Frances, being the niece of King Henry VIII, found herself in the position of possibly inheriting the throne of England on several occasions. For inexplicable reasons, Henry VIII and his son King Edward VI saw fit to pass over Frances in designating their successors and instead named her children. This would have dire consequences for Frances and her family. Somehow, through the turmoil of the years following the death of Henry VIII, Frances found a way to survive.
Frances was born between two and three in the morning on July 16, 1517 in the palace of the Bishops of Hatfield. Her father was Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, King Henry VIII’s best friend. Her mother was Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France and younger sister of Henry VIII. She was named Frances, her birth date being St. Francis’ day. Her name could also have been a nod to King Francis I since both parents knew him well from their time in France. Three days after her birth, Frances was christened in the church of St. Etheldreda. Her godmothers were Catherine of Aragon and Princess Mary.
Little is known of Frances’ early years. She grew up in the countryside of Suffolk in the village of Westhorpe in her parent’s favorite home of Westhorpe Hall and was given an education suitable for a woman of her rank. She had a brother named Henry, earl of Lincoln who died in 1534, and a sister Eleanor. From existing evidence, it is believed Frances and Eleanor spoke fluent French.
Her father may have considered Henry Grey, 3rd Marquess of Dorset as a possible husband for Frances early on. Frances and Henry may have known each other as their fathers were friends. On March 24, 1533, Brandon purchased the wardship, without his estates, of Henry Grey for four thousand marks. This gave him the right to arrange Henry’s marriage. He had been betrothed to Katherine Fitzalan, daughter of the earl of Arundel at an earlier date but Henry refused to go through with the marriage. He had his sights set higher. A marriage with Frances Brandon had more prestige so he reneged on the marriage to Katherine Fitzalan by paying a fee, with the king paying the first installment on the debt.
Suffolk agreed to support the young couple. They were both sixteen years old. King Henry VIII attended the wedding, probably in May of 1533 at Suffolk Place in Southwark. The wedding cost Charles Brandon £1666. Shortly after this wedding, Anne Boleyn was crowned queen and Catherine of Aragon was demoted to dowager princess. Frances did not like Anne Boleyn and did not attend her coronation. Frances’ mother had survived to see her wedding but died on June 25 and Frances acted as chief mourner at her funeral. A few months after the death of Mary Tudor, Charles Brandon married Katherine Willoughby de Eresby and would subsequently have two sons with her.
In September of 1533, Princess Elizabeth was born to Anne Boleyn. The following March, Princess Mary was omitted from the succession by Parliament and Frances’ brother died. In 1536, Catherine of Aragon died, Anne Boleyn was beheaded and Henry VIII’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth were declared illegitimate and barred from the throne by law of Parliament. In effect, if you leave out Margaret Tudor and her children, Frances was now heir to the throne of England and one of the most important ladies in the land. In documents and state reports, Frances is listed just behind the king’s daughters.
On October 12, 1537, Prince Edward was born to Jane Seymour and the importance of Frances’ position was diminished, although she remained second in line for the next seven years. Frances attended the christening of Prince Edward at Hampton Court Palace and she was a part of the funeral party for Queen Jane Seymour’s procession and burial in St. George’s Chapel, following behind Princess Mary dressed in black in a chariot.
After her wedding, Frances lived with her mother-in-law and Henry returned to court. This might have been hard for them as the marriage appears to have been, if not a love match, happy and successful. Frances was known as the ‘the young’ marchioness while her mother-in-law was alive.
There is no contemporary evidence Frances had two children before Jane was born. The idea seems to have originated from the writings of Agnes Strickland in the Victorian era and appears to have been a misinterpretation of a letter by her daughter Jane shortly before her execution. Jane is referred to as Frances’ “first born daughter”. The best guess for the birth date of Lady Jane Grey is the fall of 1537.
In 1538, when Henry Grey turned twenty-one, the couple finally had financial independence and moved to Bradgate Park. The Grey’s were very sociable and entertained frequent visitors. Frances and Henry enjoyed gambling, playing cards and dice. Frances hunted regularly for deer and enjoyed hawking. For New Year’s 1540, Frances received a gift of a brace of hounds from Henry VIII. Occasionally, Frances and Henry attended court but for the most part, they stayed in the country. Frances attended the wedding of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves at Greenwich Palace. Their lavish lifestyle led to financial difficulties and they were constantly in debt.
Frances probably gave birth to her daughter Katherine in August of 1540 and another daughter Mary in 1545. Frances and Henry were very aware of their royal status and that of their daughters and harbored ambitions for them, especially Jane. They decided to give the girls an education grounded in humanism and hired tutors. They were also protestants and raised their daughters as evangelicals. They invested much of their time and money in Jane.
In the summer of 1543, Henry VIII married Katherine Parr. Frances was friends with Katherine and would serve in her Privy Chamber in 1546. In 1544, Bess of Hardwick joined Frances’ household as a waiting gentlewoman. It was to be the beginning of a long-lasting friendship. Bess may have met her second husband, Sir William Cavendish in the Grey household. The Grey’s hosted the couple’s wedding at Bradgate on August 20, 1547 which was followed by two days of celebration.
Frances’ circumstances were altered once again when in 1544, Henry VIII restored his daughters Mary and Elizabeth to the succession if Prince Edward were to die first. However, both daughters remained illegitimate. Even though Frances was not specifically named in the Third Act of Succession, she probably assumed she was next in line.
The old Duke of Suffolk died on August 22, 1545 and Frances was by his side. In his will, he left his daughters Frances and Eleanor £200 worth of plate along with jewelry and other household items (roughly £61,000 in today’s money). At the time of Charles Brandon’s death, he had two surviving sons who stood to inherit his dukedom.
At the end of 1546, King Henry was dying. In his final will and testament, he reiterated that his three surviving children should inherit the throne. He skipped over the children of his elder sister Margaret and nominated the heirs of his sister Mary, pointedly stating that the next heirs to inherit the throne if his children had no children would be the issue of Frances herself and therefore bypassing her altogether. Failing this, the children of Frances’ sister Eleanor were to follow. In one stroke, he disinherited Frances and her sister. If Edward were to die childless, and anyone decided to challenge the illegitimate daughters of Henry VIII, Lady Jane Grey was an available pawn in the inheritance sweepstakes.
Why did Henry disinherit Frances? Could he not envision her on the throne? Was her husband the problem? At the time, it was believed that the husband would rule, not the woman so Henry Grey would essentially be king if Frances inherited the throne. Frances was assertive and of strong character and more influential than her husband. Henry’s reasons will remain a mystery.
After the death of King Henry VIII, Thomas Seymour approached Frances and Henry to put forth his plan to marry their daughter Jane to King Edward VI. He offered them a loan of £2000. In return, he asked that Jane come to live with him and his new wife, the dowager queen Katherine Parr. They agreed to let her go as a marriage of their daughter to the king would be a brilliant coup for the family. They received regular progress reports on Jane.
After the death of Katherine Parr, both parents wrote letters to Seymour requesting he return Jane to them. She did come home for a short time, but he pressed them both in person and convinced them to return her to him. She was only there for a short time before Seymour was charged and found guilty of treason and was executed.
After Seymour’s execution, Jane returned to her family at Bradgate and resumed her studies with her tutor John Aylmer. By now the Grey’s were in high favor with the king and moved between Bradgate and their home in London where they attended court. They entertained the king at Dorset House in September of 1549.
In the summer of 1551, there was an outbreak of the sweating sickness and Frances’ two half-brothers Charles and Henry Brandon died leaving the title of Duke of Suffolk available. Henry Grey was endowed with the title by right of his wife and she was now a Duchess. Even though Frances positively supported the reformed religion, she maintained a close friendship with the Princess Mary who was now heir to the throne. Frances and all three of her daughters visited Mary in 1549 and they all celebrated Christmas together in 1551.
In November of 1551, Frances was present during the welcoming ceremonies for Marie de Guise, dowager Queen of Scots and regent in Scotland for her daughter Mary Queen of Scots as she returned to England after visiting her daughter in France. In the summer of 1552, Frances became deathly ill, possibly of the sweating sickness. She was staying at the Charterhouse in London and her family despaired for her life. Her husband left court to be by her side. Remarkably, she recovered but from that point forward, she suffered from a constant, burning ague and a stoppage of the spleen.
With the fall of the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset in early 1552, Frances and Henry cast their lot with John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, the new man in charge of the regency for King Edward. Dudley was now head of the king’s council and had massive influence over the king and the country. Dudley began to work on a plan to bypass the king’s sister Mary as his heir. She was Roman Catholic and planned to do everything in her power to return England to the church of Rome.
King Edward’s health was in decline. Under the influence of Dudley and his tutor, Edward was given an assignment to rewrite his will, composing a ‘device’ which in theory excluded his sister Mary and bestowed the throne on his cousins, Frances’ daughters. Eventually this ‘device’ was turned into letters patent, signed by the king and his council. Although the king could legally issue letters patent, there were arguments at the time that changing the succession would require Parliamentary approval which never materialized. During the drawing up of the letters patent, Dudley called Frances to Greenwich to have her swear to give up her claim to the throne.
On January 10, 1553, Princess Mary made a visit to her brother at the Palace of Westminster and Frances accompanied her. In the spring of 1533, Dudley approached the Suffolks about marrying Jane to his son Guildford. Frances opposed this marriage, but Henry agreed. The wedding took place on May 21 at Durham House, Dudley’s home in London. King Edward died on July 6 and things began to move swiftly. His death was kept secret for three days and then Jane was proclaimed queen by the privy council at Syon House with her parents in attendance. The next day, Jane was publicly recognized as queen at Westminster.
Frances was with Jane to support her throughout the entire ordeal. They were lodged in the Tower of London in anticipation of Jane’s coronation. However, Mary was determined to claim her throne as the law stipulated and raised an army. Dudley and Henry Grey were instructed by the council to raise troops to fight Mary and her army. Frances did not want her husband to go. Support for Dudley and Jane melted away and Mary was proclaimed queen with no bloodshed. Jane was now a prisoner in the Tower.
Frances was forced to leave Jane in the Tower after Mary was proclaimed Queen while Henry was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. Frances rode immediately to Beaulieu in Essex to plead the case of her family with the Queen. She arrived in the morning of July 29 and awaited an audience with Mary. She made an impassioned plea for her husband’s life.
She told Mary her family was the victim of John Dudley’s schemes and threw herself and her husband on the queen’s mercy. Both Frances and Henry probably believed Mary would be merciful to Jane. Mary was sympathetic to Frances’ entreaties and leaned toward pardoning Suffolk and Jane. But Mary’s councilors, the imperial ambassadors, argued against it and Mary declined. The next day she agreed to pardon Suffolk but not Jane. Jane was charged with treason and would face the death penalty. Mary released Henry from the Tower, but he was to remain under house arrest at the Charterhouse.
In January of the following year, Henry Grey left the Charterhouse to join Thomas Wyatt and other rebels in an uprising in protest of Queen Mary’s pending marriage to King Philip II of Spain. There is evidence Frances did not approve of the plot and certainly didn’t want her husband involved. She was right to be concerned as the rebels were defeated and captured, including her husband.
Frances pleaded with the Queen once again, not to pardon her husband but to forgive him. She knew he was as good as dead and the forgiveness of the Queen would allow rehabilitation at court for Frances and her surviving family and for the restoration of some of her husband’s confiscated lands. Mary’s patience was tested, and Jane Grey and her husband Guildford were tried, found guilty and executed on February 17, 1554. Five days later, Henry Grey was put on trial in Westminster Hall and on February 23, he was executed on Tower Hill.
Due to Frances’ work, the Grey family was rehabilitated after the death of her husband although the imperial ambassadors did their best to persuade Mary that she must eliminate the Grey family as potential heirs to the throne. In July of 1554, Frances was invited to join Queen Mary’s Privy Chamber. Frances maintained a cordial relationship with the Princess Elizabeth, Queen Mary’s heir. There was talk at court that Frances would be married to Edward Courtenay, 1st Earl of Devon, in the spring of 1555. This may be one of the reasons Frances decided to choose a minor nobleman as a husband in a preemptive strike to escape being forced to wed someone from the political elite against her will. Courtenay did not want to marry her either.
Frances married Adrian Stokes who was thirty-six to her thirty-seven. He was most likely the son of a minor Leicestershire gentleman, a former soldier and Protestant who rose to be employed by Frances as her secretary, groom of the bedchamber and master of horse. Her marriage was probably a relief to Queen Mary as Frances was no longer a threat to her throne. It was a happy marriage and Stokes was a loving stepfather to Katherine and Mary.
The rule of the heralds said, “if a noble woman marries a commoner, she ceases to be noble”. Her marriage compelled Frances to give up her status as a duchess but society continued to respect her anyway. She remained on good terms with Queen Mary who permitted her to live at Richmond and employed Katherine and Mary as maids of honor. She eventually retired from court and had several pregnancies, one of which resulted in a live birth. Her daughter Elizabeth died after a few months.
Frances was too ill to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I. In early November 1559, she drew up her will and arranged to sell some property and give the proceeds to Katherine and Mary. She named Stokes as the executor of her will and left all her goods and a life interest in most of her property to him. She died on November 21 with her two daughters and some close friends by her side. Queen Elizabeth agreed to pay for the funeral of her ‘beloved cousin’. Her funeral on December 5 was the first Protestant service in Westminster Abbey after the reconstitution of its chapter by Queen Elizabeth I.
For centuries, Frances has been ill-treated by historians. It’s been said of her that she was ‘buxom, hard-riding’, ‘ambitious’, ‘cunning and predatory’, ‘a restless and permanently dissatisfied schemer’, ‘harsh, grasping and brutal’, and ‘arrogant and energetic’. This negative reputation is principally based on a passage written by Roger Asham in his book “The Schoolmaster”.
In 1550, Roger Asham visited Bradgate and had an interview with Lady Jane Grey. Twenty years after this visit, and long after Jane’s parents had died, Asham’s report of this interview was published. He states that Jane complained of punishment by her parents. Later writers have used these comments to condemn Frances and Henry Grey. Asham may have exaggerated what Jane said to support his argument that teachers should not act as parents and resort to corporeal punishment to motivate their students.
During Tudor times, good parents were strict parents and physical punishment was common. But Jane’s parents were extremely proud of her. Her comments, if she truly said them, may have been a display of behavior typical of a willful, rebellious teenager who was pushing back against parental discipline. Jane was stubborn, unusually bright, articulate and opinionated. Frances and Henry were determined to make a good marriage for her and didn’t want her to acquire a reputation.
Jane’s Italian tutor, Michel Angelo Florio, observed that Jane was particularly close to her mother. There is another report from John of Ulm who visited Bradgate and says the family was happy. There is no mention of physical abuse with Jane’s sisters Katherine and Mary. And perhaps even more telling, Jane insisted on the presence of her mother at Syon House when she was proclaimed queen and under great stress. Also, Katherine and Mary were with Frances at her bedside when she died.
Perhaps her biggest fault in historian’s eyes was her marriage to Adrian Stokes, a man who was well below her in social status. As we have seen, Frances had good reason to make this marriage to escape a worse fate and Stokes was a good husband to her and her daughters. He was not younger than her and he had enough of a fortune to build a fine memorial to his wife in Westminster Abbey.
Frances appears to have had the political savvy to survive the foolish escapades of her first husband and the machinations of the Duke of Northumberland. She managed to skillfully navigate through the reigns of four Tudor monarchs. It is time to put to rest the negative legend of Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk.
Further reading: “Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey” by Nicola Tallis, “English Aristocratic Women 1450-1550” by Barbara J. Harris, “Henry VIII: The King and His Court” by Alison Weir, “Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery” by Eric Ives, “The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Tragedy” by Leanda de Lisle, entry on Frances Brandon in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Retha M. Warnicke