Why Was Henry VIII Obsessed With Producing a Male Heir?

On first sight, this seems like this should be an easy question to answer. Right? 

Back in the 1500s the eldest male was given priority in inheritance - whether that was to a family's country estate or the illustrious Crown of England. Henry VIII married six times to try and achieve a litter of male heirs and spares. It's obvious that he needed male heirs. 

But scratch the surface, and there's so much more to this story than first appears. And to fully answer why sons - and many of them - were so important to Henry, we need to look at his own childhood, England's track record with child rulers and sixteenth century perceptions of women. 

Prince Edward, by Holbein, around 1538, Public Domain

Could Henry's own childhood experiences tell us more about his obsession to produce male heirs? Henry was born in 1491 to an already growing Tudor family. Three of his siblings survived into their teenage years - his older brother Arthur and his two sisters Margaret and Mary. Prince Henry was Duke of York - the 'spare'. The daughters would be married to foreign powers to forge important alliances and Arthur was earmarked as the king that would follow Henry VII into power. Henry VII must have looked at his family in early 1502 and felt quite settled. 

On the cusp of adulthood, the death of the fifteen-year old Prince Arthur in that year though changed everything. Suddenly the younger, playful Prince Henry was first in line to the throne, and there was no spare. His father was now fifty-two years old. 

Being cast into the spotlight, mourning the death of his brother - and very soon his mother, a year later - Henry would find out he was next in line to the throne with a surge of responsibility. He would have noted the careful, mindful rule of his father and the meticulous reinforcement of his right to rule under somewhat shaky foundations, set down since Bosworth in 1485. 

in 1509, his father died and Henry was the next Tudor heir. There was no spare. The sudden deaths of his parents and brother showed him the fragility of life. It was now Henry's job to water the still-brittle roots of the Tudor rose so they could flourish for future generations. And here he was, alone and crowned king at seventeen years old. His mother had been lost in childbirth; his father and brother to illnesses. This must have left its mark on the young Henry and could also explain why he would take an active interest in medicine for the rest of his life. (1)

Henry VIII, around seventeen years old, 1509. Public Domain.

But what about the women? 

It seems strange to us, with our known record of strong, capable ruling queens like Elizabeth I, Queen Anne and Queen Victoria. But in early Tudor England they had no knowledge of this. Overall, women were seen as weak - they did, after all, commit the original sin by nibbling on the apple in the garden of Eden - and it was the thought that women's preconceived, but grossly generalised qualities - namely gentleness, changeability, lustfulness and obedience - were not suited to governing the realm, a job they imagined required a good deal more testosterone. 

It was the Duke of Buckingham who forcefully snapped in 1483 when Elizabeth Woodville was being considered to rule as regent for her young son Edward V, that "it was not the business of women but of men to govern kingdoms." (2) Unfortunately for Elizabeth Woodville, history was no help to her. For both the Empress Matilda and Margaret of Anjou, their brief reigns were characterised by chaos, mismanagement and war. 

Historically, an adult woman was an even less preferable option than a male infant, even though child-kings were rarely popular, or strongly effective. Take the reign of Richard II, who came to the throne aged ten, in 1377. He was assisted by a Regency Council, but even with respected, experienced nobles to rule for him, his reign was still peppered with the Hundred Years' War, the Peasant's Revolt of 1381 and frequent tussles with the aristocracy. Richard lavished attention on court favourites, which caused friction and jealousy. 

Another child-ruler, Henry VI, found himself on the throne of England when his father Henry V died suddenly while on a campaign in France, in 1422. As Henry's nine-month old, only child he was also assisted by a chosen Regency Council made up of eighteen 'trusted' men of the realm. It wasn't long though until squabbles broke out and councillors started to look out for their own interests. Henry VI had inherited the still ongoing Hundred Years' War, and the country soon disbanded into the Wars of the Roses, as wealthy nobles fought for power in a tug of war for influence over the throne. Henry suffered with mental and physical illness, was often uninterested in governing and plunged the crown into debt. (3) 

Henry VIII and his advisers would have been aware of the perils of leaving a child on the throne and, preferably would have wished to avoid leaving the realm in political and social unrest. Henry knew as well as anyone how corrupt and power hungry those at the Tudor court could be, and the factions that could look for power in the event of a minority rule. We'll get to that later.

As he sat on the gilded throne and had the bejewelled crown lowered onto his head - seated next to his Spanish wife, in June 1509 - Henry knew that to protect the Tudor dynasty he needed sons. And he needed them soon, so they had every chance of being crowned in adulthood. (It is perhaps apt that Henry was to later gift Anne Boleyn a ticking clock on their wedding day, as the promise of future healthy sons hung in the air.) 

Once crowned and married, Henry didn't wait around. Henry's first child was born seven months after his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. It was a girl, born prematurely - but didn't survive the birth. A son followed two years later in 1511. A newborn, gurgling in his ornate crib, he was excitedly granted the title of Henry, Duke of Cornwall. But sadly, the infant Henry would live to only two months old. Two years and two pregnancies later, he was back to square one. 

Considering he married six young women of child-bearing age, Henry left behind a relative lack of heirs, especially male ones. But it wasn't through lack of trying. In the first twenty-eight years of his reign, Henry generated twelve pregnancies that we know of - if you count the illegitimate Henry FitzRoy born to his mistress Elizabeth Blount in 1519. Katherine of Aragon conceived six times, Anne Boleyn four and Jane Seymour once (4). There were no confirmed pregnancies from his later three wives - Catherine Howard had thought herself pregnant shortly before her fall but this never came to fruition.  

Having four healthy children - two of them boys; one illegitimate - must have weighed on Henry's mind as he grew older. This says much about the risks of sixteenth-century childbearing and also, possibly, Henry's health - modern historians have speculated that Henry carried the Kell antigen in his blood, which can result in a higher number of miscarriages. (5) That his last wife Katherine Parr was married to an ageing Henry (but none the less desperate for heirs) for three and a half years but then fell pregnant within ten months of marrying Edward Seymour in 1547 might indicate that as Henry aged, his wives were less able to conceive. 

Henry's anxiety over heirs explains why he was so eager to recognise and elevate even his illegitimate children, as he did in Henry Fitzroy's case, immediately recognising him as his own and making him Duke of Richmond. There is debate over whether his known mistress Mary Boleyn's son Henry Carey, born in 1525 was fathered by Henry, but as he never officially recognised him as he had with Fitzroy, it's right to at least question this claim. Henry was desperate for male heirs, and, as he already demonstrated, they didn't need to be legitimate to wait in the shadow of Henry's throne. 

Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond, Henry's illegitimate son Public Domain

But illegitimate heirs weren't ideal to leave behind, either. In 1685 James II would face rebellion from one of his brother's illegitimate children, the Duke of Monmouth, who challenged his claim. In Henry's case, Henry FitzRoy unfortunately died in 1536. 

So, as it stood in 1547, Henry - battling older age and physical pain - faced leaving behind his nine-year old son as heir. 

We can see Henry's attempt to micro-manage the situation after his death in his Last Will and Testament, probably written at the end of 1546. He stipulated that Edward would be ruled by a Regency Council of men of his own choosing. The will - initially consisting of sixteen named council members plus another twelve assistants - was later amended to a smaller group, with some names being crossed out. Some historians, like David Starkey, suspect this is proof of court plotting after Henry's death, particularly as the will wasn't signed, but was stamped with a dry stamp held by officials. But Suzannah Lipscomb argues that this is probably not the case and that the will really does demonstrate Henry's wishes.(6)

If we do take the will at face value, the later amendments suggest some careful thought as to the choice of people to assist Edward during his early reign. As the monarch, there is the heartbreaking realisation that your own death creates your child's accession: you are not around to help them transition into their life-changing role. There's no doubt that Henry was aware of this and thought this through very carefully, removing on second thoughts those he believed might abuse their power after his death. It's likely that Henry fully expected Edward to marry in his later teenage years and go on to have healthy heirs of his own. 

We've seen how driven Henry VIII was by the need to secure the Tudor dynasty with a string of healthy male heirs. His father's preoccupation in firmly rooting the Tudor rose for future generations must have had some psychological effect on him. Henry's efforts to produce heirs resulted in an infamously high number of marriages and large amount of pregnancies. The 'failed' queenships of Medieval history and ideas about womanhood meant that, at Henry's death, England was not quite ready for a regnant queen, although of course this was soon to change. We've also seen how Henry's will shows careful and thorough consideration about which trusted advisers would assist his son, and that Edward's total reliance on these men was almost certainly not Henry's originally desired outcome.

It is ironic perhaps, that for all of Henry's preoccupation with producing a male heir, out of his three surviving children, he produced two formidable queens that ruled England in their own right. And it was, arguably, his youngest daughter Elizabeth that was the most effective - and, despite faction, adventure, rebellion and war -  maintained her throne the longest of all the five Tudors. 

What do you think? Do you think there are any other factors at play here, explaining why Henry pursued healthy sons? Let me know in the comments below. 

To fully understand why Henry was so driven to produce a male heir to rule after him, it is important to go back to the beginning of Tudor power and the events that lead to it, during the Wars of the Roses. My book, Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses is published by Pen and Sword Books and discusses many woman of the fifteenth century conflict that played parts we don't often hear about to day, including some women Henry would have known and his relatives. You can Order your copy here.

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1. Chalmers CR, Chaloner EJ. 500 years later: Henry VIII, leg ulcers and the course of historyJ R Soc Med. 2009;102(12):514–517. doi:10.1258/jrsm.2009.090286
2. Dan Jones, The Hollow Crown. Chapter 17. audiobook, Audible, accessed 21 Apr 2020. 
3. Ibid., Chapter: What Is A King? 1437-1455
4. Tudor Society, The Pregnancies of Katherine of Aragon, accessed 21 Apr. 2020. 
5. Science 20: Henry VIII and his Miscarriages - Was It The Kell Antigen? Accessed 21 Apr. 2020
6. History Extra, Who Hijacked Henry VIII's Will? Suzannah Lipscomb, accessed 21 Apr 2020. 

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