Was Elizabeth Tailboys the Daughter of Henry VIII? – Guest Post by Elizabeth Norton

Today we have a guest post by author and historian Elizabeth Norton who kindly offered to write us a guest article after her book caused such a stir in the media. I have written a review of Elizabeth Norton’s book, “Bessie Blount: Mistress to Henry VIII”, over at our reiew site – click here to read it.

Was Elizabeth Tailboys the Daughter of Henry VIII?

by Elizabeth Norton

It is well known that Elizabeth, or Bessie, Blount was the mother of Henry VIII’s only acknowledged illegitimate child, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset. What is less well known is that Bessie bore a second child within a year of Henry Fitzroy’s birth, something that must raise the possibility that this second child, a daughter named Elizabeth Tailboys, was also the child of the king. The article below is based on a chapter of my biography on Bessie Blount, which was released recently. Further information and references are contained in that chapter, but I have attempted to set out some of the most important below and to summarise my research.

Henry Fitzroy was recorded as being six years old in June 1525. His mother made her last recorded appearance at court in October 1518. It can be assumed that her pregnancy was not then obvious. She later moved to the privacy of the prior’s house at the monastery of Blackfriars in Essex where she gave birth. Fitzroy’s biographer, Beverley Murphy, has convincingly argued that Fitzroy was born in June 1519 and this would see plausible based on the above.1

In an Inquisition Post Mortem for Bessie’s youngest son, Robert Tailboys, which was dated dated 26 June 1542, Elizabeth Tailboys, was described as being then twenty-two years old.2 She must therefore have been born between July 1519 and June 1520. Obviously she cannot have been born within nine months of her mother’s eldest child, meaning that April 1520 must be the earliest possible birth date. Even a birth date of June 1520, the latest possible birth date, would mean a conception in early September 1519, within a few months of Henry Fitzroy’s birth.

If Elizabeth Tailboys was indeed the child of Bessie’s first husband, Gilbert Tailboys, her parents must have married within weeks of Henry Fitzroy’s birth. Gilbert was a few years older than Bessie, most likely being born between 1495 and 1496. He certainly fathered Bessie’s third child, George Tailboys, who was named after his father and was born after the couple are known with certainty to have been married. In an Inquisition Post Mortem for Gilbert’s father, dated 25 March 1539, George was stated as being then sixteen years old.3 He must therefore have been born between April 1522 and March 1523, meaning that there was a two year age gap between George and Elizabeth, but only a one year age gap between Elizabeth and Henry Fitzroy. This in itself makes it more probable that the two eldest children had the same father, rather than Bessie’s second and third child.

Gilbert’s father, Sir George Tailboys, suffered from ill health for much of his adult life and, in March 1517 concerns over his mental state were such that his lands were placed in the custody of Cardinal Wolsey and a number of Sir George’s Lincolnshire neighbours.4 By 7 July 1517 Gilbert had been taken into Wolsey’s household as a servant.5 The king first began to show generosity to Gilbert in April 1522 and in June 1522 Bessie was recorded as Gilbert’s wife for the first time. This argues for a marriage in spring 1522, which would allow for George to have been conceived soon after the wedding and to have then been born in early 1523.

There is also evidence that Henry VIII took an interest in Elizabeth Tailboys, above and beyond that which would be expected of the child of a former mistress. During his northern progress in 1541, for example, Henry spent the night of 13 October at Nocton in Lincolnshire, the home of Elizabeth and her first husband, Thomas Wymbish.6 It was also Henry who provided this wealthy husband for Elizabeth. Wymbish had become a royal ward after the execution of his guardian, John, Lord Hussey, in June 1537. In 1539, Henry granted the wardship and marriage of Thomas Wymbish to Edward, Lord Clinton, who was Bessie Blount’s second husband, allowing for Elizabeth’s marriage to be arranged.7 Wymbish’s betrothal to Dorothy Hussey was broken to allow his new match.

Following the death of Bessie’s two sons by Gilbert Elizabeth unexpectedly inherited the Tailboys barony and estates. Her husband petitioned for the right to describe himself as Lord Tailboys in right of his wife, something which Elizabeth, who always used the title of Lady Tailboys herself, resisted. Wymbish had good grounds for making this request as married women in the Tudor period could not legally own property themselves. Also, there was a recent precedent in that the king’s friend, Charles Brandon, had taken the title of Viscount Lisle when he was merely betrothed to the Lisle heiress. Unusually, the king heard the case at court, questioning the judges personally.8 Henry finally declared that ‘as it standeth by law, that tenants by courtesy should have the dignity, so it standeth with reason; but I like not that a man should this day be a lord, and to-morrow none, without crime committed, and it must so fall out in the husband of a baroness, if she die having never had by him any children’. Without a child being born to the couple Wymbish’s request was therefore denied, allowing Elizabeth to retain her title for her sole use for the remainder of her life.

In addition to safeguarding Elizabeth’s title and inheritance, Henry VIII made sure that she was financially secure. A document of 2 December 1546 made only weeks before the king died contains the details of an exchange of lands between Henry and Wymbish and Elizabeth in the north of England.9 The couple desired this exchange, signing the document personally. They also confirmed that they ‘do fully and clearly bargain and sell unto the same our sovereign lord the King’, something which again suggests that the bargain was welcome to them. In exchange for their lands in Northumberland, the king gave two manors, one of which had been confiscated from the recently dissolved religious house of Little Malvern in Worcestershire. Such religious land was highly coveted and, although the transaction involved an exchange rather than a grant, Elizabeth and her husband achieved an advantageous deal. The couple had already arranged to sell some of their acquisitions and, just over three weeks later, Wymbish sold the lands that he had received from the king in Hanley in Worcestershire to a local man, William Pynnock.10 Tellingly, in the charter recording the sale, Wymbish declared that he had obtained the lands, amongst other property, by ‘the gift and grant of the king’. Further lands acquired by the couple from the king in Warwickshire and Worcestershire, which were to be held for Wymbish and Elizabeth jointly and then for Elizabeth’s heirs alone, were sold by the couple in the first years of Edward VI’s reign.

There is further evidence that Henry VIII took an unusual interest in Elizabeth Tailboys. At a meeting of the royal council on 6 February 1547 at the Tower of London to discuss the minority of the young king, Edward VI, following Henry VIII’s death, it was contended by Sir William Paget, Henry’s secretary, that the king had been concerned about the decay of the nobility and had proposed that a number of other men receive new peerages.11 The list suggested was made up of both the grandees of the late Henrician court and family members of the king himself, such as his brother-in-law, William Parr, and his kinsman, Lord St John. Surprisingly, at the end of a long list one ‘Sir _ Wymbisshe’ was suggested to become a baron. Whilst the gentleman named was a knight, an honour that Thomas Wymbish never acquired, it does seem entirely possible that he was the ‘Wymbisshe’ that the king meant. That he was included in such an illustrious list would seem surprising. It is less surprising however if there was indeed a family connection between the king and the husband of Elizabeth Tailboys.

Wymbish never acquired his barony. This did not mark the end of the Privy Council’s interest in Elizabeth however as, at a meeting at Greenwich on 13 June 1550, the council were called upon to consider ‘a domestic quarrel’, discussing ‘the controversy between the Lady Tailbois and her husband, Mr Winbushe’.12 Whilst details of the quarrel do not survive, it was distinctly unusual for the Privy Council to be called upon to consider a domestic quarrel. Even more unusually, the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Lord Admiral and the king’s Master of Horse were deputed to consider the matter in further detail. Although, as a baroness in her own right, Elizabeth had a certain standing, the interest taken by the Privy Council in her affairs appears surprising. It would be less surprising if she was commonly, if privately, known to be the king’s half-sister, rather than merely the daughter of a long-deceased former royal mistress.

Further evidence of royal interest in Elizabeth can be seen from her second marriage to Ambrose Dudley, the son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who attempted to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne in place of the Catholic Princess Mary in 1553. Ambrose, along with his father and brothers, found himself in the Tower following Mary’s accession. In late 1554 Elizabeth commissioned the noted scholar Roger Ascham to write a Latin petition on her behalf to Queen Mary’s new husband, Philip of Spain, begging for the release of her husband.13 Philip evidently listened to this petition and only four months later Elizabeth sent a further petition, thanking Philip for restoring her husband to liberty, and requesting that he also restore her lands to her.14 That King Philip took a personal interest in Elizabeth Tailboys is clear from this correspondence – something which once again demonstrates the unusual level of royal access possessed by Bessie’s daughter, who was, after all, at that stage the wife of an imprisoned traitor.

If Elizabeth is to be accepted as the king’s daughter, the question must be asked how Gilbert Tailboys came to adopt her as his own child. It can perhaps be reasoned that Gilbert, who benefitted both financially and in gaining his independence through his marriage to Bessie, was unconcerned about taking on a step-daughter when his wife had already proved herself capable of bearing a healthy son – he had good reason to believe that his own male heirs would soon follow. It is likely that he considered that Elizabeth’s chances of inheriting his estates to be remote. Gilbert, who also later came into dispute with his mother over his appropriation of his indisposed father’s estates (apparently at the cost of his own sister’s dowries) also appears to have been ambitious and to have not had a particularly close relationship with his family.

There is some evidence that Elizabeth Tailboys was not entirely accepted by the Tailboys family and, again, this can be taken as evidence of her paternity. During Edward VI’s reign a legal case was brought by Elizabeth and Thomas Wymbish against Gilbert’s mother, Elizabeth, Lady Tailboys, alleging that she had taken steps to occupy lands that the younger Elizabeth had inherited and to despoil them between the years 1544 and 1547.15 The younger Elizabeth and her husband obtained a writ against the elder Lady Tailboys in 1547, as well as bringing an action for damages for the sum of one hundred marks. Throughout the proceedings the younger Elizabeth was referred to as the granddaughter of the deceased Sir George Tailboys, Gilbert’s father. However, it is possible that the elder Lady Tailboys’ defence contained a statement of the family’s own beliefs about her true paternity. In her defence, the elder Lady Tailboys claimed that she had committed no trespass on the land which was included in the Tailboys manor of Goltho. This was because, in a document signed in the fourth year of Henry VIII’s reign, George Tailboys had settled the manor on himself and his wife and then to the ‘heirs of their bodies between them lawfully begotten’. It is arguable that the elder Lady Tailboys meant to imply that the younger Elizabeth was not actually a member of this category. This is not made explicit in the case but it is perhaps telling that the court, which gave credence to the document produced by the defendant, did consider that the younger Elizabeth and her husband had a right to enter the land at Goltho. Clearly the court felt that the document gave the younger Elizabeth, as the granddaughter of George Tailboys, a right to enter and make use of the lands, notwithstanding the interest of George’s widow which was apparently something less than a full life interest given the judgment of the court. The elder Lady Tailboys would surely have read and understood the terms of this document, something which does suggest very strongly that her objection was based on the younger Elizabeth having no rights to the land due to her failure to satisfy the requirement of being one of the heirs of her and her husband’s bodies lawfully begotten.

A second case was also brought over the land at Goltho in the final year of Edward VI’s reign which again suggests hostility towards the younger Elizabeth by the wider Tailboys family.16 At the Lincoln assizes, Elizabeth and Wymbish complained that Sir William Willoughby, Lord Willoughby of Parham, Sir Edward Dymock, the elder Lady Tailboys and her son William Tailboys had taken their freehold of Goltho, denying their rights to the manor. Lord Willoughby of Parham was the grandson of the elder Lady Tailboys and Sir Edward Dymock was her son-in-law. Gilbert’s younger brother, William, was a priest (and, thus, unlikely to produce heirs of his own) and Lord Willoughby and Sir Edward Dymock were therefore amongst the co-heirs looking to inherit the Tailboys lands if Elizabeth Tailboys died without issue. The evidence of this case shows the Tailboys family grouped together in an attempt to limit Elizabeth’s rights to the Tailboys estates. Clearly, the family had no objection to inheritance by (or through) a woman, as the participation of the WIlloughbys and Dymocks in the case shows. The hostility appears to have been personal towards Elizabeth and, whilst not conclusive proof, does again tantalisingly hint that she was the king’s daughter rather than Gilbert’s. Elizabeth even moved in quasi-royal circles, receiving a bequest in the Will of Sir Charles Brandon, an illegitimate son of the king’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Suffolk, for a ring to the value of five marks.17

In order for Elizabeth Tailboys to have been the daughter of Henry VIII, it would have been necessary for him to have visited Bessie Blount at Blackmore over the summer of 1519. Henry VIII did indeed spend time in Essex that summer, arriving in the county on 20 August.18 He was at Havering-at-Bower between 20 August and 23 August, before arriving at Newhall later that day, remaining there until 12 September. Between 12 and 14 September he was at Heron Hall in Essex before spending two nights at Barwick and then the rest of the month at Wanstead. On 30 September Henry finally returned to London. Bessie is known to have been at Blackmore that summer, which is only thirteen miles from Newhall. Havering-at-Bower is a similar distance away. Heron Hall is even nearer, at only just over six miles away. Given that the court, which was encumbered with baggage and household goods, was able to travel an average of nine miles a day, thirteen miles was an easy ride for a small party on horseback. Henry had already shown an interest in his newborn son by making Cardinal Wolsey his godfather and it is inconceivable that he would not have taken the opportunity to see Henry Fitzroy for himself.

Given that Bessie had been pregnant on her arrival at Blackmore, it seems more likely that it was the period after Henry Fitzroy’s birth that saw the king’s visits which gave rise to Blackmore’s reputation as the scene of Henry VIII’s ‘lascivious dissipation’.19 Traditionally, a garter of the Order of the Garter which was kept in a house at Blackmore was said to have been left with Bessie by the king on one of his visits to her – whilst the garter was actually from a later period it does suggest that Henry was recalled as having been in the area during Bessie’s occupation.20 Henry’s later affair with Mary Boleyn endured through at least one of her pregnancies and there is certainly no guarantee that Bessie’s first pregnancy was indeed the end of the affair. It may simply be that a rapid second pregnancy ended any intention that she had of returning to court.

Based on the evidence of Henry’s interest in Elizabeth Tailboys, the likely time that she was conceived and Henry’s presence in the area at that time, it seems highly probable that she was the king’s child. Her gender simply meant that she was of little significance to the king and he had no reason to acknowledge her as he did her elder brother, particularly following the bastardising of the daughters from his first and second marriages. The later sixteenth century antiquary John Leland recorded that it was well known that Henry Fitzroy was born at Blackmore to Bessie when she was ‘then Lady Talboys’.21 Perhaps this misapprehension was due to an extended stay at the religious house due to the birth of a second child, who did indeed take the Tailboys name. It is very unlikely that Bessie and Gilbert were married until 1522, when he began to receive grants of property, as Gilbert’s consent to a marriage with the king’s cast-off mistress would almost certainly have had to have been bought. Until he began to receive the grants in 1522 Gilbert, who was a mere member of Cardinal Wolsey’s household with a still-living father also did not have the resources to support a wife and family.

One further piece of evidence survives. In the seventeenth century Lord Herbert of Cherbury wrote an early biography of Henry VIII, having the benefit of sources that are now no longer extant. In his work he mentioned the love affair between Bessie and Henry, commenting of their son that ‘the child, proving so equally like to both his parents, that he became the first emblem of their mutual affection’.22 The word ‘first’ in this context could be taken to mean ‘foremost’, suggesting that Henry Fitzroy was the principal emblem of Henry and Bessie’s love. However, it is possible that ‘first’ should be given its more literal meaning and that Lord Herbert was aware of evidence that Henry Fitzroy was only the first child of his parents, implying that there were at least rumours of another.

So, was Elizabeth Tailboys the child of Henry VIII or Elizabeth Tailboys? I would contend that the time of her birth and other evidence of her life makes it more likely that she was indeed a daughter of the king. However, I leave you to make up your own minds.

Notes and Sources

  1. Murphy, B.A., Bastard Prince: Henry VIII’s Lost Son (2002)
  2. PRO Durham 3 Inquisition Post Mortem Portfolio 177
  3. The Forty-Fourth Annual Report of the Deputy Keeper of the Public Records (1883:517)
  4. L&P I 2979
  5. L&P I 3446
  6. Hill, J.H., Genealogical Notices upon the Family of Tailbois (Transactions of the Leicestershire Architectural and Archaeological Society II, 1870:197) and Antiquarian Researches of the Archaeological Institute (The Gentleman’s Magazine vol 30, new series, 1848:295)
  7. L&P XIV pt I 905
  8. Hodgson, J., A History of Northumberland, Part II vol I (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1827:65-66)
  9. PRO E305/10/E82
  10. Worcestershire Record Office 705:134/1531/77/69
  11. Acts of the Privy Council, vol II, 6 February 1547 p16
  12. Acts of the Privy Council, vol III, 13 June 1550 p48
  13. Letter CLXXVI in Ascham, R., The Whole Works of Roger Ascham, vol I pt II, Giles, Dr., ed. (1865:419)
  14. Letter CLXXXIV in Ascham 1865:429
  15. Wimbish v. Tailbois in Plowden, E. (ed.), The Commentaries, or Reports of Edmund Plowden, of the Middle-Temple, Esq; An Apprentice of the Common Law, Part I (Dublin, 1792)
  16. Wimbish v. Willoughby (Plowden 1792)
  17. Sir Charles Brandon’s Will is contained in Clay, J.W. (ed.), North Country Wills (1908:216-7)
  18. Henry VIII’s Itinerary is set out in Samman, N., The Henrician Court During Cardinal Wolsey’s Ascendancy c.1514-1529 (unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Wales, 1988:354)
  19. Parkyns, G.J., Monastic and Baronial Remains, With Other Interesting Fragments of Antiquity, in England, Wales and Scotland, vol II (1816:80)
  20. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London, 17 November 1864 – 20 June 1867 pp77-79
  21. Leland, J., Joannis Lelandi Antiquarii De Rebus Britannicis Collectanea, vol I (1770:686)
  22. Herbert, E., The History of England under Henry VIII (1870:270)

Related Post