Roland de Veleville was born c. 1474 in the duchy of Brittany. While the identity of his mother is still unknown, she appears to have been related to the Counts of Durtal, who lived in the town of Nantes. He came to England at some point between 1485 and 1494, when he participated in a joust. During the reign of Henry VII he lived comfortably, but was kept in a slightly extended form of adolescence. Under Henry VIII he became his own man and started a family. In 1967 Professor S.B. Chrimes wrote a short paper that was published in the Welsh Historical Journal. In this paper Chrimes claimed he had disproved the centuries-old belief that de Veleville was Henry VII (Henry Tudor)’s illegitimate son. In the following two decades this paper influenced historians who were writing about Henry VII, because if Chrimes wrote it then it must be accurate. De Veleville was written out of the history, only beginning to regain attention and time in the 1990s. Chrimes’ paper has now been widely discredited, but the question he rose continues to influence attitudes towards de Veleville.
I first stumbled into the story of Roland de Veleville’s life in the fall of 2011 when I was researching Henry VII’s time in exile. Quickly I became fascinated with him. Who was this man, whose life was so extraordinary? Where did he fit in? The information on him in secondary sources is limited but very illuminating. Is it a coincidence that our limited information on the identity of his mother’s family shows that they may have lived in the same town that Henry Tudor was being housed in around the time that de Veleville would have been conceived? Though the exact date of de Veleville’s birth is not known, based on his age when he was active in the Tudor court places it about 1474.
At the beginning of October, 1473, Henry Tudor was moved to Nantes. Early in 1474 he was separated from his uncle, Jasper Tudor. His English servants were replaced with Bretons, and he was moved to the care of the Marshall of Brittany, Jean IV de Rieux, at his house in Largoet. Henry’s accommodations in the Marshall’s house were on the 6th floor, and even though he had always been a prisoner now he became more of one. Could it be that Henry had found a Breton girlfriend, and she was pregnant? The debate about the identity of de Veleville’s mother has pointed to the Admiral of France, Jean de Quelenhec’s wife’s family, so if Henry had started a relationship with a relative of hers it would have been motive to move him away from that area.
Please keep in mind that at this point Henry did not have any prospects. From 1471 until 1483, his mother worked to have his lands and his title, Earl of Richmond, returned to him and for him to be guaranteed safe passage back to Wales from King Edward IV. There were several times when this offer was extended to Henry but he never accepted it. His place in the line to the throne was not certain until 1483, when Richard III took the throne, declared his nephews and nieces bastards, and the “Princes in the Tower” went missing. In 1474 Henry was a beggar- a 17-year-old man without a title and without income, and no sure way to gain either back. That he would have remained a virgin until he was married night when he28-years-old is not only incomprehensible but very much against the times. Noble men without bastards were seen as abnormal- even his uncle Jasper had at least one bastard, and he spend the better part of twenty years in exile as an attainted traitor.
The unbelievable part of de Veleville’s life started after Henry of Richmond became Henry VII, following the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. While there is no proof that de Veleville was in England at this time, we know that he had started living at Westminster before 1494, when he participated in a tournament to celebrate his half-brother Henry’s ascension to Duke of York, though some records show that he may have been in the king’s house by 1488. Under Henry VII he had only one official address: he lived in the palace of Westminster, where he was housed in the royal apartments. He was not noble, and was not given any titles. He was knighted after the Battle of Blackheath in 1497, but never achieved any title higher than knight. He was given a pension of 40 marks per year by the king. Henry VII is known for being notoriously cautious when it came to money, never spending more than he could, to the point of being called a “miser.” This makes the gift even more astonishing. While living with the royal family, de Veleville had no job or position in the house.
The unofficial job that de Veleville seems to have filled was that of a royal companion, spending his time with the king. He is recorded as being an “obsessive jouster,” which made him into an excellent soldier and later commander, and practice seems to have been how he spent most of his time. He went hunting and hawking with the king and was permitted to enter the falcon mew and interact with the royal birds. He seems to have spent the rest of his time gambling and drinking, and his income would have provided ample funds for this. He does not seem to have been a good businessman, and did not try to gain property until later in his life, and had not built up an estate by the time of death. It would seem that never having to pay for anything involved with his upkeep for 24 years did not give him a sound financial education.
His participation in the joust in 1494 has larger implications, because he was not yet a knight. Only knights and noblemen could participate in a tournament, and for him to be allowed to participate. That the actual peers were willing to participate with him shows that they knew how high he really was, that they would not see it as in insult to their honor to be forced to joust with him.
De Veleville held some notable positions in the public ceremonies of the royal house. He attended the funeral of Henry VII, and he was one of the mourners at the funeral and interment of Henry VIII’s son, Henry, in 1511. He fought in the Battle of the Spurs, and was in the royal party at the Field of Cloth of Gold in Calais in 1520.
In 1509, Henry VII died and his son Henry VIII was crowned, Roland de Veleville had not moved past the position he held since coming to the Tudor court. In July of 1509 he was created the Constable of Beaumaris Castle in North Anglesey, Wales. It is unclear if this position was initially granted by Henry VII but signed to law by Henry VIII after their father’s death. This was de Veleville’s first official job, and it came with it the second-highest income in North Wales (the highest went to Charles Brandon). When parliament tried to block the payment of both of these pensions, Henry VIII reinstated them. De Veleville moved from the king’s court to Beaumaris, where he lived for the rest of his life, only leaving when Henry VIII ordered him to court or to war. This position comes at a key moment, because de Veleville was given the mechanism to leave court right as his half-brother became king and wouldn’t want an older bastard brother hanging around, despite their affection for each other.
This affection between brothers has been recorded several times. De Veleville was imprisoned for several months in 1517 for “slandering the king’s Council.” He was released when he wrote an apology (though it seems to have taken him some time to agree to do so), but his release was contingent upon him “attending upon the king and not departing without license.” De Veleville having been ordered to stay in the household of the king until given permission to leave means that he had to stay with the king, at court, until the king released him so he could return home to Wales. It is a weird way to punish a criminal, but the crime itself is one that shows how close he was to the king. Keep in mind that he is not a peer of the realm, but his speaking out against the members of the king’s council was enough of a threat to their positions at court to warrant an arrest and imprisonment. This means that he had a close enough connection to the king to be able to influence him and damage other courtiers. This is not the kind of influence you would expect from a random knight in Wales, and shows that he had a connection to the king beyond his position as Constable.
After de Veleville’s death in 1535, Henry VIII is recorded as remembering him fondly. In 1544 when Henry was calling in troops for a campaign in France he was told that no men would be coming from North Wales. He is said to have to have been surprised, because when de Veleville was Constable he was able to bring in a great number of men and leave enough to maintain the castle and the port. This is shows their closeness, because it is the only known record of this king commenting on the skills of a knight. Henry VIII was also not known to miss anyone after their deaths. His recorded statements of lament for courtiers, advisors and even wives who had died are very few. For him to be looking back at de Veleville’s service and lament the loss of him as a commander is one of the most unique things about either of the men.
Based on all the evidence we have currently, it seems more likely than not that Roland de Veleville was the bastard son of King Henry VII. There are far too many odd coincidences, and he was positioned way too close to the throne to say that he was just “lucky,” or that he was a recipient of royal favor like the sons of of fallen men that Henry VII owed a debt to. His favor remained for his entire life, into the reign of Henry VIII, with whom he had a personal and affectionate relationship. It is a shame that the paper in 1967 has corrupted de Veleville’s memory, because he was an extraordinary and fascinating man.
Chrimes, S.B. (June 1967). Sir Roland de Veleville. Welsh History Review, Vol. 3, no. 3. Pages 287-289.
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Milne, Graham. A Man of Kingly Line and of Earl’s Blood. Retrieved from: http://www.happywarrior.org/genealogy/roland.htm#21
Robinson, W.R.B. (June 1991). Sir Roland Veleville and the Tudor Dynasty: A Reassessment. Welsh Historical Review, Vol. 15, no. 3. Pages 351-367.
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