The Secret Marriage of Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor
On the 14th of January 1515 Henry VIII wrote to the new French King, Francis I, that he would be sending three of his men to acknowledge Francis’ accession to the throne and begin negotiations for Mary Tudor’s return to England. Thsee three men that Henry VIII selected were Sir Richard Wingfield, Nicholas West and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Brandon would see to Mary’s safe return however she would not be a widow but a newly married woman.
To understand this story we must go back to the 13th of August 1514. On this day eighteen year old Mary Tudor was married via proxy to King Louis XII with the Duke of Longueville standing in for the French King. The wedding had been organised between Henry VIII and Louis XII to secure an alliance between France and England. However it was not until the 2nd of October that Mary would leave for France where she wed Louis XII in a lavish ceremony on the on the 9th October 1514 at nine o’clock in the morning in the great hall of the Hotel de la Gruthose.
Before Mary agreed to the marriage between herself and King Louis XII she extracted a promise from Henry VII that should the aging French King die before her she would be free to choose her second husband. She reminded Henry of this in a letter stating “that if I shulde fortune to survive the said late king I mygt with your good wil marye my self at my libertie withoute your displeasor.” Further in the letter she also stated that “as ye wel knowe I have always bornn good mynde towardes my lorde of Suffolk,”.
It may very well be that Mary, even before her marriage to the French King had an eye on Charles Brandon; after all Mary and Charles would have been familiar with one another. Mary was an ever present part of the pageantry and celebrations at court and Charles was an active member and participant in jousting and courtly dances. It is most likely at these events that Mary’s eyes turned to Charles. He was an extremely attractive man for the age, well built, strong, physically fit, well dressed and very handsome. Mary was said to be one of the most beautiful princesses in all of Christendom and it would not be a stretch to think that Charles’s eyes would have turned more than once to the young, beautiful Princess.
Less than three months after her marriage, on January 1st 1515, King Louis XII died. He had been sick for several weeks previously and his death came as no surprise although it was reported that when Mary was told she fainted. Mary was sent to Cluny where she wore white, the French colour of mourning. She was to stay in seclusion for forty days to see if she was pregnant. If she was pregnant and gave birth to a son he would be the next King of France. However no one really believed this and Francis, husband of Louis XII’s daughter Claude, was quickly accepted as the next King.
Once the news of the French King’s death reached England Brandon was sent to France to return the Dowager Queen and hopefully to retrieve as much as Mary’s coin, plate and jewels as possible. Before Brandon left Henry VIII made him swear not to act foolishly and marry the young Mary until after the pair had returned to England. It is interesting that Henry VIII should make Brandon make such a promise. Clearly the King was aware of either Brandon’s affections for his sister or quite likely that Henry was aware of his own sister’s affections towards the Duke. With the promise Mary made her brother swear Henry probably had a good idea that his sister would chose Brandon for her second husband. The King’s statement also suggests that he may have been willing to agree to the marriage but as long as it was on English soil and under his conditions.
It is also important to note that just before Brandon arrived in Paris to meet with Mary two friars met with the Dowager Queen in an attempt to turn her mind against Brandon. They informed Mary that the English council would never let her marry Brandon and worse that Brandon and Thomas Wolsey performed witchcraft to turn Henry VIII’s mind towards their will. They even went so far as to suggest that Brandon’s witchcraft caused a disease in William Compton’s leg, Henry VIII’s Groom of the Stool’s. When Brandon heard of this later he proposed that the Duke of Norfolk had been coaching the friars. It is poignant that if it was Norfolk that sent the friars to meet with Mary then Norfolk must have been aware of some feelings from Brandon towards Mary or visa versa. Clearly at this stage their feelings towards one another were becoming well known to those at court.
Brandon, Nicholas and West finally arrived in Paris on the 31st of January 1515. They met with Mary the same day and he reported that Mary was eager to return home so that she may see her brother. Mary was only eighteen years of age, young, beautiful and available to marry again. While in France she was left vulnerable as Francis I could use her as a bargaining tool. He could have her married to another French nobleman to continue the alliance with England or even have her married to another member of nobility from another country to form an alliance.
There was also speculation that Francis I worried that if Mary returned to England Henry VIII would once more seek a treaty with the Holy Roman Empire, and betroth Mary to Prince Charles with whom she had previously been betrothed. There was also the fact that if Mary remained in France Francis I could keep her jewels and other travelling expenses. It was rumoured that Francis I even had an interest in marrying the beautiful young Mary. However that seems unlikely has he would have had to divorce his current wife, the late King’s daughter, to do so.
With such uncertainty, stress and fear surrounding her Mary Tudor decided to take matters into her own hands. The Dowager Queen proposed marriage to Brandon, of which the Duke accepted. Weather this was a spontaneous decision to marry right then and there or was thought about for several days remains unknown. However it was clear that the pair had strong feelings towards one another.
Mary and Brandon married in secret without Henry VIII’s permission. While the exact date of the marriage is unknown it can be determined that the couple married before approximately ten witnesses at the Chapel in Cluny, between 31 January, when Brandon arrived in Paris, and 3 February. We know this because in a letter dated the 3rd Brandon wrote to Wolsey regarding a meeting he had with the Francis I. During the meeting Francis told Brandon that he knew of the secret wedding because Mary had already informed him.
Brandon had just committed treason by marrying a member of the royal family without first gaining permission from the King. The penalty for such a crime was death. Both Brandon and Mary wrote to the King to confess what they had done. Brandon laid his soul bare to Henry VIII confessing what he had done and reminding the King of their long friendship and acknowledging that everything he had, every position he had gained, was because of the King. For her part Mary reminded Henry of his promise made to her before she left for France – that should the French King die she could chose a man of her own for her next marriage. After many letters back and forth and with Thomas Wolsey having to intervene to help smooth things over, Henry VIII consented to the marriage. Charles and Mary were married for a second time in a more public wedding in France on the 31st of March. They returned home to England on the 2nd of May 1514.
There has been a great deal of debate over the centuries as to just how angry Henry VIII was with Mary and Brandon. In return for the King’s blessing Brandon and Mary were ordered to not only return Mary’s full dowry, as well as all her plate and jewels but to also pay £24 000 in yearly instalments of £1000. Brandon was also required to give up the wardship of Lady Lisle, with whom he had previously been contracted to marry. While this was a staggering sum that would have certainly seen Brandon close to poverty, records show that by 1521, six years after their marriage the couple had only replied £1324. For a King who was so furious over the marriage he certainly did not try very hard to enforce the repayments! It would seem that the fine was more for show of the King’s displeasure than any actual resentment towards the couple.
In addition to this Brandon and Mary were formally married at Greenwich on the 13th of May in front of Henry VIII and Queen Katherine of Aragon. Having the wedding attended by the King and Queen was a public way to show those at court that the King gave his blessing for the marriage. Despite what stories have been created over Brandon’s marriage to Mary Tudor it would seem that Henry VIII did not hold any lasting anger towards his favourite sister and beloved friend.
While there is a train of thought that Brandon was banished from court after his marriage to the King’s sister there does not seem to be any basis for this. Brandon and Mary did remove themselves from court for a short time after their wedding but this appears only to be for them to spend some time together as a newly married couple. In fact it was during this time away Mary conceived her first child! Both Brandon and Mary were very aware that their favour, especially Brandon’s, relied heavily upon the King and both were back at court by the end of 1515.
Despite committing treason Brandon remained high in the King’s favour. He continued to receive grants from the King and was a regular member of council meetings and even had the great honour of jousting against the King as his equal opponent.
Charles Brandon and Mary were married for eighteen years and had four children together. Their marriage only ended by Mary’s untimely death between seven and eight o’clock in the morning on the 25th of June 1533. Despite the great difference in rank, and all that was happening around them at the time, it would appear that the marriage of Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor was a true love match.
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