Being King Henry VIII’s lover was a dangerous game—just ask his six ill-fated wives. Yet no one played that game better than Elizabeth Blount, one of Henry’s most important yet little-known mistresses. “Bessie” was Henry’s real uncrowned queen, and her history is chilling. Dive in to find out more about his hidden icon of the Tudor era.
Bessie Blount Facts
1. She Was Born to Be Scandalous
Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount was built for her dubious destiny from the start. Born around 1498 in the sleepy county of Shropshire, her father sir John Blount was very cozy with King Henry VIII, and even accompanied him on campaign in France. But as Bessie grew up, she started to gain royal intimacy of a very different kind…
2. She Was Unusually Beautiful
Even as a young girl, one thing was clear to everyone who knew her: Bessie was a looker. She had a reputation around town as a great beauty, and though no contemporary portrait survives of her today, she is often depicted with a pale, lively complexion and a full mouth. Regardless, her parents intended to use her good looks for all they were worth.
3. Drama Ran in Her Family
Bessie and her mother Katherine were likely tight-knit—for a pretty disgusting reason. They were very close in age: Katherine had married when she was just 10 years old, and the poor girl had Bessie when she was around 16. Not exactly a mature role model for Bess, which maybe explains why her life turned out so scandalously.
4. She Was Close to the Queen
When little Bessie was just 12 years old, her fate came knocking. Her ambitious parents carted her off to become a maid of honor to the Spanish Queen Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII’s first wife. It was an incredibly competitive and desirable position, so you might think Bessie would be grateful. That’s not what happened.
5. She Had to Pass a Grueling Test
Few people know just how grueling a process it was to become a royal lady-in-waiting. Bessie had to pass tests in “beauty, grace, and good manners” to snag the role, but she blew all the courtiers out of the water with her new girl energy. She was especially “renowned for her skill in music and dancing.” It didn’t take long, then, before she caught King Henry’s eye…
6. She Was Henry VIII’s Type
According to one historian, Bessie was as close to King Henry’s “ideal woman” as you could get. She was “young, beautiful, intelligent” as well as lively and physically fit. Queen Catherine of Aragon, meanwhile, was nearly a decade older than Blount, practical, and extremely pious. As it turned out, this was a recipe for trouble.
7. She Caught Henry’s Eye in a Flashy Way
We know almost exactly when and where Henry VIII first became smitten with Bessie: At a court masque in 1514. During Henry’s reign, these costume “masques” were sites of carnal frenzy, and Bessie’s sensual skills on the dance floor attracted the strapping king. However, there was one big problem, but it might not be what you think…
8. Henry Genuinely Loved Her
Yes, Bessie was under the employ of Henry’s royal wife—but that’s actually not even the most awkward part about their dalliance. According to historian Philippa Jones, the real problem was that Henry was head over heels for Bess, and his passion threatened to spill out for all the court to see. Kings were meant to keep their affairs discreet, so he had to resort to desperate measures.
9. The King Gave Her Hush Money
Henry kept his relationship with Bessie under lock and key, and he’d gotten very good over the years at keeping his bedroom romps secret. There was, however, one clue to the truth. In July 1514, Henry sent Bessie’s father a tidy sum of 146 pounds. Yeah, the sugar daddy move is a little gross, but…it gets a lot grosser than that.
10. She Grew up Too Fast
According to some historians’ estimations, when the 23-year-old King Henry met and romanced Bessie, she was actually a bare 13 years old. In fact, when you consider that Tudor diets weren’t the healthiest and many women had late onset puberty, it’s very likely Bessie was basically a child when she met the king. Did this stop Henry? Uh, no.
11. Henry Seduced Her
Courtship at the time was dialed up to 11, and King Henry VIII did not hold back on his new teenaged crush. Playing the role of chivalrous knight, he likely sent the young girl poetic love letters and gave her expensive gifts and treats for her pleasure. I mean, how could any tween resist? Too bad it all eventually went very sour….
12. The King Exposed Her
Besides Henry’s (almost) undying passion for Bessie, there’s another reason their relationship was remarkable. Generally, kings took mistresses who were already married, so that if they did happen to get pregnant, they could always pass the baby off as their husband’s child. Bessie had no such protection, and it would come back to haunt her.
13. She Got Henry’s Best Years
Bessie kind of lucked out with Henry VIII, at least when it came to the looks department. Although the king infamously grew obese and sickly in his old age, Bessie had him for the “hot years” when he was an athletic, lively, and intelligent hunk with flaming auburn hair and a twinkle in his eyes. Those charmers, they’ll get you.
14. She Watched the Royal Marriage Fall Apart
Because Bessie was so close to Catherine of Aragon, she had a front-row seat to the disaster that was the royal marriage. King Henry was desperate for a son, yet Catherine kept having miscarriages. Then, when Catherine finally had a healthy baby in 1516, it was a girl, the future Queen Mary of England. Henry began to worry he’d never have a son, and you can bet Bessie used this to her advantage.
15. She Betrayed Her Queen
While Catherine of Aragon was going through purgatory trying to please Henry, Bessie was living the high life. Their affair continued for years—more than any of his other dalliances. So while Henry was disappointed in his newborn daughter Mary, he went crying about it into Bessie’s bosom. And then things got even more scandalous…
16. She Received Scandalous News
In late 1518, Bessie received an enormous shock. She was pregnant—and the father was none other than the dang King of England. To up the ick factor, Bessie conceived with Henry around the same time that Catherine of Aragon was pregnant again with what would be yet another stillborn daughter. Bessie’s fate, however, was much different.
17. She Kept a Huge Secret
As Catherine grieved her stillborn girl, Bessie’s belly swelled happily. In fact, it was such a tense, unseemly situation that Henry—in a rare moment of good judgement—had Bessie moved to a remote religious cloister far away from the royal palace so she could prepare for the birth in some semblance of decorum. But she couldn’t hide forever.
18. She Did What the Queen Couldn’t
Bessie went into labor in June, 1519 when she was likely just a teenager and barely more than a child herself. Nonetheless, Henry had his aides watch his mistress like a hawk—and when she finally managed to push out the child, the babe shocked all in attendance. It was everything Henry had been longing for: A healthy baby boy. Bessie’s life was never the same again.
19. She Ruined the Queen
When Bessie gave birth to little Henry FitzRoy, it wasn’t just a personal triumph—it was much darker than that. After Henry’s long years alongside Catherine of Aragon without a male heir, Bessie proved to the king that he could have sons, and that the problem must have been with Catherine herself. It was the beginning of the end for Catherine, and Bessie was right in the middle.
20. She Gave Henry an Heir
When Henry VIII heard about his newborn (if illegitimate) son, he was over the moon. He even christened the child “Henry FitzRoy,” a name that has multiple meanings. First, Henry was officially acknowledging Bessie’s child as his own. Second, “FitzRoy” was a not-so-subtle way of saying “Son of the king”—just in case Catherine of Aragon missed it. And Henry’s pettiness didn’t end there.
21. Henry Used Her Like a Pawn
Henry VIII was nothing if not tacky, and the way he decided to announce little Henry’s birth to the world gives new meaning to the word “insensitive.” Likely when Catherine of Aragon was away giving a banquet to her private friends, Henry took the opportunity to parade around his illegitimate son for all the court to see. Real classy—but Bessie ended up getting some attention of her own.
22. She Started a Trend
Because Bessie had given King Henry his long-awaited son—illegitimate or not—a popular saying about her persisted from the Tudor period onward: “Bless ‘ee, Bessie Blount.” You know you’ve officially made it into the annals of history when tavern regulars are using your name in their toasts. Honestly, I say good on ya, Bess.
23. The King Gave Her a Strange “Gift”
During Bessie’s golden months with King Henry VIII just after the birth of her son, the monarch stopped at almost nothing to bestow honors on her. He even named his closest advisor Thomas Wolsey as little Henry FitzRoy’s godfather. In a hilariously narcissistic move, some experts even suggest that the king named himself as a second godfather. But soon after the birth, Henry dealt Bessie a brutal betrayal.
24. She Went Through a Sudden Breakup
Very quickly after Bessie went through the trouble of pushing out his whole child, the King dealt his favorite mistress a shocking blow. Henry suddenly ended their relationship. The reasons behind their split are still mysterious, but it might have had something to do with the fact that since Bessie had proven he could have sons, Henry no longer needed her. However, some historians point to an even crueler reason.
25. She May Have Repulsed Henry
According to one historian, Bessie’s childbirth may have suddenly made Henry feel repulsed by his mistress. To the king, “babies…were for wives and not for mistresses, who should inhabit a more ethereal realm of chivalric fantasy.” In other words, motherhood wasn’t sexy enough. Oh, but there might have been another factor driving the breakup, and this one is a real doozy…
26. The King Cruelly Replaced Her
Right after King Henry pushed poor Bessie out of his revolving door of women, Mary Boleyn walked in. That’s right, Anne Boleyn’s sister became Henry’s mistress next, with Henry phasing Bessie out because of his infatuation with this “Other Boleyn” girl. That doesn’t mean that Bessie was done with Henry, though…she just had very twisted route back to him.
27. She Bested Anne Boleyn
Today, we now know that Anne Boleyn became King Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife, not Bessie. Yet Henry’s nobles might have been puzzled at his choosing Anne over Blount. Sure, Anne was reportedly bewitching— but according to one courtier who knew both women, Bessie Blount was even more beautiful than Boleyn herself.
28. Her Husband Was a Lunatic
Henry wanted to get Bessie married off fast after their relationship cooled, and set about finding her a mate— but he couldn’t have picked a worse husband. Blount wed Gilbert Tailboys, the Baron of Kyme, in an arranged ceremony in 1522. Yet there was a chilling side to her special day: Gilbert’s family had a history of insanity. Thanks a lot, Henry.
29. She Was Torn From Her Child
Bessie must have felt another cruelty when she married Gilbert: It meant she had to distance herself even further from her son. After all, Henry FitzRoy was the acknowledged son of the king, and palace officials immediately took over his education and rearing. In truth, Bessie saw very little of him in the coming years…and, given her son’s dark end, it was absence she came to regret.
30. She Never Stopped Loving Her Son
Despite the fact that she wasn’t allowed to see much of her son, Bessie defiantly made every minute count. She made regular, if sparse, visits to Henry FitzRoy, often bringing him extravagant gifts like a doublet of white satin and, at one point, two whole freaking horses—apparently, Bessie’s son had inherited his parents’ love of horseback riding.
31. She Became a Widow
Bessie Blount was supposed to settle down with Gilbert and his literally insane family, and she tried her best…at least at first. She had three children with Gilbert and attempted to make a good go of it, but Tudor times were unspeakably cruel. In 1530, Gilbert passed, leaving Blount alone once more. Except that’s when the wolves came knocking…
32. She Got an Indecent Proposal
When she was a widow, men still fell over themselves for Beautiful Bess, particularly the powerful Lord Leonard Gray. Gray was an old man 20 years Bessie’s senior, but his family was very influential and most people considered him a good match. So when he came to Bessie’s door with a proposal, he was shocked at her answer.
33. She Turned Down a Powerful Man
Bessie had been the mistress of the King of England, she was the mother of a royal child, and she sure as heck knew her worth. Although Lord Gray was stunned to no end, she welcomed him into her home only to coldly refuse his ring and his moneybags. Instead, Blount went a completely different direction in her love life.
34. She Was a Cradle-Robber
Rather than marrying a Daddy Warbucks, the widowed Bessie had the privilege to marry for love—and what a love it was. She chose her second husband, Baron Edward Fiennes, not for his money (he didn’t have much), but for his looks. Get this: Edward was at least 12 years younger than Bessie, and reportedly a total hunk. Get it, girl.
35. She Suffered Every Mother’s Worst Nightmare
In July 1536, fate heaped yet another devastating tragedy at Blount’s door. Her son with the king, Henry FitzRoy, perished suddenly of a mysterious illness. The king had actually been grooming the 17-year-old boy as his next possible heir, and now the grieving Bessie had nothing to tie her to Henry anymore. But there was actually something even more tragic about her child’s demise.
36. Her Son Met a Dark End
Though historians commonly believe that Henry FitzRoy perished from tuberculosis, his burial hints at a more chilling possibility. King Henry VIII ordered a speedy, bare-bones affair, and even barred Bessie from attending her own son’s funeral. Why the secrecy? Some believe that FitzRoy actually succumbed to the very contagious pneumonic plague. Either way, Bessie sadly never saw her son into the next life.
37. She Survived Henry’s Rages
Throughout her years away from King Henry VIII’s court, Bessie watched as her former lover made an enormous fool of himself, divorcing Catherine of Aragon and then marrying his shiny, new mistress Anne Boleyn—before beheading her in 1536. Bessie probably felt relieved she wasn’t in that hot mess anymore…but that didn’t explain her next actions.
38. She Rebounded With Henry VIII
In 1539, Henry VIII was on to wife number four, and he had chosen Anne of Cleves for the dubious honor. Well, our Bessie apparently just couldn’t keep her nose out of it any longer, and she made a strange decision. She made a triumphant return to court as Anne of Cleves’ lady-in-waiting. It’s never a good idea to befriend your ex’s new flame, and this went particularly badly.
39. She Had a Curse
Bessie Blount might have been the most cursed mistress in history. Not only was she—and her baby boy—the death knell for Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, her presence didn’t do great things for Anne of Cleves either. No sooner did Cleves enter Henry’s court than he was trying to divorce her…but things were even worse for Bessie herself.
40. She Had a Hidden Talent
One little-known fact about Bessie? She wasn’t just a pretty face. In addition to her courtly manners, Bessie also had to be able to play an instrument to become Catherine of Aragon’s maid of honor. Not content to just meet expectations, the young Bessie reportedly actually composed her own music. Did someone say “girl crush”?
41. She Forgave Her Lover
Even though Henry used her and then discarded her, Bessie Blount apparently had a heart of gold. Historical records indicate that even long after their relationship ended and the king had carted her off to marry a lunatic, Henry and Good Mistress Bess exchanged New Year’s gifts with each other. She’s a better woman than me.
42. She Earned Her Place
Bessie’s salary when she worked with Queen Catherine of Aragon as a royal lady-in-waiting amounted to only about five British pounds a year. Not anything to sniff at in the Tudor period, I’m sure, but I also can’t really blame the girl for sneaking into King Henry VIII’s bed to get a few extra perks on the job, you know?
43. She Had a Mysterious Illness
Around the time she was Anne of Cleves’ lady-in-waiting, Bessie started suffering from a mysterious ailment that was so severe, it cut her employment short. Bessie went back to her husband to recover, and never got the chance to serve Henry’s next queen, Catherine Howard. Her sick leave would prove to be fatal—and mysterious.
44. She Met a Cruel Fate
By 1539 or 1540, Henry’s most important mistress Bessie Blount was dead. To many historians today, the best guess is that when Bessie left the queen’s employ, she was tragically suffering from the same illness that felled her own son: tuberculosis, or as people knew it then, consumption. Seems like an open and shut case, right? But the truth may be much more complicated.
45. Her Death May Have Been Painful
When Bessie passed, her demise happened shortly after she gave birth to her third daughter Margaret, which has led some historians to believe her end may have been even darker than consumption. Poor Bessie may have passed either in childbirth, or from complications after childbirth. Yet it somehow gets more heartbreaking.
46. Her Final Resting Place Is a Secret
Though Bessie Blount likely made it to the relatively old Tudor age of 40 or 41, and though she had influenced one of the most powerful men in the world, her end was utterly disgraceful. She was so shunted aside by history that even now, we don’t know where she’s buried. But there’s one more scandalous detail.
47. She Had a “Lost” Pregnancy
Today, textbooks will tell you that Elizabeth Blount bore Henry one illegitimate son—but that may not be the whole truth. In fact, evidence points to a much juicier history. See, Bessie’s second child, Elizabeth, was born in 1519 or 1520, which was years before her first marriage to Baron Tailboys. Do I smell a scandal? Yes, I do.
48. She Had a Secret Daughter
Given these dates, it’s easy to do the math and see that baby Elizabeth was probably not the looney Baron’s child. But who was? Well, that’s the million-pound question. Many experts have suggested that Bessie couldn’t resist one more roll in the hay, and that little Elizabeth was actually King Henry VIII’s long-lost daughter. But if that’s true, it’s a tragedy.
49. Henry May Have Abandoned His Child
There’s a reason Bessie’s daughter Elizabeth might be a long-lost “princess”—Henry never acknowledged her. After all, he wanted a male heir, and the fact that Bessie just gave him another girl would have been a source of hurt pride for the megalomaniacal Henry. So off Bessie Blount went away from court and into a loveless marriage. But it might have turned out so differently for Bess.
50. She Might Have Been a Queen
Just after Henry executed Anne Boleyn and was casting around for wife number three, the king’s beady little eye seemed to land on Bessie Blount yet again. There were rumors that, given they already had a son together, Henry was thinking of making it official with Bessie and marrying her. Obviously, that didn’t happen—instead, he went with Jane Seymour, who eventually gave him the male heir he craved…and sadly, left Bessie Blount in history’s dust.