Who was Henry Fitzroy?

In a previous blog I talked about the children of Henry VIII and the relationships between them [Read that blog here] I talked about Edward (VI), Mary (I) and Elizabeth (I). However, there was a fourth child.

His name was Henry Fitzroy, the openly acknowledged illegitimate son of Henry VIII. The boy's mother was Henry VIII's mistress, Elizabeth Blount.

Henry Fitzroy was born in 1519, conceived around the time of one of Katherine of Aragon's many confinements. Henry VIII threw caution to the wind and openly acknowledged the boy as his son. His name 'Fitzroy' being a Norman term meaning 'son of the king' and Henry, obviously, after himself. Perhaps it was the fact that after 10 years of marriage to Katherine they had only one daughter, this latest confinement resulting in yet another miscarriage. Any slight on the king's virility and capability to produce sons must surely be at least partly addressed through the knowledge that he had a thriving son, Henry must have thought, even if it wasn't by his wife!

Was this purely down to ego? There's no doubt that as egos go, Henry's was pretty large but then it wasn't above him to play long term politics as well.This was at a stage where there was no alternative to his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Was he hedging his bets on making Henry heir to the throne? Was Fitzroy his only option for providing more than one heir to his throne?

Henry Fitzroy

Openly acknowledging a child born out of wedlock was one thing but for that child to lay claim to any inheritance, not least a father's title and then for that to be of king, was quite another! However in 1524 and 1525 Henry VIII was shook by accidents which could have taken his life, the first when jousting, the second when his attempt to pole vault over a muddy ditch ended with him head down in the mud. He would have almost certainly drowned had a man servant not managed to pull him out. These two incidents may have sharpened Henry's mind to what was actually going to happen to the throne of England should he die.

Perhaps a first step in this seemingly unlikely plan was to elevate the position of his 6 year old son, with titles and lands. Just before his 6th birthday he was made a Knight of the Garter and shortly after, he was raised to the peerage as 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset. This double dukedom invoked two family titles, that of his grandfather Henry VII who had been Earl of Richmond and that of his Great-Great Grandfather, the father of Margaret Beaufort, John Beaufort 1st Duke of Somerset.

Henry Fitzroy - Horenbout Minature

With the arrival of Elizabeth in 1533 Henry had one more heir but no less of a problem in terms of a legitimate, male succession. Perhaps Fitzroy was to be Henry VIII's trump card. In the end it didn't matter, he could never have played it, Henry Fitzroy died in 1536 at the age of 17 years. The cause of death is unclear with some historians arguing  a genetic disorder, others a short term illness such a Tuberculosis or even plague.

A year later Henry VIII finally got his legitimate son with the birth of Edward in October 1537.

His story is one of the great what-ifs in the story of the Tudor family. What if he had survived?

Would Henry VIII have named him in the succession along with his other illegitimate (by the law at the time) children, Mary and Elizabeth? In what order would he have put them? Could Henry Fitzroy have been a credible alternative to Lady Jane Grey in Edward VI's eyes in his device for the succession? Would Fitzroy have raised his own forces against the other claimants? Or perhaps later on still, could his descendants have provided Elizabeth with potential heirs for her succession?

We will never know but that's the fun of what-ifs!

- Philippa Brewell

History Writer and History Tour Creator

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Henry VIII: King and Court by Alison Weir published by Pimlico: 2002


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