I have been interested in Sarah Bryson’s work ever since I met her in September 2016. She has been researching Charles Brandon, Henry VIII’s brother-in-law and Henry’s sister, Mary Tudor for the past ten or so years. This February her book La Reine Blanche: Mary Tudor – her life in letters, was published by Amberley Publishing. This month Sarah has graciously answered some questions that might have also gone through the minds of those who have read this fascinating biography.
- Sarah, Why did you become interested in Mary Tudor?
I have been researching the life of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk for about ten years now. When I first started to read about his life and his marriages I immediately became interested in Mary Tudor, Brandon’s third wife. Their marriage was quite scandalous for the times and the more I read about it, the more interested in Mary I became. I found it utterly compelling that in an age dominated by men Mary took her destiny into her own hands and I knew I had to find out more about this strong, determined woman.
- What was it about Mary’s history that engages you?
As mentioned above I was immediately captivated by Mary’s determination to take her life into her own hands rather than being a pawn of her brother all her life. After the death of her first husband, King Louis XII of France, Mary could very well have let her brother, or the new French king Francis I, decide her fate, but Mary was having none of that. She wanted to return to England and she wanted to marry a man that she had feelings for. In other words she wanted to live her life as she chose, and the fact that she was able to manipulate the men in her life to achieve this goal utterly fascinates me.
- Having read your book, it is very apparent you spent a long time analysing her letters and contemplating the language she uses. How much did you know about the education of Tudor princesses before you started your research.
I have to admit that before I started this project I knew very little about the education of princesses during the Tudor age. I have read quite a bit about women of that period and their status within society, but in relation to a princess and her education I knew very little. I was surprised to find that Mary received quite a good education. Not only was she efficient in all the duties required of women of the time i.e. being able to play a musical instrument, dance, sing, needlework, running a household etc. Mary was able to read and write as well and had a strong understanding of the world around her and the happenings of the time.
- Have you imagined observing the Dover dockside scene where Mary extracted that promise from her brother? Do you think it likely that Henry told Wolsey about it?
I highly doubt that Henry told Wolsey anything about the promise at the dockside at Dover that she could chose her next husband, should Louis die! There’s no evidence to suggest that Henry told Wolsey anything. By not telling Wolsey it allowed Henry to appear shocked and furious over Mary’s sudden and secret marriage to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk that took place in France immediately Mary came out of seclusion. Henry could deny, deny, deny! It is probable he going to renege on his promise the minute Mary returned to England, and marry her off to another foreign worthy.
- Have you speculated about the relationship Mary had with Louis? The book contains vivid descriptions of what they wore and who was present at their encounters before and at their wedding, but what do you think their personal relationship was like bearing in mind his state of health?
I believe they had as close a relationship as any couple who barely knew each other could have had. Mary was extremely dutiful and knew what was expected of her both as a wife and as the queen France, and played these perfectly. She was very attentive, trying to support Louis and distract him from the pain he was suffering. Mary would play the lute for him, sit by his bed and talk with him, or read to him in an effort to entertain him. I do not think Mary loved Louis, but we do know what Louis’ feelings were for his new wife. From all accounts, he was very much smitten and greatly adored her, if this was a new found love then perhaps he loved Mary, but Mary most certainly did not love her husband. She was dutiful, respectful and most definitely a caring and devoted wife – after all that was her duty.
- Yes, clearly Mary fulfilled the duty of companion beautifully, but do you think the marriage was ever consummated?
Oh I absolutely believe the wedding was consummated! Louis might have been old and riddled with gout, but for the last few months of his time on earth, Mary gave him a sense of new life. He most certainly was able to perform his husbandly duties and by all accounts Mary was most certainly not a virgin after her wedding night. An account written the day following their wedding states that “the King seemed very jovial and gay, and in love, [to judge] by his countenance. Thrice did he cross the river last night, and would have done more, had he chosen.” This description may have just been a report of manly banter, but after Louis’ death Mary went into seclusion. The new French king, Francis I, certainly believed that there may have been a chance she was pregnant, therefore Louis must have been able to perform!
- Do you think Francis was set on marrying her off for his own political reasons and if so, who might have been the likely candidates? What do you think his reaction was when he learnt of her secret marriage to Charles Brandon?
I most certainly believe that Francis was looking to marry Mary off for his own political gain. Throughout the whole of Europe there was no lack of eligible men who wished to have the hand of Mary (now Dowager Queen of France) in marriage in order for them to make an alliance with France. The candidates included Anthony the Good, Duke of Lorraine; Charles III, Duke of Savoy; John, the son of the Portugese king Emmanuel the Fortunate and William, Duke of Bavaria. Francis could have married Mary to any of these men and so strengthen France’s alliances and ultimately ‘get one over’ his rival, Henry VIII.
As to his reaction, I think at first Francis would have been quite cross, but he never showed this – well there do not appear to be any surviving accounts describing that he was cross. Instead, when he confronted Brandon he was very calm and collected. Francis may have lost Mary as a marriageable asset, but he could now use their secret marriage to gain advantage over his English rival. He could now use both Mary and Brandon as bargaining tools against England. He could choose to support the marriage and show himself to be a kind and gracious king creating an alliance with England – which he ultimately did; or he could have denied them the right to leave France, punish them both and hold Henry VIII’s sister as a hostage. Either way Francis gained the upper hand over his English rival, Henry.
- Do you think the description of Mary’s relationship with her second husband is reflected in their marriage portrait?
The marriage portrait of Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon is perhaps the most famous of all their portraits. The sitters are holding hands in an intimate manner and their bodies seem to be tilted towards each other, as though expressing their love and union. Mary appears to be tucked under Brandon’s broad shoulder as if he is protecting her. In other words, the artist has portrayed him as Mary’s knight in shining armour who came to rescue her from her difficult position in France after the death of her first husband , Louis XII.
Brandon wears richly decorated fur lined robes, his eyes appear to be blue and he has strong facial features. His hair is thick and brown in colour and he has a generous square cut beard. Brandon looks out of the portrait, as though looking at something just behind the viewer. He wears a chain showing he is a Knight of the Garter. The fact that the Garter chain is so bright and prominent in the portrait suggests that Brandon was proud of his place in the highest order of chivalry in England. Brandon’s hat has a medallion that shows a woman in flowing robes. She holds a rope or cord that points downwards and there is a motto inscribed “Je tiens en sa cord”, which may mean “Who can hold that will away”. This may make reference to the motto Brandon adopted during his time visiting Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, where he famously flirted with the archduchess and stole a ring from her finger. The cord in the medallion may signify the princesses giving her favour to St George, the patron saint of England or it may signify the princess leading the dragon away from St George. If the motto is accompanied with the latter description of the princess it may signify that Mary Tudor is leading Brandon into marriage. The overall impression of this double portrait is of a close loving couple.
- Do you consider Mary to have been a good influence on her brother? She was very anti Anne Boleyn, but do you think her antipathy was because Henry wanted a divorce from Katharine of Aragon, or because Mary did not like Boleyn because she was aware of the ambitions of the Boleyn family?
Before Anne Boleyn came into the picture, Henry and Mary were very close. They were the two surviving Tudor siblings closest in age and had remained together in London. As heir to the throne, his older brother Arthur Tudor had his own establishment away from the Tudor Court, and Henry’s older sister, Margaret Tudor, was married off to James IV of Scotland in 1503, leaving the surviving two siblings together. Henry and Mary both loved entertainment, lavish celebrations, beautiful clothing and generally having fun. Even after Mary secretly married Brandon without Henry’s permission and returned to England, she was still close to her brother.
The main reason that the siblings became distanced was Mary’s strong dislike of Anne Boleyn. It is important to remember that Mary and Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, were very close. They had been together at court after Prince Arthur’s death and before Henry’s marriage to Katharine; they were both married off to foreign kings, and both lost children. When Katharine went on pilgrimage she often stayed with Mary, plus they shared a religion. Mary was very against her brother annulling his marriage and considered that Anne had deliberately come between Henry and Katherine. The King’s Great Matter was causing great pain to a close and dear friend and Mary was very loyal and devoted to her friend, Queen Katharine.
- What are you working on now, Sarah?
I am very excited to say that I have recently signed a another contract with Amberley Publishing. My next book will be exploring the life of the Brandon men, from William Brandon Senior, his three sons – Thomas, Robert and the eldest, also called William and was Henry VII’s standard bearer. William was killed at the battle of Bosworth in August 1485, through to his son Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and Charles’ four sons.
It is often thought that Mary’s husband, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, was an adventurer who came from nothing and managed to marry a French queen who just also happened to be an English princess who was sister to the king of England. However, my research is revealing that the Brandon men were not only very wealthy, but influential in the highest eschelons of society. I am very excited about this book. All I will say for now is there is a great deal of new information that I’m almost bursting to reveal, but you will have to wait for my next book to find out what that information is!
- I know you are coming to England in August. Is there any chance you will be giving any talks anywhere?
I am! I am very excited to announce that I will be giving two talks. The first will be on Mary Tudor at St Mary’s with St Peter’s Church, Bury St Edmunds on Thursday, 9thAugust at 7 p.m. The second is on Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, at the National Trust property – Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire on Friday 10thAugust, 2018 at 6.30 p.m. Tatterhsall Castle was once the home of Charles Brandon, best friend and brother-in-law of Henry VIII. For more information on this talk, visit the website. Talk at Tattershall Castle – 10th August 2018 If you are able to come to either evening, please do come along; it’s going to be a wonderful night!
- Thank you for answering my questions, Sarah. I really enjoyed the way you have brought this less well known Tudor princess to the world and am looking forward to learning more about the Brandon family when your next book is published. Good luck at Bury St Edmunds and Tattershall Castle. I know those attending are in for a treat.
For those interested, below is the link to my review of Sarah’s book, which is available in bookshops and through the usual online platforms.