The Sad Tale of Henry VIII's First Son, Henry Duke of Cornwall

When Henry, Duke of Cornwall was born on January 1, 1511, England erupted in celebration.

He was the second child born to Henry and his young queen, Katharine of Aragon. The first had been a daughter, stillborn, who was delivered 33 weeks after their marriage. She was never given a name.

Almost a year later, Katharine was brought to bed and delivered the little prince. King Henry must have felt God was smiling down upon him. Katharine, too, for she had fulfilled the duty of a queen to give her husband and new homeland an heir to the throne. Here was the future King Henry IX, the Tudors’ shaky claim to the throne upheld by the noble blood of the House Trast├ímara, and Katharine’s own descent from John of Gaunt.

The public fountains ran with free wine for the populace, and bonfires were lit in celebration. The cannons blasted from the top of the Tower walls and churchbells rang for hours. It was a public holiday, and all of England joined in the party.

The “New Year’s Boy” as the baby was called, was baptized in a grand ceremony - one that his mother could not attend, because she had not yet been “churched” (ritually blessed) and allowed to re-enter public life. He was named Henry after his father and grandfather, and given the title Duke of Cornwall. The title of Prince of Wales was never officially given to him, but it would have been later in his life.

One of his godfathers was King Louis XII of France, who sent a gift of a salt cellar and cup made of almost a hundred ounces of gold. King Louis gave to the child’s nurse, Elizabeth Poyntz, a gold chain worth £30 and £10 to the midwife who had delivered the child. Margaret of Austria - who would see to the education of a young Anne Boleyn in just a few years - was one of Prince Henry’s godmothers.

While his wife was still in seclusion after the birth, Henry made a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Walsingham to give thanks for the safe arrival of his prince. According to writer Henry Spellman, King Henry rode to Barsham, where he dismounted and walked the rest of the way to the shrine barefooted. There, he prostrated himself on the ground before the statue of the Virgin, and gave an offering of a valuable necklace. Later, this same shrine would be denounced, pillaged, and dismantled by the king during the Dissolution.

As soon as Katharine was “churched” and could resume life with the court, the prince’s birth was celebrated with a tournament, by far the most lavish that had been seen in England in living memory. Some scholars have said it was the third most expensive event of Henry’s reign thus far, after his father’s funeral and Henry and Katharine’s joint coronation. It wouldn’t be surpassed until the extravaganza of the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Sir Thomas Boleyn was one of the knights who rode on the second day of the tournament, but he’s not listed among those who were given prizes.

Henry jousted as “Sir Loyal Heart” in lists that were decorated to look like an enchanted forest. Katharine distributed the prizes to the valiant knights. It was was followed by a sumptuous banquet in Westminster Palace, which ended up getting a bit out of hand when the crowd swarmed the king and stripped his person of the jewels and gold stitched to his clothing. But Henry was in a jovial, permissive mood, as he always was when things went his way.

Henry began setting up his son’s separate household by appointing the dozens of servants appropriate to his princely status. It included forty men at arms for protection, and food tasters, to make sure that none of his nurse’s food was poisoned. His nurse, Elizabeth Poyntz was supervised by a Lady Mistress, and he had four “rockers” to keep his cradle moving.

"The names of divers persons which were daily waiters upon the Prince," viz.:—Carver: Edw. Wylloughby. Sewer: Edm. Losell. Gentleman usher: Edm. Gray. Gentlemen waiters: Wm. Harrys, Nic. Wykes. Chaplains: Mr. William Underwood, Mr. Chr. Browne, Mr. Th. Pekesall, clerk of the Closet.Yeomen of the Chamber: George Sutton, yeoman usher, Wm. Lambert, Maurice Alyde, Wm. Bendish, Wm. Clerke, John Smythe. Grooms of the Chamber: John Cowper, Wm. Holyns, Edw. Forest, Ric. Braybroke.Countinghouse: John Waliston, gentleman. Bakehouse: John Downer, yeoman, one conduct. Pantry: Th. Blythe. Cellar: Th. Parker Buttery and Pitcherhouse: John Appulby and John Parre, grooms. Ewery and Chamber: Rob. Spurnell, groom, David ap John, yeoman. Kitchen: Wm. Blacnall, clerk of the Kitchen, Wm. Bolton, groom, Wm. Dully, groom, and a child. Larder, Boilinghouse and Scalding-house: Th. Skelton, groom, Rob. Lynton. Accatry: Th. Raudon. Poultry: Wm. Botell, yeoman. Scullery: John Barnabee, groom,—Fitton, page. Saucery: Wm. Larke, groom, Th. Salkyll. Hall: Wm. Benson.Porter: Simon Symmys, groom. Almonry ("Awmery"): John Hamlet, groom.Grooms of the King’s chamber: Ric. Chachemay, Wm. Wyndslowe. Clerk of the Works: Walter Foster (per mandatum Domini Camerarii).
But these latter appointments would end up lasting only a few days. On the 22nd of February came the terrible news that the New Year’s Boy had died. He had lived only 52 days.

Nothing survives in the records to tell us the cause of death. He seemed to be hale and hearty enough at birth - enough so that the baptism had been performed five days after birth, whereas sickly infants were baptized immediately. No mentions in the records are made of him being ill. His death seems to come from nowhere, sudden and shocking. Crib death, or respiratory infection (the Tudors had notoriously weak lungs) have been suggested. It’s likely we’ll never know. It was an era of high infant mortality, and the Tudor child-rearing practices didn’t help matters.

Prince Henry’s funeral was nearly as lavish as the tournament that celebrated his birth. His father paid £400 for the black cloth for the mourners’ clothing, and the covering of the hearse. Another 186 yards bedecked the three barges that carried the mourners downriver to the church, and 327 yards were used to drape the choir in Westminster Abbey. The candles that burned day and night by the hearse required 974 pounds of wax.

Sir Thomas Boleyn had ridden in the celebratory joust, and was now noted as one of the mourners who marched in the funeral procession. He would have been given a black suit of clothing - the fineness of its cloth suitable to his rank - as was tradition.

Prince Henry was buried in Westminster, on the north side of the sanctuary near the entrance to the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor. The grave, however, was never given a marker or monument. The general location of his grave is known. During excavations for the new High Altar in the 1860s, a small lead coffin of a child was discovered - it may have been the coffin of the prince.

It wasn’t unusual for the graves of infants to be unmarked in the Tudor era, and when they were, their monuments were usually very simple, like the markers on the graves of the infant children of the Boleyn family. The choice seems to have been up to the parents, and there was no societal pressure to mark the graves of small children. None of Katharine’s infants were given grave markers - perhaps it simply hurt her too much to think of it.

The queen was crushed with grief. Edward hall said of her:

Like a natural woman, [she] made much lamentation, howbeit by the king’s good persuasion and behavior, her sorrow was mitigated, but not shortly.

Katharine, always pious, intensified her religious devotion, reportedly spending hours kneeling on bare stone floors to pray. She fasted arduously, made offerings at shrines, and begged God to send her another child, but it was two years before she became pregnant again.

The little lost New Year’s Boy makes one final appearance in the records. In September, 1511, Elizabeth Poyntz was given an annuity of £20 for life - Henry didn’t blame her for the death of his beloved son. Later, Elizabeth Poyntz’s own son would host Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII at his home in new rooms he had built onto his home just for their visit.


  1. Lady Susanna Elizabeth Poyntz (1528 - 1613)
    is my 10th great grandmother
    Elizabeth Saltonstall (1557 - 1621)
    daughter of Lady Susanna Elizabeth Poyntz
    Henry Wyche (1604 - 1678)
    son of Elizabeth Saltonstall
    Henry Wyche (1648 - 1714)
    son of Henry Wyche
    George Wyche (1685 - 1757)
    son of Henry Wyche
    Peter Wyche (1712 - 1757)
    son of George Wyche
    Drury Wyche (1741 - 1784)
    son of Peter Wyche
    Mary Polly Wyche (1774 - 1852)
    daughter of Drury Wyche
    John Samuel Taylor (1798 - 1873)
    son of Mary Polly Wyche
    William Ellison Taylor (1839 - 1918)
    son of John Samuel Taylor
    George Harvey Taylor (1884 - 1941)
    son of William Ellison Taylor
    Ruby Lee Taylor (1922 - 2008)
    daughter of George Harvey Taylor
    Pamela Morse
    I am the daughter of Ruby Lee Taylor

    1. Oh wow! That is such a neat connection to history! Have you ever been to Acton Court?