Spartacus Blog

Was Henry FitzRoy, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, murdered?

Sunday, 31st May, 2015

John Simkin

Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond, died on 22nd July 1536. He was seventeen years old and in good health. His father, Henry VIII, ordered the quick and private funeral because, according to one historian, he wanted his "dead son's corpse taken far away from him". (1) FitzRoy's biographer, 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. (2)

Some historians have argued that he had been in poor health for sometime and died of tuberculosis. (3) Dr. Arthur. McNalty, the author of Henry VIII: A Difficult Patient (1952), concludes that there was a history of pulmonary tuberculosis in the Tudors. He claims it killed both of Henry's sons, FitzRoy and Edward VI, contributed to the deaths of Henry's father and brother, Henry VII and Prince Arthur, and his daughter Elizabeth may have suffered from tuberculosis laryngitis. (4)

The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence that FitzRoy had a long-term lung condition and was said to have been a strong and athletic teenager. (5) 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". (6)

Henry FitzRoy
Henry FitzRoy (c. 1534)

Maybe the teenage son of Henry VIII was murdered? If so, the timing of his death was highly significant. Henry Fitzroy, the son of Bessie Blount, was born in June 1519. Although illegitimate, as the king's only male son at the time of his birth he was a valuable asset. His mother was maid of honour to Catherine of Aragon, the king's wife. 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." (7)

He was given the Anglo-Norman surname "Fitzroy" meaning "son of the king" which had been used by several kings of England for their illegitimate children. As Kelly Hart has argued that he wanted it to be known he was the father of the child: "A healthy boy was a sign of the king's virility; it was clear now that the lack of a strong son could be blamed on his wife." (8)

Arrangements for his care were initially entrusted to his godfather, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. "On 18 June 1525 he was created earl of Nottingham and on the same day he received the unprecedented honour of a double dukedom. As duke of Richmond and Somerset he was endowed with lands whose revenues amounted to £4,845 in the first year. On 16 July 1525 he became lord admiral of England." (9)

Such concentration of peerages and great offices had never before being held by a subject, let alone a six-year-old. It could mean one thing only: Henry VIII had decided that gender was more important than legitimacy. (10) Catherine of Aragon feared that he would recognize Richmond as his heir, and would exclude her daughter, Mary, from her rightful inheritance. Henry VIII "now insulted Catherine by grooming his bastard for the succession". (11) Henry did not forget, Bessie Blount, his mother. Her husband, Gilbert Tailboys, was knighted. (12)

Henry FitzRoy was Henry VIII's only illegitimate child that he officially recognised. (13) According to his biographer, Beverley A Murphy. "From 28 August 1525 to 16 June 1529 he lived principally in Yorkshire, at Sheriff Hutton or at Pontefract, at the centre of a full-scale ducal household, in his capacity as head of the newly resurrected council of the north. Although well educated in Latin, Greek, French, and music, by tutors who included John Palsgrave, Richard Croke, and William Saunders, he was an active child who much preferred outdoor pursuits and had to be bribed to settle to his books." (14)

Catherine of Aragon became concerned when Henry FitzRoy was brought to court in 1527. Rumours began circulating that Henry VIII was going to divorce Catherine and make his young son his heir. (15) People began to speculate that Henry had "decided that gender was more important than legitimacy". (16) However, it soon became clear that Henry intended to marry Anne Boleyn in an effort to obtain an legitimate male heir. (17)

Henry VIII became disillusioned with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who had been given orders to arrange the divorce from Catherine. He became convinced that Wolsey's loyalties lay with the Pope, not England, and on 17th October 1529 he was dismissed from office. (18) Jean du Bellay reported that "the worse of the evil is that Mlle de Boleyn has made (Henry) promise that he will never give him a hearing, for she thinks he could not help having pity on him." (19)

After Wolsey's downfall, responsibility for the care of Henry FitzRoy passed to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. At the same time negotiations began for his marriage to one of Norfolk's daughters. FitzRoy was often resident at Windsor Castle where Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was among his companions. In October 1532 he accompanied Henry VIII to Calais for his meeting with King François. As a result of negotiations between them he was sent to reside at the French court. (20)

The fourteen-year-old Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond, married Mary Howard on 26th November 1533. It has been claimed by Alison Weir, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007), that the marriage had been arranged by Anne Boleyn in an effort to gain the support of the Duke of Norfolk. (21) Their marriage was never consummated. It has been suggested by Antonia Fraser that " no doubt it was thought that the act would prove too taxing" for a young man in poor health. (22)

Henry VIII continued to use his son for diplomatic mission and hosted various feasts in honour of important foreign visitors. Henry was also present at the execution of the Observant Friars of Richmond when two carts full of friars were hanged, drawn and quartered for denying the royal supremacy. (23)

Anne Boleyn was arrested and was taken to the Tower of London on 2nd May, 1536. That evening Henry VIII went to see his son who told him that his half-sister Mary ought to thank God for escaping "that cursed and venomous whore, who tried to poison you both". There is no evidence of this but Henry FitzRoy attended Anne's execution on 19th May. This was taken as a sign of his approval of her punishment.

Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond, enjoyed a good relationship with his father. According to his biographer, Beverley A Murphy: "The terms of the 1536 Succession Act renewed interest in the possibility of Richmond's succeeding his father. In many respects he was an ideal candidate. Widely reported to be as intelligent, articulate, and as athletic as his father, the danger of a minority was fast receding. His relationship with Henry VIII was consistently good. Numerous gifts and letters were indications of a genuine affection between them." (24)

After the death of Anne Boleyn did Henry promise the throne to Henry FitzRoy? If so, it was not long before FitzRoy became aware that Henry was still trying for a legitimate heir to the throne. On 30th May 1536, Henry VIII married Jane Seymour. This news upset the leading Roman Catholics in the country. Her two brothers, Edward Seymour and Thomas Seymour, were both rumoured to have been secret supporters of Martin Luther.

Did leading Catholics approach Henry FitzRoy and suggest he should become king instead of any future son born to Jane Seymour? Did senior advisers to Henry VIII, such as Thomas Cromwell, who were sympathetic to religious reformers, suggest that Henry FitzRoy was involved in a plot against him? If so, would Henry have taken action against his son?

We will never know if Henry VIII was responsible for Henry FitzRoy's death. What we do know is that within a few weeks of his death the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising began. Philippa Jones has commented: "Would he (Henry FitzRoy) 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." (23)


(1) Kelly Hart, The Mistresses of Henry VIII (2009) page 143

(2) Beverley A Murphy, Henry FitzRoy : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(3) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 254

(4) Arthur. McNalty, Henry VIII: A Difficult Patient (1952)

(5) Beverley A Murphy, Henry FitzRoy : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(6) Philippa Jones, The Other Tudors: Henry VIII's Mistresses and Bastards (2010) page 95

(7) Beverley A Murphy, Elizabeth Blount : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(8) Kelly Hart, The Mistresses of Henry VIII (2009) page 45

(9) Beverley A Murphy, Henry FitzRoy : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 198

(11) John Edward Bowle, Henry VIII (1964) page 129

(12) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 152

(13) Philippa Jones, The Other Tudors: Henry VIII's Mistresses and Bastards (2010) page 15

(14) Beverley A Murphy, Elizabeth Blount : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(15) Anna Whitelock, Mary Tudor: England's First Queen (2009) page 39

(16) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 198

(17) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 57

(18) Howard Leithead, Thomas Cromwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(19) Jean du Bellay, letter to François I (17th October, 1529)

(20) Beverley A Murphy, Henry FitzRoy : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(21) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 249

(22) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 30

(23) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 281

(24) Beverley A Murphy, Henry FitzRoy : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(25) Philippa Jones, The Other Tudors: Henry VIII's Mistresses and Bastards (2010) page 95

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