Henry VIII is well known for his desperate attempts to father a son. His first two wives failed in this respect; Catherine of Aragon’s short-lived Prince Henry died at six weeks old in 1511 and Anne Boleyn’s promised “son” turned out to be a daughter, in spite of what the prophets predicted. It was only with his marriage to Jane Seymour that the King finally became the father of a boy, Prince Edward, born after a difficult labour in October 1537. It was a Pyrrhic victory for his mother though, who paid with her life only days later. However, through the years of his long wait for a male-child to inherit the throne, Henry already had a son.
Some time in the second decade of his reign, while he was still young, athletic, chivalrous and attractive, young Henry’s eye was caught by a young, blonde gentlewoman in the household of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Her name was Elizabeth Blount, or Bessie, and she was probably aged between 12 and 14 when she first came to court, in around 1514. The chronicler Edward Hall describes her as winning the King’s heart by exceeding all others in “syngyng, daunsyng and all goodly pastimes.” Accomplished in many fields, she became Henry’s lover and fell pregnant with his child in the autumn of 1518, retreating from court soon after. She was not his first mistress but was the first to conceive out of wedlock and proved to the already anxious king that he was capable of fathering sons. Henry’s capable minister, Thomas Wolsey, oversaw the arrangements for Bessie’s lying-in, which took place at a priory known as Jericho, near Chelmsford, in Essex. In the summer of 1519, probably in June, her son was born. He was named Henry Fitzroy, both names alluding to his royal parentage. For the duration of his life, he would be the King’s only son and as such, a potential heir and King of England, even though he was illegitimate. When he died in 1536, at the age of seventeen, his household accounts showed that he lived a life equal to that of his royal sisters, as befitted a future monarch.
Elevated to the Dukedom of Richmond in 1525, when he was only six years old, Fitzroy was based in the North of England, resident at Sheriff Hutton and Pontefract Castles, with a significant staff to attend his every need. The list of servants for his kitchens alone numbered over sixty people, based in the pantry or cellar, the boiling house and scalding house, the spicery and wafery, or simply turning the spit over the fire. Henry took his son’s education seriously, engaging a series of impressive tutors, one of whom, the chancellor of Durham, William Frankeleyn, described the boy as “ a chylde of excellent wisdom and towardnes… good and quyk capacitie, retentive memorye, vertuous inclinasion to all honour, humanitie and goodness.” It seemed Fitzoy had all the qualities of an excellent future king. Later, he attended Parliamentary sessions and was at Henry’s side on state occasions; he was also with his father during personal tragedy. The King notoriously wept before Fitzroy in May 1536, claiming he had feared that Anne Boleyn was attempting to poison the youth. Ironically, Fitzroy did die about two months after Anne’s execution, on July 22 or 23. This may have taken place at Collyweston, once home to Margaret Beaufort, his paternal great-grandmother, whose property he had inherited along with his title, or at St James’ Palace. His funeral was held in Westminster and his body transported for burial to Thetford Priory, Norfolk. During the eighteenth century it was reinterred at Framlingham.
On July 25, an inventory was made of Fitzroy's worldly goods. It gives a fascinating insight into the life of this pampered Prince, whom Henry clearly considered as his possible heir in the event of his failure to produce a legitimate son. It gives us as record of his lifestyle, as if he had simply gone out and left his possessions as they were, as if we were able to enter his home and have a sneaky look around while he was out! Among his clothes were gowns made of crimson damask, black and gold velvet, green and yellow satin and white velvet. These were decorated with Venice gold, a silver fringe, “swelling welts” and embroidery. Touchingly, one purple velvet gown was sewn with “grete buttons of golde,” one of which was missing. Fitzroy also owned a “rich dagger” trimmed with silver and gilt and a gold brooch featuring a naked woman. His dining table must have been splendidly decked out, with expensive ceremonial pieces; a number of golden salt cellars feature on the list, decorated with pearls and sapphire, in the form of dragons and unicorn horns. His golden spoons were engraved with roses and pomegranates, ironically the symbol of Catherine of Aragon, whilst his cup of gold was topped with a red flower, possibly another allusion to his parentage. An impressive array of jewels is included in the lists. He had golden ceremonial garters set with diamonds, bracelets of gold set with rubies and pearls, diamond rings, enamelled white roses and a chain of gold and black enamelled Paris work. Particularly poignant though, were the pair of slipper he left behind, which did not merit any further description.
As a Catholic, Fitzroy owned a large amount of religious artefacts, including chalices and other items necessary for the celebration of Mass. His ceremonial crosses were decorated with images of Mary and John, the Virgin, St.Peter and St. Dorothy, as well as other saints that he particularly favoured. A number of heavy gilt candlesticks were listed, to light an altar, as well as altar cloths and other vestments of velvet and cloth-of-gold. He also owned a “grete Mass book” with silver clasps and hangings for his chapel, depicting the Passion. Other, secular hangings for his household bore the images of the Lady Pleasaunce and the Virtues, Moses, Paris and Helen and hawking and hunting scenes.
The thirteen great beds to be found in Fitzroy’s home were dressed appropriately. The young man may have slept under a tester of gold, green tinsel and red velvet, with a multi-coloured fringe made of silk. Alternatively, he may have lain awake looking up at a tester of yellow and blue damask, with a panel of crimson velvet down the middle, fringed again with silk. His cushions were of quilted damask cloth-of-gold and he would have walked on three great carpets and twelve smaller ones. His royal status is made explicit with the existence of a chair of estate, under a cloth of gold, fringed with red silk, among other gold items of soft furnishing that speak of luxury and expectation.
A glimpse behind the scenes of his life is given in the items listed from the kitchens and stables. Simple described as “kechen stuffe,” Fitzroy’s meals would have been cooked in one of three brass pots bounded by iron and eaten off one of seventeen dishes. Pans, racks, gridirons and mortars were listed, common to most households of the time. On venturing out of his home, the youth would have travelled in style, on saddles made of green or black velvet, trimmed with buff leather and gilt work studs or great gilt buckles. He owned four large horses, six geldings, a little mule, three more mules for his carriage and three “nags,” some of which had already been given away.
The inventory of Friztroy’s goods, taken only three days after his death in 1536, allows us the closest possible opportunity to peep through the keyhole of his home. It is rather like a little time capsule of a Tudor household in its descriptions of colours, fabrics and quantities, which enable us to picture his goods and chattels in detail. It indicates a life of luxury, status, ceremony and devotion, quite representative of the upbringing expected of a Prince, even an illegitimate one. Up until his premature death, either of the lung complaint that had laid him low that spring, or of consumption (TB), he could potentially have stepped into his father’s massive shoes. By all accounts Henry was proud of his son, even introducing him to the French, King Francis I. He must have felt his loss keenly.
A further irony in Henry’s quest to father a son followed. Only six months after the youth’s death, Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour fell pregnant. The following October, she was delivered of her son, the future Edward VI. He was also to die young, at a similar age to Fitzroy but Henry could not have known this; he finally had the legitimate male heir he had so longed for. It was some compensation for the loss of Fitzroy, whose death was another of those turning points in Tudor history at which one possible future vanished and another materialised. What sort of king would Henry IX have made, if events had turned out differently ? We can never know. The details of his splendid household, however, can serve as a sort of imagined mausoleum to a reign that never was.