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Book Review: La Reine Blanche: Mary Tudor – Her Life in Letters by Sarah Bryson

Sarah Bryson has brought this less well known Tudor princess to life.  Using the surviving letters of Mary Tudor we are drawn into the world of a Tudor princess who was initially used as a political pawn.  The book begins with a description of  Mary’s childhood up to 1515 when she was married off to the aging Louis XII of France by her brother, Henry VIII. Mary departed England from Dover and her brother accompanied her right down to the docks.  Here she extracted a promise from her brother that she be allowed to choose her second husband. Clearly, Louis XII’s health was a matter of international gossip. He was a man in his fifties, but as Ms Bryson tells us, he was riddled with gout and his doctors had put him on a strict diet.

 We are taken through all the events surrounding the royal marriage from Mary’s arrival in France, how the French king ‘chances’ on her entourage as it makes its way to the official meeting place to the marriage ceremony and Mary’s anointing as queen of France.  The descriptions of the celebrations, the jousts, what people wore, how the various days went brings these events to life and will delight all those who love Tudor history.

 Louis died only three months after the marriage and this is when Mary grips the reins of her own destiny.  It is a fact of history that Mary married Charles Brandon, the man Henry VIII had sent to France to negotiate the return of his sister – and the dowry.  It is also known she did this in secret and without the permission of either her brother, or the new king of France – Francis I.  The illicit marriage is thought to have taken place between 31st January and 3rd February, but there is no official record of this service. Ms Bryson has made an indepth study of the resulting exchange of letters from both Mary and Charles to Henry VIII and his right hand man, Thomas Wolsey, written before the couple could leave France and contemplate returning to Englsh soil.

Ms Bryson has quoted all the surviving letters in full providing us with a further insight into the desperate personal tightrope Mary and her new husband had to walk. We can appreciate Wolsey’s role as skilled negotiator between the explosively hot tempered English king and his sister. What motives Wolsey had for taking this stance are not known. As a commoner, rising swiftly in power at the English Court did he decide to tread softly? Officially, Brandon could have lost his head for marrying an English princess (who was also the dowager Queen of France) without permission of his king. We are reminded that Mary, even though she held powerful titles, was only a woman and therefore subject to the will of her male betters. Did Wolsey know Henry VIII had a mind to behead both his friend and his sister? The cool minded Wolsey would have pointed out that to behead a former queen of France would be unwise. Did Wolsey know that Henry had intended to break his promise to his sister and to marry her off to another foreign prince or king in order to create another political alliance? The prime sources have all been examined to demonstrate just how Mary negotiated this political minefield in order for the newlyweds to return to England with minimum reprisals.

Charles Brandon had been charged to obtain as much of Mary’s dowry as possible, which included getting an agreement as to what constituted personal gifts and official French crown jewels.  These did not include a book of hours, now in the French archives. This is a treasure that, had it come to England, may have disappeared during the Reformation or the later Puritan Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell.  This has been examined and Ms Bryson has turned up a lovely gem hidden within the book demonstrating Mary’s relationship with Louis .

During the French marriage negotiations various portraits of Mary were painted and exchanged. Over the centuries other portraits have been assigned to being of Mary Tudor.  Ms Bryson has examined these and the varous accounts to establish the position the artist  Johannus Corvus held within the Brandon household. This is the artist who painted the portrait of Mary that appears on the cover of the book.  There are other portraits and these too are critically analysed. As an art historian I raise my hat to the depth of Ms Bryson’s comparison and critical analysis of various academic research papers into these portraits that may, or may not be of Mary.

Mary’s married life with Charles Brandon is examined. Mary continued to write letters throughout her life.  From these we are given an insight into their life together and how she was much loved by the people of Suffolk.  We learn she did not support her brother in seeking a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and that she thoroughly disiked Anne Boleyn.

In this centenary year of English women being given the vote, Mary Tudor should be remembered as an icon who fought to own her destiny five hundred years before women were able to influence politics directly. Sarah Bryson is doing an online book tour and the various websites are listed on the right hand side of the poster that will feature her essays on various aspects of her research.

Ms Bryson’s biography of this gutsy Tudor princess and queen of France is a triumph and is available through Amazon and all good bookshops. Click the link to get your copy Sarah Bryson – La Reine Blanche Mary Tudor A Life in Letter on Amazon.co.uk

 Book Tour

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