The Children of Henry VIII

Anna Whitelock considers a new look at Henry VIII's children, and how his marital troubles shaped their lives

9780192840905-dfc155a

Reviewed by: Anna Whitelock
Author: John Guy
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £16.99

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Henry VIII was a king infamous above all else for his desire for a male heir. The story of Henry’s marital difficulties is well known – as are the children of this most dysfunctional family, who have been the focus of countless individual studies. However, they have not been considered together as often as might be expected. While Guy does not offer much that is significantly new in terms of the detail of the lives of Mary, Edward, Elizabeth and Henry Fitzroy – his first-born son and the illegitimate offspring of his affair with Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Blount – it is a useful enterprise to bring the king’s children together in one accessible volume. 

In doing so the book charts the impact of Henry’s marital difficulties on his offspring. Their formative years were played out in the shadow of high politics, and in vivid descriptions Guy documents how their lives, lifestyles, households, furnishings and education were directly affected by the vagaries of their father’s favour. As this account demonstrates, their childhood and adolescence amounted to an eventful, and traumatic, apprenticeship for rule.

All Henry’s children were bright and intellectually accomplished, although Henry Fitzroy was much like his father in preferring sport to study and being more at ease practising archery or riding, hunting or hawking than pursuing scholarly pursuits. Fitzroy’s illegitimate status was not necessarily a bar to the succession, and given Henry’s reluctance to see either of his daughters wear England’s crown, the fact that he was the only surviving son for 18 years meant that he was for a time considered as his father’s heir. He was certainly used both at home and abroad as proof that the king could indeed sire a son. Finally, in October 1537, Jane Seymour gave birth to Prince Edward and Henry had at last his long-sought legitimate male successor.

By the time that the Third Act of Succession passed in March 1544, it was determined that the succession would pass to Edward and his lawful heirs, Mary and her lawful heirs, and then Elizabeth. This settlement of the succession was commemorated by a family portrait which Henry commissioned to hang at Hampton Court. It represented an image of Henry’s ideal family, but it was a fiction. He is pictured with Edward’s mother, Jane Seymour, who had died shortly after giving birth, but Henry chose to style her as the matriarch of the Tudor dynasty thereby suggesting a rather more conventional family than was the case. Nevertheless, after six wives and countless failed pregnancies, upon his death Henry was able to fulfil his lifetime’s goal of securing the succession and passing the crown to his son. Yet the family saga of Henry’s dynasty did not, of course, stop there. Edward wore the crown, but so too – against their father and brother’s judgment and preference – did Mary and Elizabeth.

Rather than simply rehearsing the key events of each of the reigns, Guy’s focus is more on the sibling rivalries, conflicting faiths and competing ambitions that tore the family apart during the years that followed. It is a pacy and accessible narrative of the unfolding family drama, but one might have hoped for a little more detail about the personality and rule of each of the children. What of Edward as king? How did he fill his father’s shoes? To what extent did he become more involved in politics as he grew older? Certainly, as Guy describes, Edward was drawn into direct confrontation with his older sister Mary over her continued practise of the Catholic mass and in his final days took steps to write both of his sisters out of the succession.

Elizabeth’s relationship with Mary when her sister inherited the throne was equally tempestuous, and for a time Elizabeth faced the prospect of a trial for treason and the inevitable penalty that would follow. Ultimately, as Mary failed to produce a Catholic heir, she had to reluctantly acknowledge Elizabeth as her successor. Indeed, all of Henry’s children remained childless and so despite their father’s efforts they were unable to perpetuate his dynasty.

This may be a well-known story, but Guy presents it with typical narrative flair and attention to detail, producing a book with obvious appeal.  

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Dr Anna Whitelock is senior lecturer in early modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her latest book, Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court, is published by Bloomsbury on 23 May