Henry VIII of England had three legitimate heirs who went on to rule as Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I — but even during his reign it was common knowledge that he had illegitimate offspring as well.
King Henry VIII of England, who reigned from 1509 until 1547, is perhaps best known for his six wives and his desperate desire to produce a male heir. So who were Henry VIII’s children?
During his reign, the king produced a number of offspring. Some, like Henry, Duke of Cornwall, died young. Others, like Henry Fitzroy, were products of the king’s affairs. But three of Henry’s children were recognized as his heirs and went on to rule England: Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.
Ironically — given the king’s longing for a male heir — it would be his daughters who had the most profound impacts on English history.
The King’s Long Struggle To Produce An Heir
King Henry VIII’s time in power was defined by one thing: his desperation for a male heir. In pursuit of this goal, Henry married six women during his 38-year reign and frequently cast aside wives whom he deemed unable to satisfy his all-consuming desire to have a son.
Henry’s first, and longest, marriage was to Catherine of Aragon, who had been briefly married to Henry’s older brother, Arthur. When Arthur died in 1502, Henry inherited both his brother’s kingship and his wife. But Henry’s 23-year marriage to Catherine met an explosive end.
Disappointed by Catherine’s inability to give him a son, Henry moved to divorce her in the 1520s. When the Catholic Church refused his appeal — which was based, according to HISTORY, on the idea that their marriage was illegitimate due to her previous marriage to Arthur — Henry split England from the Church, divorced Catherine, and married his mistress, Anne Boleyn, in 1533.
But she was just the first of many wives that Henry took — and discarded — over the next 14 years. Henry had Anne Boleyn beheaded on trumped-up charges in 1536 because she, like Catherine, hadn’t borne the king a son.
Henry VIII’s next four wives came and went quickly. His third wife, Jane Seymour, died in childbirth in 1537. The king divorced his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, in 1540 on the basis that he found her unattractive (according to Historic Royal Palaces, the king’s “intermittent impotence” may have also prevented him from consummating the marriage). In 1542, he had his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, beheaded on charges similar to Anne’s. And Henry’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, outlived the king, who died in 1547.
Though many of them were brief — and almost all of them were doomed — the king’s six marriages did produce some offspring. So who were the children of King Henry VIII?
How Many Children Did King Henry VIII Have?
By the time he died in 1547, King Henry VIII had had five children whom he recognized. They were — in birth order — Henry, Duke of Cornwall (1511), Mary I (1516), Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset (1519), Elizabeth I (1533), and Edward VI (1537).
However, many of Henry’s children did not live very long. His first son, Henry, was born to great fanfare in 1511 while the king was married to Catherine of Aragon. Having achieved his goal of having a son, the king triumphantly feted young Henry’s birth with bonfires, free wine for Londoners, and parades.
But Henry VIII’s joy didn’t last. Just 52 days later, his son died. Indeed, the young Duke of Cornwall met the same fate as most of Henry and Catherine’s other children, four of whom died in infancy. Only their daughter Mary — who later ruled as Queen Mary I — survived until adulthood.
But though Henry adored Mary, whom he called his “pearl of the world,” the king still wanted a son. In 1519, he even recognized an illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, who was the result of a tryst the king had with Elizabeth Blount, a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon.
Henry Fitzroy, though illegitimate, was showered with honors. Mental Floss notes that the king made his son the Duke of Richmond and Somerset, a Knight of the Garter, and later Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. It’s possible that Henry Fitzroy could have succeeded his father, but he died at the age of 17 in 1536.
By that point, Henry VIII had another child — a daughter, Elizabeth, with his second wife Anne Boleyn. Though Elizabeth survived into adulthood, none of Henry’s other children with Boleyn lived. That meant that the king, having lost both Henry, Duke of Cornwall, and Henry Fitzroy, still lacked a son.
The king promptly had Boleyn executed. Just 11 days later, he married his third wife, Jane Seymour. To Henry’s delight, Seymour bore him a son, Edward, a little over a year later in 1537 — but she lost her own life in the process.
Henry VIII spent the rest of his life trying to have a “spare” for his “heir.” But his subsequent marriages to Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr produced no more offspring. And by the time the king died in 1547, just three of Henry VIII’s children survived: Mary, Edward, and Elizabeth.
The Fates Of King Henry VIII’s Surviving Children
Though Mary was King Henry VIII’s oldest child, power passed to the king’s only son, Edward, after his death. (In fact, it would not be until 2011 that the United Kingdom decreed that first-born children of any gender could inherit the throne.) At the age of nine, Edward became Edward VI, King of England.
Just six years later, Edward fell ill at the beginning of 1553. A Protestant, and fearful that his older Catholic sister Mary would make a move for the throne if he died, Edward named his cousin Lady Jane Grey as his successor. When he died later that year at the age of 15, Lady Jane Grey briefly became queen. But Edward’s fears proved prophetic, and Mary was able to take power.
Ironically, it would be Henry VIII’s two daughters who played the biggest roles in English history. After Edward VI’s death, Mary reigned from 1553 until 1558. Fiercely Catholic, she is perhaps best known for burning hundreds of Protestants at the stake (which led to her nickname, “Bloody Mary”). But Mary struggled with the same issue as her father — she failed to produce an heir.
When Mary died in 1558, it was her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth who ascended to the throne. Queen Elizabeth I famously ruled England for 45 years, an era dubbed the “Elizabethan Age.” Yet she, like her sister and father, also left no biological heirs. When Elizabeth died in 1603, her distant cousin James VI and I took power.
As such, King Henry VIII’s children certainly carried on his legacy, though perhaps not in the way he envisioned. All of Henry’s sons died before the age of 20, and it was his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, who left the greatest mark on English history. Yet they had no children of their own, either.
In fact, the modern royal family in the United Kingdom has only a passing connection to King Henry VIII. Though Henry’s children had no children, historians believe that the blood of his sister Margaret — James VI and I’s great-grandmother — does flow in royal English veins today.
After reading about King Henry VIII’s children, see how the Groom of the Stool — tasked with helping the king go to the bathroom — became a powerful position in Tudor England. Or, learn how Sir Thomas More was beheaded by King Henry VIII for refusing to go along with his plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon and leave the Catholic Church.