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!
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 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.