Kate Middleton, it has been widely suggested, could one day be Britain’s first middle-class queen: mother a former air hostess, grandfather in the RAF. But her ancestors had starring roles in the great royal drama that was the Tudor dynasty’s century of power. In fact, it turns out that Henry VIII is almost certainly Kate Middleton’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.
We know that Kate Middleton is directly descended from an Elizabethan tough, Sir Thomas Leighton, and his wife, Elizabeth Knollys. Sir Thomas and his wife were also ancestors of Prince William’s mother, Lady Diana Spencer. But what no one has pointed out is that Elizabeth Knollys, Kate Middleton’s direct ancestor, was not only the great niece of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, but also almost certainly the illegitimate granddaughter of Henry himself. Before he fell in love with Anne, Henry VIII had a four-year affair with her older sister, Mary, mentioned by contemporary sources including the ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire. During the affair Mary Boleyn bore two children, Catherine (Kate Middleton’s ancestor) in 1524 and Henry in 1526.
So were they Henry VIII’s children? Mary was married to a Tudor courtier called William Carey and the two children were known by this surname. But as Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl, points out, ‘Catherine was born at the height of Henry’s passion for her mother.’ And as well as being given various manors and money, after Catherine was born, in 1524, Mary Boleyn’s husband, William Carey, was knighted by Henry VIII and his income doubled; Mary’s father, Thomas Boleyn, was created Viscount Rochford in 1525. To mark baby Henry’s birth, in 1526, King Henry VIII gave to William Carey the borough of Buckingham and the manor of East Greenwich.
I made the link between Kate and Henry VIII when researching a film about the Knollys family and an article about the royal wedding. But really it was because of a pre-adolescent crush on Elizabeth I: a childhood of reading Jean Plaidy, topped up with Gregory’s bodice-ripper, had stuffed my brain with Tudor trivia. Catherine’s daughters, including Elizabeth Knollys, were said to be beautiful redheads, like their cousin the queen. But of course Elizabeth I’s red hair came from her father, Henry VIII.
If Catherine Carey was Elizabeth’s secret half-sister, it’s no surprise that she had the Tudor red hair. Remember, it was another daughter of Catherine Carey, the beautiful Lettice Knollys, who broke the Virgin Queen’s heart by secretly marrying the love of Elizabeth’s life, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Lettice was said to look extraordinarily like Elizabeth, but was ten years younger than her royal cousin and rival. She was banished from court after the marriage was discovered.
Another question is why the Carey children were not officially recognised as Henry VIII’s bastards at the time. Henry did recognise another bastard, Henry Fitzroy, son of an earlier mistress, Bessie Blount, and on the boy’s sixth birthday he created him Duke of Richmond. But Bessie Blount had been single and her child needed a father, whereas William Carey, Mary Boleyn’s husband — who died only two years after little Henry was born — had been prepared to give the children his name.
Anne Boleyn, unable to give Henry a boy, was apparently jealous of Mary’s royal son. A contemporary source, John Haile, vicar of Isleworth, is reported to have said in 1535 that he had been introduced by a friend at nearby Syon Abbey to ‘young Master Carey, saying that he was our sovereign Lord the King’s son by our Sovereign Lady the Queen’s sister, whom the Queen’s grace might not suffer to be in the Court’. Two weeks later, Haile was executed for ‘denying the King’s supremacy’.
Yet Anne brought her sister’s children back to court when she feared she was unable to have more children herself. Catherine Carey followed her aunt Anne into the Tower as a maid of honour. After Anne’s execution, the Carey children remained in royal favour while Henry VIII was alive. Despite being ostensibly only the niece of the disgraced Boleyn queen, Catherine was appointed maid of honour to Anne of Cleves in 1539. When Catherine married Francis Knollys in 1540, Henry VIII gave Knollys his first royal appointment and the manor of Rotherfield Grey in Oxfordshire. Her brother Henry was also taken back into Henry VIII’s household after Anne Boleyn’s execution.
Surely the greatest disadvantage to demanding public recognition of the Careys’ royal blood was its potential deadliness. By the end of a century of Tudor rule, there was hardly a member of the extended royal family left alive. As well as beheading two of his wives, Henry VIII had also executed almost every other rival heir to the throne, including his 67-year-old cousin Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, and two of her sons. ‘You’d keep your head down,’ says Gregory. ‘Besides — being Henry VIII’s bastard son does not give you the right to the throne.’ And if the Careys had declared themselves illegitimate, they might have lost their rights even to the Carey property.
Elizabeth I, however, showed them enormous favour. Henry, probably Elizabeth’s half-brother, was created Baron Hunsdon of Hunsdon the moment Elizabeth came to the throne, and made Knight of the Garter. It was very unusual at that time for a Baron not to have his surname in his title, yet for Henry Carey, perhaps, his official surname had little significance. His vast tomb in Westminster Abbey, paid for by Elizabeth, is 39 feet high, the largest in the Abbey, dwarfing the nearby tomb of the grand Cecil family and emblazoned with a vast coat of arms that boasts of his royal descent.
As for Catherine, Kate Middleton’s ancestor, her eldest surviving son was made Earl of Banbury and her daughters virtually all married into the nobility. When Catherine died in 1568, at Hampton Court Palace, Elizabeth I paid £640 for a lavish funeral, almost royal in scale, overseen by the Earl Marshal and the Lord Treasurer. At Westminster Abbey Catherine’s funeral documents were filed among those of Henry III, Henry VI and other monarchs. And, like her brother, Catherine Carey was buried in Westminster Abbey, where Kate Middleton, her direct descendant, will be married to the Prince of Wales.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 12, 2011