Four half-siblings, each with a different mother, sounds like a recipe for sibling rivalry at best, and hatred at worst, and the idea of a dysfunctional family is the usual presentation of Mary and her half-siblings, Henry Fitzroy, Edward and Elizabeth. But the evidence suggests quite a different story, during Henry’s reign, at least.
Mary’s relationship with Henry Fitzroy, her father, Henry VIII’s, son by Bessie Blount, is the one about which least is known. They were the closest in age – he was some three years younger, but she may not have known of his existence until 1525, when, just as she was being given a grand new household and sent to the Welsh Marches as head of the Council there, six-year-old Fitzroy was promoted to almost equal honours, with the ducal titles of Richmond and Somerset, that had been borne by their Lancastrian forbears, and the position of head of the Council of the North.
There is no information about what Mary made of a half-brother, previously being brought up quietly in the country, suddenly appearing at court. Who introduced them? What was she told? Was she jealous when she saw her father’s affection for the boy? Mary’s mother, Katharine of Aragon, was rumoured to be deeply offended by the introduction of Fitzroy to the court, but her previous hold on Henry’s affections was waning, and she had no choice but to accept the situation, even though, in part, Henry was demonstrating that the couple’s lack of a son was not his fault.
All we know of Mary’s reaction is that she called Richmond ‘brother’. With both children away from the court, they would not have met again until Richmond’s return to the south-east in April 1530. From August 1531, when Mary was separated from her mother, her presence at court was sporadic. She probably saw him occasionally, but not often enough to form a bond with him.
There are no details of when Richmond signed the oaths of succession and supremacy, which Mary had so vehemently refused, but we can infer that he did so, as he was at court, and amongst Henry’s courtiers and councillors during up until 1536, when he died a month after Mary was finally reconciled to Henry, having reluctantly accepted her demotion to illegitimacy.
Mary’s second half-sibling, Elizabeth, is the one with whom she had the most fraught connection, although we need to be careful not to read back from later events to colour our view of their early relationship. It was for Elizabeth’s birth that Mary and her mother had been set aside, humiliated and downgraded in status, and it was as a subordinate in her baby half-sister’s household that Mary spent nearly three unhappy and humiliating years.
She was not just superseded by the baby in rank for that period, but, it seemed, in her father’s affection as well. When Henry visited Elizabeth, Mary had strict instructions to keep to her room, but she can hardly have failed to remember the days when she had been the apple of her father’s eye, petted and played with as Elizabeth now was.
Mary was adamant that she would not take the inferior position behind Elizabeth when they were travelling between houses, and on one occasion, had even to be put bodily into a litter, but this does not seem to have given her any resentment against the little girl herself, although she would go no further in courtesy than to call her ‘sister’, as she called Richmond ‘brother’. In mid-1536, in one of Mary’s earliest letters to the king, after her reconciliation to him, she wrote in praise of Elizabeth, complimenting her brightness and assuring their father that he would delight in her in the future.
In October 1537, Mary’s new stepmother, Jane Seymour, finally gave birth to the longed-for legitimate son. Mary, now back in favour, acted as the baby’s godmother. Elizabeth, just past her fourth birthday, carried the chrism, being herself in the arms of the young Prince Edward’s maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, soon to be Earl of Hertford. The ceremony over, Mary took Elizabeth by the hand to walk out of the chapel.
With an age gap of nearly 22 years between Mary and Edward, and his mother dead within a fortnight of his birth, his elder sister became the closest to a mother that he knew. Henry was deeply concerned about the possibility of Edward contracting a fatal illness, and the Prince was kept in careful seclusion with visitors having limited access, but Mary seems to have been an exception to the blanket rule. The two younger siblings were housed in the nursery palaces as Mary had once been, particularly Hanworth, near Richmond, where Mary was often lodged. She would visit regularly, riding there and returning by barge. Numerous entries in her accounts mention tips and gifts for Edward and Elizabeth’s attendants, most frequently tips to the minstrels, suggesting that all three shared a love of music.
She bought them gifts, a book on one occasion for Edward and a clock on another and a trinket box for Elizabeth. Clothes, too were given - a crimson-embroidered jacket with pearls and tinsel sleeves for Edward and a length of yellow satin for Elizabeth. Elizabeth frequently received gifts of 20s to ‘play’ with, suggesting that the endemic gambling at court that Mary enjoyed, was extended to children. Edward probably had his own pocket money, but although Elizabeth had her own attendants, as the younger daughter, she was of lower rank than Mary, and would have had commensurately less money.
In 1541, Mary, visiting her siblings, requested that her father and his current wife, Katheryn Howard, come to see Edward, although no special reason for her apparent concern was given. Mary herself was often with the court, and as Elizabeth grew, she was sometimes with her half-sister. In the spring of 1543, Elizabeth was lodged with Mary at Whitehall, along with the widowed Katherine Parr, Lady Latimer, who was soon rumoured to be the object of their father’s attention.
With the marriage of Henry to Katherine Parr, which both sisters attended, Mary took up permanent residence in the court, and Elizabeth visited frequently. Both were very attached to their new stepmother. Mary was only four years younger than Katherine, and they shared intellectual and musical interests, whilst Katherine’s influence on Elizabeth was profound.
There are no letters extant between the sisters dating from before Henry’s death, but there are several between Mary and Edward. He wrote to her, as he did to his father and step-mother, in Latin. He would usually apologise for not writing more frequently, but the simplicity of his letters to her, compared with the formal epistles to his father and step-mother, suggest that he wrote them unaided, rather than with the help of his tutors.
In January 1546, when he was eight, Edward wrote to Mary that he was sorry to have neglected her, and hoped she had not forgotten him, whilst assuring her that, together with their (step)-mother, she held the ‘chief place in his heart’. In another letter, he assured her that, although he did not wear his best clothes often, he loved them best and similarly, although he did not write to her often, he loved her best.
In May 1546, Edward wrote to Mary again in response to a message from her apologising for not answering a previous letter. He informed her that her failure to reply was far less of a concern to him that learning that she had been too ill to write. He hoped she was better and that God would give her the wisdom of Esther. In a third letter, he thanked her for one he had received, that showed her ‘inexpressible love’ for him, and welcomed her wishes that he might grow up in virtue.
Edward was very concerned about virtue – being brought up by Reformist tutors, he had a rather more puritanical view of life than his half-sister, and on one occasion asked Katherine Parr to discourage Mary from ‘attending to foreign dances and merriments, which do not become a most Christian princess.’ Hopefully, Mary was touched by his concern for her, rather than revolted by his priggishness.
So, at the time of Henry’s death, we can see that Mary was on the very best of terms with her half-brother, and certainly not on bad terms with Elizabeth – but the next six years would change both relationships – and not for the better.