I would like to say a very big thank you to Melanie V. Taylor for her kind review of the talk I gave on Mary Tudor, dowager Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk…..

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On Thursday 9th August, St Mary with St Peter’s Church, Bury St Edmunds, was the setting for a talk on Mary Tudor, dowager Queen of France & Duchess of Suffolk (1496-1533) by author Sarah Bryson.

An enrapt audience learned how Mary was brought up and educated and expected to obey the male head of her family. In this instance the head of Mary’s family just happened to be the king of England. We learned how as a young girl Mary was first betrothed and married by proxy to the much younger Prince Charles of Castile (later the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). This marriage was later annulled. Then at the age of eighteen Mary was married off to the fifty two year old Louis XII, King of France. Ms Bryson brought the luxurious extravagance of the English court to life with her description of Mary’s journey to her French husband and revealed how Henry VIII spared no expense on Mary’s gowns and jewels for her trousseau and also her dowry.  The analysis of Mary’s journey through the French countryside gave us a glimpse of what it must have been like to have been present at a sixteenth century European royal wedding. The sums of money lavished on banquets and tournaments were eye watering even for those days.

Louis died on 1st January 1515: this marriage had lasted a mere eighty-two days.

The widowed now French queen was required to go into seclusion for forty days, during which time she was obliged to wear white hence the soubriquet of La Reine Blanche, and forty days being sufficient time to prove whether or not she was pregnant.  If Mary had been pregnant and had produced a boy, then he would have been the next king of France.  As it was, the French crown passed to Francis I a member of a cadet branch of the Valois family and heir presumptive since 1498 on the death of Charles VIII and the accession of Louis XII, and also the husband of Louis’s daughter, Claude, by a previous marriage.

Before embarking for France Mary had made her brother promise that should Louis die before her, then she had the right to choose her next husband. This story has long thought to be apocryphal, but Ms Bryson has found a letter from Mary to her brother reminding him of this promise, thus proving the veracity of the myth.

Henry VIII’s best friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk (plus two further aristocratic companions), was sent to France to bring the widowed English Tudor princess back to England. Before leaving England Henry VIII told Brandon specifically not to think of marrying Mary without royal permission, which seems an odd thing to say. Ms Bryson’s analysis of the letters from both Mary and Brandon to Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey reveals that a secret marriage took place some time between 27th January and 3rd February 1515.  So secret that not even Francis I knew about it and despite long hours of research, no record has yet been found.

These letters reveal just how Mary was a very accomplished and educated woman, very able to play politics at a high level and how Brandon realised he had to plead for his life for going against Henry VIII’s direct instruction. Unfortunately, in the absence of any letters from Henry VIII we have to decide for ourselves whether or not he was planning to renege on his dockside promise to allow his sister to choose her next spouse and was indeed planning to marry her off for another advantageous political alliance. By the time the couple returned to England, they had first been married in secret, then shortly after wedded in a more public ceremony in Calais – we should remember that Calais was still English at this point. Then in addition, on their return to English soil were married for a third time in front of Henry VIII and his wife Queen Catherine of Aragon. Clearly there was no doubting that this couple were married in both the eyes of the Church and the English king.  However, the couple had to ‘punished’ for their ‘crime’ of being marriage without royal sanction, and a massive fine was imposed on them. This debt was never repaid, and certainly Henry did not pursue them for regular payments, but nevertheless payments were made now and again.

The Brandon marriage lasted eighteen years and as well as living in Suffolk Place, Southwark, they built Westhorpe Hall, only a few miles from Bury St Edmund’s, at a sixteenth century cost of £4,000 – approximately £4million in today’s money. It was here they raised their family. If their son Henry had survived to adulthood he would have had a claim to the English throne after the death of Edward VI.  As it was it was their grand daughter Lady Jane Grey who would go down in history as England’s Nine Days’ Queen.

In addition to the details of Mary’s life, we learned much about her loyalties and character; how she played the political game and was as wily in many respects as that other Suffolk worthy, Cardinal Wolsey. In an age when women were supposed to be subservient, meek and more importantly, silent in the presence of their menfolk, Mary made her presence and her opinions known and most importantly, got her own way.  Mary remained loyal to her sister-in-law Katherine of Aragon, and was an opponent of her brother’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. While her husband officiated at the marriage celebrations of Henry VIII to Anne at the beginning of June 1533, Mary was conspicuous by her absence. This was not because of her opposition to her brother’s second marriage as is often thought, but because she was seriously ill, possibly suffering from some form of kidney complaint. Mary Tudor died on 25th June 1533 aged thirty-seven and was much mourned by the people of Suffolk. Her original resting place was in the abbey church of Bury St Edmunds, but at the dissolution of the abbey in 1539 her body was removed to its current resting place on the north side of the altar of the parish church of St Mary and St Peter’s. Clearly the king’s Vicar General and general all round administrator, Thomas Cromwell, thought it good policy to remove the body of the beloved sister of the king to a suitably high status church rather than leave it to become forgotten and untended.

Ms Bryson’s book, La Reine Blanche: Mary Tudor, a Life in Letters, is the culmination of her ten years of research into the life of this often neglected Tudor princess and is rich with details of Mary’s life before and during her marriages. What becomes apparent is that the story of the marriage of Mary, Queen of France & Duchess of Suffolk and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, was clearly a love match.

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Sarah Bryson’s book, La Reine Blanche: Mary Tudor, A Life in Letters, is published by Amberley and is available through bookstores and of course, online at Amazon.  ISBN 978 4456 7388 2 (hardback). If you are in Bury St Edmunds there are some signed copies available for purchase at the church.

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