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The Death of Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset

Posted By on July 22, 2010

On this day in history, the 22nd July 1536 (some sources state 23rd July), Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset, and the Earl of Nottingham, died at the age of 17.

His death was a huge blow for Henry VIII, not only because he loved his son deeply but because he was left without an heir. Henry had made both his daughters illegitimate and now he couldn’t even legitimize his bastard son. Suzannah Lipscombe1 lists Henry Fitzroy’s death as one of the events of 1536 that sent Henry over the edge and changed the King for ever.

But who was Henry Fitzroy? What do we know about him?

Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset

Birth: Henry Fitzroy was born on the 15th June 1519 at the Priory of St Lawrence, Blackmore, Essex

Parents: Henry VIII and Elizabeth Blount (Bessie Blount), Henry’s former mistress. Bessie Blount was about 17 years of age when she gave birth to Henry. The King openly acknowledged that he was Henry’s father and was proud that he had a son. Bessie went on to marry Gilbert Tailboys, 1st Baron Tailboys of Kyme in 1522, and then Lord Clinton after the death of Tailboys.

Name: Henry Fitzroy. “Fitzroy” is a Norman-French surname meaning “son of the King” and was a name given to monarchs’ illegitimate sons.

Christening: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey stood as the boy’s godfather at his christening.

Titles: Henry Fitzroy was enobled at the age of 6 in 1525. He was given the title Earl of Nottingham first and then made the Duke of Richmond and Somerset. Suzannah Lipscombe points out that there were only two other dukes in England at this time and by giving him a double dukedom Henry VIII was making his son the highest ranking peer in the country2. He was also made a Knight of the Garter, Lord High Admiral of England, Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle* (after George Boleyn’s fall), Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord President of the Council of the North, Warden of the Marches and Chamberlain of Chester and North Wales. He benefited, both financially and in status, from the falls of the five men found guilty of adultery with Anne Boleyn.

Illegitimacy: Henry Fitzroy was born to Elizabeth Blount while Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon and so was illegitimate. However, Lipscombe writes that Richmond’s “additional Somerset title particularly suggested that Henry VIII was smoothing the path towards legitimating his son, as John Beaufort, a royal bastards who had been legitimated in the late fourteenth century, had been the Earl of Somerset.”3

Upbringing: We do not know much about Richmond’s very early life but Lipscombe writes of how author Beverley A. Murphy used a letter from the royal nurse to argue that Richmond was a member of the royal nursery4. What we do know is that he was often at court and there are contemporary reports stating that he was close to his father and that Henry VIII took an interest in his education and upbringing. Alison Weir5 writes of how Richmond was sent to live with tutor, Richard Croke, at King’s College, Cambridge, at an early age.

Appearance: John Joachim, Seigneur de Vaux and the French Ambassador, wrote of Richmond as ” a most handsome, urbane and learned young gentleman, very dear to the King on account of his figure, discretion and good manners… he is certainly a wonderful lad for his age” and in 1531, the Venetian Ambassador said: “so much does he resemble his father.”6

Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond, sketch by Holbein

Marriage: Alison Weir7 writes of how, when Henry Fitzroy was aged 6, Henry VIII considered marrying the boy off to his half-sister Mary in order to legitimize his claim to the throne. Henry was desperate at this time because it was evident that Catherine was no longer fertile and he had no male heir. The marriage never took place and instead Henry pinned his hopes on marrying Anne Boleyn. On the 25th November 1533, at the age of 14, Henry Fitzroy married Lady Mary Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk and Anne Boleyn’s uncle. According to Alison Weir, it was Anne Boleyn who organised this marriage. Richmond died before the couple’s three year wedding anniversary and Antonia Fraser states that the marriage was never consummated, due to their young age.

The Fall of Anne Bolyn: According to the list in the Baga de Secretis, Richmond was one of the peers on the jury of the trial of Anne Boleyn on the 15th May 1536 and Alison Weir writes that Richmond was present at Anne Boleyn’s execution and that he “was doubtless there at his father’s command, as his representative, and may have wanted to watch because he believed that Anne had tried to poison him.”8 This refers to reports that on the night of Anne Boleyn’s arrest Henry VIII visited his son, “embraced him and wept as he told him that he and his half-sister Mary ought to thank God for escaping “that cursed and venomous whore, who tried to poison you both”.”9

Death: Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, died on the 22nd July 1536 (some historians say that it was the 23rd) at St James’s Palace. Lipscombe states that Richmond died of tuberculosis (consumption) whereas Julian Litten believes that he may have died of some genetic condition which was the same condition that killed his uncle, Prince Arthur, and his half-brother, Edward VI10. Philippa Jones11 writes that the speed of his burial suggests that he may well have died of pneumonic plague. There was no autopsy and the King did not give his beloved son a state funeral, instead he left the arrangements to the Duke of Norfolk.

Burial: Philippa Jones writes of how “rumour said that at first Richmond’s body was hastily buried at Thetford, in a stable yard, and moved later. Another version, probably correct, said his body was placed in a sealed coffin and transported in a cart covered with straw to rest in Thetford Priory, where others of the Howard family were buried.”12

Resting Place:
Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, was originally buried at Thetford Priory, Norfolk, but his tomb was moved to St Michael’s Church, Framlingham, Suffolk. His wife, Mary Howard, was interred in the tomb after her death in 1557. The St Michael’s Church website13 describes the friezes decorating the tomb:-

“The scenes on the frieze are all from the Old Testament. On the north side are: the birth of Eve; God giving the Garden in charge of Adam and Eve; the Temptation; and the Expulsion. On the west: the nursing of Cain and Abel, and Adam digging; Cain and Abel sacrificing, and Cain killing Abel. On the south side are: Noah’s Ark ; the drunkenness of Noah; Abraham and the Angels; and Lot escaping from Sodom and Gomorrah . On the east are Abraham and Isaac; and Moses and the Tables, and the Israelites sacrificing to the Golden Calf.”

You can see a photo of the tomb halfway down the page at http://www.onesuffolk.co.uk/StMichaelsChurchFram/Historicaltombs/

Trivia: In “The Tudors”, they killed Fitzroy off as a child but, in reality, he lived until he was 17 years of age and outlived Anne Boleyn.

Notes and Sources

  1. 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII, Suzannah Lipscomb
  2. Ibid., p90
  3. Ibid., p91
  4. Ibid.
  5. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Alison Weir, p123
  6. Lipscombe, p91
  7. The Six Wives, p134
  8. The Lady in the Tower, Alison Weir, p264
  9. The Six Wives, p320
  10. The Other Tudors: Henry VIII’s Mistresses and Bastards, Philippa Jones
  11. Ibid., p94
  12. http://www.onesuffolk.co.uk/StMichaelsChurchFram/Historicaltombs/

Futher Reading

*Alison Weir writes of how Richmond was “appointed Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle in place of Rochford” and cites Beverley Murphy “Bastard Prince: Henry VIII’s Lost Son”(2001) but Letters and Papers records Sir Thomas Cheyney being appointed Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle in May 1536 (LP x.898, 1015)

17 thoughts on “The Death of Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset”

  1. Louise says:

    Great article. It would have been a major blow to Henry VIII when his only son, albeit an illegitimate one, died. Anne and George Boleyn were later rumoured to have administered to him a slow acting poison. Needless to say this rumour was instigated by Catholic extremists, and there was no truth in the rumour.
    Just one point, Thomas Cheyney was appointed Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports following George Boleyn’s death. Fitzroy is often refered to as receiving the honour but the reference to Cheyney is in the state papers. (LP, x. 898)

  2. miladyblue says:

    Odd, for someone who had such prominence in Henry’s court and life, that there is so little information about him, or even more than just that particular picture. Or are there more pictures to be had, and that is the most famous?

    He certainly does bear a striking resemblance to Henry, though.

  3. Thaïs says:

    Sometimes I wonder why Anne Boleyn was always seen as the reason of everything bad and malicious in Henry VIII’s reign. In fact, she was very clever, intelligent and a passionate reformist (in my opinion) but she was sometimes misinterpreted by history at that time. However, nowadays (thank heavens!), we can clearly see how misinterpreted she was and how naïve she was to believe that she could have the power beside the King. Women at that period had only one right: to be silent and submissive to their lords. She tried to be different and got so many people against her…Poor Anne! She believed too much she could do anything we wanted…and every single one was plotting against her and her beliefs…Too strong in personality, but too weak…

  4. Lisa says:

    What about his illegitimate son from Mary, why is this child not considered important?

    1. Claire says:

      Because it is unlikely that Henry Carey was Henry VIII’s. He wasn’t born until 1526 and we know nothing of Mary’s relationship with Henry VIII and how long it lasted. I doubt that it lasted 3 or 4 years. Henry VIII recognised Fitzroy as his son, he never recognised either of the Carey children.

  5. Morgan says:

    What is this source “Ibid., p90”?

    1. Morgan says:

      Never mind…I understand now. Sorry!

  6. kim says:

    Elton 1977, p. 255. according to wikipedia fitzroy left 2 bastard daughters. i don’t think he was attracted to her though. a lot of 16 year olds have sex.

  7. Jackie says:

    Find it amusing that a little over 2 months after Queen Anne being murdered, Henry VIII loses his son to death. WOW talk about the Karma slapping you right in the face.

    1. Baroness Von Reis says:

      Jackie,I must agree with you what comes around goes around and remember shortly after, Queen Jane gave birth she came too her death.Just my thoughts on karma and how you treat others in your life time, it most certainly can hit you right in the face!! Kind Regards Baroness x

      1. Jackie says:

        You’re right about that. The death of Jane had to be a blow to King Henry. That’s also amusing because of death she got Henry and because of death she lost him. Same for King Henry a death gave him his beloved Jane and a death he loses her. Seems to me because of the wicked evil things he done to Queen Catherine and Queen Anne his life wasn’t blessed after Jane. And poor Edward died so young and never became a man. I believe he got his Karma through the rest of his years and even after death. When Elizabeth became Queen and ruled for many years a great Queen, That’s when Henry received the last dose of Karma

  8. Allyson says:

    Hey, so I noticed an interesting claim that showed up recently on Richmond’s wikipedia page. It’s sourced to Geoffrey Rudolph Elton in England Under the Tudors, published 1977. The claim is that Richmond fathered two illegitimate daughters. I hadn’t heard anything about that before from any other source, so I was wondering if you could shed some light on that.

    1. Melvina Lay says:

      That’s very interesting that the PIG Henry the APE reaped just what he sowed! !

  9. Angela Allen-Blount says:

    I am a direct descendant of Elizabeth [Bessie] Blount,

    1. Sraon says:

      Was just looking up who Fitzroy’s mother was and found this. That must make for interesting after dinner chats. What fun! I was thinking that Elizabeth Blount was lucky to have ‘escaped’ and gone on to two well-connected marriages, seemingly without the evil eye resting on her. I’m a believer in marriage but glad she didn’t (one assumes) try for it I think!

  10. I’m a very distant cousin of Henry Fitzroy 10X

  11. Kevin says:

    It seems rather unlikely to me that Henry and Anne would go to all the trouble of arranging a marriage for Fitzroy and then not allowing them to consumate the union on their wedding night. I was under the impression that the friends of the bride and groom actually participated (from a distance, of course) in the act. It makes no sense for Henry to allow his son to marry, and yet not to be married.

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