Henry Fitzroy was born in the summer of 1519 – almost certainly in June – at the small Augustinian Priory of St Laurence at Blackmore in Essex.
His mother was Elizabeth Blount, herself not yet 20, who came from minor Shropshire gentry. Elizabeth had entered service as one of Catherine of Aragon’s maids of honour on 25 March 1512 and developed a reputation for her skill in court entertainments: “in singing, dancing and in all goodly pastimes [she] exceeded all other, by which goodly pastimes, she won the king’s heart”, reports Hall’s Chronicle.
Henry VIII danced with her at the new year revels in 1514, but there is no evidence of any affair between the two of them until 1518. Fitzroy’s sole biographer, Beverley A Murphy, believes he was conceived during Catherine’s ill-fated pregnancy of 1518.
After Fitzroy’s birth, Elizabeth Blount never returned to court. Within three months she was married to Gilbert Tailboys, a ward of the king, and received a personal grant of £200 a year in property from Henry, the first in a series of grants and gifts from him that would stretch over some 20 years.
Illegitimacy and status
There never seems to have been any doubt about Fitzroy’s paternity – it’s there in the name, after all – or about Henry’s feelings for him. Wolsey’s description of Fitzroy in a letter to Henry as “Your entirely beloved son” may be formulaic, but it seems to embody a very real emotional truth: Henry doted on the boy. Henry “loved him like his own soul”, the Venetian ambassador reported. Fitzroy was “my worldly jewel”, Henry said.
On 7 June 1525, Fitzroy was elected knight of the garter. A few days later, on 18 June, in a ceremony at Bridewell Palace, the king made him earl of Nottingham, and then duke of both Richmond and Somerset, doubling the number of dukedoms in England. The “right high and noble prince”, as Fitroy was now styled, had become the highest ranking member of the English nobility. To give him an independent income befitting that status, Henry granted Fitzroy lands worth some £4,845 a year. A month later, on 16 July, Fitzroy was appointed lord admiral of England.
It is probably no coincidence that the man Henry VIII charged with his son’s upbringing was also his chief minister: Thomas Wolsey. Legitimate or not, a child of the king was a useful commodity. Fitzroy’s domestic appointments including heading the council of the north from 1525 to 1529 followed by two years as lord lieutenant of Ireland. Still a child, his duties were largely ceremonial; but he signified the king’s personal interest and commitment to these distant parts of his realm. There were even rumours that he might be made king of Ireland.
And internationally, Fitzroy was certainly a useful bargaining counter on the marriage market. Wolsey promoted him as a possible husband for both Catherine de Medici and the Infanta Maria of Portugal, niece of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
Fitzroy and Henry’s marriages
Fitzroy grew up to be, as one contemporary said, “a most handsome, urbane, and learned young gentleman, very dear to the king on account of his figure, discretion, and good manners”.
He was also living proof that Henry could do what he had failed to do with Catherine of Aragon: father a healthy son. Perhaps his very existence sharpened Henry’s sense that God was displeased with him for marrying his brother’s widow.
Certainly, Fitzroy was a kind of walking rebuke to the queen, who by 1519 had suffered through five pregnancies but produced just one healthy child, the Princess Mary, born in 1516. One child had miscarried; two were stillborn; another, a boy, lived just 53 days.
What she thought of Fitzroy’s birth isn’t recorded, but she was publicly unhappy about his elevation in 1525. The Venetian Lorenzo Orio reported that “the queen resents the earldom and dukedom conferred on the king’s natural son and remains dissatisfied”. Henry blamed three of her Spanish ladies-in-waiting and dismissed them from court. Catherine, it was said, “was obliged to submit and to have patience”.
Fitzroy’s relations with Anne Boleyn were, if anything, more testy. In 1531, she gave him a bad-tempered horse – “very ill to ride, and of worse condition” – which he regifted almost immediately.
She may also have been responsible for arranging Fitzroy’s marriage to her cousin, Mary Howard, younger daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, which removed any chance he had of developing an international power base.
And things may have deteriorated further between them: on the day of her arrest, Henry told Fitzroy that he “ought to thank God for having escaped from the hands of that woman, who had planned [his] death by poison”.
Contender for the throne
Fitzroy’s double dukedom and other rewards in 1526 led many to believe that Henry was about to legitimise him; the Venetian ambassador got so carried away he claimed it had already happened.
Henry never did that, but the June 1536 Act of Succession confirmed both Mary and Elizabeth to be illegitimate, and that led the earl of Sussex, for one, to argue Fitzroy’s claim in the Privy Council the same month: “as the princess was a bastard, as well as the duke of Richmond, it would be right to prefer the male to the female,” he said. Henry, who was present, did not disagree.
Foreign observers were certain: the imperial ambassador wrote to Charles V that Henry had “certainly intended to make [Fitzroy] his successor” and planned to declare him so by act of Parliament. A Spanish diplomat heard the same gossip: “the King’s determination was that the succession should go to his bastard son”, he wrote
The last illegitimate king of England had been William the Conqueror, but there was at least one contemporary example in Alessandro, the son of Lorenzo de Medici and a maidservant, who ruled the city-state of Florence.
How did he meet his end?
Fitzroy’s last public engagement was the execution of Anne Boleyn on 19 May 1536, where he represented the king.
He had always enjoyed robust health, but suddenly at the beginning of July there were reports that he was seriously ill, “in a state of rapid consumption” – the same illness that would kill his half-brother, Edward VI. A few weeks later, at St James’ Palace on 23rd July, he was dead.
How did Henry feel about the loss of his only son? We don’t know, but the arrangements for his funeral are sufficiently strange to suggest a degree of emotional confusion, and a clear wish to hide from public acknowledgement of the death.
On 3 August, Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, recorded: “the duke of Richmond, whom the king had certainly intended to succeed to the crown, after being dead eight days, has been secretly carried in a wagon, covered with straw, without any company except two persons clothed in green, who followed at a distance, into Norfolk”. He was buried, with little pomp, in Thetford Priory; few people attended.
The arrangements were made by the Duke of Norfolk, Fitzroy’s father in law, but at the command of the king. It was a command Henry seems to have regretted almost immediately: on 5 August, Norfolk was writing anxiously to Cromwell, having heard that “that the king was displeased with me because my lord of Richmond was not buried honourably [and that] I should be in the Tower of London… I trust the King will not blame me undeservedly”.
It was a strange, quiet end for a man who many contemporaries thought might one day be king.
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of BBC History.
The image is Lucas Horenbout’s miniature of Henry Fitzroy, the only known portrait of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son