Henry VIII is believed to have fathered several illegitimate children. They include Catherine and Henry Carey, born to Mary Boleyn, who was Henry’s mistress before he switched his attentions to her sister, Anne. However, the king only acknowledged one bastard offspring: Henry Fitzroy, son of Elizabeth (‘Bessie’) Blount.
His birth, in 1519, occurred at a significant time. Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, then in her mid-thirties, had failed to provide him with a male heir. This seriously destabilised the Tudor dynasty – not to mention the king’s manhood. He was therefore overjoyed to hear that Bessie Blount had borne him a “goodly man child of beauty”. Here, at last, was proof that Henry could father a healthy son.
The king openly celebrated the birth and acknowledged the boy as his own, giving him the surname Fitzroy (‘son of the king’). His chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, was godfather at the christening and superintended the boy’s care thereafter. In 1525 the six-year-old Henry Fitzroy was elected to the Order of the Garter and made Duke of Richmond.
Even though illegitimacy was a serious bar to succession, it was clear to everyone that the young duke was being groomed for kingship. Henry doted on his son, calling him “my worldly jewel”, and Fitzroy remained a contender for the throne until his premature death, reportedly from consumption, in 1536.
Tracy Borman is an author and historian whose books include The Private Lives of the Tudors (2016) and The King’s Witch (2018).
This Q&A was answered in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine.