Henry VIII’s quest for a son is well known – it’s the primary reason he had six wives over his lifetime. On 22nd/23nd July 1536, the tragic death of a 17-year-old boy within the walls of St James’ Palace dealt a huge emotional blow. The boy was Henry Fitzroy, the King’s illegitimate, and only, son. Just two months earlier, Fitzroy had been present on Tower Green when the King’s second wife Anne Boleyn had been executed, leaving a second royal daughter, Elizabeth. The King had grown increasingly troubled by the lack of a legitimate son to name as his undisputed heir and was, therefore, not prepared to lose time, re-marring a matter of weeks after Anne’s death. The loss of young Henry Fitzroy was alarming given that the King still only had two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, both of whom he had declared illegitimate on account of his divorce from each of their mothers.
Prior to his death, Henry Fitzroy had been a trump card. He stood as living proof not only of the King’s ability to have sons, but also of security within the Tudor Dynasty, with the remote possibility that England had, if it was decided to declare him so, a male heir to the throne. Indeed, throughout his short life, Henry Fitzroy was not hidden from public view as an embarrassment – far from it. It was one thing to publicly recognise a child born out of royal wedlock, but quite another to raise the child so high. Henry Fitzroy was treated and educated as a prince of the blood, referred to by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey as ‘Your entirely beloved sonne’, and he was even raised to the highest rank of peerage in the country by his father. His very name suggested a particular status and affection: Henry, after the King himself; and Fitzroy, a Norman-French term meaning son of the King. On top of this, he was the only illegitimate child that Henry recognised as his own, since Fitzroy’s mother had been unmarried at the time of his birth. He is rarely included within the popular narrative of the Tudor dynasty, but his life, and death, provides a glimpse into his importance to Henry VIII, both on a personal and political level.
Who was he?
Henry Fitzroy’s mother was Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount, who had entered the court as a young girl to be maid-of-honour to the King’s first wife Katherine of Aragon. Famed for her beauty and musical talents, Henry VIII chose her as his dancing partner during the 1514 Twelve Night celebrations and from then on their relationship lasted for some time. When she became pregnant, Bess was sent away from court to stay at the Augustinian Priory of St Lawrence in Blackmore in Essex where, in June 1519, she bore the son who would be gifted with the name Henry Fitzroy. The joy that Henry felt at news of the birth of his first healthy son are evident from the events that followed. After publicly acknowledging the boy as his own, the King chose Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, his chief advisor, to act as his godfather. With this, Henry Fitzroy was destined to remain a steadfast figure within the Tudor family, but events were kept discreet enough for there to have been no mention of his birth in diplomatic dispatches. This must, however, have been a bitter time for the King’s wife, especially since she had lost a stillborn daughter just a matter of months before Bess had given birth to Fitzroy. After his birth, Bessie Blount never returned to court as Henry’s mistress and instead a marriage was arranged for her by 1522, along with certain properties in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire being assigned to her for life.
Growing up a son of the King
Records on Fitzroy’s life from his birth up until 1525, when he was raised to the peerage aged just six, are scarce. However, there is some evidence to suggest his early preference for outdoor pursuits over academic study. His first tutor, John Palsgrave is said to have complained to the King about Fitzroy’s recitation of prayers in a ‘barbarous’ Latin accent. His education was also entrusted to the distinguished Classical scholar Richard Croke, who made sure that, by the age of ten, Fitzroy had some knowledge of Caesar, Virgil, and Terence, and knew Greek, French and Latin. This was an education preparing him to yield power. There also exists a list of ‘Wardrobe stuff appointed for my lord Henry’. The familiar and non-specific naming of the recipient here suggest that Henry Fitzroy was, at least in the King’s inner circle, a widely recognised member of the family.
Rise in favour
The clouds disperse in 1525 to reveal greater detail on Henry Fitzroy, as his importance to the King comes into sharper focus. By this time, he had his own London residence of Durham House on the Strand, granted to him by his father. On 7th June he was made a knight of the Garter at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Any early hint of discretion was then swept away completely on 18th June 1525, when the young boy was brought to Bridewell Palace by barge on the edge of the city to be showered with honours. Most significantly, it was on this day that Henry Fitzroy rose as Duke of Richmond and Somerset. This made him the highest-ranking peer in the entire country at the time. The title that Henry VIII had chosen to bestow on his six-year-old son also had a personal family connection. The title of Earl of Richmond had been held by Henry VIII’s father, Henry VII, as well as his grandfather Edmund Tudor; while the title Duke of Somerset held a close link to the line of Henry’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort.
Later that year, Henry was granted several other appointments, including Lord High Admiral of England, Lord President of the Council of the North, and Warden of the Marches towards Scotland, which in effect placed the government of the north of England in his hands, although this task was, in reality, delegated to a more experienced member of the council. Despite this, from then onwards Fitzroy was raised at Sheriff Hutton Castle in Yorkshire with Sir Thomas Tempest, where he remained aware of local politics. In February 1527, Thomas Magnus told the young Duke that James V of Scotland had asked for hunting dogs. Fitzroy wasted no time in sending the Scottish king 20 hunting hounds and a huntsman!
Now officially referred to by his title of Richmond, the French Ambassador, described him as ‘a most handsome, urbane and learned young gentleman, very dear to the King on account of his figure, discretion and good manners’. And in 1531, the Venetian ambassador commented upon how he ‘so much does resemble his father’. There is clear evidence that both Henry VIII and his council saw great leading potential in his young son, as in 1529 Richmond gained a further title: Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. There were even loose plans to pronounce him King of Ireland before fears arose, with good reason, that this might cause more problems than were possible to solve.
Whilst his father was in the throes of campaigning for the annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, it was arranged for Fitzroy to join the French King Francis I’s court, where he was lodged with the King’s sons and went on progress with the court. Back in England, the question of who might be most appropriate candidate as the young Fitzroy’s wife was considered. At this critical moment when England was teetering on the edge of breaking from Papal authority, this decision would define the King’s vision for the boy who was, at that point, still his only son. At some point, it is believed that the suggestion was raised that he marry Mary, his own half-sister, in what seems like a drastic attempt to strengthen Fitzroy’s claim to the throne. Anxious to prevent the annulment and Henry’s eventual break with the Roman Catholic Church, it is rumoured that the Pope was even prepared to grant a special dispensation for the proposed marriage. Whether this was ever a serious possibility remains uncertain, but once the dust had settled and the King finally married Anne Boleyn, the fourteen-year-old Fitzroy was married on 26th November 1533 to Lady Mary Howard, the only daughter of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and the first cousin of the new Queen. Could Anne Boleyn have been instrumental in this decision?
An untimely death
In the three years between his marriage and untimely death, Fitzroy undertook many important duties, including entertaining the imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, in February 1535. Having encountered Fitzroy, Chapuys later commented that, following Anne Boleyn’s death, the King had made a statute allowing him to nominate his heir. Chapuys added that he didn’t believe the King would name his illegitimate son, presumably because he still had hope of future legitimate sons. Nevertheless Fitzroy was expected to be a key beneficiary in Henry VIII’s will. The young boy was, however, terminally ill with ‘a rapid consumption’, which is usually defined as tuberculosis, and he died at the age of seventeen at St. James’s Palace on 22/23 July 1536. Despite the King’s affection for him, Fitzroy’s illegitimate status denied him a state funeral and the arrangements were instead entrusted to the Duke of Norfolk.
King Henry IX?
For centuries speculation has been rife over whether Henry VIII would ever have gone so far as to include his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy in the line of succession, had he lived longer. But Henry VIII did eventually have another son, Prince Edward, born 12th October 1537, just a few months after Fitzroy’s death. In a tragic mirror of his fate, he too would die of tuberculosis as a teenager after succeeding his father. Edward, at least, had the chance to be King for a short time. Had he been alive, there is nothing to say that Fitzroy wouldn’t have been a member of his brother’s council and maybe even have been viewed as a prime contender to succeed him. In the desperate succession crisis that troubled Edward’s last days, it seems extremely likely that his name would have been high on the list, as a close male relative – this is all, of course, purely hypothetical.
The 17th Century historian, Thomas Fuller was one of the earliest to record this theory:
‘Well was it for them that Henry Fitzroy his natural son … was dead, otherwise (some suspect) had he survived King Edward the Sixth, we might presently have heard of a King Henry the Ninth, so great was his father’s affection and so unlimited his power to prefer him.’
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