Susan Clarenceau, Tudor Courtier

There is no known portrait of Susan Clarenceau. This is an unidentified English Lady by Hans Holbein the Younger


Susan Clarenceau served in the household of Queen Mary Tudor.  Even before she was queen, Mary considered her a trusted friend as well as a servant.  Although Clarenceau never had any titles, she garnered a great deal of property and income during her tenure.  She acted as a confidential and largely unofficial councilor, providing Queen Mary with advice behind the scenes.

Susan White was born some time before 1510.  She appears to have been the youngest of four children of Richard White of Hutton in south Essex and his wife Maud Tyrell.  Records indicate that before 1534, she was married to Thomas Tonge.  He must have been considerably older than her.  He had fulfilled the position of York herald since 1513, was appointed Norroy king of arms on All Hallows 1522 and Clarence (or Clarenceux) king of arms in June 1534.

Thomas died in March 1536 and Susan was the designated executor of his estate and residuary legatee, meaning she received any residue left in his estate after the bequests of specific items were made.   Susan never married again and appears to have had no surviving children.  Due to her husband’s last position, Susan took that name and she was known as Clarenceau for the rest of her life.  Other spellings of the name are Clarencius, Clarenceux, and Clarencieux.  She also appears as Susan Tonge.

Sometime between 1533 and 1536, Clarenceau entered the household of Princess Mary, possibly through her family connections or those of her husband.  By June, 1536 documentary evidence shows Mary considered her an established and trusted servant, always appearing in close physical contact with Mary.  Because Mary was out of favor with King Henry VIII, she had no control over appointments in her household.  But when she capitulated to her father, her household was reorganized and she asked that Clarenceau join her as she had been a faithful and diligent servant during difficult times.

One of the first duties she performed was attending Mary in her position as chief mourner at the funeral of Queen Jane Seymour in November 1537.  Clarenceau appears in the accounting records of the household for Mary.  Entries indicate she was trusted with money to purchase gold wire and cinnamon.  In 1543 and 1544, she was commissioned to buy the New Year’s gifts Mary presented to her father.  In 1544, the sum spent amounted to over £70.  Clarenceau was well rewarded for her loyalty, receiving many grants of property in Essex in addition to payments for her service at court.

In 1543, she was paid an annuity of over £13 out of augmentations and in 1545, she surrendered this and acquired the manor of Chepenhall in Suffolk.  During the reign of King Edward VI, Clarenceau was given grants of land such as the Essex manor of Thundersley which yielded rents of £28 per annum.  These holdings permitted her to maintain a place among the Essex gentry where she was close to her Tyrell cousins and to her relative Sir William Petre, principal secretary to Edward VI and later to Queen Mary.  While Clarenceau held no title, the imperial ambassador, impressed by her highly visible status, called her ‘the chief lady in the princess’ household.’

Jane Dormer, a lady-in-waiting from a Buckinghamshire family, joined Mary’s household in 1548 during her time in East Anglia and Jane would have a significant role in Clarenceau’s future.  After the Jane Grey affair, the Duchess of Northumberland (John Dudley’s wife) wrote a letter to William Paget’s wife Anne, asking her to use her influence with some of the ladies close to Mary.  The Duchess writes that if Anne Paget could not speak to the Queen herself, perhaps she could remember her to Mistress Clarencius and to the Marquess of Exeter.  Although neither of these women were successful in saving the life of the Duke of Northumberland, it appears Clarenceau may have at least made an effort to intercede with Mary on his behalf.  When the Duchess of Northumberland died in 1555, she bequeathed a tawny velvet jewel coffer to Clarenceau.

Upon Mary’s accession, Clarenceau was appointed Mistress of the Robes, the most prestigious position in the household.  This office was the equivalent of the gentleman of the privy chamber for the king.  She still was not given a title and was outranked by various wives and daughters of peers.  Even so, her personal relationship with the Queen was paramount and she remained the most favored of Mary’s ladies and gentlemen.

Clarenceau controlled access to Queen Mary, being one of only a few who had a set of keys to the privy apartments.  She often appeared to the queen’s right, hovering in the background.  She had considerable influence and power, particularly during the Queen’s marriage discussions.  She preferred King Philip although she was on good terms with Edward Courtenay.  He called her ‘mother’ during his induction service for the title of Earl of Devon in September 1553.  Clarenceau and Imperial ambassador Simon Renard were the only other people in attendance when Mary secretly swore an oath to marry Philip.

Clarenceau’s influence took on many forms.  When John Bedell was imprisoned in the Tower for his participation in the Dudley conspiracy of 1555-1556, he wrote to his wife “give Mrs. Clarencieux my fine cloth, though it be all that you have, for if God please I may have my pardon thereby”.  In 1555, she received more property, including former church lands from the queen such as the Essex manors of Runwell, Rivenhall, Chingford St. Paul’s, and Chingford Earls.  By the time of Mary’s death, the rents from these properties amounted to about £200 (£55,000 in today’s money) in addition to her income as a courtier.

She also received wardships of orphaned minors and was adept at extracting gifts from the Venetian ambassador, ostensibly meant for the Queen.  The Queen would then turn around and give the gifts to Clarenceau, much to the ambassador’s consternation.  Clarenceau didn’t always have the soundest judgement and was instrumental in raising the hopes of the Queen during her futile false pregnancy in 1555.

Portrait believed to be of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria, by Antonis Mor

Clarenceau, as well as Jane Dormer, were present at Queen Mary’s death on November 17, 1558 when her public career ended.  She was Catholic and knew this could cause her problems during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  Instead of retiring and taking up the life of an Essex gentlewoman, she joined the household of Dormer. In December 1558, Jane married the special envoy of King Philip II of Spain, Gómez Suárez de Figueroa, Count of Feria, later made Duke of Feria in 1567.

In July 1559, after enfeoffing her properties to the sons of her brother Richard, she departed England with Jane and Jane’s grandmother Lady Dormer, without formal permission from the Queen.  The ladies traveled to the Netherlands first and then made their way to Spain.  The Count of Feria made an effort to obtain license for Clarenceau and Jane Dormer’s grandmother to live abroad but was unsuccessful.

Feria was in touch with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite and he may have protected Clarenceau, ensuring she was not prosecuted or her lands forfeited.  Dudley may have been returning the favor of Clarenceau’s efforts to obtain a pardon for his father when his mother wrote her in 1553.  Queen Elizabeth gave Clarenceau lands and wardships in October 1559, possibly in the hope that she would return to England.

However, she remained in Spain with the Ferias where she intermittently appears in the household records until 1564 when her name disappears.  Henry Clifford, an English servant to the Duchess of Feria, wrote that Susan “who from the childhood of Queen Mary had served her, and over in principal place about her; a woman respected and beloved by the Queen, who the rest of her life remained with the Duchess”.


Further reading:  “The Myth of Bloody Mary” by Linda Porter, “Mary I:  England’s Catholic Queen” by John Edwards, “A Biographical Encyclopedia of Early Modern Englishwomen: Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts, 1500-1650” edited by Carole Levin, Anna Riehl Bertolet, and Jo Eldridge Carney, entry on Susan Tonge [known as Susan Clarencius] written by David Loades in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography