Important note: there were quite a few women named Mary running around Western Europe in the 16th century, so let’s all just make sure we know which one we’re talking about here. This Mary Tudor is not England’s Queen “Bloody” Mary I, nor is she Mary Queen of Scots. Today’s heroine is Mary Tudor, youngest surviving child of Elizabeth of York and Henry VII, baby sister to both Margaret Tudor and Henry VIII; she later attained the titles of Queen of France and then, Duchess of Suffolk. Just like her siblings, Mary had a clearly passionate and stubborn nature which seems to always mean a life that’s filled with twists and turns. Yet, unlike either Henry or Margaret, Mary’s story has actually a nearly happy ending. So let’s dig in!
Mary Tudor was born in March 1496. Literally, that is all we know about her birthday so nobody can do up her astrological chart (BUT her energy is VERY Aries so I personally think she was born in the latter part of the month). Why didn’t anyone record her birthday? Probably partly because people didn’t super care about birthdates back then, and partly because daughters didn’t matter as much as sons. Mary was the fourth child and second daughter born to the King and Queen. She was ten years younger than her eldest brother Arthur, seven years younger than her sister Margaret, and five years younger than her brother Henry.
When Mary was around five years old, the teenage Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon arrived to marry Arthur (watch The Spanish Princess to learn more about how that all turned out for all involved). Catherine, who had grown up with several sisters of her own, got along very well with her new sisters-in-law. For a few months, the court was filled with the youthful energy of this whole crowd of royals: Arthur, Catherine, Margaret, Henry, and little Mary. A sort of Tudor-era Von Trapp scenario. But then a series of tragedies would affect and then separate them, because: Tudor era.
First, Mary’s eldest brother Arthur died, which made Henry the new heir to the throne (much to the surprise of everyone, particularly Henry). Shortly after that, Mary’s mother died from complications of childbirth; the baby she’d delivered, a girl named Katherine, died days later. And just after that, Mary’s older sister Margaret was sent away to marry the King of Scots. Henry was sent away to learn how to be the next King; Catherine of Aragon was put on sort of house arrest while everyone figured out what to do with her; and six-year-old Mary was sent off to live in her own household away from all the others.
Perhaps from the emotional toll of all of the above, or maybe from just the general health issues of living in 16th-century England, Mary seems to have been frequently ill as a child. But she overcame whatever had afflicted her, and was trained up in all the skills required of a young Princess: French, Latin, music, dancing, and embroidery. By the time she was a teenager, she was described as both lovely in personality as well as in looks. She was said to be one of the most beautiful princesses in Europe and, while there is some doubt as to what she looked like, we do know reasonably well she shared the same dark red hair as many of the other women of the Tudor dynasty, along with their fair complexion and light eyes.
When she was ten years old, Mary was brought out to dance and play the lute and clavichord for a visiting delegation from Castile, in a sort of audition to see if they’d agree to betroth her to their son. She clearly did well, as a betrothal was soon arranged between her and Charles of Castile (the son of Juana “The Mad” of Castile). But, shortly after this all got sorted, Mary’s father Henry VII passed away and her brother Henry turned into King Henry “yes that one” VIII. He married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, and Mary was delighted to get to hang out with her friend again. Then, in 1513, Henry decided to toss out the Castilian marriage contract because he’d found a more advantageous match for Mary, because the whole point of her existence was as a pawn in a marriage scheme to cement some alliance or another for England.
Eventually Henry VIII figured out who would be the most convenient person for Mary to marry, and that was the fifty-three-year-old, gout-ridden French King, Louis XII. Just so we’re keeping track, although Mary has by now lived through so much trauma you’d think she was like thirty-five, she was at this point seventeen years old. And more than that, she was also already in love with someone more age appropriate, and that was her brother’s BFF Charles Brandon (played by Henry Cavill on The Tudors, so we all have a visual in mind for how and why Mary was so determined to get a ring on it). She had always been close with Henry, and explained to him that she wanted to marry for love to a man who wasn’t a royal. And Henry, as much as he adored his little sister, was like, “Marry for love? LOL! That’s not how any of this works for royals like you and me!” (It was still a few decades away from him inventing a whole new national religion so he, himself, could marry for love.)
Mary refused to accept this without a fight. Henry refused to back down. They were both smart and savvy young people who also, at this point, still very much respected and loved one another. Eventually, Mary was able to leverage her brother’s affection for her by getting him to agree that, basically, if Mary agreed to marry the French King, she’d be allowed to pick her own next husband after the French King died. As he was fifty-three and quite ill and it was the sixteenth century, she was likely banking on the hope that he’d die within the next few years. And if that meant she’d have to wait a year or two or ten, she was willing to put up with that if it meant she could choose her next husband, who would be
Henry Cavill Dreamboat Charles Brandon.
And so it was that, by now eighteen (the negotiations with Henry took awhile), Mary sailed across the English Channel to marry this man who really, really didn’t want to be married to. NOTE: she was accompanied on this journey by an entourage of ladies in waiting that included a certain ANNE BOLEYN (this was before Henry and Anne were romantically involved, but I love a foreshadowing moment). And something clearly happened on this journey to make Mary not the biggest fan of Anne Boleyn, so file that away for later. Mary loves her brother Henry, and loves her sister-in-law Catherine of Aragon, but is not a fan of this Anne Boleyn person.
The most thorough description of Mary’s appearance and personality comes from the record of her arrival in France. She was described as being both gorgeous as well as so graceful and well-mannered that it took your breath away. “She is a paradise,” wrote one chronicler of the effect she had on everyone; Louis XII described her as a “nymph from heaven.” Her personality and spirits seem to be buoyant, cheery and a whole lot of fun, as she is known to have enthusiastically taken part in dances and performances at her brother’s court. When she first met Louis XII, as much as she didn’t want to marry him at all, she apparently blew him a kiss. She may not have wanted to go there at all, but she wasn’t going to let anyone say she didn’t do her best to make a good impression. Mary Tudor, taking one for the team.
BUT THEN, less than three months after this wedding, Louis suddenly DIED!! TWIST!!
Now, his various gout-related health problems were likely what killed him. But Mary was so young and gorgeous, and the marriage so short, that rumours began to spread that the teenage Queen was so sexually voracious that she had, in effect, fucked him to death. If you’ve seen these episodes of The Tudors, you will also know that some people thought/think that Mary intentionally killed him by smothering him with a pillow or that sort of thing. And maybe she did, we’ll never know (and if she did, she hid the murder well because she was clever). Whatever the reason, Mary was now free to marry whoever she wanted, as per her agreement with her brother! And happily for her too, she hadn’t gotten pregnant with the French King’s heirs, so she could truly just cut ties and fly back to England unencumbered.
But guess what: none of the men who controlled her life had expected her to be widowed so quickly. The French royals were keen to find her a new French husband so they could maintain this precarious English/French alliance. Henry was also keen to marry her off to someone French for alliance-based reasons. The English courtiers didn’t want Charles Brandon to get to marry her because then he’d get even more influence in court than the amount he already got as Henry’s BFF. So, although Mary and Charles were both fully on board the plan to get married, nobody else was about to let them follow their hearts.
On top of all that, the French custom at the time was for royal widows to stay indoors for a month following the death of their husbands. So, while all these men in two countries were scheming what to do with her, Mary herself was pacing around a room and not sleeping and going increasingly unhinged.
BUT THEN, for reasons unknown, Henry VIII sent his BFF Charles Brandon to personally escort Mary back across the English Channel. Why did he pick Charles? Was it because he knew they loved each other, and wanted them to get together? NO. Henry assumed that Charles — as his #1 best bro — was the most trustworthy person to care for Mary during this trip. He made Charles promise not to do anything silly like marry Mary, and Charles agreed and they probably did a fancy handshake, etc., to seal the deal. But all of Charles’s promises meant nothing when Mary came bursting out of her month-long confinement, saw him looking so gorgeous, and was like, “WE NEED TO ELOPE LIKE RIGHT NOW. COME ON!” Who was he to turn her down?
And so, Mary Tudor married Charles Brandon in semi-secret (!!!) on March 3, 1515 in front of a ten guests including the new French King. So like: not that secret. But the thing is that this was officially treason, because English law stated that the King had to consent to all royal marriages. Mary and Charles were both hoping that Henry’s well-known soft heart and affection for both of them would mean he wouldn’t be too mad about all this. And so they sailed back to England as man and wife on an English Channel honeymoon!
But to the surprise of literally no one, Henry was SO ANGRY (despite the fact that it was his own fault for sending Charles to France, like what did he think would happen??). Henry’s scheming advisers, who all hated Charles Brandon, were like, “What if you… KILL CHARLES???”,. But Henry’s affection for both his BFF and his darling sister superseded everything and he chose to just punish them by making them pay a pretty small monetary fine, and letting them do so in small annual installments. He also commanded that Mary repay him her dowry from the marriage to Louis XII. Mary and Charles were like, “DEAL!” and Henry was like, “Aww, I can’t stay mad at you two,” and group hug, everything was fine between them all once more. So Mary and Charles had a second, non-secret wedding in England, with Henry VIII among the happy guests. The next year, Henry named his new baby daughter Mary, in honour of his sister, who he was totally no longer mad at.
And so, now aged nineteen (still so young!!), Mary was ready to begin her new life as Mrs. Charles Brandon — no longer a Queen, and effectively not really a Princess anymore either. She was now, by marriage, the Duchess of Suffolk. The first nineteen years of her life had been full chaos, so who can blame her for just wanting to chill out in the country with her new family for the rest of her life? Charles came with a built-in family too, as he was already raising two daughters from his first marriage. Mary, despite being literally a teenager herself, threw herself into being a doting stepmother to these girls, who were named Mary and Anne because those are the only names of any girls in this story. Mary also got to work popping out children to carry on the Brandon surname, giving birth to two sons and two daughters (and the DAUGHTERS become SUPER IMPORTANT TO WORLD HISTORY, but we’ll get to that in a bit).
But, as Philippa Gregory has shown us numerous times, Tudor lives never end happily. Like, you knew another twist was on its was eventually, right? First of all, in 1528, Mary was one of many many many people in England to come down with a gruesome disease called the sweating sickness. At around the same time, Henry got to work trying to convince the Pope to get his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn. You might recall that Mary was a fan of Catherine and hated Anne Boleyn, so she didn’t support her brother in this. And also, remember how Henry was like, “Mary, you can’t marry for love! That’s not what royals do!”? I hope Mary was like, “Henry you HYPOCRITE!” because he truly was. And she had never been one to keep her feelings to herself, so she told Henry she opposed him, and told everyone else she hated Anne Boleyn, and that led to the next big twist.
In 1532, one of Charles Brandon’s aides was (allegedly) murdered by Anne Boleyn’s uncle and relatives. And why was he killed? Oh just in retaliation for all of Mary’s shit-talking about Anne Boleyn. This poor aide was killed to send Mary a message, which was, “Be nicer to your brother.” Mary, true to character, refused to stop being mad at Henry. The two siblings never recovered the close sibling bond they used to share.
And then, very sadly, Mary died one year later from — probably — ongoing issues related to the sweating sickness. She was just thirty-seven years old. As befitted the Dowager Queen of France/the sister of the English King/daughter of the previous English King, her funeral was a huge affair that lasted for two days. Highlights included a funeral procession in which her hearse, pulled by six horses, was accompanied by 100 torchbearers. Mary’s older daughter Frances Brandon was chief mourner, although her her step-daughters Anne and Mary apparently pushed their way to the front of the procession just as the coffin was lowered into its crypt, which annoyed everyone and makes me picture those two now like Cinderella’s step-sisters, which makes me like them even more.
Mary’s #1 legacy was just being a strong, independent woman who defied the King to marry for love. In that, she is a timeless icon and the true heir to her grandmother, Elizabeth Woodville (and also set the template for several of her descendants, including Lady Mary Grey). Two of Mary’s children survived infancy, her daughters Frances and Eleanor Brandon (her two sons died in infancy or early childhood). And it’s these two girls through whom Mary’s major legacy to history comes about.
So the thing is, when Henry VIII died, his son Edward VI took over from him as a boy king. But when Edward fell ill without having had any children of his own, all the courtiers began panicking over who would be the next monarch. Henry VIII’s next available child to take over was Mary I, who was Catholic. The Protestant government didn’t want her to take over at all, so they started looking back on the Tudor family tree for other candidates. Henry’s sister Margaret (remember she was shipped off to marry the King of Scots?) had some children, but they were Scottish and also Catholic, and nobody wanted them to take over (** this is where Mary, Queen of Scots‘s claim to the English throne comes from). But it’s from Mary’s descendants that we get to the whole Lady Jane Grey scenario.
Here’s how that happened. Mary’s older daughter Frances Brandon grew up, got married to a man named Henry Grey with whom she had three daughters: Lady Jane Grey, Lady Katherine Grey, and Lady Mary Grey. Fairly famously, Jane was named heir to Edward VI, reigned for nine days, and wound up executed. Katherine Grey had two sons, and if you follow that family tree all the way down, you wind up with Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon aka Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mum! Meaning that today’s British royal family are all descended from Mary Tudor’s secret sexy marriage to Charles Brandon.
Mary Tudor’s second daughter, Eleanor Brandon married a man named Henry Clifford (literally, every man in this story is named Henry) and they had a daughter named Margaret Clifford. Margaret Clifford married a man named Henry Stanley and THEY had a son named FERDINANDO STANLEY, the father of LADY ANNE STANLEY, that’s right, it’s from Mary Tudor’s other daughter that the entire Stanley family claim to the throne comes from! Now, Anne Stanley’s saga is sad in a different way from that of the Grey sisters, but also hinges on her having made a terrible and ill-advised marriage. So at this point it’s starting to feel almost like a Tudor curse is at work???
Literally every Tudor woman was fascinating and stubborn and fiery and super smart and where did they all come from? Oh that’s right, mothers of the Tudor dynasty, Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville. Those are some STRONG genes.
References and Further Reading
There aren’t many biographies of Mary Tudor. For this essay, I referred to the non-fiction works The Sisters of Henry VIII: The Tumultuous Lives of Margaret of Scotland and Mary of France by Maria Perry and Henry VIII: King and Court by Alison Weir.
On The Tudors TV series, Henry VIII’s sisters Mary and Margaret are combined into a single character named Margaret but who basically does everything Mary did — marry the old French King, then run off with Charles Brandon, and eventually die of the sweating sickness. She’s played there with great passion by Gabrielle Anwar.
In the first series of The Spanish Princess, Mary Tudor is portrayed by a young actress named Isla Merrick-Lawless.
Otherwise, Mary Tudor’s most frequent cultural portrayal is as the heroine of historical fiction novels, most recently in Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory and Mary, Tudor Princess by Tony Riches.