Tuesday 1 May 2018

La Reine Blanche by Mary Hoffman

The "other" Mary Tudor

No, not England's first  Queen Regnant but Henry the Eighth's favourite sister.

If this new biography had its title translated into The White Queen, readers might think it was fiction, like Philippa Gregory's novel of the same name, about Elizabeth Woodville.

As it is, the subject's life is so extraordinary that Sarah Bryson might well have presented it as fiction. (The subtitle is a bit misleading: it's not just a collection of letters, though these are drawn on.)

I have written about the first Mary Tudor on here before. I am particularly interested in her and her second husband, Charles Brandon, at least partly because one of my sons-in-law is their descendant. I know, I know. It's only two days since Katherine Roberts told us that 1 in 200 men in the world is directly descended from Genghis Khan.

But I look at my son-in-law's hooded eyes and a Plantagenet looks back at me. I have his family tree going back to Frances Brandon and can see back to Henry Vll beyond that. Another ancestor helped that same Henry become king by rallying to his side at the Battle of Bosworth.

Family connections aside, Mary Rose, sister of Henry the Eighth, would be a fascinating subject to anyone. Henry Vll and his wife, Elizabeth of York famously married both to legitimate his rather shaky claim to the throne and to bring an official end to the "Wars of the Roses," or Cousins' War. They had four children who survived infancy: two boys and two girls. The boys were Arthur, who died as a teenager a few months after marrying Katherine of Aragon, and Henry whose marital history is all too often rehearsed.

The older daughter was Margaret, named for her formidable grandmother Margaret Beaufort, and married to James lV of Scotland  (Mary Queen of Scots was her granddaughter). She came between the two sons. The last surviving daughter was Mary Rose, five years younger than the brother who would become king.

This portrait suggests she shared the red-gold hair of her brother and niece Elizabeth. Prized as sons were, the royal couple had two already and no reason to anticipate Arthur's early death so perhaps they were relaxed about the new baby's being a girl. Because royal princesses had their own advantages: they could be married off to other European royals.

Mary had her first marriage proposal when she was three; it was rejected. But then the proposed husband was "only" the son of a Duke. The royal toddler knew nothing about it of course; such matters were sorted out by fathers. Her older sister was to be married to a king and her father intended nothing less for his second daughter.

In fact Mary was first "married" at the age of five to Charles, who would not only go on to be King of Spain but Holy Roman Emperor too. Her father would not have known this for certain at the time of their proxy wedding and indeed Charles - an infant himself - was also "only the son of a duke"  but that dukedom was Burgundy, one of the richest and most influential in Europe.

So Mary Rose could have become Empress but settled for Duchess. But not until she had first been a queen.

Her life was filled with all the little luxuries her brother could give her, especially rich fabrics for clothes. He became king when Mary was only thirteen and seems always to have favoured her, sending her letters and presents whenever she was not at court. And of course Mary had gained a sister-in-in-law, Katherine of Aragon, to whom she became very close.

Her brother became impatient with the way that negotiations for Mary's marriage to Charles, now Prince of Spain, were being dragged out, by Charles's father Ferdinand and grandfather Maximilian, who was Holy Roman Emperor . So Henry started to cast around for another suitable husband for her.

His choice fell on Louis Xll of France, aged 52, who had been married twice before. His first marriage had been annulled and his second ended in the death of his wife, Anne of Brittany, who was worn out by stillbirths and miscarriages both with Louis and her first husband.

Mary was eighteen when this marriage was suggested to her and this is the point when she leaps out of the pages of history and becomes a real woman, just as fearless as her brother. This is when she famously extracts the promise from him that, if she "did marrie for our pleasure at this time ...that you will suffer me to marry as me liketh to do." This is how she puts it in the letter she sends Henry after Louis' death.

And straightaway we can imagine these redheaded siblings facing off and the teenager telling her big brother (who happens to be king of England)  "I'll marry this old guy to please you, but when he dies I get to choose my next husband."

It is inconceivable that she didn't already have her eye on Charles Brandon, lately made Duke of Suffolk, as a candidate for spouse number two. He was a dashing figure at court and the nearest thing Henry had to a best friend. He was very attractive to women and had already been married twice, in slightly scandalous circumstances and was now an eligible 30-year-old widower (albeit betrothed to his ward!).

But if we think that Mary was anything other than a compliant and obliging wife to the man who was over thirty years her senior, Sarah Bryson puts us right. She seems to have behaved in relation to her husband King Louis and his court with exemplary modesty and courtesy. She was equipped with the most gorgeous clothes and jewels - a sop to her vanity from her brother to sugar the pill of marrying this much older man?

Whatever their marriage was like, it lasted only three monhs and then Louis was dead. It was at this time that Mary was dubbed "La Reine Blanche."

I imagine the calumny that Louis died because of over-exerting himself in the bedchamber with his teenage bride started almost immediately. He was more likely to have fallen victim to the gout that plagued him. But whatever the cause of his death, it seems clear that Louis doted on his young wife and treated her with great favour and kindness.

Mary had got off lightly. A wonderful trousseau, loads of bling and only three months of having to submit to an old man's embraces. But now she had to extricate herself from France. And who was sent to bring her home? Why, none other than Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

Henry must have known what a risk he was taking in sending his glamorous friend. He even extracted a promise from Brandon that he would not marry Mary without the king's permission. And such permission would not have been forthcoming, since Mary was now back on the marriage market, still young and beautiful and with the added advantage now of having been a queen. And Charles was of a far inferior social rank.

But Mary was no longer a pliant child or even a bargaining teenager; she took matters into her own hands and proposed to Brandon herself! Within days of his arrival in France they were married.

To marry in secret, without the king's permission, was very dangerous but Henry was caught in a trap. This was his beloved younger sister and his best friend. Although he was furious and stung them with a huge fine, of course he took them back into his confidence and favour.

It took a lot of hard work for the errant couple to regain Henry's trust . There were letters full of flattery, there were tears and protestations, self-abasement and promises for the future. And a whopping great diamond, known as The Mirror of Naples, given to Mary by Louis on their marriage and now offered to the English king.

They returned to England together 503 years ago, almost to the day, on 2nd May 1515. Mary had to hand over all her returned dowry to her brother but she must have thought her new husband worth the financial sacrifice.

They lived mainly at Suffolk Place. Mary was the second-highest ranking lady in England after her sister-in-law, Queen Katherine, and by February 1516, Charles Brandon was restored to all his roles at court. Katherine gave birth to a daughter in February 1516, after Mary's unsanctioned marriage, and the child was named after her aunt. This little girl became the woman the world knows as Mary Tudor.

Just under a month later Mary and Brandon had their first child, a boy, whom they named Henry. By such reciprocal gestures was the reconciliation sealed. Their second child, Frances, was born in the following year. Another daughter, Eleanor, was born in 1519.

In 1520, Mary, still only 24, twice-married and mother to two children, attended with her husband the fabulous Anglo-French encounter known as the Field of Cloth of Gold. But  before that, she met for the first time the man who had been her  fiancĂ©, now King Charkles V of Spain. It makes her seem a woman we can recognise when Sarah Bryson tells us she ordered a whole new wardrobe for this occasion.

In France, Brandon was the star of the jousts and how Mary must have rejoiced at his prowess. Here she was, a Dowager Queen, married to the man of her choosing, sister of a king and dressed and bejewelled in splendour while her handsome, athletic husband shone in the lists. In the five years since she had last been in the country her life had changed much for the better.

But then two years later Mary and Charles's son Henry died. And the next decade showed a decline in her happiness. Another son, also called Henry, was born but lived until only eleven years of age.

By 1527 Henry was trying to get an annulment of his marriage to Katherine and was focused on marrying Anne Boleyn and fathering a legitimate male heir. Until such time as he had one, little Henry Brandon, Earl of Lincoln  was a candidate for the English throne.

Mary was horrified. Not at the thought of her son losing his place in line to the throne but because Katherine was genuinely her friend and she thought her brother's behaviour reprehensible. She developed a hearty dislike for Anne Boleyn, whom she had known in France.

And how painful it must have been for Mary that her brother enlisted her husband to take messages to to the stricken queen, telling her of her fate. In 1533, shortly after Anne's coronation, Mary died. She was only 37 years old.

Her little son died the following year but by then Charles Brandon had re-married. Three months after Mary's death he married his 14-year-old ward (no not the one he was engaged to before he married Mary). Catherine Willoughby, a great heiress, had been picked out to be little Henry's bride but Charles decided he would be the more suitable husband, especially because he was greatly in need of money.

Sarah Bryson makes it clear that, although it was a love match, Charles and Mary had their burdens to bear. With the return of her dowry to Henry and the huge fines they had to pay the king because of their unauthorised marriage, the couple was always strapped for cash. They had to keep up the most lavish of appearances at court and Brandon often had to seek loans.

They lost both of their sons (albeit the second after Mary's death), Mary missed a good friend in Katherine of Aragon and she herself suffered many episodes of an unspecified illness throughout her life. She retained the title Queen of France for the rest of her days and was clearly proud of it. But for eighteen years she was married to a man whom, for all his faults, she clearly loved.

The daughter, wife and sister of kings and grandmother of the queen with the shortest reign in English history, the first Mary Tudor has at last found a worthy biographer in Sarah Bryson, who has done her subject a great service in this vivid and absorbing book.

Sarah Bryson
(All photos public domain)

1 comment:

Sue Bursztynski said...

So much for Walt Disney’s film with Glynis Johns and Richard Todd! ;-). He must have been a very charming man, though, to not only attract Henry’s sister, but to get away with marrying her, fine or not.

Those Tudor women were tough! ALL of them.