I am proud to say that my experience of Showtime’s The Tudors is limited, having caught the first two painful episodes for free on the Internet. I don’t pay extra for the premium cable channels like Showtime and HBO. Of course I bristled when I read about the conflating of Henry VIII’s two sisters into a single character, which resembled the biography of neither of the two princesses. And if the producers were so terrified that viewers would confuse Henry’s daughter Mary by Katherine of Aragon with his younger sister, often called Mary Rose (in fact, Henry had a ship christened after her with that very name), why didn’t they just consistently refer to the elder Mary Tudor as “Mary Rose” and let her have her own life?
Because it was a fascinating one.
Here—for those who get their English history from The Tudors, and with a hug to those who, blessedly don’t—is the real story of Mary Rose Tudor. It’s a bit long, but I hope you’ll read on.
It takes a brave woman to defy a king, even if the king happens to be your big brother and you’re his favorite sister. But that’s precisely what Mary Tudor (1496-1533) did.
Mary Rose Tudor, tall, graceful, and fine-boned, with the same red-gold hair as her brother, was considered one of Europe’s most beautiful princesses. She was also one of its greatest pawns. In 1507, Mary was betrothed to Archduke Charles of Austria, heir to both the throne of Spain (occupied at the time by Ferdinand of Aragon, the father of Henry’s queen, Catherine) and to the title of Holy Roman Emperor, held then by Maximilian of Austria. But the sands of political alliance were always shifting, and the wedding plans were scotched when Ferdinand and Maximilian went behind Henry’s back and signed a truce with France.
On Henry’s behalf, his new Archbishop of York, Wolsey, negotiated their own arrangement with France. As part of their treaty, on August 13, 1514, Henry’s younger sister, Mary, “a nymph from heaven,” was married by proxy to Louis XII, the fifty-two-year-old French monarch.
The Brandon family had an illustrious relationship with the Tudors. Charles’s father, Sir William Brandon, had been Henry VII’s valiant standard-bearer. He had paid the ultimate price for his service to the crown when he was killed during the Battle of Bosworth by Richard III himself.
Charles Brandon (b. 1484), who was said to resemble Henry so much that some people thought he was the king’s “bastard brother,” was one of Henry’s favorite courtiers. In 1513, Henry made him a Knight of the Garter and Master of the Horse, and that same year created him Viscount Lisle. That summer, Lisle distinguished himself in battle during Henry’s campaigns in France.
In 1514, Brandon was made Duke of Suffolk, and his rise through the ranks of the peerage had many nobles from older and more established families bristling. But Brandon had his fans as well. “A liberal and magnificent lord,” wrote a Venetian visitor to the court. “No one ever bore so vast a rise with so easy a dignity.”
Charles Brandon (1484-1545)
Brandon took part in the jousts that Henry had organized to celebrate the marriage of Mary to the King of France. It is not known for certain, though it is surmised, that although he was a dozen years her senior, Suffolk caught young Mary’s eye during the tournaments.
Henry rejoiced in the match with the French monarch, but the bride was miserable at the prospect of being wedded to an aging, ailing man for whom she had no love. Henry was quite aware, as was Wolsey, of Mary’s unhappiness, but her feelings were of no importance when compared with matters of international politics. Yet she may have been canny enough to see a way out of her dilemma. Letters were exchanged among the parties wherein Mary had proposed a bargain, conveying to her brother that she had “consented to his request and for the peace of Christendom, to marry Louis of France, though he was very aged and sickly, on condition that if she survived him, she should marry whom she liked.”
The wedding festivities in England proceeded as though the groom himself had been there. The young bride was placed in the huge bed of estate with a stand-in, the duc de Longueville. He “consummated” the marriage on his sovereign’s behalf by removing his red hose and touching one of Mary’s bare legs with his own.
Then the great preparations began to send Mary across the Channel to France with her trousseau and her retinue—which included Thomas Boleyn’s two daughters, Mary and Anne. On October 2, about to sail from Dover, Mary Tudor reminded her brother of their agreement. Henry did not acknowledge her remarks, instead telling her quite formally, “I betoken you to God and the fortunes of the sea and the government of the King your husband.”
And on October 9, in Abbeville, France, Mary Rose Tudor and Louis were married in person. She was crowned Queen of France at St. Denis on November 5. After that, Mary and Suffolk may have crossed paths at her own court, where Henry had entrusted him with diplomatic missions to Louis XII. Louis XII of France (1462-1515)
Under Salic law, the French crown could only pass to a male heir, and although Louis was nicknamed Le Père du Peuple—the father of his people—he was unable to father any sons with his first two wives. Hope, however, sprang eternal in the king’s soul. In fact, after his wedding night to Mary, he announced that “he had performed marvels.”
But on New Year’s Day 1515, less than three months later, Louis XII passed away, quite possibly during, or at least due to, his amatory efforts to beget an heir. Mary had never been happy in the marriage, and now she was free, only eighteen years old, and, she believed, with the rest of her life ahead of her to do as she pleased.
Mary’s rank as the English king’s sister as well as her youth and (assumed) fecundity made her a key player in international relations. Henry VIII was legally in control of her future, and it was important for him to see her settled in a second advantageous match.
In late January 1515, after promising Henry that he would not propose to his sister, Suffolk was dispatched to escort Mary—now the dowager Queen of France—back home, and to offer England’s official congratulations to the new king, François I. But rather than hurry swiftly home, Mary and Brandon remained in France, where they secretly married on March 3. Theirs was no mere elopement; it was an act of treason. A princess of the blood had wed without the consent of the sovereign.
Suffolk had already been wed twice before. He had obtained an annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Margaret Mortimer; and his second wife, Anne Browne, had left him a widower in 1512. At the time he eloped with Mary, he was around thirty-one years old, a handsome, sophisticated man in the prime of life. He had risked his sovereign’s displeasure—and possibly his head—to marry Mary.
Writing to Wolsey, the new bridegroom confessed, “The Queen would never let me rest till I had granted her to be married. And so, to be plain with you, I have married her heartily, and have lain with her insomuch I fear me lest she be with child.”
Naturally, the cardinal went straight to the king. Henry was livid—not only with Mary but with Suffolk, who had given his oath to avoid this very situation. The king’s Privy Council (on which sat many peers who were jealous of Suffolk’s ascendance to wealth and power) urged Henry to make an example of the wayward couple and have them executed, or at the very least imprisoned. Henry was only six years into his reign, a mere youth himself at twenty-three. And perhaps because he was young and lusty himself he understood Mary’s passion, at least on an emotional level. He adored his sister, and would have suffered almost equally to see her immured within the Tower—or worse.
So Henry finally forgave Mary and Suffolk—or claimed to—and welcomed them back to England. On May 13, 1515, they were officially married on English soil. Although the ceremonies were modest, it was a triumph of True Love.
But sentimental attachment, and even sympathy, didn’t pay the kingdom’s bills. Henry had taken a huge hit in the purse by their disobedience. And he demanded restitution. So he forced Suffolk to reimburse him for the vast sum spent on Mary’s wedding to the French king as well as for the luxury items, such as jewels and plate, that Louis had promised to bestow on Mary. Then there was the matter of Mary’s dowry. That, too, had been forfeited to France.
The pecuniary penalty for the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk was enormous. The dowry alone amounted to £200,000, worth nearly eight hundred fifty times that sum in today’s dollars. Compensation for the plate and jewels was an additional line item. And to repay Henry for the remaining expenses, Suffolk was to tender another thousand pounds per annum for the next twenty-four years.
It was Cardinal Wolsey who had brokered this financial arrangement. When Suffolk and Mary eventually returned to court, Suffolk, nearly bankrupted by it, became the cardinal’s severest critic.
Mary bore Suffolk three children: a son, Henry Brandon, and two daughters, Lady Frances and Lady Eleanor. But the family did not become permanent fixtures at Henry’s court, preferring the relative sanity and solitude of the duke’s estates. Now that he was the king’s brother-in-law, the duke’s power and influence remained as strong as ever.
Suffolk was one of the diplomats present at the Field of Cloth of Gold summit between Henry and François I in 1520, where he might have first caught a glimpse of Anne Boleyn, in the train of Queen Claude. He could not have known at the time that the young lady-in-waiting with the dark eyes and sallow complexion would cause a rift with his own wife and a strained relationship between Mary and her brother.
Mary had known Anne well enough during her brief reign as Queen of France; and she didn’t like her, though Mary’s reasons for her early antipathy have not been preserved. After Anne became Henry’s mistress, Mary came to court as infrequently as possible, and she sympathized with Katherine of Aragon during the protracted Great Matter. Because of her rank, Mary could get away with her strong opinions against Anne, although Henry didn’t have to like them. It broke his heart that his favorite sister detested his mistress, because he was bound by love to prefer Anne in such circumstances.
Anne Boleyn (1500-1536)
In 1532, Mary was heard using “opprobrious language” about Anne that literally sparked violence between her husband’s men and those of Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Two of Norfolk’s men, the Southwell brothers, murdered Suffolk’s retainer, Sir William Pennington, as the knight sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. Suffolk then “remove[d] the assailants by force” from holy ground.
The court went into an uproar over the incident. Suffolk and Mary retreated to their country estate, Westhorpe Hall, but the mood at Whitehall remained so tense that Henry had to intervene by riding out to speak with Suffolk directly, and fining one of the Southwells the whopping sum of £1,000 (nearly $730,000 nowadays).
Suffolk, too, had at first not thought much of Anne. As late as May, 1530, Eustache Chapuys, the ambassador to the court of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, reported that the duke had been banished from court for warning Henry of Anne’s unsuitability to be queen, owing to her “criminal” relations with a certain courtier “whom she loves very much and whom the king had formerly chased from court for jealousy.” The married poet Thomas Wyatt was likely the man in question, and Anne was terribly upset by the gossip, though she always denied that she and Wyatt had ever enjoyed each other carnally.
Yet, when all was said and done, Suffolk was a loyal courtier, supporting the king in all he sought, and therefore became enough of a proponent of Anne’s to remain in Henry’s good graces. After all, a simple Act of Attainder could wipe away with one stroke of Henry’s pen all the honors and titles and accumulated wealth and property that the king had bestowed upon him. So Brandon had to clench his fists and suck it up when, upon Anne’s coronation, Henry replaced him in the office of Earl Marshal with Anne’s uncle, his archrival Norfolk.
The Duchess of Suffolk lodged her own protest; when Anne finally became queen in 1533, Mary quite pointedly refused to come to court at all.
She fell dangerously ill that June, and in her dying wishes sought reconciliation with her brother. In her last letter to Henry, she wrote that “the sight of Your Grace is the greatest comfort to me that may be possible.”
But her illness was a mere footnote amid the weeks of festivity surrounding Anne’s coronation. Suffolk hurried to her sickbed with Henry’s written reply to her sad little letter, offering his forgiveness and reconciling Mary to the royal bosom.
Mary died at Westhorpe Hall on June 25. First interred at the abbey at Bury St. Edmunds, her corpse was moved to St. Mary’s Church after the abbey was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries. You would think that Henry might have tried a little harder to protect his precious sister’s resting place.
Suffolk wasted little time in remarrying. On September 7, 1533, the same day as the birth of Princess Elizabeth, the forty-eight-year-old duke took a fourth wife—the barely-fourteen-year-old Katherine Willoughby, daughter of Katherine of Aragon’s trusted friend and lady-in-waiting Maria de Salinas. Suffolk had desired the girl when she was betrothed to his son. Now that he was single again, the duke broke off his own son’s contract to marry Katherine himself. The scandal it created was not over the age difference between the groom and his new bride, but over the sordidness of the family dynamic. Suffolk’s son, Henry, Earl of Lincoln, who passed away on March 8, 1534, was said to have died of a broken heart over his father’s betrayal. Although the youth had been ill for some time, it didn’t stop certain tongues from wagging, particularly Anne Boleyn’s, who remarked, “My Lord of Suffolk kills one son to beget another.”
Suffolk remained an influential and powerful courtier and a trusted military commander. In 1544, at the age of sixty, he was once more sent to the Continent to command the forces that besieged Boulogne.
While the court was in Guilford, Suffolk died unexpectedly on August 24, 1545, at the age of sixty-one. The cause of death is unknown, but since it came quite quickly, it was possibly a heart attack or stroke, rather than an illness. However, the legacy of his love match with Mary Tudor would enter the history books for more than its aspects of passion, intrigue, and the flagrant defying of a king.
On February 12, 1554, their granddaughter, Lady Jane Grey, known as “the Nine Days’ Queen,” would lose her head in the struggle for succession engendered by the death of Henry VIII’s teenage son, Edward VI, who left no heirs. The hapless Jane Grey would be succeeded on the English throne by Henry’s daughter Mary.