Royal families have long been obsessed with keeping illegitimate children secret. Inevitably, however, many supposed children of kings and queens have come forward over the centuries, many claiming to be the ‘long-lost children’ of monarchs and, as such, the rightful heirs to power, wealth and even whole kingdoms. One of the most fascinating cases from English royal history is that of Mary Baynton, a seemingly ordinary woman who, in 1533, announced that she was in fact Princess Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII.
Despite the fact much research has been done into this curious affair, relatively little is known about Mary Baynton. What is known is that she was the daughter of Thomas Baynton, a relatively wealthy and well-connected man based in the town of Bridlington, Yorkshire. And it’s also known that, at the age of just 18, Mary turned up in the town of Boston, Lincolnshire, and loudly proclaimed herself to be Princess Mary, the only child of Henry VIII’s and his first wife Katherine of Aragon. What motivated her, nobody can say for sure. However, this was a turbulent time in England and, given all the chaos and uncertainly, it seems that at least a few people were taken in by the young lady’s claims.
Mary made her claims to be Princess Mary in September of 1533, almost around the same time that the real Princess Mary was declared illegitimate and thus removed from the line of succession. Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, had given birth to a new baby, Princess Elizabeth, and so Mary was out in the cold. Indeed, the real Mary was living in relative exile, a long way from Boston, Lincolnshire. It was this political turbulence that allowed Mary’s claims to be believed, albeit for only a short while. She bemoaned the way her father, Henry, had left her destitute and, according to some accounts, some people gave her money and some even pledged to support her in her fight to be recognized as a legitimate heir to the throne. In fact, there’s even evidence to suggest some of her most loyal (or gullible) supporters offered to pay for her to sail to Spain to win the support of the Spanish king.
Unsurprisingly, Mary’s claims got the attention of the authorities. The records show she was cross-examined by three officials (Nicholas Robson, Thomas Brown and Robert Pulvertoft) but, in the end, she was dismissed as a ‘self-deluded lunatic.’ Since Boston was a long way from the seat of power, Mary’s claims were regarded as being of no real threat to Henry and it seems she was left alone. Indeed, since the historical records show no evidence of Mary being persecuted, historians largely agree that she was left in peace and probably grew tired of her pretense and settled down to a quiet, non-eventful life in a dull corner of Tudor England.
Nevertheless, the case of Mary Baynton is widely held up as a prime example of the chaotic nature of royal succession and the question of legitimacy and illegitimacy in Tudor times. What’s more, some historians believe that, far from believing Mary’s outlandish claims, some nobles saw her as an impostor but nevertheless supported her in order to destabilize King Henry or at least show their opposition to his policy of divorcing wives. Of course, Henry survived this, and many other threats to his power, and would go on to take four more wives.