We would like to continue our series on Tudor queens by examining the life of Mary Tudor, the younger sister of King Henry VIII. She began as a victim of circumstances but ended up marrying the love of her life.
Mary was the fifth child of Henry VII, King of England and his wife Elizabeth of York. She was born on March 18, 1496 at Richmond Palace and was the youngest to survive infancy. Mary, along with her brothers Arthur and Henry and elder sister Margaret as well as other siblings who didn’t survive, all seemed to have delighted in an idyllic childhood under the guidance of their mother. They mostly grew up at Eltham Palace where they all had tutors and schoolmasters. Mary learned French from an early age. Mary and Henry were especially close as evidenced by Henry naming his first daughter after his sister. Mary was one of the most beautiful princesses in Europe at the time. There is a lock of her hair preserved in the museum at Bury St. Edmunds and the color is golden. She wore her lustrous long hair hanging down to her waist.
In 1507, Mary was betrothed to Charles of Castile, who would later become the Holy Roman Emperor. But political alliances were to change and the engagement was broken. In the meantime, Mary had fallen in love with Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, Henry VIII’s best friend. When Henry’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey negotiated a peace treaty with France in 1514, part of the conditions were that Mary become the wife of the French King Louis XII. Mary pleaded with her brother that if she agreed to this marriage for state reasons, she must be allowed to marry whomever she wished the second time. Mary was eighteen and Louis was fifty-two and she was not pleased with the age difference. It is believed Henry did agree she could marry again but he wanted to leave his options open if more lucrative alliances were to arise. So, Mary went off to France.
Louis and Mary were married on October 9, 1514 and she was immediately crowned Queen. Among the ladies-in-waiting who went with Mary to France was Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary. Louis, who was quite ill at the time with many maladies, exhausted himself with all the wedding and coronation ceremonies and with escapades in the marriage bed, trying for an heir. He promptly died, three months after the wedding.
Henry sent his boon companion, the Duke of Suffolk to rescue Mary and bring her home, making him promise he wouldn’t marry her. Mary was required to remain in seclusion until it was determined if she was with child. While she was waiting, she convinced Suffolk to marry her in March of 1515. Henry and Wolsey were furious. Marrying the blood relative of a King without permission was treason. Mary and Suffolk had put both their lives in jeopardy. Mary wrote to Henry giving him her dowry, trying to appease him. Henry extracted a promise from Suffolk that he would bring all of Mary’s plate, jewels and gold back from France and pay him 4000 pounds per year for life, an enormous sum. Henry’s council wanted Suffolk to be arrested but Wolsey calmed Henry down and all was forgiven. Mary and Suffolk were officially married in May of 1515 at Greenwich Palace.
Mary was Suffolk’s third wife. Due to the debt they owed Henry, they seemed to suffer financial problems throughout their married life. He had two daughters from his second marriage that Mary brought up as her own children. Together, Mary and Suffolk had four children. Henry Brandon was born in 1516 but died in 1522. They had another son, also named Henry born in 1523 and he also died in 1534. Their two daughters, Frances and Eleanor, born in 1517 and 1519, both survived and made successful marriages. Frances married Henry Grey, Marques of Dorset and had three daughters, Jane, Catherine and Mary. Lady Jane was to reign as Queen of England for nine days. We will visit her story later. Eleanor Brandon married Henry Clifford, Earl of Cumberland and had one daughter.
While Mary lived, she was never called the Duchess of Suffolk but “the French Queen”. She spent most of her time at her private home Westhorpe Hall in Suffolk. Mary’s relationship with King Henry was strained in the 1520’s because she didn’t support Henry’s efforts to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon whom Mary had known for many years. She never liked Anne Boleyn. She basically lived a quiet life away from court.
When Mary died at Westhorpe on June 25, 1533, she was buried at the abbey in Bury St. Edmunds. The monastery was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII when Henry broke with the Catholic Church to marry Anne Boleyn. Mary’s body was then moved to St. Mary’s Church, Bury St. Edmunds.
Further reading: “The Sisters of Henry VIII” by Maria Perry, “Henry VIII: The King and His Court” by Alison Weir