Of the four surviving children from the union between Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, none shone fairer for beauty and charm than the youngest: Mary, the Tudor Rose.
Mary Rose Tudor was born in 1496, following older siblings Arthur, Margaret, and the future Henry VIII. Destined for the usual dynasty-securing marriage, she was educated as befitted a royal princess and was scheduled to marry in 1514 Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor, a boy four years her junior.
Charles, a member of the powerful Hapsburg family, was the nephew of Henry VIII’s first queen Katherine of Aragon, so related by marriage. But due to various political necessities, including a desire to end war with France, the engagement was broken and Mary was informed that she was instead to marry Louis XII, the aging king of France.
Louis was 34 years the senior of the teenaged Mary, whom she considered to be “pocky and feeble.” In an uncharacteristic move for a royal princess of the time, Mary protested the alliance. Instead, she wished to marry her brother’s best friend: Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk.
Charles was not royal; kingly favor had come posthumously to Charles’ father, who died in service to Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth. Charles then received his dukedom through his friendship with Henry VIII. Yet the new Duke was a questionable character, having already managed to persuade the pope to annul two of his marriages and having lost a third wife to illness. Mary hoped to become his fourth wife.
Henry had no patience for the megrims of a royal princess, even if that princess were his favorite sister. So he told Mary that she must marry the ancient Louis. So Mary made a deal with her imperious older brother: if she agreed to marry Louis she should be allowed, upon his inevitable demise, to marry whomever she chose.
Henry agreed and the bargain was struck.
The French Alliance
Princess Mary was married to King Louis by proxy in late summer of 1514, the Duc de Longueville gracing the royal scene in the role of the absent Louis. The marriage was “consummated” by the peculiar conceit of having the Duc lie down on the bed next to Mary and touch her with his naked leg.
In the fall, Mary traveled to Abbeville, France with her entourage to wed the 52-year-old king.
Biding her time, Mary played her part to perfection, knowing that age was in her favor. And indeed, poor Louis, either exhausted by keeping pace with his young bride or by participating in the extended marriage festivities, died on New Year’s day in 1515, barely three months a husband. Mary was now free, she thought, to follow her heart.
She wrote home to her dear brother Henry to rescue her from the licentious court of the new king, Francis I. Francis, now to become Henry’s greatest rival on the international stage, was young, virile, ambitious, lascivious, and fearless, and he had no intention of honoring the peace treaty drawn up by Henry and the late Louis.
Henry realized that he must retrieve his sister from the clutches of the impious court of Francis so, in one of the most inexplicable acts ever taken by this enigmatic monarch, he sent an emissary to save Mary and bring her home to England.
Upon whom should his choice light for such a venture? None other than Mary’s hopeful lover, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
The Runaway Bride
Why did Henry send to France the very man his sister so desired?
Historians have speculated that he wished to honor his bargain with his sister, but to save face had to make it appear as if she had gone behind his back. In sending Suffolk to collect Mary, Henry made it possible for them to make a runaway match, ostensibly without his permission. Therefore, his wrath upon this discovery could be properly violent so as to convince the world that he was not a lenient brother or monarch, but one who could be merciful even to those who betrayed him.
Is it possible that Henry did not realize his sister’s choice? Unlikely, as Mary had made no secret of her love for Brandon. If Henry did intend to give Mary in marriage next to the Duke of Bavaria, as J.J. Scarisbrick contends in his Henry VIII, then it was foolish of him to dispatch Suffolk to the continent on such an errand. Perhaps he relied on Brandon’s survival instinct and the unwillingness of a servant to bite the hand that fed him.
Whatever his reasons, Henry assigned to his trusted friend the task of bringing the Dowager Queen of France home. Receiving, oddly, full support from Francis (who probably saw that Mary could be used as a tool against France in another dynastic marriage), Mary waited to be rescued by her love, holding tightly to Francis’ promise that he would see that all worked out as she wished, and that he would intervene on her behalf with her outraged royal brother.
Not long after Charles Brandon arrived the inevitable happened and in due time, Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s chief minister, received the following letter:
My lord, so it was that when I came to Paris I heard many things which put me in great fear, and so did the Queen both; and the Queen would never let me be in rest till I had granted her to be married; and so to be plain with you, I have married her heartily and have lain with her, insomuch as I fear me lest she be with child.
My lord, I am not in a little sorrow lest the King should know of it and be displeased with me; for I assure you I had rather have died than he should be miscontent. And therefore, my own good lord, since you have brought me hither, let me not be undone now, the which I fear me I shall be without your especial help.
The Pair's Punishment
Henry was—or at least appeared to be—furious. He let it be known that his sister and best friend had betrayed him and they wisely threw themselves on his mercy. He could have had their clandestine marriage set aside but Mary was pregnant, and such a course would have caused a resounding scandal. Instead, Henry played the gracious monarch and brother, and allowed the penitents to return to England for a public wedding at Greenwich Palace, with the royal family in attendance to lend legitimacy to the occasion.
The pair were not let off scot-free, however; Mary and Charles spent a good part of the rest of their married life paying off a crippling fine that Henry levied upon them, to display to the world that such behavior was not to go unpunished, even on the part of a royal sibling.
Mary and Charles were apparently very happy together, but their marriage was not to be the lifelong bliss for which Mary had hoped. Charles was to become one of Wolsey’s biggest critics and helped bring about the Lord Chancellor’s downfall. Mary, on the other hand, violently opposed her brother’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and condemned his marriage to the “goggle-eyed whore,” Anne Boleyn.
Mary was not to live to see Anne’s fate, however. Despite failing health, she made her last visit to London shortly before Anne’s coronation to see her daughter Frances married to Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset. Then she returned home to Westhorpe, never to leave it again.
Charles Brandon, tasked with overseeing the coronation of Queen Anne, was not on hand when the 38-year-old Mary died peacefully at their home in 1533. Henry ordered requiem masses to be said for her soul at Westminster.
In one of the ironies of history, the chapel of her burial was destroyed during Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries, but her coffin was saved and moved to nearby St. Mary’s church.
Back in the Saddle
As much he may have loved his wife, Charles Brandon did not remain widowed for long. His daughters from his first marriage were marrying, and their weddings and dowries were costing him a fortune; he needed money quickly. Not long after Mary’s death (the exact date is unknown), Brandon dissolved the engagement of his son Henry to Catherine Willoughby, Charles’ own ward, and married the 14-year-old girl himself.
Catherine Willoughby was the daughter of Lord William Willoughby and Maria de Salinas, one of the ladies-in-waiting who had come from Spain with Katherine of Aragon upon her ill-fated marriage to Prince Arthur in 1501. Despite the disparity in their ages, the marriage was a happy one, for the feisty and intelligent Katherine proved to be more than a match for her husband. Katherine went on to become a friend and confidante of Henry VIII’s last wife, Katherine Parr, and an outspoken Protestant.
Mary, the Tudor Rose, was not forgotten, though her final contribution to history would be the most tragic of all. At about the time that Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, was giving birth to the long-awaited Prince of Wales, Mary’s daughter Frances Grey delivered a daughter, named Jane, in honor of the queen.
This little Jane, in years to come, might rue the day that saw her descended from the royal house of Tudor for this little Jane was to grow up to become that most tragic of all Tudor figures: Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen.
Anjuli McDonald of Clanranald (Ellen McDaniel-Weissler) is a writer, actress, singer, teacher, and activist who lives on a mountainside with her husband, two sons, and dopey dog Bella. (Actually, the sons are dopey, too.) The family enjoys medieval re-enactment with the Society for Creative Anachronism. This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine, and was reworked for Mystorical.