I chose to write about Mary because I’d researched her birth and early life for my last book, Henry – Book Three of the Tudor Trilogy. In the trilogy I’d moved forward one generation with each book, so it appealed to me to write a ‘sequel’ which did the same. I’d become intrigued with Mary’s story of how she risked everything to defy her brother when he became King Henry VIII.
Several of the books I read during my research suggested that nothing of much interest happened after Mary returned from her short time as the Queen of France. Of course, I found more than enough to write about. Mary was one of the few people prepared to stand up for her friend Queen Catherine when Anne Boleyn caught Henry’s eye.
She was also one of the guests of honour at the spectacular meeting between Henry VIII and King Francis I of France between 7th and 24th of June 1520, which became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The two kings did their best to outdo each other in every possible way.
A wide plain in a valley subsequently called the ‘Val d’Or’, near the English castle at Guisnes (to the south of Calais) was filled with magnificent tents and pavilions, recorded in a contemporary painting of the scene now part of the royal collection at Hampton Court Palace.
It was fascinating to explore what Mary Tudor might have made of it all, to suddenly be taken from her virtual retirement in Suffolk to be at centre stage, adored by the French as ‘La Reine Blanche’ and proudly exploited by Henry.
Although this was intended to be a serious diplomatic meeting, there are stories about the two kings wresting each other to the ground, playing tricks and even seeing who could sing the loudest. Hall’s chronicle notes that ‘When dinner was over, some time was spent dancing in the banqueting hall. Before he started to dance, the French king went from one end of the room to the other, carrying his hat in his hand and kissing all the ladies on both sides – except for four or five who were too old and ugly’.
One of the most talked about events happened on the afternoon of Saturday the 23rd of June 1520. Cardinal Wolsey had everyone gathered in a temporary chapel for the final mass of the meeting. Mary was beginning to get bored when a fire-breathing dragon appeared in the sky overhead. The episode was faithfully recorded in the painting and a witness described it as follows:
‘Its eyes blaze, and with quivering tongue it licks its mouth, which opens wide; the dragon hisses through its gaping jowls. Its monstrous head bristles with bloody crests, the rest of its body skims the boundless air behind. It makes a sound as it advances over the earth, with rustling wings, while with its great body it cleaves a path through the air. Its long tail, acting as a tiller, now dips down, now rises up, according to the direction of the breeze.’
I was intrigued by the idea it might have been a dragon. Some have suggested it was a comet, but the timing was so perfect even I would have seen it as an ominous portent. It could have been a clever kite, perhaps the result of early contact between the French and the Chinese, but another, less fanciful account says, ‘It passed over the chapel where Mass was being said, across the camp, as fast as a foot soldier could travel, as far as Guisnes, mounting as high in the air as a crossbow would carry an arrow.’
In my book, Mary knew it was a firework, set off by the mischievous King Francis, to literally put the fear of God into the superstitious English. (Mary’s father, King Henry VII had been keen on fireworks and used a dramatic pyrotechnic display over the Thames to celebrate Elizabeth of York’s coronation.)
I enjoyed untangling this and the many other myths about Mary Tudor, from causing the death of King Louis with her ‘passionate exertions’ to her dying of ‘grief at her brother’s divorce from her friend Catherine of Aragon.’ I also had the benefit of knowing a great deal about the people and places of Mary’s world. I’m now writing about the amazing life of Mary’s second husband, Charles Brandon, (who distinguished himself in the jousting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold). It is a fascinating exercise to think about how different the same events might have seemed from his perspective.
1. Sylvius, Jacobius (1991) ‘Francisi Francorum regis et Henrici Anglorum colluqium’, Renaissance Studies 5(1-2), 48-103, 95-97.
Mary – Tudor Princess is now available on Amazon UK, Amazon US and Amazon AU in eBook and paperback. An audiobook edition will be available later in the year. Brandon – Tudor Knight will be published in 2019.
About the Author
Tony Riches is a full-time author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the fifteenth century, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his website tonyriches.com and his popular blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.