Friday Royal Read: The Children of Henry VIII by John Guy

 All three of King Henry VIII’s legitimate children reigned after him as King Edward VI, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I. Nevertheless, Henry VIII’s relationship with his six wives has received more attention than his influence over his children. In The Children of Henry VIII, John Guy, one of the leading scholars of the Tudor period and author of Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart and the Penguin Monarchs biography of Henry VIII looks at how Henry VIII’s marriages, politics and personality shaped his children and the monarchs they would become.

Guy provides fresh insights about the intimate world of the Tudor dynasty from Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon in 1509 to the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558. Henry VIII had six wives and numerous mistresses yet only four acknowledged children survived to adulthood: one child from each of his first three marriages and a single illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy. Tudor medical history is therefore at centre of The Children of Henry VIII as Guy discusses the conditions that may have shaped Henry VIII’s family and the course of English history. Guy speculates that Henry VIII’s elder brother (and Catherine of Aragon’s first husband) may have died of testicular cancer, which prevented the consummation of the marriage. Guy also discusses whether Henry VIII had a rare genetic condition that precluded fathering more than one healthy child with each of his wives and mistresses.

The question of how royal children should be raised and educated in sixteenth century England is also discussed throughout Guy’s work. Perhaps because there were so few royal children in the Tudor dynasty, Henry VIII’s wives were often eager to take an active role in childrearing that was unusual for a queen consort. Catherine of Aragon corrected her daughter Mary’s latin exercises, Anne Boleyn lavished attention and presents on her daughter Elizabeth and Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, took an active interest in the upbringing and education of her younger stepchildren. While Henry VIII was an unpredictable father, alternating between lavishing attention on Mary, Elizabeth and Henry Fitzroy and ignoring them depending on the state of his marriages, their mothers took a strong interest in them.

Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy is little known today because he died in 1536 at the age of only seventeen and therefore did not play a role in the succession after Henry VIII’s death. Guy restores Henry Fitzroy to his proper place in history, discussing how he was a direct threat to the succession prospects of the future Mary I during Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII feared that female succession would destabilize England and explored the possibility of making his illegitimate son his heir. At a time when the laws of succession were still relatively flexible Guy explains, “Who was king, constitutionally, was a question of whom Parliament would recognize as king..” Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn did not only diminish Mary’s prospects but the place of Henry Fitzroy, who was suddenly ignored by his father and distrusted by the new queen.

Guy provides a detailed analysis of the four acknowledged children of Henry VIII: Mary I, Henry Fitzroy, Elizabeth I and Edward VI but there is no discussion of whether Henry had further children who were not publicly acknowledged beyond a dismissal of rumors surrounding his mistress Mary Boleyn’s son, Henry Carey. There were numerous other alleged illegitimate children of Henry VIII including Mary Boleyn’s daughter, Catherine Carey, Henry Fitzroy’s younger sister and an obscure young woman named Ethelreda Malte. Guy’s theories about Henry VIII’s medical history and attitudes toward his children are relevant to the question of how many children were fathered by the king and the book could have included a chapter analyzing the speculation surrounding Catherine Carey, Ethelreda Malte and others.

The Children of Henry VIII is an engaging and thought provoking account of the changing fortunes of Henry VIII’s children. Only the king’s sole legitimate son, the future Edward VI, enjoyed the consistent attention of his father. Mary, Elizabeth and Henry Fitzroy alternated between being showered with honours and almost entirely ignored.  Henry VIII’s treatment of his children shaped their relations with one another and the monarchs that three of them would become.

Next week: Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer

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