This edited excerpt from ‘Tudor’ concerns Henry VIII’s younger sister Mary, known as ‘The French Queen’. She had been married to the aged Louis XII, who she has not yet met, and the scene opens with her about to leave England to meet him as his wife. In ‘Tudor’ I have referenced the details, all of which drawn from contemporary documents.
The weather was stormy when the royal party reached Dover on 2 October 1514. Henry had planned to sail into the channel to bid farewell to his sister Mary as she left for France. Now they would have to say their goodbyes on the shore where a vast crowd was gathering to see the spectacle, the townsfolk from the four hundred odd houses that huddled beneath Dover castle mixing with courtiers and foreign visitors.
An Italian merchant observed that the noblemen had spent a fortune on their costumes and horses, but none outshone the princess Mary – now known as the French Queen. ‘Tall, fair, and of a light complexion’, she was ‘a nymph from heaven’. Indeed as brother and sister stood together on the shoreline, they made a startlingly good-looking pair. Henry, with his cropped auburn hair, a ‘complexion very fair and bright’, and ‘a round, beautiful face’, was the handsomest Prince in Christendom; Mary glittering in a ‘gown in the French fashion, of wove gold, very costly’, and ‘on her neck a jewelled diamond with a pear-shaped pearl beneath it, the size of a pigeon’s egg’ – a present from her husband, the King of France.
In sight, but out of earshot of the crowds, Mary was already talking to Henry about her plans for her future widowhood, her husband’s generous gifts notwithstanding. ‘She had consented to his request, and for the peace of Christendom, to marry Louis of France though he was very aged and sickly.’ In exchange Mary wanted Henry now to re-iterate his private promise to her that if she outlived Louis she could marry whom she liked for her second husband, and, ‘as ye well know’, she already had a groom in mind: the twenty-nine year old Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
The handsome Brandon came from a family of impeccable Tudor loyalists. His father had died holding Henry VII’s standard at Bosworth and he was raised at court, where he had proved himself an exceptional athlete at the joust. It was on the sandy lists of the tilt that he had forged a friendship with Henry and when, in February that year, Henry had granted Brandon the title Duke of Suffolk he was recognized at the King’s principle favourite. Nevertheless Brandon was not a suitable groom for a royal princess. His background was mere gentry and he had a long and messy marital history littered with illegitimate children and young brides abandoned for rich old widows. When Henry kissed his sister goodbye at the waterside and gave his word she could have her choice, he had no intention of honouring his promise.
Louis XII met his young bride on a rainy day near Abbeville on the River Somme. Accompanying him were over two hundred courtiers, but Mary’s attention was riveted on Louis. He had dressed as for the hunt and his horse was obediently performing half turns in order that she could see him clearly. A witness described him as looking ‘very antique’, in a short red jacket of cloth of gold on crimson designed to match Mary’s costume. To please the gathered crowds she blew him a kiss. He promptly rode over, leaned from his saddle and kissed the teenager as passionately, it was said, as if he had been a young man of twenty-five. There was then the consummation of the marriage for Mary, French Queen to look forward to.
Following a magnificent ball on 9 October Louis’s daughter, the fifteen-year old Madame Claude, escorted Mary to the bed where she was to sleep with the old King. Claude was already pregnant by her twenty-year old husband and cousin, Francis. A charismatic man, with black eyes, a dark curling beard and strong nose, Francis was King Louis’s nearest male relative and his heir – unless Mary produced a son for Louis. What happened in the bed-chamber was therefore of particular interest to Francis. The next morning Louis boasted to the Venetian ambassador that he had ‘crossed the river three times’ and to a French courtier that he had ‘performed miracles’ with his beautiful bride. ‘I certainly believe this was true’ the ambassador noted dryly, ‘for he was most uncomfortable’. As the days passed Louis seemed so infatuated the Venetian ambassador began to worry that ‘To amuse himself with a wife of eighteen is very dangerous to his state of health’. He was not alone in these concerns. In Paris they sang a ballad warning, ‘‘The King of England, has given the King of France a new young filly who will carry him off.. either to hell or to paradise.’
The French Queen was miserable in those early days. Louis had dispensed with her senior English ladies-in-waiting, saying French ones were more encouraging ‘when he would be merry with his wife’ in the bedroom. She now had no one to confide in, or to turn to for advice, except the young English maids she had been left with, and some, like the dark eyed, fourteen year old Anne Boleyn, were scarcely out of childhood. To add to her confusion, her brother had sent Charles Brandon, along with other leading courtiers, to attend her coronation, which took place on 5 November in the Abbey of St Dennis. The whole of Paris – then the biggest city in Europe – was decorated with French lilies and English roses, and the following day the French Queen was driven in a carriage through the streets wearing a diadem of pearls, and a necklace of brilliant jewels.
In truth she was beginning to enjoy herself. ‘How lovingly the King my husband dealeth me, the Lord Chamberlain, with other of your ambassadors, can inform your Grace’, Mary wrote to Henry.
Louis had once been a ladies man, and although he was old and ill, he could be charming and gracious – as well as very generous. There were compensations, his young wife was discovering, in being an old man’s darling. It may also be that the boasts made after his wedding night, were wide of the truth. ‘I am certain’ his son-in-law remarked, ‘unless I have been greatly deceived, that it is impossible for the King and Queen to have children’.
Louis died on 1 January, and Mary married Brandon in France within six weeks, without Henry VIII’s knowledge – he had underestimated her determination to have the man she wanted
For more on this check out Sean O’Keefe’s review of ‘Tudor’ and his interview with Leanda de Lisle.