Thursday 25 November 2010

November 25th, 1533: The Marriage of the King's Bastard

Anne Boleyn liked to play match-maker and in the chill winter of 1533, the 26 year-old queen had reason to feel especially pleased with herself on this front. She had just managed to arrange the marriage of her young cousin, Lady Mary Howard, to the King's illegitimate son, Henry, Duke of Richmond. The married couple were both aged only fourteen at the time and, at the King's insistence, the consummation of their marriage was delayed for the time being. The King's own late brother, Prince Arthur, had died within months of his marriage in 1501 to Katherine of Aragon, who subsequently went on to become Henry's first wife.  Now, the King apparently agreed with his own late father in believing that it was the premature consummation of that marriage which had hastened young Arthur's road into the grave in 1502. Katherine, of course, famously declared that their six month marriage had been virginal. Whatever the truth, the English government's version of that long-ago union was now used to justify keeping young Henry and Mary apart on their wedding night.

Despite a later reputation for jealousy, Anne Boleyn was always charm itself to anyone, regardless of their position or potential threat, provided they agreed with her. The 14 year-old duke was apparently one such character and he had recently accompanied his biological father and stepmother on a state visit to France, by which time the queen-to-be had almost certainly already begun promoting the idea of a marriage between the teenage Henry and her pretty Howard cousin. From Anne's point-of-view, it made shrewd political sense to keep Richmond well within the family fold until she herself produced a legitimate son and neutralised any idea that the throne might pass to him when the King died. More importantly, Anne Boleyn took the obligations of family very seriously and despite an occasionally fraught relationship, she was well aware that her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, had been firm in supporting her ascent to the throne. This match was the perfect way to repay the duke's loyalty to her, by arranging for his only daughter to marry into the extended royal family. Anne's recent academic biographer, E.W. Ives, has gone so far as to say, "Perhaps Anne felt she had paid her debts to the Howards by persuading Henry to marry his illegitimate son, the duke of Richmond, to her cousin Mary without the large payment the king would normally have expected for disposing of so valuable a match."

Perhaps. Clearly, Anne's influence could be felt all-over the marriage, both in terms of sense and sentiment. As Professor Ives has said, the King did not request the normally enormous payment from Norfolk, which can only have been down to the Queen's influence, since there is no other reason for it. And aside from politics, the marriage between Henry, Duke of Richmond and Mary Howard was also one which bore all the hallmarks of having been arranged by someone who took a real and genuine pleasure in match-making. To begin with, the bride's brother and her groom were the best of friends; indeed, they had been raised together and educated together. Furthermore, both bride and groom were highly well-educated and both took an interest in poetry and the arts, as well as in emergent Protestantism. They were also of exactly the same age and they were both physically attractive. The duke was the son of the King and his one-time mistress, Elizabeth Blount, a famously beautiful woman, who some palace servants still rated as even more beautiful than the current queen. Born shortly after the final miscarriage of King Henry's first wife, the bastard baby was swiftly acknowledged as his own by the King, who showered the child with lavish presents, wealth, an enormous household and titles, taken from England, Ireland and Wales. The title of "Duke of Richmond," given to the child when he was only six years-old, was one which Queen Katherine of Aragon had felt the insult of particularly; Richmond had been the title held by the King's own father in the years before he had come to the throne. To the Spanish queen, it seemed like an ominous sign that Henry was planning to place his bastard above her own daughter in the line of succession.

In the boy's case, Anne decided to try honey, where Katherine had opted for vinegar. If she felt any concern about the prospect of the young duke supplanting her own 2 month-old daughter Elizabeth in the succession, she gave no outward sign of it. Instead, lavish parties were thrown and gifts were showered upon her de facto stepson as he was married in a glittering ceremony to her attractive and vivacious cousin. Since Richmond was undeniably illegitimate, Anne cannot have worried too much about any threat he posed to her own child - but, better safe than sorry.

Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond and Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond would never have any children together. Three years after their marriage, at the age of seventeen, the duke lost his battle with tuberculosis and Mary, now a widow before her eighteenth birthday, was to one day share her family's imprisonment in the Tower of London when another royal cousin - Queen Catherine Howard - incurred the wrath of her husband. Eventually, Mary was released when it established beyond doubt that she had no knowledge of Catherine's adultery. She died in 1557, having spent the last decade of her life estranged from her father and voluntarily living away from Court.


  1. Very interesting. I always enjoy your articles about Anne.

  2. I don't suppose the birth of illegitimate sons caused much concern for kings, even though their queens might have been upset.

    As you say, this baby was openly acknowledged by the King as his own, the mother and child were nicely looked after financially, and the son was ennobled. On top of that, you suggest that Henry Duke of Richmond was well educated and highly cultured. Not a bad life for a royal bastard :)

  3. I think that the birth of illegitimate sons could also be a source of concern for the monarch: an illegitimate son could be used as or become a rival to the reigning king or his legitimate successor. Charles II's favorite bastard James Croft Scott certainly caused his father and his uncle some trouble!

  4. Matterhorn, that's very kind of you. And thank you all for reading; glad you enjoyed it!


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