Henry FitzRoy

Henry FitzRoy was the illegitimate son of Henry VIII.

Henry had an affair with a young woman of the court, Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount. Little is known about Bessie, other than she was renowned for her beauty. She was born about 1499 and came to court sometime around 1513, to serve as Katharine of Aragon's maid of honor. Her father was one of Henry's esquires of the body. 

The documentary evidence for the affair is scant, and so it's difficult to know when it began. Chroniclers of the day had little interest in the king's love affairs since English kings did not have "official mistresses" who held political influence. As a result, the beginnings of most of Henry's relationships are obscure.

Some suggest it started in 1515, because records for that year show Bessie's father was granted a two year advance on his wages. It ended around the time Bessie became pregnant, which was also around the same time Henry became enamored with Mary Boleyn.

On June 15, 1519, Henry FitzRoy was born, the king's first surviving son. Henry openly claimed the boy, as demonstrated by the surname the child was given. (FitzRoy literally means "son of the king.") The public was so delighted at this proof the king was capable of fathering a male heir that the saying, "Thank'ee Bessie Blount" became common.

Around this same time, Katharine of Aragon had her last pregnancy. Like so many others, it ended in the death of the child. Katharine delivered a stillborn girl, which, coming after the birth of a healthy son to his mistress, must have cemented in Henry's mind that the fertility problem lay with Katharine, not him.

Cardinal Wolsey installed Bessie at a house at Jericho Priory, Blackmore, Essex. (No traces of the buildings from the Tudor days exist today.) Henry was a frequent visitor until Bessie was married off in the early 1520s to Gilbert Tailboys. It may have been soon after FitzRoy's birth, but the first record we have of their marriage is a land grant made to them as a couple in 1522. Bessie and her husband were sent off to live on their estates in Lincolnshire; Fitzroy remained behind to be raised at Windsor.

FitzRoy was seen as the possible heir of King Henry because the king had no legitimate son. The king seems to have toyed with the idea of marrying FitzRoy to his half-sister, Princess Mary, to consolidate two claims to the throne and make FitzRoy a semi-legitimate heir.

It’s said the pope indicated he was willing to give a dispensation for the two half-siblings to wed, as long as Henry abandoned his idea of annulling his marriage to Katharine. Henry ultimately decided against the marriage. Europeans were used to the consanguineous marriages of their royalty, but half-siblings marrying might have been too much for the public to stomach.

The idea FitzRoy was heir presumptive was further strengthened when the king ennobled him, something that hadn’t been done for an illegitimate son for three hundred years, and the granting of two dukedoms was unprecedented.

The king gave FitzRoy the titles Duke of Somerset and Duke of Richmond, as well as of Earl of Nottingham. The title of Richmond was significant, because it was a title generally held by a royal prince. The lands FitzRoy was granted came mostly from the estate of his paternal great-grandmother, Margaret Beaufort. Besides the titles, the boy was granted an annual allowance of about £5,000, making him one of the richest peers in England.

It seems this ennoblement of the king’s son by his mistress bothered Queen Katharine and she was unwise enough to show it. The king retaliated by dismissing three of her favorite ladies from court.

FitzRoy was sent to his estates in the north, where he lived with Lady Maude Parr, mother of Kateryn Parr. FitzRoy's tutor wrote to Wolsey and the king, complaining the boy was unruly and that Maude Parr was cooking the books to her own benefit. FitzRoy returned to court around 1529, at age 10.

In 1533, FitzRoy was married to Lady Mary Howard, Anne Boleyn's cousin, strengthening the ties the crown had to the Howard family. However, the young couple was ordered not to consummate the union. Henry said he believed his brother's death had been hastened by early intercourse.

It's uncertain whther FitzRoy's health was poor. There's scant records in that regard, but it's believed by some scholars that FitzRoy may have had consumption (tuberculosis), which may explain the very casual attire he wears in his miniature portrait. He had made numerous appearances at court without people commenting on his health, and Chapuys only mentions that he had heard FitzRoy was consumptive and incurable a couple of weeks before his death.

FitzRoy died at age 17, only a few months after he served as his father's representative at the execution of Anne Boleyn. The circumstances around his death and burial are rather strange.

Oddly, he was not given the funeral his status as a duke - let alone a king’s son - would have called for. His funeral should have been a month-long extravaganza of pomp and ceremony. Instead it was hasty and hidden from the public.

FitzRoy's body was not embalmed. His corpse was wrapped only in cerecloth - without the usual lead sheet covering - and placed in a wood coffin. This apparent haste and scant contact with the body leads some to believe his servants may have thought his body was infectious with plague or The Sweat.

In any case, various stories say that FitzRoy's coffin was hidden in a barnyard until the tomb could be prepared, and that his coffin was transported to the church in a hay wagon. His burial was attended by only two people. Supposedly, the king was angry about this lack of ceremony afterwards.

His father-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk, wrote to Cromwell about it:

This night at 8 o'clock came letters from my friends and servants about London, all agreeing in one tale, that the King was displeased with me because my lord of Richmond was not buried honorably. The King wished the body conveyed secretly in a closed cart to Thedford, "and at my suit thither," and so buried; accordingly I ordered both the Cottons to have the body wrapped in lead and a close cart provided, but it was not done, nor was the body conveyed very secretly. I trust the King will not blame me undeservedly.

FitzRoy was buried in Thetford Priory, but the king later dissolved it, and so his tomb was moved to St. Michael’s church. Researchers believe the tomb was altered when it was re-built at the new location, possibly because some of the stone broke during the dismantling or transport, or it could have been vandalized by radicals when the priory was destroyed. Pieces of the tombs that were moved were found during excavations of the priory in 1930. It seems FitzRoy’s tomb, as we see it now, may have been assembled from scavenged pieces.

In the Victorian era, his tomb was opened, more or less for simple curiosity's sake. His wood coffin had decayed away and his cerecloth wrapped body lays on the floor of his tomb next to a second body, wrapped in lead, presumably that of his wife, Lady Mary Howard.

At the time of FitzRoy’s death, the king was pushing a bill through parliament which would have allowed him to designate whomever he wished to be his successor. There’s no proof he would have chosen FitzRoy, but one historian has said if FitzRoy had lived, we might have had a King Henry IX.

FitzRoy's household goods were inventoried on July 25. One of the items noted was a "great jug" with Henry and Anne Boleyn's initials, as well as her New Year's gifts to him. I think it's safe to say that when they exchanged gifts that January, neither of them realized it would be their last.

As FitzRoy's widow, Lady Mary Howard got the short end of the stick. Her family was in disgrace after Anne Boleyn's fall, so the king was not inclined to be generous with her. He seized FitzRoy's estate, and used the non-consummation (that he had ordered) as an excuse not to share it with her.


  1. Your writing makes (potentially) obscure characters of history relevant. Right out of a George R.R. Martin novel. Keep up the good work.

  2. I have heard it said that King Henry had Fitzroy poisoned to prevent him becoming the leader of a rebel faction that was gaining momentum in the north part of England. This band of rebels had planned to overthrow King Henry, and place Fitzroy on the throne. Either way, had he not died so young, Fitzroy would have had at least a modicum of claim to the throne.