Henry VIII's Children: Legitimate and Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Tudor King

Image of Henry VIII's Children: Legitimate and Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Tudor King
Release Date: 
August 8, 2023
Pen and Sword History
Reviewed by: 

“This book is a compelling read as Angus is a clear, concise, and talented writer who makes even small facets of long ago lives fascinating.”

The irony of Henry VIII is acute. The once dashing heroic young man who succumbed to gluttony, cruelty, and, though it was done in a state-sanctioned manner, the murder of unwanted wives in hopes he could finally sire an heir, had at least one and most likely more illegitimate sons. But Edward, born of his third wife, Jane Seymour, who gained the throne with the beheading of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, was sickly and would die after a short stint as king.

And thus, first Henry’s legitimate daughter Mary, to be soon known as Bloody Mary because of her religious fanaticism, and then Elizabeth would come to rule. There is more irony here as well. Mary was the daughter of Henry and his first wife, Katharine of Aragon, who was cast aside so that he could marry Anne. Elizabeth 1 was born of that short-lived union. Both Mary and Elizabeth’s early childhoods were filled with rejections and loss of status. Things grew more precarious after her mother’s death. Her father was off with his next wife—there would be six all together and Mary, after Edward’s death, saw her half-sister, a Protestant to boot, as a rival for the throne. It was as dysfunctional of a family as any on a Jerry Springer show.

But what went on between these two siblings isn’t the only story regarding Henry’s children. And Caroline Angus, author of Henry VIII’s Children has written an immensely readable history of Henry’s other children, their mothers, and how they fit into Tudor society.

“The tales of King Henry VIII’s illegitimate children are stories made form precious few recorded clues, plus memory, slander, gossip, and conjecture,” writes Angus. “But within the dramatic lives of the Tudor dynasty, almost anything is possible.”

It was while Henry was married to his first wife, Katharine of Aragon, the widow of his brother Arthur, who was pregnant with his child, that he impregnated Bessie Blount. Still in her teens, Blount was in the third tier of Katharine’s ladies-in-waiting, not noble or wealthy enough to be in the first or second ranks but better than the fourth tier. Her job was to fetch and hold items for the queen and deliver messages. For that, she received her own room and servant and was granted permission to keep pets in the royal household.

Bessie wouldn’t be the first of the Queen’s ladies that Henry bedded. He had already had an affair with at least one and would embark relations with several others. Katharine’s lost her child, much to the chagrin of the kin who was tired of his wife’s inability to give him a son. Bessie did much better and Henry was delighted with their son who was called Henry Fitzroy. The term Fitzroy is French word meaning “son of a king” and was used by the English to denote an illegitimate child. Henry bestowed upon titles and lands upon little Henry while Katherine just had to smile and bear it. That’s what women had to put up with in those days.

Angus’ research is so extensive that readers even learn what Fitzroy ate for his afternoon meal. The first course was pottage, boiled beef, mutton, geese, capons, veal, and custard. If that sounds like a lot consider the second course consisted of lamb or kid, rabbits, pigeons, wildfowl, a tart or baked meat, fruits, and four gallons of ale and two pitchers of wine. Now, of course, some of that was probably for those who were dining with him. Fitzroy’s dinner meal was equally heavy and included 12 sweet desserts.

In another touch of irony, after Henry divorced Katharine, he could have made Fitzroy legitimate by marrying Bessie Blount whose husband had just died. But he was so entranced by Anne Boleyn that he married her instead, believing she would give him a son. She didn’t and lost her head.

There were other illegitimate children scattered around, probably more than history reveals. Anne’s sister Mary oldest son and daughter, Catherine and Henry Carey, were said to be Henry’s children. So was Ethelreda Malte, whose mother was a laundress. John Perrot claimed he was the son of Henry. And there were rumors Henry was the father of Thomas Stuckley, Richard Edwardes, and Henry Lee.

This book is a compelling read as Angus is a clear, concise, and talented writer who makes even small facets of long ago lives fascinating.