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The Death of Henry FitzRoy: Henry VIII’s Illegitimate Son
On July 22, 1536, Henry FitzRoy, the 1st Duke of Somerset and Richmond died. He was the only illegitimate child who Henry VIII acknowledged—with Mary Boleyn’s children possibly being his—and his mother was Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount. His death was sudden and unexpected and at a time when King Henry was facing the possibility of not having an heir to the throne.
The Birth of Henry FitzRoy
Young Henry was born around June 18, 1519. However, his date of birth is not actually known. Some historians believe that his mother, Elizabeth, went into premature labour as Thomas Wolsey was expected at Hampton Court on June 19 but wasn’t there until 10 days later. Since he was elevated into the peerage on June 18, 1525, many historians believe that this could have been his date of birth.
His birth was a complete secret. At the time, Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon and there was still a possibility that she would provide an heir. However, Catherine had her last stillborn child in the November of 1518. Henry had many mistresses but only two are definitely known—Elizabeth Blount and Mary Boleyn.
Elizabeth was actually Catherine’s Maid of Honour. So that she was not the talking point at court, she was taken to Essex, to the Augustinian Priory of St. Lawrence. There she would be able to go through her pregnancy in secret. This worked as Henry VIII expected. The birth was nothing important to be recorded. In fact, even his christening was not recorded.
The christening, like the birth, was secret; nothing worthy of the son of a King. Thomas Wolsey was there, so it is likely that it was before June 29 when he was back at court. Wolsey was named as Godfather, although the other Godfather and the Godmother are unknown. The Godmother would not have been one of the ladies at court due to their relationship with Queen Catherine.
There is still much to learn about Henry FitzRoy
Henry VIII Acknowledges Henry FitzRoy
Henry VIII chose to acknowledge his illegitimate son. It is possible that he feared he would never get the heir he needed and this was the closest. While illegitimate children could not at the time inherit the throne, Mary and Elizabeth, Henry’s daughters, did and it is possible that Henry would have seen that this son would have too.
The young boy was given the surname FitzRoy. This was the name given to all illegitimate children so others knew his parentage. Henry broke all tradition and even showed off the newborn son in Court. He had finally proven his ability to have a son; and a son who would live more than a few weeks.
However, that is where the excitement ends until 1525. FitzRoy’s upbringing is unknown. It is unlikely that he had much contact with his father, unlike Princess Mary Tudor, but it is possible that he lived in the Royal Nursery and was at court until 1530. However, due to the households constantly moving, it is likely that he grew up in various places just like Mary, Elizabeth and Edward Tudor.
In 1519, Princess Mary’s household was reorganised. This suggests that provisions were made for the illegitimate son. Lady Margaret Bryan was replaced by Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury as Mary’s Lady Mistress of the household. Lady Bryan wrote a letter after Anne Boleyn’s fall stating that she was “a m[other to the] other children his grace have had since”. This was after mentioning Mary and Prince Edward was not born by this point so it makes sense that he was referring to Elizabeth and the young Henry.
Henry FitzRoy Becomes the Duke of Richmond and Somerset
By 1525, Henry VIII decided that it was time to create a title for his illegitimate son. By this point, Catherine of Aragon had proven that she was no longer able to bear children and Henry VIII started to wonder about the validity of his marriage. Henry had no younger brothers who would be able to inherit the throne, his only child was a daughter and he started to worry about his father’s work being for nothing.
It was time to use his illegitimate child; the six-year-old Henry FitzRoy. He was already relatively important in Henry VIII’s life. His only legitimate child was a girl, who was believed to be weak, and there were no other illegitimate children who Henry had acknowledged. FitzRoy was given his own London residence and was welcomed into the peerage. He was named the Duke of Richmond and Somerset. Being named a Duke was a major honour as it was the highest rank within the peerage. However, what was more was that the young boy gained double dukedom; this was completely unprecedented.
The Duke of Richmond and Somerset gained lands that once belonged to Margaret Beaufort and were rightly Henry VII’s as Earl of Richmond. He also gained those of Margaret’s father, John Beaufort. As well as lands, Henry FitzRoy was given a yearly wage of £4,845. Henry VIII then celebrated his son’s new title, with Gilbert Tailbois, FitzRoy’s step-father, present.
The Marriage of Henry FitzRoy
If you’ve watched Showtime’s The Tudors, you will notice how Henry FitzRoy dies of the sweating sickness at a young age. He never grew up to marry, which is not what happened at all! In fact, Henry VIII started searching for an option for his young son while trying to divorce Catherine of Aragon.
At one point, there was the possibility of Henry marrying his half-sister, Princess Mary. The Pope was going to allow a special papal dispensation to avoid any trouble with England breaking from Rome. This would have strengthened Henry’s claim to the throne, which is something that his father wanted for him. However, that dispensation and marriage never happened.
Instead, Henry FitzRoy was married into the Howard family, marrying Mary Howard; the daughter of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. They married on November 28, 1533, when Henry was just 15-years-old. Mary was a cousin to Anne Boleyn and a member of her household. It was the perfect match at the time. However, the King ordered that the marriage should not be consummated, fearing that his older brother, Arthur, had died partially due to too much sexual activity. This caused problems in the future though for his widow after his death.
When Anne Boleyn fell from grace and was executed in May 1536, her marriage to Henry VIII had been declared invalid. This led to an Act deeming Elizabeth illegitimate and part of that Act allowed Henry to decide on a successor; and that person didn’t have to be legitimate. While there is no proof Henry FitzRoy was going to be named, there was the theory that he could do. Should he have outlived Edward VI, it is possible that there would have been a Henry IX
The problem for Henry VIII was that his son was now consumptive and the disease was incurable. In early July 1536, Henry was diagnosed with consumption (usually tuberculosis but it could have been some other lung ailment). Interestingly enough, Edward VI is thought to have died of tuberculosis and both brothers were in their teens. Henry FiztRoy died on July 22 at St. James’ Palace.
The body was placed in a straw-filled wagon, despite Thomas Howard ordering that it should be wrapped and placed in a closed cart. There were very few mourners and he was buried in Framlingham Church, Suffolk, in a beautiful and ornate tomb.