A Tudor Romance: Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon

Henry VIII was not the only Tudor prepared to throw contemporary convention aside and marry for love.  His younger sister, Mary Tudor, was equally desperate to forge a romantic marital attachment rather than a diplomatic union.

The King’s Beautiful Sister

Born 18 March 1496, the teenage Mary Tudor (pictured) was reputed to be a great beauty and a vivacious member of Henry’s court.  He was incredibly fond of her and allowed her to attend parties and enjoy dancing and dressing up.  With their father, Henry VII, dead, Mary was an indispensable asset to Henry VIII, offering fantastic, marriageable potential. Having complete control of her dowry, Henry was therefore in control over who could place a ring on Mary’s finger.

In 1514 Henry made his decision.  His beautiful, eligible sister should forge an alliance with France; young Mary Tudor would marry 52-year-old King Louis XII of France.  Peace between France and England would be secure.  The spirited socialite was distraught; her suitor was known to be sickly, gouty and ‘pocky’.  Her real distress however was due to a growing attachment and developing love for the dynastically challenged Charles Brandon.

Rising to Nobility

Charles, although not originally of noble birth, was part of a family who had shown tremendous loyalty to the Tudor dynasty.  His father, William Brandon, died at the Battle of Bosworth flying the flag for Henry’s father, Henry VII.  His uncle, Thomas Brandon, had forged a successful career as a courtier to Henry VII.  Henry and Charles had grown up together and always enjoyed a warm friendship.  Charles Brandon was so beloved of Henry that the king persistently raised him through various promotions once he took the throne finally peaking, in 1514, with the title of Duke of Suffolk.

Promises and the Madness of Solitude

Accounts reveal that Mary drove a bargain with her brother; she would agree to diplomatic matrimony if Henry would promise her a free choice on her next husband, should this one die.  Henry agreed.  King Louis’s age and health must now have become a source of optimism and hope for Mary.  She set sail from Dover in October to become Queen of France.  Her marriage to King Louis lasted a mere eighty-two days; he died on New Year’s Eve.  Mary had an exciting 1515 to look forward to.

Frustratingly, due to strict French tradition, Mary Tudor found herself forced to endure forty days seclusion. The idea was to impose a period of mourning, the solitude also ensured, should a widow find herself pregnant, that no doubt could arise regarding the paternity of the child.  Cut off from society behind thick, black drapes it seems Mary began to panic that Henry may have forgotten his promise and be planning another political union for her.  Mary wrote to her brother begging he honour his word.

Charles’s mission

There is no record of any particular intention on Henry’s part with regard to his sister at this point.  He sent Charles Brandon to both collect Mary and conclude her affairs in France.  At this juncture Henry insisted upon Charles’s promise that relations between himself and Mary were kept strictly professional whilst abroad.  Henry trusted Charles implicitly.  Arguably, Henry may well have blessed the couple’s union provided Charles lived up to the monumental task of securing Mary’s jewels and dower rights from the new French king, Francis I. Charles’ task seemed, on the face of it, simple.

It was to prove anything but.

Charles Brandon found himself in France to collect Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, the woman he loved, but with strict instruction from the king that his conduct should be professional.

Unfortunately, as soon as Charles met with Mary, all practical thoughts of financial negotiation were driven from his mind by her unleashing all the stress she had built up during her seclusion.  She wept and pleaded with him to marry her immediately; convinced that on her return to England another unhappy alliance awaited her.  She insisted they seize their opportunity as, she feared, it may not present itself again.  She reminded him they had nothing to fear due to Henry’s original promise.

Charles tried to honour his agreement to King Henry and avoid such action, but through her tears Mary presented Charles with an ultimatum; now or never.  They were married in France sometime in February 1515.

‘The Greatest Danger That Ever Man Was In’

Charles faced the inevitable in early March when he wrote to Thomas Wolsey to reveal his disloyalty.  Thomas Wolsey, then the Archbishop of York and good friend to Charles Brandon, was also one of Henry’s most trusted and respected advisors.  Charles told Wolsey of Mary’s distress and tenacious persuasion.  He admitted they were married, had slept together and even confessed the possibility she was pregnant.  He begged for help in breaking the news to the king and told of his fear of being cast from royal favour, his life and his livelihood depended on a successful resolution with Henry.

Wolsey’s response arrived after what must have been an agonizing fortnight.  It contained news of the king’s anger and shock; he clearly felt incredibly betrayed.  He had, reported Wolsey, refused to believe such wilful defiance had occurred until he had actually read Charles’ correspondence himself.  Wolsey advised Charles he was now, ‘in the greatest danger that ever man was in’.

The Cost of the King’s Mercy

Mary and Charles began to beg forgiveness in earnest.  Charles professed he would rather face execution than live with the knowledge Henry could not truly forgive him and Mary tried desperately to shoulder the blame completely.  She told how she had forced the situation, forced Charles to break his word to Henry.

Forgiveness did not come immediately.  Wolsey continued to mediate between his friend and his beloved king.  Eventually he was able to reveal that the king’s fury had finally subsided and a deal was struck.  The couple were able to buy their clemency.  Provided they return the cost of Mary’s first marriage, her dowry, jewels and travel expenses and Charles relinquished the lucrative wardship of Elizabeth Grey; they may return to England and receive exoneration.

It was May before they could safely return to the English court, and on the 13 May 1515, they enjoyed a lavish marriage ceremony with Henry’s full blessing.

A Happy Ending

A happy ending was achieved.  The Duke of Suffolk had always been popular and genial therefore possible jealousies amongst courtiers were negated, the king kept his public dignity by receiving a return financially and not proving a walkover (no matter how favoured a friend and a sister may be) and Mary Tudor realised her dream. In May 1515, for just a moment, everyone in the Tudor court was happy.

Julie Wheeler

Read more about the life of Henry VIII and his six wives in Henry VIII’s Wives: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats.

See also the Coronation of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn – a Mother Remembered, the Birth of Henry VIII and which wife did Henry VIII love the most.

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