul 3 2013 11:37 pm

    Interestingly, Princess Diana is a descendent of Katherine Carey. So if she is indeed a daughter of Henry VIII (as is likely) William would be the first descendent of Henry VIII on the throne since Elizabeth!

  7. Sheila Harris/White / Oct 31 2013 8:40 pm

    I have always intrigued with Tudor history and was delighted to find when doing my Husbands Family tree that Sir John Perrot was his 7th great grandfather.

  8. Anna / Jun 20 2014 11:57 pm

    King Henry VIII had a secret daughter who should have taken the throne before Elizabeth I, new research has revealed.

    Elizabeth Tailboys was the Tudor monarch’s illegitimate lovechild who would have changed the course of English history had the King acknowledged her as his at the time.

    By rights she should have taken the throne on the death of Queen Mary in 1558, making her the true Elizabeth I and not Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn.

Trackbacks

  1. Henry Fitzroy, único hijo natural reconocido de Enrique VIII | curiosidadesdelahistoriablog

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