The Tudor Book Reviews 2: Bessie Blount, the King’s Mistress by Elizabeth Norton

Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount is remembered as the woman King Henry VIII did not marry. While Henry VIII’s six wives are all well known historical figures in their own right, the King’s mistresses have received less attention until comparatively recently. Mary Boleyn has been the subject of Philippa Gregory’s bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girland the popular biography, Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings by prolific Tudor historian Alison Weir. Bessie Blount has been a character in Tudor historical fiction such as The Autobiography of Henry VIII and The Shadow of the Pomegranate but has not been the subject of a biography until now. In Bessie Blount: The King’s Mistress, Elizabeth Norton reconstructs the life of the most famous English royal mistress during Henry VIII’s lifetime, the mother of the King’s son and rumoured successor Henry Fitzroy.

Elizabeth Norton is an experienced biographer of Tudor royal women, having previously written about Henry VIII’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort and four of his wives, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Parr, Anne of Cleves and Jane Seymour. Bessie Blount is her most challenging subject to date because there are far fewer sources about the lives of Henry VIII’s mistresses than his Queens and the formidable “My Lady, The King’s Grandmam.” In contrast to his contemporary, King Francois I of France, Henry VIII kept his  affairs discreet, particularly in the early years of his first marriage when he feared upsetting Catherine of Aragon during her frequent pregnancies with potential male heirs.

As a result, it is difficult to determine exactly when the King’s extramarital relationships began and ended and how many mistresses and unacknowledged children were part of his court. Furthermore, there is not any surviving correspondence between Bessie and Henry VIII, complicating analysis of their relationship. Norton observes in Bessie Blount: The King’s Mistressthat if it had not been for the birth of Henry Fitzroy, the subject of the recent biography Bastard Prince: Henry VIII’s Lost Son, the relationship might only have been known to scholars through records of gifts bestowed on the young lady-in-waiting by the King.

Norton does a masterful job of interpreting documents pertaining to the Blount family, Henry Fitzroy, and other sixteenth century court women to restore Bessie Blount to her rightful place in Tudor history. In Bessie Blount: The King’s Mistress, Bessie comes alive as one of the most beautiful women at Henry VIII’s court, sharing the King’s literary interests and taste for court pageantry despite her comparatively humble origins as a member of the Shropshire gentry. The birth of Henry Fitzroy encouraged the King to blame Catherine of Aragon for the absence of surviving sons in their marriage and believe that it might be possible to have male heirs with another wife.

While Edward IV’s illegitimate son, Arthur Plantagenet did not even receive a peerage from his royal father, Henry Fitzroy was made Duke of Somerset and Richmond and there were rumours he would be legitimized and made Henry VIII’s heir. Norton convincingly argues that Henry VIII may also have been the father of Bessie’s daughter, Elizabeth Tailboys, as the King took an unusual interest in this young woman’s marriage and property rights. Through her status as mother of King’s children, Bessie remained a notable figure at Henry VIII’s court even after his interest had shifted to the Boleyn sisters.

Bessie Blount: The King’s Mistress is not only the story of one woman’s rise to prominence at Henry VIII’s court but a case study of court politics in the sixteenth century. Bessie’s experiences were part of the Blount family’s attempts to increase their stature in the royal household through proximity to the King. Norton devotes considerable attention to her antecedents and the family of her eventual husband, Gilbert Tailboys, because family connections were critical to social advancement in Tudor times. Norton also uses Bessie as a lens for discussing the duties of ladies-in-waiting and the life cycle of a sixteenth century English noblewoman, providing a fascinating perspective of Tudor social history.

Bessie Blount: The King’s Mistress is an engaging and readable biography of an often overlooked figure at Henry VIII’s court. Norton effectively reconstructs the life and times of the King’s most prominent mistress revealing her historical significance and place within Tudor court politics.

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