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Friday, 16 October 2015

Mother and Son: Bessie Blount and Henry Fitzroy, of Blackmore

Two books closely related to the history of Blackmore have recently been purchased for the Library of the Essex Society for Archaeology and History. ‘Bessie Blount, Mistress of Henry VIII’ (told in the title of the book by Elizabeth Norton), a lady in the retinue of Catherine of Aragon, was sent in confinement to Blackmore Priory in 1519 where in the neighbouring house she bore his child, Henry Fitzroy (told in ‘Bastard Prince. Henry VIII’s Lost Son’ by Beverley A. Murphy).

This note unravels the research and establishes whether Henry VIII may have really “gone to Jericho”.

According to Beverley Murphy, the King’s affair with Elizabeth may have been brief and began following the pregnancy of Catherine in April 1518. “It is a sad irony that Katherine’s happy condition was probably the impetus for her husband to seek solace in the arms of Elizabeth Blount” (Murphy, 27).  Elizabeth Norton disagrees, because as early as autumn 1514 Bessie had met the King: “without the birth of Henry Fitzroy, Bessie’s own affair would have probably gone unrecorded” (Norton, 119).  The birth date of Henry Fitzroy is unclear other than he was six years of age in June 1525.  About the time that Bessie was to become visibly pregnant Thomas Wolsey discreetly dispatched her to Jericho House in Blackmore, the home of the prior Thomas Goodwyn (Murphy, 30).  “Bessie made her final appearance at court early in October 1518” (Norton, 131). 

Wolsey was charged with taking an active interest in Henry’s illegitimate child: Blackmore was “sufficiently quiet not to rouse unwelcome gossip” (Norton, 133). Henry VIII is alleged to have been a frequent visitor to Jericho House and is said to have given orders not to be disturbed hence the expression used in Court, “He has gone to Jericho”. This has entered into local folklore fuelled by Philip Morant who used these words in his ‘History of Essex’ (1768) adding that the Priory was one of the King’s “Houses of Pleasure”.  Subsequently historians have suggested that Blackmore Priory was dissolved in 1527 because of its immoral goings-on. From “the records of the dissolution … it does appear that the prior was somewhat more worldly than he should have been” (Norton, 134): its debts ran to one third of the annual income.  But then if a future King lived there perhaps the debts were with some justification? 

Henry VIII may have visited Elizabeth at Blackmore, contrary to the view expressed by Murphy. Bessie certainly did not resume her duties following the birth of Fitzroy (Murphy, 31) and there is no record of the King staying overnight (Norton, 134). But this should not suggest the King had nothing further to do with Bessie.  Blackmore is relatively close to Newhall, Chelmsford, which was renamed Beaulieu in 1523, from where the King “set out to visit her. This is once again evidence that Bessie’s departure from court was not the end of the affair between her and the King” (Norton, 134). It is possible that she later had a daughter by the King around 1520 (Norton, 139) perhaps conceived in Blackmore (Norton, 151). Fitzroy’s biographer disagrees (Murphy, 32).  

The King was delighted with the news of the birth of a son and whilst in Essex that summer might have held a formal celebration at the manor of Havering-atte-Bower (Murphy, 31).  Cardinal Wolsey was named the child’s godparent, as he had been for his half-sister Mary, the only surviving child born of Queen Catherine, some three and a half years earlier. Although no christening records survive Wolsey’s absence from Court from 19 June to 29 June 1519 may have been due to his attendance at Fitzroy’s baptism probably at Blackmore.  Could the font have been the place where the ceremony quietly took place?

Bessie Blount was married off to Gilbert Tailbois (or Tailboys), who hailed from a rich Lincolnshire family.  This may not have happened as quickly as historians have suggested: the first record of marriage is recorded in June 1522 (Murphy, 33; Norton, 139). They may have married in April 1522 because “the king began to be conspicuously generous to Gilbert Tailboys” (Norton, 141).

Historians are again divided as to whether Bessie had any involvement in Fitzroy’s upbringing. Her biographer suggests “it seems probable that she would have retained custody of her son … perhaps playing a part in raising both Henry Fitzroy and Elizabeth Tailboys until her marriage in 1522” (Norton, 151).

Much admired and spoilt by Henry VIII, Henry Fitzroy was, by the age of six, created Duke of Richmond with the titles Earl of Nottingham and Duke of Somerset. This placed Henry Fitzroy in an honoured position because the title held precedence over all other Dukes except potential legitimate sons of the King. By doing so, Henry VIII had elevated his son’s position in society such that he would be a more eligible bachelor. By the age of eight Henry Fitzroy was Admiral of England, Ireland and Normandy but died in 1536, aged seventeen of tuberculosis. He was buried at Thetford Priory.  Had he survived the course of English history could have changed and Fitzroy crowned Henry IX.

Andrew Smith

Principal Sources:
Murphy, Beverley. A.. Bastard Prince. Henry VIII’s Lost Son (Sutton Publishing, 2001)

Norton, Elizabeth. Bessie Blount. Mistress to Henry VIII (Amberley, 2011)

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