Ahead of the release of Henry VIII’s Children: Legitimate and Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Tudor King on 30 May (Pen & Sword Currently have a 30% off special throughout May) , I am doing a 15-part series on some of the smaller, lesser-known details that are covered in the book. These details played out in the background of the defining moments of the lives of each of Henry’s children.
PART 1: The Royal Lockdown of 1517-18
King Henry, in his typically luxurious manner, hosted a banquet at Greenwich on 7 July 1517, to celebrate England’s new League in Defense of the Church, a three-sided treaty with King Charles of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. This treaty specifically excluded France, but also defended the Catholic faith. The festivities of St Thomas’ Day celebrated the alliance; dinners, banquets, jousts, dancing, music, and a buffet thirty feet long, with meals brought out on elephants, panthers, and lions. But, among the glorious celebratory jousts, the worst possible scenario occurred, a huge outbreak of sweating sickness. The international pageant was not over, but ominous news of sudden deaths arrived at the court. While the disease did periodically spring up in England, it is also possible the hundreds of international visitors may have transported the illness. Two of King Henry’s younger privy chamber men, Thomas Baron Clinton, and Lord Grey of Wilton, died suddenly at Richmond.
Henry and Katharine fled immediately to Windsor and did not see their eighteen-month-old daughter Princess Mary for months. The last thing they needed was their precious daughter succumbing to the illness, not unlike the illness that killed Prince Arthur fifteen years earlier. The illness spread through England and then Europe, and deaths quickly ran into the thousands. Cardinal Wolsey fell sick with the illness for the fourth time and vowed to take a pilgrimage to Walsingham if he survived. The illness killed noble and common-born subjects with impunity, and with the king away, the locals of London planned more attacks on foreign merchants.
Henry and Katharine passed the months in seclusion, but those around them kept dying, and they fled to Farnham Castle to allow Windsor to be cleaned. They only returned to Windsor for New Year, where they could be reunited with Princess Mary. Mary stayed on with her parents at Windsor, celebrating her second birthday, and met Venetian ambassador Sebastian Guistanian on 28 February 1518. The sweating sickness was still out of control, but the ambassador touched Mary’s hand, given more deference and respect than Katharine. It was at this meeting that Henry uttered his well-known boast that Mary never cried, and Mary’s first public word. After the meeting, Henry and Katharine, and likely Mary too, left for Woodstock Palace to continue running from the sweat.
While Henry started his first book in isolation, Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, a collection of claims refuting Martin Luther’s works, the quiet time for the royal couple had a better result; Queen Katharine was finally pregnant, likely conceiving in early March 1518. The queen took a private pilgrimage to St Frideswide’s in Oxford, to give an offering to Christ Church cathedral’s relics. Having multiple children gave Henry and Katharine options; if Katharine had a son, England would have an heir, and Queen Claude of France had just given birth to a son. Mary could marry him and be Queen of France.
This time, thanks to the illness and the resulting isolation, Katharine kept her pregnancy quiet, and Princess Mary was returned home to Ditton to remain safe, as even Henry’s bedchamber servants were dying. Katharine did have a few ladies to keep her company during isolation, one being twenty-year-old Bessie Blount. While still in isolation, Princess Mary’s future marriage to infant Francis, Dauphin of France was agreed upon on 30 June 1518, and at once, this upset King Charles of Spain and Emperor Maximilian, the same rulers Henry had painstakingly entertained one year earlier when the banquet unwittingly released the sweating sickness.
Around the time of the marriage treaty, the sweating sickness infiltrated Princess Mary’s household, when one of her servants fell desperately ill. Henry ordered Mary’s household to move to Bisham, eleven miles northwest of her home at Ditton, before travelling to The More in Hertfordshire, where the king remained safe with Katharine. By this time, Katharine would have been visibly pregnant, and news of her pregnancy had spread. After time with her parents and staying well, Princess Mary’s household continued to move through summer homes, stopping at Havering, Hatfield, and Tittenhanger, before heading back to Ditton. This period of dodging the sweating sickness gave Mary one of the longest periods of her life when she could stay with both of her parents.
By September 1518, it was back to business as usual at the royal court, with a lavish banquet in honour of French delegates in London for Mary’s betrothal treaty on 2 October. England was giving away its heir in marriage; it was a massive gamble and the couple needed a son, so France did not take England’s crown when Mary married. As Queen Katharine was due to give birth to the longed-for royal son, King Henry was paired for dancing at the banquet with Bessie Blount.
Queen Katharine’s last child, a baby girl, was stillborn or died just after birth on 10 November 1518. Bessie would give birth to illegitimate Henry Fitzroy nine months after the banquet.
Up next -Part 2: The Birth of Elizabeth Tailboys