Friday 18 March 2011

March 18th, 1496: The Birth of Mary Tudor, Queen of France

For almost all her adult life, Henry VIII's youngest sister, Mary, was referred to as "the French Queen" by her brother's government, despite the fact that she had technically only held that title for three months, during her brief marriage to the aged King Louis XII, which ended with his death on New Year's Day 1515, when his teenage English bride was not yet nineteen. Almost immediately following her first husband's death, Mary did what the Tudor family apparently did best and caused an international scandal. She seduced her brother's best friend, the Duke of Suffolk, a handsome playboy more likely to think with his crotch than his brain and returned to England with the marriage already (vigorously) consummated. When her brother discovered what his sister and best friend had done, he went into convulsions of fury - firstly at the thought that Charles had dared go to bed with the king's sister and secondly because Mary had (perhaps deliberately) removed herself from being a matrimonial pawn in her brother's games of diplomacy. Mary felt lucky to have escaped one potentially hideous marriage to an old man in such a short space of time and she was determined not to give her brother the opportunity to put her in that situation again. Charles, duke of Suffolk was good-looking, entertaining and suitably reckless to agree to her plan. After living down their disgrace, they returned to Court, thanks to the intercession of Cardinal Wolsey and Queen Katherine. They remained staples of court high society until Mary refused to yield precedence to Anne Boleyn and Anne refused to back down on the issue either. Through their daughter, Frances, Charles and Mary eventually became the grandparents of Lady Jane Grey
However, despite its romantic (or scandalous) beginnings, the marriage of Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor was not an especially happy one and having gotten over the novelty of being married to a princess, Charles went back to his bed-hopping ways with characteristic abandon. The couple's first son died as a baby and his brother, Henry, born a year later and created Earl of Lincoln by his royal uncle, died at the age of eleven. Their eldest daughter, Frances, Jane Grey's mother, inherited her father's duchy of Suffolk and married Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset; after his death, like her mother, she made a scandalous second marriage to a man who was her social inferior. Her younger sister, Eleanor, married the Earl of Cumberland and later acted as chief mourner at the funeral of Katherine of Aragon in 1536.

Mary's controversial choice for a second husband, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk (?1484 - 1545) was played in all four seasons of The Tudors by British actor, Henry Cavill (above.)

Yet for someone whose life was to become famous for scandal, the first Mary Tudor's life began fairly quietly. Like all of her siblings, bar the last, her birth was a relatively easy one for her mother, the thirty year-old Queen of England, Elizabeth of York. There is some debate over where the birth itself took place and Westminster has been put forward by some of Mary or Elizabeth's biographers, but it seems likely the real location was Richmond Palace, the sumptuous and magnificent royal residence recently completed by the baby's father, King Henry VII, as a tribute to his hard-won rule over England, Wales and Ireland. At the time of her birth, Mary joined three siblings at the pretty riverside manor of Eltham, where the royal nursery was kept. Her eldest brother, Arthur, the heir-presumptive, was already nine years-old and his education was more and more being placed into male hands chosen by his father the King, rather than those selected by his mother the Queen or his grandmother, the Countess of Derby. Mary's more regular childhood companions were her less-pretty but equally wilful big sister, Margaret, who later married the King of Scotland, and her four year-old brother, Henry, Duke of York. An elder sister, Elizabeth, had very sadly died whilst the Queen was pregnant with Mary, in what may have been a case of severe allergies, unrecognisable and certainly untreatable in the fifteenth century.

Even at the age of thirty, the pale and blonde Queen Elizabeth was generally considered a beautiful woman, which was expected since her mother, the late Queen Elizabeth Woodville, was described as the most beautiful woman in the British Isles. Mary too was thought to be a very attractive woman and if she did not quite have the once-in-a-generation beauty possessed by her maternal grandmother, there is no denying that, even accounting for flattery, Henry VIII's younger sister was physically lovely. 

After Mary's birth, there was a short lull in her mother's pregnancies. It was not until the middle of 1498, nearly two years after Mary, that Elizabeth was able to announce that she was with child again. As usual, her over-bearing mother-in-law oversaw all the arrangements and Elizabeth awaited the outcome of her sixth pregnancy as she had done the previous five. Few women in English history could claim to have been better-connected than Elizabeth of York, something which had been vital in convincing her husband to select her as his bride when he seized the throne in 1485. She was the daughter, sister, niece, wife, mother  and grandmother of kings, but in the final estimation, for most of her early life, these dazzling familial connections brought her nothing but misery.

Mary Tudor was destined to be the last of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York's brood to live past infancy. The death of little Elizabeth, a few months before Mary's birth, proved to be an indicator of things to come, rather than a tragic one-off. The next baby, born at Greenwich on February 21, 1499 was christened Edmund, Duke of Somerset, but he died shortly after his first birthday. His baby brother, Edward, named in honour of Elizabeth's late father, died not long after his christening and Mary's little sister, Katherine, led to their mother's death in childbirth of her thirty-seventh birthday in 1503. Princess Katherine joined her in the grave two weeks later, leaving Mary motherless at the age of six.

British actress Glynis Johns, perhaps best known for her work in Mary Poppins, is seen here in the role of Mary Tudor in the 1953 biopic The Sword and the Rose.


  1. Gareth, were there any descendants that continued Mary's bloodline into the later centuries? ...perhaps through Eleanor?

  2. Hi Tubbs,

    Great question. Mary actually had descendants into later centuries thanks to both her daughters - Frances and Eleanor.

    Whilst Frances's eldest and youngest daughters, Jane and Mary, did not have children of their own, her middle daughter - Katherine - did. Like her mother, Katherine entered into an illicit marriage unapproved by the sovereign - in this case, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, much to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth's, fury. Anyway, Katherine Grey and Edward Seymour did have a child together - Edward, baron Beauchamp. He in his turn was the father of six children, three of whom (William, Francis and their sister Honora) had children. In recognition of William's service to the royalist cause during the civil war, King Charles II restored to the Seymour family the dukedom of Somerset, which they had very briefly held during the reign of King Edward VI, a century earlier. And, today, John Seymour, 19th Duke of Somerset, is therefore a descendant of Mary Tudor.

    To go back to Mary's other daughter, Eleanor, whom she mentioned, she produced only one healthy child - a daughter, Margaret, who later married the earl of Derby. She in turn had five children and two of her sons, Ferdinando and William, inherited their father's title in turn. The latter had five children, including James, 7th earl of Derby, and his sister Anne, who married the Scottish earl of Ancram. James was a noted royalist war hero during the Civil War, who fathered nine children, and today the 19th Earl of Derby, Lord Edward Stanley, is also a descendant of Mary's.

    So, to answer the question concisely - the dukes of Somersets and earls of Derby are Mary's descendants in the modern day.

    Hope this helps!


  3. Thanks Gareth, now if I could just bother you with one more question - were the Somerset and Derby lines ever considered (by Parliament) at the time of the Hanoverian succession?


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