Finding illegitimate children in the Tudor royal family is a favorite pastime for some. Chief among the theoretical parents of these children would be Henry VIII, of course. (You'd be amazed to learn how many debates rage over whether Mary Boleyn's two Carey children were fathered by Henry VIII shortly before he fell in love with Anne Boleyn...Or maybe you wouldn't!) Elizabeth I is also accused of giving birth to secret babies, with theories targeting Thomas Seymour and Robert Dudley that would make TMZ reporters blush. As for the Elizabeth-as-bad-girl premise of the movie Anonymous, we are not going there.
The one and only accepted illegitimate child of a royal Tudor is Henry Fitzroy, son of Henry VIII and Bessie Blount, a beautiful maid of honor to Catherine of Aragon. Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, may or may not have been considered as a possible heir to the throne by Henry VIII before the boy died in 1536.
But was there another Tudor male in the 16th century, born on the wrong side of the blanket as they used to say, who not only lived through four Tudor reigns but was a key player at court?
Stephen Gardiner, the bishop of Winchester, was the grandson of Jasper Tudor, Henry VIII's great-uncle, and a mistress named Mevanvy ferch Dafydd from Gwynnedd, according to a persistent theory. If the rumors are true, Gardiner's mother, Ellen, was first cousin to Henry VII. She married a cloth merchant named Gardiner and Stephen was one of their children. He attended Cambridge at a young age and studied the classics, even meeting Erasmus.
Before we go any further, it must be said that Gardiner brought out fear and dislike among many of those who knew him. Moreover, in Tudor television series, Stephen Gardiner has been portrayed with evident relish by a series of actors as a Grade A Jerk:
|"The Six Wives of Henry VIII"|
In these shows, he's the man you love to hate. When Edward Seymour punches Gardiner in the face during the last episode of The Tudors, you feel good. When the bruise-faced bishop goes running to Henry VIII to tattle and has the door closed in his face, you feel even better.
Screenwriter license aside, how did this loathsome churchman reach a position of power in the Tudor court? Was it that he was family? Not likely. Henry VIII didn't care for his extended family; he executed them steadily throughout his reign.
The reason for Gardiner's prominence in the 16th century was his brain. Even his enemies grudgingly conceded his intelligence. His nickname during his lifetime: "Wily Winchester." The lawyer, royal secretary, councilor, and bishop survived Henry VIII's reign. A religious conservative, he was thrown into the Tower of London during the reign of Protestant Edward VI and occupied a cell for years. One of Queen Mary's first acts was to spring him (along with his old friend the Duke of Norfolk). Gardiner crowned her and served as her lord chancellor. He distrusted Princess Elizabeth and pressured the Queen to imprison her half-sister after the Wyatt Rebellion. It's safe to say that if he had lived to see Elizabeth take the throne, he would have been ushered back into the Tower.
In her book Henry VIII: The King and His Court, Alison Weir describes Gardiner as "an able but rather arrogant and difficult man":
He was of swarthy complexion and had a hooked nose, deep-set eyes, a permanent frown, huge hands, and a "vengeable wit." He was ambitious, sure of himself, irascible, astute, and worldly. Henry came to rely on him, sending him on important diplomatic missions and telling everyone that, when Gardiner was away, he felt as if he had lost his right hand; yet he was also aware that the Secretary could be two-faced.
Henry VIII and Bishop Gardiner had a complex relationship. They feuded with each other (as much as one can feud with Henry VIII), and the king withheld promotions Gardiner obviously longed for. Then, suddenly, he would be back on top. When the king made him bishop of Winchester, he said, "I have often squared with you, Gardiner, but I love you never the worse." Gardiner was an enemy of Cromwell's who relished destroying him. He also despised Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, but was unable to turn the king against him. In 1540-1541 Gardiner was in Germany, representing England at a Diet convened to try a last time to heal the breach between Catholic and Protestant. (Both Calvin and Charles V also attended.) It was a delicate and important mission--which failed, through no fault of Gardiner's.
But the bishop tried to have Henry's last wife, Catherine Parr, arrested for heresy, and when his plot failed, that contributed to his decline of influence. The king excluded him from his will. Henry's technique in controlling his councilors was to pit them against each other and stoke their fears. Gardiner's Protestant opponents claimed after Henry VIII's death that in excluding him from the will and list of councilors for Edward, the king explained that only he could control Stephen Gardiner.
The bishop's relationship with Henry's oldest daughter, Mary, also had its difficult moments. Early in his career, Gardiner devoted his legal brain to the king's case for annulment of the first marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Therefore, even though he was one of Mary's adherents, she never could bring herself to trust him completely. Once she was queen, Gardiner wanted her to wed an Englishman, and opposed her marriage to Philip of Spain, repeatedly trying to talk her out of it.
Stephen Gardiner died in 1555. One story has it that on his deathbed he said, "Like Peter, I have erred. Unlike Peter, I have not wept."
A strange thing to say. He was, it's safe to say, a strange man.
But was he related to the Tudors, whom he served and quarreled with for so many years? Returning to Jasper Tudor, the man was something of a warlord in a time when he didn't have a choice. During the Wars of the Roses, Jasper possessed two qualities in short supply: loyalty and patience. He supported his half-brother, Henry VI, without question, and did everything possible to help his nephew, the future Henry VII.
It was very important that Lancastrian nobles marry and beget heirs--the Yorkists were way ahead in that regard. Yet Jasper did not marry until after the Battle of Bosworth when he was 54 years old, and he wed the dowager duchess of Buckingham. They had no children. Since much of his earlier life was spent in battle, regrouping from battle, going into hiding, and living in exile in France or Brittany, perhaps he did not feel a wife was possible. A mistress made more sense.
In Gardiner's lifetime, no one said he was the grandson of Jasper Tudor, or at least it hasn't shown up in contemporary letters and papers. In the 18th century, this "fact" popped up in Cockayne's Peerage and a reverend's genealogical table. It gained strength over the years, though some always had their doubts.
Recent studies of Jasper Tudor do not dispute that he fathered one or two illegitimate daughters but suggest there could be some confusion over whether Ellen married the Gardiner who was the father of Stephen or another man with the same last name. It's unclear. The suggestion that he would need discreet royal blood to get into Cambridge and then rise in legal and ecclesiastical circles is not true. Gardiner's father was a prosperous cloth merchant, and the Tudor period was a time of men rising on their merits: the "new men," as they were called.
And so Stephen Gardiner may have achieved every illustrious promotion and survived every shouting match with a strong-willed king or queen not because he had Tudor blood but .... because he was Stephen Gardiner. A reality I suspect that Wily Winchester would have been prepared to accept.
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the Tudor trilogy The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, published in nine countries. The main character is a Dominican novice named Joanna Stafford; an antagonist running through the plot of each book is Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester.
Read Nancy Bilyeau's newsletter for links to more nonfiction stories about history and for first look at new short stories, tons of giveaways, and the first chapter from Nancy Bilyeau's upcoming spy novel set in the 18th century: The Blue. To subscribe to the monthly newsletter, sign up here.