The Princess and the Knight
Guest post by Sarah Bryson
The story of Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor reads like a fairy tale. Born in 1496 she was the youngest surviving child of King Henry VII and his beautiful wife Queen Elizabeth. Mary was raised to be the perfect image of a princess. Mary was educated in all the necessities for royal women of the time including singing, dancing, embroidery, and playing a musical instrument. In fact Mary was an excellent player of the lute and clavichord (a type of stringed instrument). In addition, she received training in social etiquette including table manners, polite conversation and the importance of dressing and presenting herself as a daughter of the new Tudor king.
Mary was renowned throughout Europe for her great beauty. Philippe Sieur de Bergilies, ambassador to the Court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, stated that ‘never man saw a more beautiful creature, nor one having so much grace and sweetness, in public or private.’ Less than three months later Derard de Pleine wrote to Margaret of Austria stating that ‘Madame the Princess [Mary], until I had seen her several times. I can assure you that she is one of the most beautiful girls that one would wish to see; it does not seem to me that I have ever seen one so beautiful. She has a good manner, and her deportment is perfect in conversation, dancing or anything else.’
Mary was in essence the perfect princess. The fairy tale of her life continued until when she was just eighteen years old, she was married to the fifty two year old King of France, Louis XII. Louis was an old man riddled with gout and the marriage was a condition of a peace treaty negotiated between England and France.
However, just three months after her marriage, Louis XII died on 1 January 1515. Mary, now the Dowager Queen of France as well as being an English princess, was trapped in a foreign country, her servants dismissed and she was sent to the Hotel de Cluny for forty days of mourning.
At eighteen years of age Mary was young, beautiful and as a widow she was once more a useful political tool. While she remained in France, Francis I could easily use her as a bargaining tool for his own purposes. He could organise a marriage between Mary and a French nobleman or even arrange a marriage with a member of the aristocracy from another country in order to secure a political alliance against England.
Francis I may have also been concerned that should Mary return to England the her brother, Henry VIII, would renege on the original treaty with France and seek a renewal of the English treaty with the Holy Roman Empire, seeking to revive the planned marriage between Mary and Prince Charles of Castile, to whom she had been betrothed to before her marriage to Louis XII. In addition, while Mary remained in France Francis I could retain Mary’s jewels and would not have to pay for her travelling expenses back to England.
That is when her knight in shining armour came to rescue her. Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk was one of Henry VIII’s closest friends. He was twenty nine years old, tall, athletic and known as one of the best jousters in England, but he was also a rogue. Already having two marriages under his belt, Brandon had a reputation as a ladies man, not just English women, but he even dared to steal a ring from Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy and daughter of Maximillian I, the Holy Roman Emperor!
The fairy tale continues, and Brandon, under orders from King Henry VIII, was sent to France in order to bring Mary safely back to her homeland. Brandon scooped Mary up and falling for her great beauty and charm married her instantly – and without the English king’s permission. Fearing Henry VIII’s wrath both Mary and Charles threw themselves on the king’s mercy and because of his great love for the pair they were forgiven and allowed to return home.
On the face of it, this is a superb example of the chivalric romantic tale of a beautiful, helpless princess saved by her handsome knight. Yet the story is just that… a story. The truth about Mary Tudor and her marriage to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk is far more than a helpless woman seeking to be saved. In fact it was Mary who proposed marriage to Brandon and it was Mary who manoeuvred her way through a male dominated world to pave her own future.
Faced with such uncertainty, Mary Tudor did not sit back as the helpless, weak princess needing to be rescued. Instead she took matters into her own hands. Shortly after Brandon’s arrival in Paris Mary proposed marriage and the duke accepted. The couple were married in secret, without Henry VIII’s permission and also without the knowledge of the king of France.
While the exact date of the marriage is unknown it is probable that the couple married before ten witnesses in the Chapel in Cluny, between 31 January, when Brandon arrived in Paris, and 3rd February.
Mary boldly wrote to her brother reminding him of the promise that he had made at Dover before she boarded the ship that took her to France, which was that should Louis die before her and there was no progeny of that marriage, she could take a second husband of her own choosing.
‘Sir, I beseech your grace that you will keep all the promises that you promised me when I took my leave of you by the w[ater s]ide. Sir, your grace knoweth well that I did marry for your pl[easure a]t this time, and now I trust that you will suffer me to [marry as] me l[iketh fo]r to do ; for, sir, I k[now that yo]u shall have . . . s that they . . . for I assure your grace that [my mi]nd is not there where they would have me, and I trust [your grace] will not do so to me that has always been so glad to fulfil your mind as I have been : wherefore I beseech your grace for to be good lord and brother to me; for, sir, an if your grace will have gran me married in any place, [sav]ing whereas my mind is, I will be there, whereas your grace nor no other shall have any joy of me : for, I promise your grace, you shall hear that I will be in some religious house, the which I think your grace would be very sorry of, and all your realm. Also, sir, I know well that the King, that is [my so]n, will send to your grace by his uncle the duke of . . . for to ma[rry me here, but I tru]st you[r grace … I sha]ll never be merry at my heart, (for an ever that I d[o marrjy while I live). I trow your grace knoweth as well as I do, and did before I came’ hither, and so I trust your grace will be contented, unless I would never marry while I live, but be there where never [no] man nor woman shall have joy of me ; wherefore I beseech your grace to be good lord to him and to me both, for I know well that he hath m[et ma]ny hindrances to your grace of him and me both. Wherefore, an your grace be good lord to us both, I will not care for all the world else, but beseech your grace to be good lord and brother to me, as you have been here aforetime, f[or in you] is all the trust that I have in this world after God. No m[ore from m]e at this [time].
God send your grace [long life an]d your heart’sde[sires].
By your humble and loving sister, Mary Queen of France.
To the King my brother this be delivered, in haste.’
Brandon’s letter to Henry VIII shows Mary’s determination not to be remarried to a foreign prince, but to take a husband of her own choosing.
‘Sir, so it is that when I came to Paris the Queen was in hand with me the first day I [came], and said she must be short with me and [open] to me her pleasure and mind; and so she b[egan] and show how good lady [she] was to me, and if I would be ordered by her she would never have none but me. … She showed me she had wyerelle und[erstood] as well by Friar Langglay and Friar Fr … dar that and yewar sche cam in Ynggyll[and she sho]uld newar have me; and ther for sche … wr that and I wold not marre her … have me nor never come to [England] When I heard her say so I showed … plied that but to prove me with, and she … would not you knew well that my coming … it was showed her … and I axsed her wat [it] was; and she said that the best in France had [said] unto her that, and she went into England, she should go into Flanders. To the which she said that she had rather to be torn in pieces than ever she should come there, and with that wept. Sir, I never saw woman so weep; and when I saw [that] I showed unto her grace that there was none such thing [upon] my faith, with the best words J could: but in none ways I could make her to believe it. And when I saw that, I showed her grace that, and her grace would be content to write unto your grace and to obtain your good will, I would be content; or else I durst not, because I had made unto your grace such a promise. Whereunto, in conclusion, she said, ‘If the King my brother is content and the French King both, the tone by his letters and the todar by his words, that I should have [y]ou, I will have the time after my desire, or else I may well think that the words of … in these parts and of them in England [be] true and that is that you are come to tyes me home (?) [to the in]tent that I may be married into Fland[ers], which I will never, to die for it; and so [I posse]ssed the French King ar you cam (?); and th[at if] you will not be content to follow [my] end, look never after this d[ay to have] the proffer again.’ And, Sir, I … in that case and I thought … but rather to put me … than to lyes all, and so I gra … an too; and so she and I was ma[rried] … and but ten persons, of the which [neither Sir Richard] Wyngfyld nor Master Dyne (Dean) was not [present] on my faith; for she would that I should [not take] them on council, for she said and I did [so] … she thought they would give mo couns[el] to the contrary; and therefore they know not of it, nor that the writing of this letter, on my faith and truth.”’
Brandon’s frantic letter to Henry VIII show’s that Mary took possession of the situation and was prepared to act in order to have what she wanted – her freedom of choice. She was determined to have her brother’s best friend for her second husband, rather than be used again as a bargaining tool for another political alliance with a foreign country.
Mary was not a helpless, meek princess needing to be rescued by a knight in shining armour. Instead she was a cunning woman who took her life into her own hands and forged her own destiny. Mary’s marriage to Brandon was calculated. It stopped any chance that Francis I might have had of using her for his own political ends. It also stopped any potential marriages that Henry VIII may have planned for his sister. She gambled her brother’s love and ultimately came up winning. Mary was married to the handsome, greatly respected and beloved Duke of Suffolk, one of the most powerful men in England, as well as retaining her brother’s love and affection. If Mary’s marriage to Charles Brandon is written as a fairy tale then it must be regarded as the story that Mary wrote for herself.
You can find her book on Amazon:
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, 1509–47, ed. J. S. Brewer, James Gairdner and R. H. Brodie, (His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1862–1932).
Loades, David, Mary Rose (Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 2012).
Mumby, F, The Youth of Henry VIII: A Narrative in Contemporary Letters (Boston New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913).
Richardson, Walter C., Mary Tudor The White Queen (Great Britain: University of Washington Press, 1970).
Sarah Bryson is a researcher, writer and educator who has a Bachelor of Early Childhood
Education with Honours. She currently works with children with disabilities. She is
passionate about Tudor history and has a deep interest in Mary Tudor, Charles Brandon,
Duke of Suffolk and the reign of Henry VIII and the people of his court. She has run a
website dedicated to Tudor history for many years and has written for various websites
including ‘On the Tudor Trail’ and ‘QueenAnneBoleyn’. She has been studying primary
sources to tell the story of Mary Tudor for a decade. Sarah lives in Australia, enjoys reading,
writing and Tudor costume enactment.