Henry FitzRoy, the only acknowledged illegitimate son of Henry VIII, was born on the 15th of June 1519. As Cardinal Wolsey sent the boy’s mother, Lady Elizabeth Blount, to live in the prior’s house of the Priory of St Lawrence in Blackmore, Essex, before her pregnancy became visible to court, little Henry came into the world there. The infant was named Henry FitzRoy after his royal father.
The birth of Henry FitzRoy by Lady Elizabeth Blount in the ShowTime Series The Tudors
The boy’s mother is more commonly known to history as ‘Bessie’. The twelve-year-old Lady Blount became a maid of honor to Queen Catherine of Aragon in 1512 or 1513. In her book “Bessie Blount: Mistress to Henry VIII”, the British historian Elizabeth Norton writes:
“Bessie, with her good looks, musical ability and skill in dancing, was one of the most accomplished ladies at Henry VIII’s court. She excelled in the pageantry of the court and, with a little help from her family connections, soon found herself as one of the stars within the queen’s household.”
At the beginning of his reign, the court of Henry VIII and Catherine was a whirlwind of feasting, dancing, hunting, wrestling, masquing, and revels of all kinds, with tournaments having been a regular feature of court life. Teenaged Bessie must have delighted in all those various entertainments and in the principles of chivalry and courtly love, with which the tournaments were connected. The young and athletic Henry loved jousting, and during the tournaments, when he appeared before the audience on a warhorse draped in cloth of gold, his appearance was truly magnificent. At one of the festivities, in which she shone like a star, Bessie first came to the attention of her liege lord. How could Bessie resist such a man?
It seems that the King of England was attracted to Bessie’s sweet and youthful loveliness. The first mention of their relationship occurs in a letter written by the king’s closest friend – Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk – on the 25th of October 1514, in which after speaking about the life of the king’s sister, Princess Mary Tudor, in France, the duke ended the letter by saying:
“I beseech your Grace to tell Mistress Blount and Mistress Carew the next time that I write unto them or send them tokens they shall either write to me or send me tokens again.”
Lady Blount seems to have succumbed to the king’s charms in 1514. The evidence for Bessie’s affair with Henry is scant, just as it is with most of his other liaisons. At the time, the king did not wish to make his extramarital amours public, perhaps because he did not want to distress Catherine who was often pregnant, and there was still a possibility for her to bear a male heir. At New Year 1515, Bessie was reported to have danced with Henry merrily during the feast. In July 1515, the ruler appointed his paramour’s father, Sir John Blount, one of the “King’s Spears” or Royal Guard that was a new royal bodyguard, established by Henry VIII when he came to the throne. According to Norton, Bessie was not only one of the loveliest creatures at court, but also an intelligent woman who shared with the king his literary interests and his taste for pageantry. Due to Henry’s desire for secrecy, no correspondence between the lovers has survived.
It is likely that Bessie could have fallen, even fleetingly, in love with her young, educated, and charismatic sovereign. Their rendezvous were clandestine, and only the king’s intimate friends (Charles Brandon e. g.) were aware of them; I wonder whether Catherine of Aragon knew about her husband’s new relationship. Unlike many of Henry’s other affairs, the monarch’s liaison with Bessie was not short-lived and lasted until she bore him an illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy.
Given Catherine’s unsuccessful childbearing history, Henry must have been over the moon with FitzRoy’s birth. Finally, the Tudor ruler had a son whom he had always yearned to have! But his mother was not his spouse, so the child could not be his heir to the English throne. At the same time, in Henry’s eyes, FitzRoy’s existence proved that he was capable of fathering a healthy son. Perhaps from the moment of the infant’s birth, Henry began to blame Catherine for the lack of his male progeny, which for him was a slur on his manhood. It is highly likely that FitzRoy’s birth was a turning point in the lives of Catherine and Henry as the rock-solid core of their relationship cracked, and their previously good marriage became a travesty of true love, disguised by Henry’s regal coldness to his aging wife and by Catherine’s sangfroid that concealed her anguish.
We don’t know for a certainty when and how Henry VIII first met his son. Soon after Bessie’s labor, the infant was baptized at the chapel at Blackmore with Cardinal Wolsey acting as his godfather. Fitzroy was created Duke of Richmond and Earl of Nottingham, for the monarch could not deny his only living son such privileges. In spite of the king’s gratitude to Bessie and his former fascination with her, he nevertheless broke his relationship with Lady Blount. The boy’s upbringing remains shrouded in mystery until the moment FitzRoy was set up in his own establishment and entered Bridewell Palace (one of Henry VIII’s residences in London).
In 1522, Bessie Blount married Sir Gilbert Tailboys or Talboys, 1st Baron Tailboys of Kyme (a man from Wolsey’s household). The couple went on having three children: Elizabeth, George and Robert. Elizabeth Norton convincingly argues that the monarch may also have been the father of Bessie’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth Tailboys, as later Henry was too much interested in this young woman’s marriage and property rights, which could indicate that she was his secret daughter.
Despite his death of tuberculosis in his adolescence, Henry FitzRoy would become the longest-lived of Henry VIII’s sons. Many historians claim that Henry VIII may have fathered other children out-of-wedlock whom he did not acknowledge, but this cannot be proved.
You can learn more about FitzRoy’s life in my article: Death of Henry FitzRoy (http://olivialongueville.com/2016/07/23/death-henry-fitzroy/).
All images are in the public domain.
Text © 2019 Olivia Longueville