Prince: Henry VIII's Lost Son
Phoenix Mill, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2001.
£20.00, v-287 pages, ISBN 0750926848.
Université de Rouen
Bastard Prince: Henry VIII's Lost Son is a meticulously researched
biography of Henry VIII's illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, who was
born in 1519 and died in 1536. As the only illegitimate offspring
ever recognized by the king, he received the education of a Renaissance
prince and was made Duke of Richmond and Somerset at the age of six.
Although today Fitzroy is a forgotten prince, he was not an obscure
figure in his lifetime. Beverley A. Murphy maintains that his destiny
cannot be separated from the king's desire to secure a legitimate
male heir and that his importance "stems from the fact that while
he lived, he was the king's only son" (3). Her contention is
that Henry Fitzroy could have become Henry IX, had he survived his
father and his brother Edward VI (born in 1537).
The first five chapters are chronological while chapter 6 and chapter
7 are more general and try to assess Fitzroy's authority and his impact
on history. Despite its sensational title and the author's evident
empathy for the young prince, this biography does not give him more
importance than he deserves historically. In the epilogue her somewhat
bold speculations about Henry IX's improbable reign are qualified
by first-hand testimonies of courtiers and ambassadors. From a scholarly
point of view, however, the book may not be entirely satisfactory
insofar as the sources (neatly listed in the bibliography at the end
of the book) are not systematically mentioned in the notes. One may
also regret that she does not tackle historiographical issues and
that she seldom compares her own research to the work of other scholars.
Yet, it should be remembered that this book is part of a series that
is directed at the general reader and that it is intended to be easy
Focusing on the king's anxieties about the future of his dynasty,
the first chapter sets the tone of the whole book. It deals with Katherine
of Aragon's successive miscarriages and the king's liaison with Elizabeth
Blount, a maid of honour in the queen's household, who gave birth
to a boy Henry's only son until the birth of Edward in 1537.
Although Fitzroy was not a legitimate child, Beverley Murphy convincingly
shows that he was treated like a prince. His godfather was Cardinal
Wolsey and the king's generosity for him and his mother were boundless.
The second chapter ("Heir Apparent") gives a full account
of all the honours Henry bestowed upon his six-year-old son who was
given the title of Duke of Richmond and Somerset in the summer of
1525. Earlier on, in April 1525, he had been elected into the Order
of the Garter. But the king's liberality is difficult to interpret.
Some people regarded Fitzroy's elevation as "a deliberate snub
to the queen and the Spanish alliance she represented" (50),
while other observers went as far as to think that an actual bastard
would sit one day on the English throne. However, as the author perceptively
points out, "it is dangerous to place too much emphasis on the
king's choices at the time" (56), for Henry did not handle the
matter in a very consistent way. For instance, should Fitzroy have
succeeded his father, he would have been granted the Duchy of Cornwall,
not the lands of Richmond and Somerset. Although female rule was regarded
more as a curse than a blessing at the time, Mary, who was the king's
only daughter in 1525, still outranked the Duke of Richmond in the
line of succession. Besides, Fitzroy's appointment to preside over
the Council of the North should be understood as evidence of the king's
overall strategy to control the far reaches of the land. It is also
undeniable that the prince's youth was used by Cardinal Wolsey himself
as a means to hold sway over the northern counties. We are thus invited
to interpret the king's generosity to his son rather in terms of "practical
necessity" (62) than in terms of inheritance and succession.
Chapter 3 closely examines Fitzroy's life at Sheriff Hutton, a magnificent
castle that had been restored for the young prince. At Sheriff Hutton,
the Duke of Richmond's education was entrusted to different masters,
carefully chosen by Cardinal Wolsey. Like a true Renaissance prince,
he was taught Latin and French, but he also engaged in practical activities
such as archery, hunting, dancing and music. Although he was still
a child, he was the king's representative and was the focus of patronage
and power for the local nobility. This aspect of Fitzroy's life is
well documented and the Council of the North is described as "rather
more successful at a difficult task than has generally been acknowledged"
(105). Beverley Murphy also looks at the king's marriage difficulties
in a European context. His decision to annul his marriage to Katherine
of Aragon in 1527 brings us back to the thorny issue of succession
and to Fitzroy's claim to the throne. In chapter 4 ("Lord Lieutenant
of Ireland"), which spans the years 1529-1533, the author further
investigates the developments of the king's 'great matter'. She studies
how Henry's divorce proceedings interacted with the destiny of his
bastard son. An annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon meant
that Mary was no longer the heir apparent, and that before Anne Boleyn
could give birth to a legitimate heir, Fitzroy came first in the line
of succession. When he was recalled from Sheriff Hutton in June 1529,
the young duke was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Once again,
although he never went to Ireland in his lifetime, it was clear that
he was to play an important role in the king's reorganization of government.
According to all observers, the young duke was also an important figure
in the network of national and international alliances. However, he
was kept outside the international marriage market despite his father's
efforts and a long period of negotiations. In 1531 he was formally
betrothed to the Duke of Norfolk's daughter whom he married two years
later in 1533. In the following years (chronicled in chapter 5, "Young
Courtier"), his chances of becoming king of England were revived.
Of course the 1534 Succession Act made it clear that only the king's
legitimate issue could succeed to the throne, but in May 1535, the
king's marriage to Anne Boleyn was made unlawful and Princess Elizabeth,
born in 1533, was no longer the heir apparent. As a consequence, "eleven
years after his elevation to the peerage, the prospects of Henry VIII's
bastard son once more became the focus of gossip and speculation"
(164). What is more, the 1536 Succession Act no longer confined the
succession to the legitimate line and many observers thought that
Henry was about to name his son as heir apparent. According to the
author, this was unthinkable as the king still dreamt of a legitimate
heir. This does not mean that Fitzroy was not cut out for the job.
On the contrary, Beverley Murphy shows how he developed into a well-respected
figure at court, assuming duties for his father on a regular basis.
His martial and intellectual abilities were praised by most of his
contemporaries and no doubt the news of his sudden death on 8 June
1536 came as a shock.
Before embarking on the speculations of the epilogue, the author looks
again at Fitzroy's paradoxical status and explores what it meant for
a child to be an independent magnate (chapter 6, "Landed Magnate").
The six-year old prince was regarded by his peers as an adult. His
appointment as Duke of Richmond and Somerset meant that he was not
financially supported by his father but that he was expected to provide
for himself from his own estates. Although Thomas Wolsey and the Duke
of Norfolk both assumed a supervisory role over his land and officers,
Fitzroy, unlike many children of his rank, was not a ward in the legal
sense of the term. He enjoyed all the rights of the Lord of the manor,
administrated his lands, exercised his patronage and was to be respected
and obeyed as the king's representative at the Council of the North.
Once again, as in chapter 3, Beverley Murphy provides us with a sympathetic
reading of the duke's minority government, which was often attacked
despite Henry's efforts to give his son an independent status. Interestingly,
she claims that the anomalies of Fitzroy's administration should be
ascribed to the kingdom's old feudal divisions rather than to the
age and status of the "small duke".
The last two sections of the book ("Legacy" and "Henry
the Ninth") are indeed permeated with a strong sense of frustration
as it is obviously impossible for the biographer to rank Fitzroy among
the great names of history. While celebrating the duke's virtues and
imagining what sort of monarch he could have, the epilogue shows how
a bastard's accession to the throne was a problematic concept in the
sixteenth century. Beverley Murphy recognizes that "the seventeen-year-old
Duke of Richmond departed this world as he had entered it, in quiet
obscurity" (213). In a final twist, she highlights the importance
of the young bastard prince in his father's dynastic anxieties and
stresses the fact that Fitzroy's presence had been "Henry's tangible
assurance that he could have a son reassurance for his subjects
and an insurance policy that Henry took for granted would always be
In short, Murphy's well-informed investigation into Fitzroy's short
career sheds a fresh light on the reign of Henry VIII and on the Tudor
age in general. It will be of great interest to all those who want
to know more about the complex mechanisms of succession in late medieval
and early modern European monarchies.