Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount, the second daughter of John Blount (1484–1531) and his wife, Katherine Peshall Blount (1483–1540), was born in about 1500. The couple had married at an early age, her mother was only ten at the time. In 1501, Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon set up their own court in Ludlow. Katherine Blount became one of Catherine's lady-in-waiting.
On 2nd April, 1502 Prince Arthur died. As Kelly Hart, the author of The Mistresses of Henry VIII (2009) pointed out: "In 1502 Prince Arthur died, leaving his brother, eleven-year-old Henry, as the heir apparent and Catherine of Aragon as an unwanted widow. The Blount's chance for advancement seemed to have come to nothing. The court at Ludlow was disbanded, and all the attendants, including the Blounts, had to petition anyone of influence for a place at court or else return to the countryside." (1)
When she was about 12-years-old she became a maid of honour to Catherine of Aragon. Records show that she earned 100s (£5) a year. This was a much desired position and she must have possessed all the qualities that were expected of a lady at court - beauty, grace and good manners. She would not have been selected unless she could play a musical instrument, dance well and been able to sing and perform in public. It was also claimed that she wrote her own music. Bessie was described at this time by John Barlow, the Dean of Worcester, as more beautiful than Anne Boleyn. "Renowned for her skill in music and dancing, she was a frequent player in court masques." (2)
Henry VIII first became aware of Bessie at a Masques held in 1514. "Masques - including elaborate disguises which fooled of course absolutely no one - was a passion of the King; as such, they quickly became the passion of the whole court. Everyone joined in, especially the King's young male friends... Bessie Blount... was a superb dancer and had a pretty singing voice... Above all Bessie, with her high spirits and energies which matched the King's own, was fun." (3)
According to Philippa Jones, the author of The Other Tudors: Henry VIII's Mistresses and Bastards (2010) that he fell in love with her straight away: "Henry's first big extramarital romance came in 1514 when he tell in love with Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount. She was his ideal woman: young, beautiful, intelligent, acquiescent, well raised, musical, an enthusiastic rider and a graceful dancer. While Catherine remained his wife and the future mother of his heir, Henry was no longer deeply in love with her. In a very short time, Bessie Blount came to mean everything to him." (4)
The first evidence of the relationship came when in July 1514 Bessie's father was given £146 by Henry. Two months later, the affair was referred to in a letter from Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, to Henry. At this time it was also mentioned by Fray Diego Fernandez, a close associate of Catherine of Aragon. However, Henry was good at keeping his infidelities secret and very few people knew about his affair with the young Bessie Blount. (5)
Kelly Hart has speculated that the relationship began when "Henry was twenty-three and she was around thirteen. In an age where poor diet delayed the onset of puberty, this was very young, but not considered too young for a relationship with a man. There was concern that having sex at an early age could cause illness or even death, but when life expectancy was so low anyway many were prepared to take risks." (6)
Mary, Henry VIII's first child, was not the desired male heir, she was still a valuable asset in the dynastic marriage and diplomatic power game. Mary's godfather, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Henry used the two-year-old to seal the new alliance with France embodied in the Treaty of London (1518). Mary was betrothed to the dauphin of France. At the Masque held to celebrate the agreement, Bessie Blount sung a song she had written, with music by William Cornish, Master of the King's Chapel. (7)
Bessie gave birth to Henry Fitzroy in about June 1519. As David Starkey has pointed out: "Henry, recognized the boy and created him Duke of Richmond. But the birth marked the beginning of the end of the love affair: babies, Henry seems to have felt, were for wives and not for mistresses, who should inhabit a more ethereal realm of chivalric fantasy." (8) Three months later, Bessie married Gilbert Tailboys, heir of George, Lord Tailboys of Kyme, and his wife, Elizabeth Gascoigne. Since Gilbert had become a ward of the crown after his father was declared a lunatic in 1517, the match was clearly envisioned by the king as a reward to his former mistress. Henry granted Bessie property worth £200 a year for the rest of her life. (9)
Philippa Jones has argued that this affair and its outcome taught Henry VIII a valuable lesson. From then on his mistresses had husbands that could hide any child born to such a relationship. (10) For example, his next mistress, Mary Boleyn, was encouraged to marry William Carey, a gentleman of the privy chamber. Henry attended the wedding and over the next few years gave Carey several royal grants of land and money. (11) David Loades has pointed out: "Whether this was a marriage of convenience, arranged by the King to conceal an existing affair, or whether she only became his mistress after her marriage, is not clear." (12)
The couple settled in Lincolnshire and they had three children, Elizabeth, George, and Robert. She continued to enjoy the king's favour throughout her life, receiving a series of grants of money for the rest of her life. After the death of Gilbert Tailboys on 15th April 1530 the opportunity of legitimizing Henry Fitzroy by subsequent marriage was apparently not even considered by a king already fully decided on having a son with Anne Boleyn. (13) The fact that Fitzroy was seriously ill with consumption was probably another factor in his decision.
Bessie Blount married Edward Fiennes de Clinton, ninth Baron Clinton and Saye (1512–1585), who later became first earl of Lincoln, on 12th February 1535. Edward was twelve years younger that his new wife. In the next four years Bessie gave birth to three daughters, Bridget, Katherine, and Margaret.
Henry Fitzroy died suddenly on 22nd July 1536. Some historians have argued that he had been in poor health for sometime and died of tuberculosis. (19) Others disagree with this interpretation and Philippa Jones has suggested "the secrecy and speed of his burial might be due to the fact that he died, or was suspected of having died of pneumonic plague". She adds that the "main symptoms of this are fever, headache, weakness and rapidly developing pneumonia with shortness of breath, chest pain and coughing, all symptoms that Richmond showed before his death". (14)
Kelly Hart claims that Henry was inconsolable on his death and ordered the quick and private funeral because he wanted his "dead son's corpse taken far away from him". (15) Beverley A Murphy admits that it seems the intention was to attract as little notice as possible to the death. The wooden coffin was hidden in straw and taken in secret to be quietly laid to rest some distance from the capital and he was buried at Thetford Priory. (16)
The author of The Other Tudors: Henry VIII's Mistresses and Bastards (2010) puts forward another possibility. Did Henry VIII discover that Henry FitzRoy was involved in a conspiracy against him. "It would not be the first time an heir decided not to wait for his inheritance, and the affair could have been triggered by Jane Seymour's pregnancy. A living, lawful male child would have put Richmond firmly out of contention for the throne." Further support for this theory comes from the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising that took place two months later. "Would he have supported this action, had he been alive? Did Henry believe his son had been actively involved in this disturbance? Certainly supporters of the revolt came from South Kyme, Tailboys lands, and the leaders included Bessie Blount's son-in-law, Robert Dymoke, and Richmond's servants, Sir John Russell and Sir William Parr." (17)
Elizabeth Tailboys (Bessie Blount) died following the birth of her third daughter in about 1539.
Henry's first big extramarital romance came in 1514 when he tell in love with Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount. She was his ideal woman: young, beautiful, intelligent, acquiescent, well raised, musical, an enthusiastic rider and a graceful dancer. While Catherine remained his wife and the future mother of his heir, Henry was no longer deeply in love with her. In a very short time, Bessie Blount came to mean everything to him and for five years they enjoyed each other, a physical relationship that only ended when Bessie informed the King that she was pregnant. A husband was quickly found for Bessie - a little late admittedly - but Henry publicly acknowledged their son, Henry Fitzroy, the future Duke of Richmond and Somerset - the only one of his illegitimate children that he did so with. The affair had been public, added to which the boy looked just like Henry and, perhaps more importantly, Bessie did not initially have a husband who could usefully take responsibility for the child. This affair and its outcome taught Henry a valuable lesson. From then on those "light-hearted" mistresses had husbands that could "hide" any child born to such a relationship.
The king's child Henry Fitzroy (1519–1536), later duke of Richmond, was probably born in June 1519 and by September that year Elizabeth Blount had married Gilbert Tailboys (c.1500–1530), heir of George, Lord Tailboys of Kyme, and his wife, Elizabeth Gascoigne. Since Gilbert had become a ward of the crown after his father was declared lunatic in 1517, the match was clearly envisioned by the king as a reward to his former mistress. The statute 14 & 15 Hen. VIII c. 34 granted Elizabeth property worth £200 p.a. out of Tailboys lands for her life. The couple settled in Lincolnshire and they had three children, Elizabeth (described as aged twenty-two in June 1542), George, and Robert. She continued to enjoy the king's favour throughout her life, receiving a series of grants between 18 June 1522 and 9 January 1539. In 1532 her new year's gift from Henry was a gilt goblet with a cover weighing over 35 ounces. Her role in the life of her royal son is less well documented, although her relatives were employed in Richmond's service, and a 1531 inventory of his goods records her gifts of a doublet and two horses. A letter of 1529 to her from John Palsgrave, Richmond's tutor, suggests that her involvement in the duke's upbringing was greater than has been generally allowed.