King Henry VIII certainly took enough mistresses in his day, but only one of the resulting children was acknowledged: his beloved son, Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset.
He was born in June 1519, the son of Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount and Henry VIII. Bessie Blount was a 17-year-old lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon, and she caught the eye of the king whilst his wife was in confinement. Although the royal baby was stillborn, Bessie delivered a healthy son at the Augustinian priory of St Lawrence at Blackmore near Ingatestone, Essex, where she was taken to give birth away from court.
Although he was not a blood prince, young Henry was adored by his father, who was thrilled to finally have a son after only one living, legitimate child (Princess Mary, later Queen Mary I). His surname FitzRoy – given to him by his father – even means “son of the king.” If the baby had been a girl, or if Catherine of Aragon had given birth to a son, FitzRoy likely wouldn’t have been acknowledged by the king, but luckily for him, this was not the case.
The new father visited Bessie and baby Henry, but she didn’t return to court to continue as his mistress. Instead, she married Gilbert Tailboys, 1st Baron Tailboys of Kyme in 1522. Not much is known about FitzRoy’s early life, but it is recorded that Cardinal Thomas Wolsey attended his christening as godfather.
In 1525, at the age of six, he was made a Knight of the Garter at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. 1525 also saw FitzRoy created Duke of Richmond and Somerset and Earl of Nottingham in an elaborate ceremony. By giving him a double dukedom, the king made FitzRoy the highest ranking peer in the country.
FitzRoy was raised at the now-ruined Sheriff Hutton Castle in Yorkshire and grew up, by all accounts, in royal fashion, even if he was only an acknowledged bastard. He was described by the Venetian ambassador as greatly resembling his father, and John Joachim, Seigneur de Vaux and the French ambassador, wrote about FitzRoy as being “a most handsome, urbane and learned young gentleman, very dear to the King on account of his figure, discretion and good manners.”
When Henry VIII was in the process of annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, it was suggested that FitzRoy and his half-sister Mary should marry to prevent the divorce and strengthen his claim to the throne. However, this never happened and at the young age of just 14-years-old FitzRoy married Lady Mary Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk (also Anne Boleyn’s uncle).
The marriage is said to have never been consummated, and when Henry died a few years later, Mary did not receive a pension from Henry VIII.
In 1536, Henry was reported ill with what was called consumption, although it was probably tuberculosis or another disease. He died at St. James’s Palace on 23 July 1536, at the age of 17. He was buried at Thetford Priory in Norfolk, but his tomb was later moved to Framlingham Church, Suffolk. Mary Howard, who died in 1557, was eventually buried next to him.
Had he not died, there is a chance that FitzRoy could have eventually become king, as an act was going through Parliament at the time that would have allowed Henry VIII to name his successor, legitimate or not, thus potentially disinheriting his daughter Elizabeth as his heir.
Whether or not the king would have done this, we’ll never know. But the death of his treasured son was a huge blow for Henry VIII and it is said this event contributed to the king’s rapid mental decline.