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The Ambiguous Babies

June 20, 2012

Every now and then, some hopeful genealogist will ask a curator or librarian (or a web forum) whether it’s possible to trace the descendants of Henry VIII. Of course, there’s usually a hope that the questioner will turn out to have at least a chance of being descended from him; monstrous in life, death has reduced him to a conversation piece. Unlike other famous royal figures — Mary Queen of Scots springs to mind — the answer is inevitably in the negative: Henry VIII has no known descendants. His three legitimate children all died childless, his one acknowledged illegitimate son also died childless before he was twenty.

This doesn’t mean all hope is lost, though. For a long time now, people have been taking a second look at Mary Boleyn’s two surviving children, Henry and Catherine Carey, who have the double recommendation of, firstly, having been born roughly around the time Henry VIII had an affair with their mother — at least, Catherine seems to have been although, as with everything in Mary Boleyn’s life, evidence is extremely sketchy — and second, that of having a plethora of descendants still living, including quite a few members of the British royal family but also a lot of less exalted families. Thanks to Henry and Catherine’s reproductive talents — between them they had roughly thirty children, most of whom were fruitful and multiplied in their turn — you could probably select any random page from the Dictionary of National Biography and find a descendant of Mary Boleyn listed there. (My personal favorite is P.G. Wodehouse). And while that’s all well and good, how much cooler would it be if in addition to carrying on the Boleyn bloodline, all of these people contained a fragment of Henry VIII’s DNA as well? There are arguments to be made in favor of Henry’s paternity, but wishful thinking also has to be counted as a strong element. The arguments pro and con are listed in a very detailed post from the Anne Boleyn Files, which you can read here, but the short answer is “We don’t know, and absent some quasi-miraculous discovery, we will never know.”

But that’s not an answer that works in a novel, especially a historical novel, when one of the reasons for its existence is to give the reader answers to questions whose solutions are otherwise perpetually beyond reach. So what do the novels say about the Carey children? Are they Henry’s children or William Carey’s children? Are they one of each, perhaps? Does Mary even know for certain? (There’s been a lot of speculation that Mary’s being the King’s mistress obliged to husband to do the gentlemanly thing and make himself scarce a la Barbara Palmer’s husband, but unfortunately there just doesn’t seem to be enough data to know whether this was an accepted practice at Henry’s court or not). You would think there would be a mix of answers, but in fact the answers break down into two main camps, the first of which isn’t listed above. They are:

1) Ignoring the issue altogether. This is common, though not universal, in the pre-1960s novels. Mary is mentioned as having been Henry’s mistress, but the ambiguous Carey children just don’t appear to exist, and the first reference to Mary’s maternity (if the character doesn’t disappear altogether after 1528 or so) comes with pregnancy by and elopement with William Stafford in 1535. From a plotting standpoint, this can make a lot of sense. Anne was certainly involved in some capacity with the Carey children — she did acquire Henry Carey’s guardianship after William Carey’s death, though that doesn’t mean she saw him much — but if you’re trying to streamline the story, the Carey children don’t add much, plotwise, so they’d be the first to get the axe (so to speak).

2) Making them both Henry’s children, whom he ignores because he doesn’t want to feel obligated towards more bastard children when what he really needs is a legitimate son. Inevitably they’re described as having suspiciously red hair, and William Carey is an amiable type who goes along with the fiction of being their biological father, treats Mary well (why not, since the appreciative monarch keeps giving him grants of land in exchange for services rendered?) and sounds like much less stressful company than Henry, really.

I can think of only one book off the top of my head which doesn’t take one of these two approaches, and that is, of all things, Doomed Queen Anne. In that one, Anne presses Mary about the paternity of the children, and Mary confesses that she simply doesn’t know; she was married to William, having an affair with Henry, and “both made claims upon me.” With the exception of this book, someone who had read only novels about Anne Boleyn could be forgiven for thinking that the Carey children had been officially established as Henry’s. Whatever the real answer to the question, I think the virtual unanimity of the novels which address the question at all shows what we really want the answer to be.

From → Essays

  1. Brown Line permalink

    P. G. Wodehouse, a descendant of Henry VIII … the mind boggles! Given Henry’s carelessness love of roughousing and childishness, he could be imagined as a Bertie Wooster gone very, very wrong. (And when he knocked off a policeman’s helmet, it came off at the neck.)

  2. sonetka permalink

    His poetic turns would probably leave a bit to be desired, though. “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is a hind, But something something something may no more, The something something something something, I something something tiddly-pom behind.” Winston Churchill was another Mary Boleyn descendant, so if Henry really was his distant ancestor, you could always say that his dream of his line ruling England into the twentieth century came true, in a roundabout sort of way :). Personally I rather like the idea of the well-connected if obscure courtier and the cast-off mistress having the line which is unlikely to die out while the guy who terrorized a nation in pursuit of posterity is left out in the cold, but then I’m not (as far as I know) descended from Mary Boleyn.

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