The marriage that nearly cost Mary Tudor her life

Mary Tudor (1496–153, not to be mistaken for Mary I of England, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon) was the younger sister of King Henry VIII, and the golden-haired beauty of her generation. Charles Brandon was charismatic, a valiant jouster, a seasoned courtier, and the favourite of Henry VIII, with whom he shared both a physical resemblance and a taste for royal spectacle. But he was also a virtual commoner with a disorderly love life, a string of failed marriages, and a tendency to marry women who could fund his meteoric rise at court. Their love was, in theory, forbidden. Their secret marriage in 1515 nearly cost them their lives.

Henry VIII tilting in front of Katherine of Aragon, courtesy College of Arms – Westminster tournament roll

Although he was a remarkably long-standing member of the Tudor court, Charles Brandon is now an elusive figure. Precious little records about Brandon’s thoughts, feelings, finances, or household personnel have survived. We do know, however, that Brandon managed to remain in high esteem with King Henry throughout his reign, and seldom invoked the fury or suspicion that sent other ambitious, well-connected courtiers to the block. 

The Brandons, a modest gentry family, had demonstrated their loyalty to their Tudor sovereigns in a particularly defining moment for the new dynasty: Charles’s father, Sir William, had served as a standard-bearer at the decisive Battle of Bosworth Field, where Henry VII’s predecessor, Richard III, was slain. Charles’ fortuitous friendship with a young Henry VIII resulted in several increasingly significant positions at court and abroad. At the heart of the new King’s inner circle, Charles’s fate became inseparably intertwined with the Tudor dynasty’s fateful triumph.

But what the Brandons provided in dynastic loyalty, they lacked in marital fidelity. Charles Brandon was married firstly, sometime before February 1507, to Margaret Neville, widow of Sir John Mortimer. The marriage was childless. It was later declared void by the Archdeaconry Court of London, and annulled by a papal bull. Then, in 1508, Brandon married Anne Browne, the step-daughter of Margaret’s sister Lucy Neville, in a private ceremony. Before her death, Anne gave Charles two daughters (the youngest, Mary Lady Monteagle, would become a close friend of Queen Jane Seymour).

Portrait of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk (C. 1484-1545), wearing the collar of the Order of the Garter, circa 1530.

In 1513, Brandon was created Master of the Horse by the King and began to receive a number of valuable grants of land from Henry, “with whom he became a great favourite.” Brandon was pledged to marry Elizabeth Grey Baroness Lisle (1509–1519) and was created Viscount Lisle in preparation for the wedding, although the contract was later annulled and Brandon was forced to surrender the title. (Elizabeth, being only eight, was too young for the marriage to go through. It is possible Charles had refused to wait for her and decided to pursue matrimony elsewhere.) 

Brandon later became enmeshed in an embarrassing international incident when he attempted to court Margaret of Savoy. Margaret had praised Brandon’s “grace”, and the “desire he always showed me that he had to do me service.” Brandon, misinterpreting Margaret’s courteous treatment of him as being more than cool diplomacy, blatantly flirted with the Duchess in the hopes of taking her as his wife. To that end, he vowed to “continue all his life [Margaret]s humble servant”.

Brandon lowered onto his knees before the Duchess and drew from her svelte finger a ring she had been “long accustomed to wear” and placed it on his own. In turn, the clear-eyed Margaret snidely remarked that Henry “had with him led thieves out of his country.” She would later complain to Henry VIII about his soldiers stepping out of line in her presence. Needless to say, Brandon’s hopes to marry Margaret were swiftly mooted by the King.

Scrappy though he might have been, Brandon was described by Sir William Dugdale as being physically attractive, “a person comely of stature, high of courage and conformity of disposition to King Henry VIII.” A Burgundian ambassador, Philippe De Bregilles, referred to Brandon exalted position as England’s “second King.” 

Wedding portrait of Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon

Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary Tudor, eighteen and in the glow of youth, was described as a great beauty. She was considered short for a Tudor, but bore her family’s characteristic red-gold hair, and was plump like her mother, Elizabeth of York. Erasmus wrote of her, “nature never formed anything more beautiful.”

Mary spent most of her early life as an expectant Princess of Castile in England. Her path was intended to lead her to a marriage with Charles Habsburg, the son of Philip I of Castile, who would later ascend to become the Holy Roman Emperor. This matrimonial arrangement was sealed by proxy in December 1508 when Mary was approximately thirteen years old. However, their betrothal was scuppered in 1513, broadening Mary’s horizons for a union of even grander distinction.

It appears highly likely that Princess Mary and Charles Brandon had crossed paths before Mary’s eventual wedding. Mary was the great beauty of her generation, while Charles held the distinction of being Henry’s favored companion, heroic in both the lists and chivalric displays. In 1507, he jousted in her honour. Perhaps Brandon had already lighted his eye on Mary as a possible bride. Perhaps a romance had already bloomed by the time she was contracted to wed the French King. But then even a knack for social advancement and proximity to the King could not have made Brandon like a suitable candidate to be the husband of an English princess.

Panel commemorating the marriage of Mary Tudor and Queen Louis XII of France, c. 1514, British Library.

Mary’s new intended husband, Louis XII, was more than thirty years her senior. He was also infirm, and predisposed to find fault in an English bride. It t is entirely plausible that Charles emerged as a much more appealing prospect than an aging and difficult-to-please King. But whatever her hopes, Louis XII and the seventeen-year-old Mary Tudor were married on 9 October 1514. Charles Brandon, recently made Duke of Suffolk, even took part in the extravagant jousts that celebrated the couple’s union. 

Although decrepit with gout, Louis relished in his “nymph from heaven” and showering Mary with sumptuous jewels and gifts (including a diamond pendant the size of an “egg”.) Unfortunately, the marriage proved to be short-lived, and failed to fulfill Louis’s hope for an heir from his English rose. Less than three months after their wedding, reputedly worn out by Mary’s vigour in the bedchamber, Louis died. The crown immediately passed to his son-in-law, the sharp-witted Francis I of France. 

And for Mary and Brandon, still waiting in the wings, the time to act was now, while iron was hot. 

As the newly appointed Duke of Suffolk, Brandon was entrusted by Henry VIII to travel to Paris and engage in negotiations with the new French King, who was already footing potential betrothals for the widowed queen. The primary objective of Suffolk’s travels was to arrange Mary’s return to England. Her presence in either country held significant strategic value, and it was crucial to determine whether Mary was pregnant or not.

During the six excruciating weeks of waiting to confirm whether she was pregnant, Mary was confined to a dark room, with Francis, “who looked like the devil,” visiting her nightly. Cardinal Wolsey insisted on her keeping everything strictly confidential, adding to her already frayed nerves. Meanwhile, unsettling rumors of ‘false dealings’ back in England spread to Paris, indicating that her brother, King Henry, was considering marrying her off to another foreign ruler.

Although few took the hypothetical possibility seriously, given Louis’ infirmity, Mary must have breathed a sigh of relief when, a month later, her menstrual courses arrived. The widowed Queen had not conceived, and her empty womb granted her the freedom she so desperately desired.

A drawing of Mary Rose Tudor probably from 1514-1515, when she was Queen of France, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

At that point, both Mary and Charles were desperate: Mary to escape another international marriage alliance, and Charles, as a true man on the make, to better his social status and to lure Mary back home. It is also likely that Charles wanted to solidify his new title as Duke of Suffolk with a suitable bride, following a string of unsuccessful marriages and at least one failed contract with the prepubescent Lady Lisle. 

Yet there may have also been a passionate, rose-tinted connection between Mary and Charles, which makes their story so fascinating. Francis I seems to have fallen for the gambit, having accused Charles amid ongoing negotiations with King Henry’s envoys that Suffolk wished to have Mary for himself.

But it was Mary, not Charles, who raised the question of marriage. It seems that the promise Henry made to her (“that if I should fortune to survive the said late king I might with your good will marry myself at my liberty without your displeasure“) she kept close at heart. Resilient by nature, Mary took the initiative and and raised with Suffolk “the possibility of acting upon Henry’s earlier promise [to marry whom she chose] before he had the chance to renege, and of marrying him secretly while still in France.” 

And though Charles had vehemently denied coming to France to marry the widowed queen, this is exactly what he did.

The French King, rather than receiving the news indignantly, welcomed the marriage as it enabled him to “release” Mary without the fear of her being used against him, such as in a potential alliance between Henry and the Holy Roman Empire. However, with the news of her nuptials spreading swiftly throughout France, Mary wrote a diplomatic letter to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, beseeching him to break the news to her brother, the King, with utmost care and consideration.

Francis I, King of France (1494-1547)

Mary and Brandon had wed in secret, after all, and what she sought now was not the King’s permission – but his forgiveness. While the precise date of their wedding remains uncertain, it is believed to have taken place between the 15th and 20th of February, witnessed by approximately ten individuals. Their marriage posed a threat to Henry’s sovereignty, and such a transgression carried the gravest penalty – death.

Predicting that her brother would be furious, in her letter Mary threatened Henry with the possibility of her joining a religious order, should he refuse her the opportunity to marry as she liked:

“Wherefore, I beseech your Grace for to be good lord and brother to me, for, sir, an if your Grace will have gran me married in any place sav[ing] whereas my mind is, I will be there whereas your Grace nor no other shall have any joy of me, for I promise your Grace you shall hear that I will be in some religious house, the which I think your Grace would be very sorry of, and all your realm. Also, sir, I know well that the King that is [my s]on will send unto your Grace by his uncle the Duke of [Savoy] for to marry me here…. [I sha]ll never be merry at my heart (for an ever that I d[o marr]y while I live), I trow your Grace knoweth as well as I do, and did before I came hither, and so I trust your Grace will be contented, unless I would never marry while I live, but be there where never man nor woman shall have joy of me. Wherefore I beseech your Grace to be good lord to him and to me both, for I know well that he hath […] to your Grace of him and me both.”

Henry was, naturally, incensed, appearing to have forgotten his promise to Mary altogether. Wolsey acted as an intermediary between brother and sister as hotly-worded letters flew back and forth between them. Finally, with Wolsey’s thoughtful smoothing over, Henry VIII had no choice but to accept the match between his beautiful sister and beloved companion. Charles and Mary returned home to England on 2 May 1515, though they were not immediately welcomed back into the King’s fold. The new couple was forced to cough up £24,000 (approximately £7,200,000 in today’s money) in fines to the crown, which was infinitely preferable, given that a number of members on the King’s Privy Council actually called for Mary and her husband’s death. 

The fine, however, was later reduced. Perhaps it had only ever been for show, to signal that such subversion would not be brooked by the crown. Charles and Mary were never banished from court, nor did Henry appear to hold them in contempt after their return from France. There is also little reason to doubt that Henry intended to renege on the promise he’d made to Mary, for whom he showed a great deal of affection throughout his reign. Henry and his then-wife Catherine of Aragon even witnessed the couple’s official marriage ceremony at the Grey Friar’s Church in Greenwich on 13 May 1515. 

Thereafter, the Suffolks took a brief respite from court in order to acquaint with one another as newly-weds. It was during this time away from London that Mary conceived their first child. Both were back at court by the end of 1515, and heartily welcomed by the famously “unforgiving” Henry. 

Mary and Charles were married until the former’s death on 25th June 1533.  Mary died at Westhorpe in Suffolk. Their eldest daughter, Frances Brandon (mother of Lady Jane Grey), served as Mary’s chief mourner. 

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