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.

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Sir Walter Ralegh on war and faith

Gaspard de Coligny

It is a little-known fact about Ralegh that, when he was 14 or so, he went to fight for the Hugenot cause in the French Wars of Religion as part of a small group of West Country men under the leadership of his cousin, Henry Champernowne. Insofar as we might tend to perceive Ralegh as something of a protestant hero in the struggle against imperial Spain, this isn’t terribly surprising – despite his extreme youth. We have a ready 20th-century analogy for such idealism in the form of the international brigades who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

But whatever Ralegh’s motivation in enlisting, the experience taught him a deep and abiding cynicism. Wars fought under the banner of religion were, he concluded, merely the continuation of other struggles for political power.

History doth plainly tell us, that that furious war (which broke out in France) in the reign of Francis II, and which occasioned the most barbarous murders, devastations, and such other calamities, (which are the common products of civil commotions, and by continuing near forty years had reduced France to the last misery,) was begun and carried on by some few great men of ambitious and turbulent spirits, deluding the people with the cloak and mask only of religion, to gain their assistance to what they did more especially aim at. It is plain the admiral Coligny advised the prince of Condé to side with the Huguenots, not only out of love to their persuasion, but to gain a party, and be made thereby the stronger; neither can any man think that the papists, out of the principle of the Christian religion, which enjoins us to be meek and charitable, did in few days’ space cut the throats of near thirty thousand protestants in France, many of whom were men of great fame and quality, but out of fear of their numbers and power: these being removed, they made sure of grasping to themselves all rule and dominion.

I find myself returning to Ralegh’s phrase ‘deluding the people with the cloak and mask only of religion’ when I read about today’s militant religious movements – whether Christian fundamentalists, Jewish settlers or Islamist radicals – or a theocratic state like Iran; and I wonder if it wouldn’t be more a productive political response simply to ignore the religious codes in which they couch their views of the world. They are more or less coherent social groups – some of them transnational – reaching out for dominion. Faith is their uniform; it is not their cause. To the extent we might consider such people our enemies, their religion isn’t the thing we are fighting; it is a distraction from the real battles for power.

And I worry that the same might also be said of those whose faith is placed in liberalism, and particularly in its more muscular expressions. I worry, of course, because I’m probably one of them.

NOTE: If you are interested in my other posts on Ralegh, they are here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Sir Walter Ralegh on Henry VIII

Ralegh waited until Elizabeth was long dead before he committed his thoughts on her father to paper. This brutal analysis of Henry VIII’s moral and political shortcomings comes from the Preface to Ralegh’s History of the World,written during his imprisonment in the Tower of London and published in 1614.

If all the pictures and patterns of a merciless prince were lost in the world, they might all again be painted to the life out of the story of this king. For how many servants did he advance in haste (but for what virtue no man could suspect), and with the change of his fancy ruined again; no man knowing for what offence! To how many others of more desert gave he abundant flowers from whence to gather honey, and in the end of harvest burnt them in the hive! How many wives did he cut off and cast off, as his fancy and affection changed! How many princes of the blood (whereof some of them for age could hardly crawl towards the block), with a world of others of all degrees (of whom our common chronicles have kept the account), did he execute! Yea, in his very deathbed, and when he was at the point to have given his account to God for the abundance of blood already spilt, he imprisoned the Duke of Norfolk the father, and executed the Earl of Surrey the son; the one, whose deservings he knew not how to value, having never omitted anything that concerned his own honour and the king’s service; the other, never having committed anything worthy of his least displeasure: the one exceeding valiant and advised; the other no less valiant than learned, and of excellent hope. But besides the sorrows which he heaped upon the fatherless and widows at home, and besides the vain enterprises abroad, wherein it is thought that he consumed more treasure than all our victorious kings did in their several conquests; what causeless and cruel wars did he make upon his own nephew King James the Fifth! What laws and wills did he devise, to establish this kingdom in his own issues! using his sharpest weapons to cut off and cut down those branches, which sprang from the same root that himself did. And in the end (notwithstanding these his so many irreligious provisions) it pleased God to take away all his own, without increase; though, for themselves in their several kinds, all princes of eminent virtue.

NOTE: If you are interested in my other posts on Ralegh, they are here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Simon Forman fantasises about Elizabeth I

Simon Forman

Simon Forman (1552-1611) was a London-based astrologer and physician with a wide-ranging and popular practice, particularly among the gentry and members of the court. Considered by many to be a quack – the College of Physicians fought a long-running legal battle with him over the nature of his work – his use of magical techniques in no way seems to have dented the enthusiasm of his clientele. Arguably, quite the opposite in fact.

His casebooks, which still survive, are therefore superb sources for studies in the social history of the period, as well as fascinating documents in themselves. It is to Forman that we owe the earliest accounts of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale in performance, for example.

Although he dispensed a wide range of more-or-less mundane practical advice alongside his therapeutic and astrological work, some of his clients evidently sought his help on more dangerous matters. After his death, during the trial that followed the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in 1616, it emerged that Forman had kept a book containing the names of his high-born female clients and the details of their liaisons at court. More worryingly still, it was claimed that Frances Howard had commissioned him to manufacture a potion that would cool the ardour of her then husband, the earl of Essex, and another to secure her the affection of Robert Carr, earl of Somerset. Howard’s marriage to the Earl of Essex had been annulled by James I three years earlier on the grounds that Essex was impotent – or rather, was incapable of having sex with his wife, while being perfectly adequate to the task with anyone else – which had cleared the way for her betrothal to Somerset. Not surprisingly, given the peculiar circumstances of the annulment, there had been talk of witchcraft, even then.
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State terror in Elizabethan Ireland

Sir Humphrey Gilbert

Returning from court to military service in Ireland in early 1581, Walter Ralegh wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham boasting of his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s reputation in the province. ‘I never heard nor read of any man more feared than he is among the Irish nation,’ he said.

This might seem like characteristic hyperbole, arising more from familial loyalty than anything more substantive. Gilbert’s own command in Ireland dated to the autumn of 1569, when he was charged with suppressing a widespread revolt with a mere 500 men behind him. Thus it was more than a decade earlier; and the record of the Elizabethans in Ireland had hardly been unblemished in the intervening years. In July 1575, for instance, the Earl of Essex had led his men in a hunt for the women and children of the M’Donnell clan. Running them to ground at the clan’s stronghold on Rathlin Island, off the northern coast of Antrim, his men butchered some four hundred of them. A few escaped to the caves on the shore, but Essex’s men tracked them down and smoked them out, cutting them down there on the rocks and stones as they fled their sanctuary.

What, then, could possibly account for Ralegh’s claim? The answer can be found in the report of Gilbert’s campaign written by Thomas Churchyard, an old soldier-poet loyal to both Gilbert and – later – to Ralegh. Published in 1579 as part of a wider treatise named A Generall Rehearsall of Warres, Churchyard considered what he wrote to be entirely favourable to Gilbert and his reputation.
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An exchange of poems between Sir Walter Ralegh and Elizabeth I

This exchange probably dates from 1587, around the time Ralegh’s influence of power had reached its high-water mark. I don’t propose to blog at length about the poems – I have said what I have to say about them in The Favourite and, for the most part, they speak for themselves.

I would say, though, that it’s evident – beneath the histrionic, self-pitying rhetoric – that Ralegh can sense the tide of favour turning against him; and I’m not sure we should automatically dismiss as fraudulent the expressions of pain such a rejection might engender. For a man in his circumstances, the cooling of royal warmth towards him could presage a wider kind of abandonment and ruin too. As for Elizabeth’s poem, I think it reveals something we don’t often see in portrayals of her: a gentle affection and an unmistakeable kindness and solicitude. It also shows, of course, how perceptive her judgement of those around her was.
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The Favourite paperback edition

Just a brief post to announce that Constable will be publishing the paperback edition of The Favourite, my book on Ralegh and Elizabeth I, on 21 June – just in time for the holiday season! There will be some additional content in the new edition, but more on that nearer the time.

For those who can’t wait that long, the hardback is still available – as of course is the e-book!