HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘La Reine Blanche, Mary Tudor- Henry VIII’s Sister’ by Sarah Bryson

Mary Tudor’s childhood was overshadowed by the men in her life: her father, Henry VII, and her brothers Arthur, heir to the Tudor throne, and Henry VIII. These men and the beliefs held about women at the time helped to shape Mary’s life. She was trained to be a dutiful wife and at the age of eighteen Mary married the French king, Louis XII, thirty-four years her senior.

When her husband died three months after the marriage, Mary took charge of her life and shaped her own destiny. As a young widow, Mary blossomed. This was the opportunity to show the world the strong, self-willed, determined woman she always had been. She remarried for love and at great personal risk to herself. She loved and respected Katherine of Aragon and despised Anne Boleyn – again, a dangerous position to take.

Author Sarah Bryson has returned to primary sources, state papers and letters, to unearth the truth about this intelligent and passionate woman. This is the story of Mary Tudor, told through her own words for the first time.

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I have always had a soft spot or Mary Tudor. She was the daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. One brother was destined to be king, and the other brother really took the throne. Her sister was Queen of Scotland. It could be easy to think Mary Tudor achieved little, but she might have been the happiest of them all.

Mary was only 18 when she had to marry the 52yo King of France. I can only think how foul that would be for Europe’s most beautiful princess (she was no fool, but as per the time period, her appearance was her talking point). Mary may have been sold off to the highest bidder by her brother Henry, but she had already planned her next move – to marry Henry’s bestie Charles Brandon. Brandon had already sidelined two wives and was ready to marry the lovely Mary.

Luckily for everyone, the French king died after three months of marriage and Mary married Brandon in secret. Bryson’s book tells this wonderful tale in full detail, of two people defying King Henry to hatch this plan and marry. Was Brandon a gold -digger? I shall reserve my opinion and you can make yours while reading the book.

The author used primary sources to write about the life of Mary, in order to create a full picture of who she was outside the shadows of the men around her. Mary’s letters have survived, giving us her own hand, her own thought process. Mary was the perfect princess; beautiful, virtuous, religious, skilled in all the areas a woman was meant to excel. But Mary was no uneducated woman – she may have been handed to France and into the bed of a creepy old guy, but she knew how to play men. Mary used a classic skill – make the man in her way think her ideas were all his, and then praised him for ‘his’ thoughts, while succeeding behind his back. Women with opinions were heretics; women who praised men after planting ideas were perfect wives/sisters/princesses/mothers. Mary used her charm not only for herself, but for people who came to her in need, a calming female voice in a harsh male world.

Mary became The White Queen (the nickname often now given to her grandmother Elizabeth) while wearing white, the French colour of mourning. Mary was meant to waiting to see if she was carrying the French heir, but instead she was writing, to plan the fortunes of the rest of her life. Mary wanted to come back to England, not stay in France and be married off again for English-French relations. Mary wanted to marry Brandon, and she was played the slow game in her words to her kingly brother.

Mary, of course, suffered for her marriage to Brandon, but being Henry’s favourite sister, returned to glory, bore many children with Brandon, and died in her fifties after spending her life beloved by her brother and husband. Her granddaughter Jane would become England’s queen for nine days. Mary was not just a king’s sister and pawn, she was a woman who was able to quietly plot the course of her life. Mary was not loud or dramatic in history, yet a woman born to an extraordinary couple, with extraordinary siblings, and lived her own free life in a time of great turmoil.

This is the only book I would turn to when referencing Mary Tudor. It is an essential volume on any discerning bookshelf.

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FRAILTY OF HUMAN AFFAIRS: Author Q+A – Part 1

How much do you know about Tudor England? Maybe you are an expert; maybe you are new and know no more than Henry VIII and his desire to crop heads (roughly 72,000). Maybe you know Thomas Cromwell was the real genius behind Henry’s reign and changed laws in a way no country has ever known. Maybe you have heard his name a few times, maybe watched Wolf Hall, or get him mixed up with the genocidal Oliver Cromwell of the 1600’s.

Frailty of Human Affairs is set in the years 1529 – 1533, the early years of Cromwell’s rise to control England behind Henry VIII. He was already a wealthy merchant, trader, lawyer and money-lender. He had already served both the royal court for his master,Cardinal Wolsey, and in parliament. But it was 1530’s in which Thomas Cromwell basically picked up England and shook it, changing everything that everyone knew in a way that had never been done, and was never done again. If you are English or in a country invaded and dominated by the English (like here in the antipodes), you can thank Thomas Cromwell that you are not Catholic (unless you want to be, which is your choice now, you do you). Yes, Catholic vs. Protestant reform would have come to England with or without Cromwell’s help, but how it played out would have been very different.

Do you need to understand the difference between Catholic vs. Protestant to read this book?

I have kept it simple because unless you have done religious studies (like me), it can seen as daunting. It did to me at the start. Basically, Catholics pray in church to their priests, bishops archbishops and cardinals. All bow to the Pope in Rome. In Cromwell’s time, prayer had to be done in Latin. The Protestants (literally religious protestors, mostly in Germany) translated the bible from Latin to German and then English, and the translations came out with different rules on how to revere God. These bibles were banned in Cromwell’s time, as they questioned the Church’s real power. These English and German bibles allowed people to understand prayer easier, let them pray where and when they chose, and didn’t expect people to pray a premium in church for their souls to be saved. That’s the over-simplified version, but it’s all you need to start reading.

Why read your Cromwell over another version?

Thomas Cromwell sat in obscurity until around the 1950’s when he was brought back into public knowledge, as the villain behind King Henry VIII and the destruction of Catholic England. In the last decade, much has been written to reinvent Thomas Cromwell as a hero, a smart man who was caught under a despot king. I seek to write neither a hero nor a villain. In a world such as the Tudor court during the 1530’s, every man and woman would have needed to take sides – hero or villain – but I wanted to show that people can be both and neither. Neither Cromwell nor Frescobaldi are in any way perfect, and have intentions of their own as well as serving a king.

Who is Nicóla Frescobaldi in all this?

While Francesco Frescobaldi was the man who found a starving English teenager (Thomas Cromwell) on the streets of Florence, nothing is known about his immediate family. All characters focused around Frescobaldi are purely fictional, including Nicóla and Nicóletta.

Who is Machiavelli?

Niccoló Machiavelli was an Italian writer and diplomat in Florence until his death in 1527. He was at odds with the reigning Medici family, but wrote many books which have been him eternal. ‘The Prince” is his top book, basically the creation of modern political science. Seriously, grab a copy.

Much has been made of who ‘The Prince’ of Niccoló Machiavelli’s book really was. While dedicated to Lorenzo Di Piero De Medici, the book is said to be sometimes based on Cesare Borgia, the infamous son of Pope Alexander VI. The book,  published in handwritten form in 1513, was first published on a printing press in 1532, when Pope Clement VII agreed to its release. Thomas Cromwell and the Protestants were known as fans of the Machiavelli book, though Catholic kings such as Charles V, and French Queens such as Catherine de’ Medici, also endorsed the writing. Who inspired much of the book may in fact be a wide number of people, but Thomas Cromwell and his incredible mind lived in Florence from around 1503 until 1513. Very little is known around this period of his life. Is Cromwell the prince? Frescobaldi believes so.

What is the point of Cromwell’s changes to England?

Henry VIII needs rid of his first wife, who served England for twice as long as his other five wives combined.

Click here to read more on the “Great Matter”

In 1509, King Henry VIII was crowned alongside his new bride, Princess Katherine of Aragon. Katherine had married Henry’s brother, Prince Arthur, in 1501, only for him to die months later. After receiving dispensation from the Pope, the couple married and were crowned in a dual coronation, and would go on to have one daughter and lose another five children at birth.

After having affairs with several well-known mistresses, King Henry set his sights on Anne Boleyn, lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine, sometime in 1525. By 1527, Henry set his chief advisor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England, to the task of procuring an annulment of his marriage to Katherine, on the grounds that a man could not marry his brother’s widow.

After several failed attempts to persuade Pope Clement VII to agree to an annulment, a decision was made – an ecclesiastic legatine court was to be set up in London. Two cardinals, Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, a chief confidant of the Pope, would stand in as papal legates (the Pope’s representatives), and through a hearing, decide on whether Henry and Katherine’s marriage was ever lawful in the eyes of God.

The people of England loved Queen Katherine; she had ruled for twenty years, a kind, pious and beautiful Catholic queen all could respect. But Katherine was too old to give Henry what he needed – a son to inherit the English throne. Anne Boleyn was still in her twenties – pretty, sophisticated, intelligent, and young enough to give birth to a male heir.

After being in love with Anne Boleyn for four years, King Henry had become bitter towards his Queen, and also his sixteen-year-old daughter, Princess Mary, whom he considered too unnatural to inherit the throne, as she was female. Anne Boleyn was a mistress who would not share Henry’s bed, and a combination of frustration, longing, and arrogance built in the 38-year-old ruler. Cardinal Wolsey, at Henry’s side for twenty years, and credited with countless successes at home and abroad, and the wealthiest man in England, could not give the King what he wanted, an annulment from Katherine. With the witty Anne Boleyn and her family taking Wolsey’s place at Henry’s side, and the Protestant reformers beginning to eat into England’s Catholic soul, the King could be easily swayed in any direction.

Enter Thomas Cromwell – lawyer and advisor to Thomas Wolsey, a commoner with a smart mind and vivid history throughout Europe, educated in England and Italy, who had ideas on how to create an annulment, and destroy Pope Clement’s power in the process.

By 1529, no one, noble or common, knew what would happen in their realm, and with the anger of the Holy Roman Emperor also weighing upon the annulment issue – the King’s ‘Great Matter” – the threat of war was real, all to gain a male heir for the kingdom. King Henry needed a new queen, and Katherine would never give up her crown.

Why so many characters?

They, with the exception of the Frescobaldi children, Nicóla and Nicóletta, all the characters are real people who served or opposed Henry VIII. There are a lot and they all played a role. There were many more who I have chosen not to showcase, and more will be added in the next books.

England’s royal inner circle by 1529

King Henry VIII

All-powerful, well-educated and athletic ruler of England for twenty years. Aged only 38 years old, a religious, volatile, arrogant man. Father of one legitimate heir, Princess Mary, and a bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset

Click here for more on Henry VIII

 Queen Katherine

Catholic Spanish princess married to Henry for twenty years – pious, respectable, intelligent, and mother to the only legitimate royal heir, Mary, Princess of Wales

Click here for more on Katherine

Anne Boleyn

High-educated former lady in-waiting to Queen Katherine, daughter to successful courtier Thomas Boleyn

Charles Brandon

Duke of Suffolk, and Henry’s best friend. Married to Henry’s sister Mary, Dowager Queen of France. Member of the Privy Council (advisors to the King on state matters) and the King’s Council (the King’s private advisors)

Thomas Howard

Duke of Norfolk, uncle to Anne Boleyn, close courtier to Henry. Member of the Privy Council and King’s Council

Thomas Boleyn

Lord Rochford and Lord Privy Seal (leader of the Privy Council) and member of the King’s Council. Father to Anne Boleyn, along with popular courtier George Boleyn and the beautiful Mary Boleyn, King Henry’s former mistress

Advisors and courtiers to King Henry

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

Common-born man risen through the church to become advisor to King Henry, elevated to Cardinal by the Catholic Church, and Lord Chancellor of England, the nation’s most powerful ministerial role

Click here for more on Thomas Wolsey

Thomas Cromwell

Advisor and lawyer to Thomas Wolsey. Member of parliament, wealthy merchant and money-lender. Former soldier, Italian trader and banker and English-trained scholar

Click here for more on Cromwell

Sir Thomas More

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, respected humanist, author and Catholic theologian. Loyal advisor to King Henry and champion of Dutch writer Erasmus

Thomas Cranmer

Highly educated theologian, humanist and ordained priest, and supporter of Martin Luther. Diplomat to both Spanish court and Holy Roman Emperor on King Henry’s behalf

Archdeacon Stephen Gardiner

Trained in canon (religious) and civil law, and master secretary to Cardinal Wolsey. Well-travelled diplomat, Master of Trinity Hall and expert at Cambridge University

William Warham

Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Convocation of Canterbury (religious parliament). Bound to Pope Clement and the Catholic faith

Eustace Chapuys

Imperial Ambassador to England and champion of the cause of Queen Katherine on Charles V’s behalf

Powerful Italian figures in 1529

Pope Clement VII

Pope of Rome and leader of the Catholic faith since 1523. Member of the powerful Florentine Medici dynasty. Imprisoned during the sacking of Rome by Charles V’s soldiers in 1527

Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio

Powerful and well-travelled cardinal, left in charge of Rome during the Pope’s absences, and Cardinal Legate of England. Representative of Pope Clement abroad

Charles V of Spain

King of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Italy, King of the Romans, Lord of the Netherlands and Duke of Burgundy, ruler of the German and Austrian states controlled by the Roman Empire. Nephew of Queen Katherine of England

The Medici dynasty

Multi-generational family in control of the Republic of Florence. One of the wealthiest families in Europe, creator of two Popes, including Clement. Ousted from Florence in 1527 during a siege, only to be reinstated with full control and wealth

Nicóla Frescobaldi

Effeminate bastard son to the late Francesco Frescobaldi, a wealthy Florentine merchant and banker. Reclusive favourite courtier of Pope Clement, highly educated man of business and theology

Nicóletta Frescobaldi

Only living daughter of Francesco Frescobaldi. Pre-contracted in marriage to Alessandro de’ Medici

Well known figures in Europe in 1529

Erasmus of Rotterdam

Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian. Creator of the Latin New Testament bible based on Greek texts

William Tyndale

Creator of the English language bible, translated from Greek and Hebrew texts. Supporter of Protestant reform. In exile from England and against Henry’s annulment

Martin Luther

German theologian, excommunicated priest and creator of the Protestant Reformation and the German language bible

Niccoló Machiavelli

Recently deceased Florentine diplomat, politician, historian, philosopher, humanist, and writer. Creator of political science

King Francis I of France

Popular young King of France. Well-educated writer and patron to Leonardo da Vinci. Signed the peace treaty at the Field of Cloth of Gold with England

Alessandro de’ Medici

The last senior member of the original Medici generation, illegitimate son of Pope Clement, set to rule Florence. His ‘sister’, Catherine de’ Medici, is set to become a French princess

Stephen Vaughan

English merchant, royal agent and diplomat, and strong supporter of the Protestant Reformation

Popular English courtiers in 1529

Ralph Sadler

Ward and master secretary to Thomas Cromwell

Richard (Williams) Cromwell

Nephew and attendant to Thomas Cromwell

George Cavendish

Writer and faithful attendant to Thomas Wolsey

Edmund Bonner

Faithful friend and chaplain to Thomas Wolsey

Sir Thomas Audley

Barrister and Speaker in the House of Commons

Richard Rich

Popular lawyer and member of parliament

Thomas Wriothesley

Lawyer serving Thomas Cromwell and Stephen Gardiner, clerk of the royal court

Sir Henry Norris                        

Sir Francis Weston

Sir William Brereton                                 

Sir Francis Bryan

Members of the privy chamber of  King Henry

Mark Smeaton

Talented young English composer and musician

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Diplomat, politician, poet, loved friend of Anne Boleyn

Hans Holbein the Younger

Popular German artist, given royal favour for his extraordinary portrait talents

What else do I need to know?

Check out the author Q+A Part 2 on the book for more, or click here to read the first chapter free right now.

A Cromwell Adventure – Part 4: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

Sampson Strong’s portrait of Cardinal Wolsey at Christ Church (1610)

Most people know Thomas Wolsey – Cardinal, Lord Chancellor, de-facto ruler of England. For the twenty years of Henry VIII’s reign which was not filled with wife drama, it was Wolsey there every day, earning him the nickname of alter rex, meaning the other king. This was a blessing and a curse.

Wolsey’s birth is not recorded, but estimated at around 1473 to his butcher-father Robert and his wife Joan. Wolsey received a quality education at Ipswich School, Magdalen College School and then Magdalen College in Oxford. He became a priest in 1498 in Wiltshire, though he stayed at Oxford as Master at Magdalen College School and dean of divinity, before entering several households as a personal chaplain.

By 1507, Wolsey entered the household of King Henry VII, who preferred commoners to entitled nobles, and became the royal chaplain, and secretary to Edward Foxe, a bishop and the Lord Privy Seal. In just one year, Wolsey was trusted enough to be sent to Scotland to renew an alliance with King James IV.

When Henry VII died in 1509, young Henry VIII wanted many changes, and Wolsey was named almoner (charged with distributing money to the poor in England), which was also a seat on the Privy Council. Henry VIII was an excitable young man with no experience and no lover of details, and Wolsey’s dedication to bearing the weight of responsibility soon made him one of Henry’s favourites.

Wolsey had one difference to others in Henry’s inner circle; he was not conservative like the other councillors Henry inherited, and Wolsey would change his stance to suit Henry’s whims. Henry wanted war with France in 1512, and those who did not agree slowly lost their places at court, but Wolsey’s mind-changing saw him elevated all the way to the highest post in the land, Lord Chancellor, in 1515.

Along with Lord Chancellor, he was also a Canon of Windsor, Bishop of Lincoln, and a member of the Privy Council in a short space of time, and would amass titles over his reign. The Pope also made him a cardinal in 1515, setting Wolsey up for endless success, as Henry let Wolsey do as he pleased. Wolsey controlled Henry’s rage when his sister, Mary, Dowager Queen of France (who had been sold off to help with a peace treaty) secretly married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, when the French king dropped dead. Wolsey saved the Duke’s head from the block, generosity which was never returned. Wolsey’s endlessly raised taxes on the commoners, earning him derision from them, while the nobles derided him as a commoner rising too high at the court.

England’s delicate peace with France held after Mary returned to England in 1515, and then the King of Spain died in 1516 and the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. With Wolsey named Papal Legate (Pope’s representative), it allowed him to promote peace treaties between these countries, culminating in the Field of Cloth and Gold treaty between England and France in 1520 and the Treaty of Bruges with Charles V, King of Spain/Holy Roman Emperor, one year later.

By now, Wolsey was all-powerful on all fronts and independent from the Pope in Rome, making decisions at home and abroad, and ruled England with King Henry. He was now one of the wealthiest men in England. While small wars continued to break out around Europe, the peace treaties between England and other nations remained largely intact throughout the 1520’s.

Trouble appeared in 1527 when Henry wanted an annulment from his Queen Katherine, aunt to the Holy Roman Emperor/King of Spain. As Katherine refused to agree, the Pope had to get involved, but the Pope was trapped during the Sacking of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor’s soldiers. The Pope could either side with Henry VIII or Charles V, and Wolsey desperately pleaded for his King. Several failures led to Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio (fresh from Rome), as papal legates, being intent on settling the issue in London. Campeggio stalled the decision for around a year, before suspending it indefinitely in mid-1529. By now, Henry was so desperate to ditch Katherine for Anne Boleyn, that all the work Wolsey had done meant nothing. All Wolsey’s peace efforts, taxation laws, reformation of the justice system, inspections to crush corruption and abuses by the Church, and building of huge colleges meant nothing. Henry wanted Anne Boleyn.

By October 1529, Wolsey was stripped of his titles, lands and power. He sat ill and poor for six months outside of London before being sent to York. But by November 1530, Henry was ready to crush Wolsey, who was arrested on treason charges, to be brought back to London. Wolsey had been writing to the Pope behind Henry’s back, promising that Anne Boleyn would never been queen. Halfway back to London to be put on trial, Wolsey fell ill and died on his sickbed at Leicester Abbey on 29 November 1530, leaving behind a mistress of ten years, and two adopted-out adult children.

Also left behind was his lawyer and advisor Thomas Cromwell, who would go on to fill Wolsey’s place beside Henry VIII go further than Wolsey in terms of change in England and also break down the Catholic Church.

Up next… Katherine of Aragon…