King Henry VIII: You Are the Father!

April 16th, 2009 in Women's History by Tracey McCormick

The CSI effect is affecting our history. Moral and ethical issues abound on whether testing hundred- or even thousand-year old DNA is good for the person of history, his or her legacy, and his or her descendants. This debate is finding currency with museum officials at Frankford’s Civil War Museum in Philadelphia, who are questioning whether testing the blood and brain matter left on the last pillowcase of Abe Lincoln is an historical necessity or a satiation of morbid curiosity.

Twenty-first century dwellers have become so enamored with DNA evidence – on Jerry Springer, in detective dramas, and in actual trials – that other types of evidence are being dismissed as “not good enough.” Give me my double-helix, please.

But before DNA, historical evidence was as low-tech as pendants, portraits, effigies, and family birth records scribbled inside the front cover of a Latin dictionary. Sound like too much like a stretch? Consider that in the 16th century, pendants, portraits and effigies were reserved for the wealthy, and family records were often kept in household books such as Bibles, Foxes’ Book of Martyrs, and Latin dictionaries.

Welcome to CSI, 16th century style.

Sally Varlow, writing in the August 2007 issue of Historical Research (vol. 80, no.209), has made a strong case using the aforementioned evidence to argue that Mary Boleyn’s eldest child, Katherine, was indeed the illegitimate heir of King Henry VIII. If true, then Katherine was not only the first cousin but also the half-sister (yup, this is where it gets weird) of Queen Elizabeth I, overlady of Shakespearean England.

The 2008 film, The Other Boleyn Girl, made Mary Boylen famous as Henry VIII’s mistress before her doomed sister Anne was married to and subsequently beheaded by His Royal Highness. The film’s all-star cast of Eric Bana, Scarlett Johanssen, and Natalie Portman couldn’t save it from being another Hollywood misrepresentation. Alas, the film is rife with inaccuracies, but one fact from the movie stands up to history: Mary and Henry produced an heir. Her name was Katherine.

The circumstantial evidence of Katherine’s bloodline goes thusly:

The connection between the dictionary and Katherine’s birthdate hinges upon a 1562 Steven van der Meulen portrait of a very pregnant woman wearing a jeweled breast pendant. The portrait-sitter is unnamed and is only identified as being 38 years old. An effigy of Katherine shows her wearing the same pendant, increasing the likelihood that the unnamed subject in the portrait is Katherine. 

Based on the birth records Katherine and her husband Sir Francis Knolly kept of their fourteen children inside the front cover of the family’s Latin dictionary, Katherine’s youngest son Dudley was born in May 1562, the same year as the portrait.

If Katherine was 38 when Dudley was born, then she must have been born sometime between March/April 1524 and March/April 1525 – the period when her mother, Mary, was King Henry VIII’s mistress.

What does this mean? If Katherine was indeed the prodigy of Henry and Mary, then she was not only a prominent member of the court of Queen Elizabeth I, not only Elizabeth’s favorite cousin, but also Elizabeth’s half-sister. Although no one – including her mother Mary, her probable father King Henry VIII, and her half-siblings – had anything to gain by recognizing Katherine’s birthright, Queen Elizabeth I, in a show of sisterly-like love, spent lavishly on Katherine’s funeral (to the tune of 640 British pounds). Perhaps Elizabeth knew in heart what no one else was willing to admit: that Katherine Knolly, daughter of Mary Boleyn, was the sister Elizabeth never knew she had. Or maybe she did.

Are 500 year-old questions of lineage worth a massive grave-digging at Westminister Abbey? The Queen of England, who I’m guessing is not a fan of Jerry Springer, wouldn’t hear of it.

Tracey McCormick is Managing Editor at

About the Author: Tracey's interests in history range from the ancient Greeks to the medieval monks to the women of the American West. She holds a B.A. in History, Math/Philosophy, and the Classics. When not writing, editing, or teaching, she's out exploring, via her mountain bike, the Anasazi ruins in and around her home state of Colorado.

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1 Comment »

One Response to “King Henry VIII: You Are the Father!”

  1. History at its best and most exciting is, like this article, a detective story — tantalizing clues meticulously pieced together by a “detective” perceptive enough to see subtle hints and knowledgable enough about the subject to understand the significance of the evidence. Great stuff.

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