5 ways in which Henry VIII’s “bastard son” rocked the Tudor court

Five centuries ago this summer, Henry VIII got the thing he craved most: a son. But the baby boy was illegitimate – and that, says Mathew Lyons, had serious ramifications for king and country

Beloved son: Henry Fitzroy shown in a c1534 miniature. Henry VIII called his illegitimate son his "worldly jewel" and showered him with titles, much to Catherine of Aragon's displeasure. (Photo by Alamy)

He hoovered up England’s titles

On 18 June 1525, a six-year-old boy made a dazzling entrance onto England’s public stage. In a ceremony at London’s grand Bridewell Palace, the boy was made Earl of Nottingham and then Duke of both Richmond and Somerset. The “right high and noble prince”, as the youngster was now styled, had become the highest ranking member of the English nobility.

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The boy’s name was Henry Fitzroy and the doting father who had bestowed the titles upon him was none other than King Henry VIII. This seems to have been a proud moment for both monarch and offspring. But there was a problem: Fitzroy was illegitimate – and that raised all kinds of awkward questions for the succession and the king’s relationship with his wife.

Not that this appears to have troubled Henry VIII in June 1525. Legitimate or not, a child of the king was a useful commodity. And so Henry VIII charged his chief minister, Thomas Wolsey, with his son’s upbringing. More titles were soon heaped on Fitzroy. His domestic appointments included heading the council of the north, lord admiral of England and lord lieutenant of Ireland. There were rumours that he might be made king of Ireland. Still a child, his duties were largely ceremonial; but they signified the king’s personal interest.

Internationally, Fitzroy was a useful bargaining counter on the marriage market. Wolsey promoted him as a possible husband for, among others, both Catherine de Medici and the Infanta Maria of Portugal, niece of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

1

His father loved him too much

Henry Fitzroy was born in 1519 – almost certainly in June – at the 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 a maid of honour for Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, on 25 March 1512. She soon developed a reputation for her skill in court entertainments.

We know that Henry VIII danced with Elizabeth at the new year revels in 1514, but there is no evidence of any affair between the two of them until 1518, nor of one after Fitzroy’s birth. For all that, there never seems to have been any doubt about Fitzroy’s paternity 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 an emotional truth: Henry doted on the boy. He “loved him like his own soul”, the Venetian ambassador reported. As the king himself put it, Fitzroy was “my worldly jewel”.

This love was all well and good, but there were other members of the royal family to consider too…

2

He was a walking rebuke to Catherine of Aragon

Henry 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 the king could father a healthy son. Fitzroy was a kind of walking rebuke to Catherine of Aragon, who by 1519 had been pregnant five times, and had only the Princess Mary, born in 1516, to show for it.

What Catherine thought of Fitzroy’s birth isn’t recorded, but she was publicly unhappy about his elevation in 1525. The Venetian ambassador reported that “the queen resents the earldom and dukedom conferred on the king’s natural son and remains dissatisfied”. Henry blamed three of Catherine’s Spanish ladies-in-waiting for encouraging her and dismissed them from court. Catherine, it was said, “was obliged to submit and to have patience”.

Fitzroy’s relations with Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, were no less testy. In 1531, she gave him a bad-tempered horse – “very ill to ride, and of worse condition” – which he had to regift immediately. Anne may also have been responsible for arranging the 14-year-old Fitzroy’s marriage to her cousin, Mary Howard, in 1533, which removed any chance he had to develop an international power base.

After Anne’s arrest, the king told Fitzroy that he “ought to thank God for having escaped that woman, who had planned [his] death by poison”.

3

He was fuel on the flames of a succession crisis

Was Henry VIII grooming Fitzroy for the succession? Many contemporaries appeared to have believed so.

Henry never legitimised his son, but that didn’t rule out Fitzroy entirely: under the June 1536 Act of Succession, both Mary and Elizabeth were illegitimate too. At a meeting of the Privy Council that month, the Earl of Sussex declared that Fitzroy would make a better choice of monarch than Mary. “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. The king, who was present, did not disagree.

Foreign observers were confident that Fitzroy was destined for the throne. The imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote to Charles V that Henry had “certainly intended to make [Fitzroy] his successor”. Another ambassador, Dr Ortiz, agreed, observing that “the king’s determination was that the succession should go to his bastard son”. Is this true? Tragically, Fitzroy was dead before the king’s intentions were put to the test.

4

His death tipped the king into an emotional crisis

Henry Fitzroy had always enjoyed robust health, but suddenly at the beginning of July 1536 there were reports that he was seriously ill. He was “in a state of rapid consumption” – the same illness that would kill his half-brother, Edward VI, 17 years later. Henry’s last public engagement was on 8 June at the opening of parliament. A month later, on 23 July, he died at St James’s Palace. He was 17.

How did Henry VIII feel about the loss of his only son? We don’t know, but the arrangements for his funeral are sufficiently unusual to suggest a degree of emotional confusion, and a clear wish to avoid acknowledging the death in public.

On 3 August, Eustace Chapuys recorded that Fitzroy, “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”. The king’s son was buried, with little pomp, in Thetford Priory. Few people attended.

The arrangements were made by the Duke of Norfolk at the command of the king. It was a command Henry seems to have regretted almost immediately. By 5 August, Norfolk was writing anxiously to Wolsey’s successor as chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, having heard that “the king was displeased with me because my lord of Richmond was not buried honourably… I trust the king will not blame me undeservedly. It is further written to me that a bruit [rumour] doth run that I should be in the Tower of London.”

It was a strange, quiet end for a man who many thought might one day be king.

Mathew Lyons is a writer and historian. His books include The Favourite: Ralegh and His Queen (Constable, 2011).

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This article was first published in the August 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine