The House of Tudor had more than its fair share of scandalous figures, from Henry VIII’s many marriages to the intrigue and plots of the court of Elizabeth I. But few remember the twisted tale of Mary Tudor—the English princess who briefly became Queen of France. From her secret marriage to her bitter rivalry with Anne Boleyn, Mary packed a lot into her short life.
Mary Tudor Facts
1. Her Family Was Power-Hungry
Mary Tudor was born in an auspicious time for the House of Tudor. When her father, Henry VII, wed her mother, Elizabeth of York, the marriage finally brought together the bitter factions of the Wars of the Roses. Yet with great power comes great screw-ups. Henry VII sought to marry off all his well-bred children to influential ruling families….with disastrous results.
2. She Was Daddy’s Little Girl
Mary’s parents had many children over the years, but she was one of only four to survive infancy—and as the baby of the small, precarious family, Mary’s father spoiled her absolutely rotten. Even though King Henry was in huge financial trouble after years of constant battle, he showered Mary with gifts…to an almost extreme extent.
3. She Was a Literal Girl Boss
When she was just six years old, Henry VII gave his little princess her own household, including a staff that comprised a number of gentlewomen, a teacher, and a doctor. Imagine having a six-year-old as your boss? No thanks. Yet even as Henry VII was doing everything to give Mary a glorious childhood, heartbreak was lurking just around the corner.
4. Her Brother Suffered a Horrible End
In 1502, Mary’s small royal family got even smaller. Arthur, Prince of Wales, was the golden boy of the Tudor brood, especially after he married Princess Catherine of Aragon. Then, suddenly and mysteriously, he took ill and perished in 1502 when Mary was still a little girl. The family was grief-stricken—but the grief didn’t stop there.
5. She Suffered a Double Tragedy
In early 1503, Mary became a near orphan. That year, her mother Elizabeth was pregnant again, and gave birth to a baby girl. Her joy turned to pain almost immediately. The child didn’t survive, and Elizabeth soon contracted a brutal and fatal infection. Within nine days of giving birth, Elizabeth was gone—and young Mary was motherless.
6. Her Father Went Mad With Grief
The spate of losses left Mary heartbroken, but her father’s reaction was truly disturbing. Henry VII was so devastated, he retreated into himself and became incredibly sick. Suddenly, Mary not only had to deal with her mother’s passing, she was also totally isolated from the only parent she had left. The court worried it spelled doom for the House of Tudor. It almost did.
7. Her Mourning Had Dark Consequences
The heartbreak and tumult that followed losing her brother and mother in quick succession also had a devastating effect on Mary. She became a mirror of her father’s pain, and in the five years following the tragedies, Mary’s health deteriorated tremendously, and she began to complain of a range of symptoms from stomach pains to headaches. As we’ll see, this was a dark portent.
8. Her Brother Was Infamous
At this time, the Tudors were powerful, but they were about to get notorious. That’s because one of Mary’s siblings was her older brother Henry, AKA the future King Henry VIII. The pair were just four years apart in age, and the brother and sister were incredibly close with each other. Unfortunately, in the wake of his wife’s death, their grieving father wasted no time in splitting them apart.
9. Her Family Tree Was Twisted
Instead of trying to re-marry himself, the old King Henry VII set his beady little eyes on Mary and Henry. His next move was heartless. After Arthur perished, Catherine of Aragon had become a widow, and Papa Tudor saw no problem sticking her with his younger son Henry instead. As for Mary? She was still just a little girl, but her father had something even creepier in store.
10. Her Father Played a Dirty Trick
In 1506, Henry VII finagled a deal with Philip I of Castile, betrothing Mary to the Castilian heir, Charles. But it’s how he did this that has lived in infamy. See, Henry secured Mary’s engagement only after holding Philip hostage at his castle. Anything for his little princess, right? But if there’s one thing we know, nothing lasts forever in the House of Tudor.
11. Grief Followed Her
As a teen, Mary was just bouncing back when tragedy struck yet again. Her father Henry VII passed of tuberculosis in April 1509, when Mary was only 13. The devastation didn’t end there. Mary also lost her grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, just two months later. Now Mary had quite literally no one but her brother Henry to rely on, which history says is not a good idea.
12. Her Beautiful Face Hid Heartbreak
If the burden of loss and ongoing health problems took its toll on Mary, it didn’t show on the outside. She was, by all accounts, an especially gorgeous princess. The philosopher Erasmus once described her by saying, “Nature never formed anything more beautiful.” Jeez, it’s no wonder her love life got so incredibly complicated.
13. She Had a Very Long Engagement
In 1509, the newly-minted King Henry VIII took the English throne—but if Mary thought her brother’s coronation would bring stability to her life, she was very wrong. At this point, Mary was 13 years old and still betrothed to Charles of Castile, like she’d been for literal years. But when Henry VIII came to power, those plans went to smithereens.
14. She Was a Puppet
In 1513, Henry called his sister’s engagement off and betrothed her to a more advantageous suitor: King Louis XII of France. See, England and France were in a conflict with each other, and Henry thought his sister would sweeten a peace deal. Yep, poor Mary was just a pawn in her brother’s game of thrones. As for her new fiance? Well…
15. She Was in a May-December Romance
Louis XII was more than a little battle-hardened and quite a bit older than Mary. While she was a blooming 18 years old, Louis was 52 and looking not so hot these days. To make matters worse, he’d already gone through two queens at this point, and still didn’t have the male heir all European kings desperately craved. I can tell this is going to be great for Mary.
16. She Was a “Nymph”
For all Mary’s doubts about her forced political marriage, King Louis XII of France didn’t seem to mind the arrangement one bit. Once he set his eyes on the legendarily beautiful and charming Mary in the flesh, the King apparently lauded her as a “nymph from heaven.” Somehow, I just don’t think Mary felt the same way about him.
17. She Found a Second Mother
Following the loss of her mother, Mary became very close with her governess, Joan Vaux, even referring to the woman fondly as “Mother Guildford,” which gives you some idea of the psychology behind that relationship. Vaux was an incredible comfort throughout Mary’s teen years—but that doesn’t mean her presence was always beneficial to the Tudors, as we’ll see…
18. She Was a Teenage Queen
On October 9, 1514, the teenaged Mary got married to her aging husband, tying the knot in a royal ceremony as Queen of France number three. On the big day, she had “Mother Guildford” by her side and no fewer than four maids of honor. Despite these luxuries, Mary was utterly miserable—so she came up with a daring scheme.
19. She Made a Deal With the Devil
Just before her wedding, Mary had written a desperate letter to King Henry VIII back in England. In it, she forced him to make a promise to her: She’d stick with her decrepit husband for now, but when he kicked the bucket, she’d be able to marry whomever she wanted. Henry VIII agreed, but it was a pact that he’d come to regret almost immediately.
20. She Had a Sassy Side
Everyone who knew Mary said that in addition to her great beauty, she was also a “lively” girl. She loved participating in masques and dancing, and she even (sort of) tried to make the best of it with her new husband. Reportedly, when she first met King Louis XII, the pert girl blew him a kiss by way of a greeting. No, no, Mary, you don’t want him to like you.
21. She Was in an Awkward Threesome
When Mary traveled to France, she got a very rude awakening. Joan of Vaux, her “Mother Guildford,” was her comfort blanket on the way, but when they arrived, it became very clear that Louis detested the woman. He complained that Joan never left them alone for a second—which was pretty important for that heir-making thing. It soon reached a painful breaking point.
22. She Was a Lonely Ruler
In a flex of absolute power, Louis XII sent Joan packing back to England. Then, not content with merely throwing out his wife’s surrogate mother, Louis also banished most of Mary’s English staff. Understandably, Mary was both heartbroken and utterly furious. Yet little did she know, another sharp twist of fate was around the corner.
23. Her Husband Came to a Strange End
In the end, Mary’s horrific marriage was as short as it was brutal. A mere three months after their union, King Louis XII…died. Embarrassingly enough, many speculated that he’d gotten too frisky with his young bride and croaked, though it’s more likely that he was suffering from a severe case of gout. Suddenly, Mary was free…and freedom isn’t always a good thing.
24. She Stuck to Her Word
Mary wasted no time taking back power for herself. While the fact that she hadn’t produced an heir to the French throne left her powerless in that country, she still had an ace up her sleeve: The deal she’d made with her brother Henry VIII. She’d been widowed, and she thought she could now marry whomever she wanted. In fact, she already had someone in mind.
25. She Knew What She Wanted
Before she ever became a reluctant queen, historians believe Mary already had a King of her heart: The 1st Duke of Suffolk, Charles Brandon, who she’d sustained a long flirtation with before her wedding. Strapping and athletic, Brandon was a total catch, and just so happened to be one of her brother Henry’s closest friends. I smell drama coming.
26. She Had a Creepy Suitor
Though Henry liked Brandon and all, he knew there were more powerful men out there for his sister, and wasn’t about to let her get married off to a mere duke. Instead, Henry set his eyes on the new King of France, Francis I. This was a pretty gross idea, considering that Francis was very much married at the time. But then it got even more disturbing.
27. She Had a Stalker
While Francis eagerly awaited the death of his ailing wife so he could wed Mary, he also got busy on another task: Putting the Tudor Princess under surveillance. Yep, Francis had Mary watched like a hawk for a couple months to make double sure she wasn’t pregnant, since any baby would be his rival for the throne. Great catch, right?
28. Her Brother Made a Big Mistake
When it came time for Mary to return to England after her royal husband’s funeral, Henry VIII made a fatal error. He sent hunky Charles Brandon to pick her up and accompany her home. But don’t worry! He totally made Brandon promise not to propose to Mary, and the King of England actually thought it was a solid plan. It really wasn’t.
29. She Made a Desperate Request
When Charles Brandon went to retrieve Mary from France, the rebel Tudor set her plan in motion. Despite the promise he’d made to her brother, she quickly convinced Charles that they were meant to be together. According to Brandon’s letters, her methods of persuasion involved a whole lot of weeping. Men, they just don’t know what to do when faced with tears.
30. She Took a Controversial Lover
Charles and Mary’s potential union was dangerous in more ways than one. Not only was the volatile King Henry VIII not into it, the entire King’s Council hated Brandon and were jealous of his intimacy with the monarch. Brandon even offended the good men of the cloth: A pair of French friars once warned Mary that Charles “had traffickings with the devil.” Did she listen? Nope.
31. She Defied Her Brother
Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon just couldn’t wait. The lovebirds got married in secret right before leaving France, exactly like they weren’t supposed to. There were just 10 guests in attendance, including the newly crowned King Francis I, who apparently really wanted to make sure Mary was gone for good. At last, Mary got what she always wanted—but the consequences were grave.
32. Her Husband Had a Checkered Past
As it turns out, Charles Brandon wasn’t exactly the good guy Mary thought he was. He had married twice before…and they hadn’t had happy endings. His first marriage to Margaret Neville was quickly declared void, while his second wedding to Anne Browne, which produced two daughters, was yet another secret wedding. And there were bigger problems back home.
33. She Earned a Brutal Punishment
When the couple got back home and shared their “happy” news, Henry VIII was utterly furious. Now, Henry wasn’t known for his serene demeanor and cool-headedness, but this time was even worse. See, he also had a legal right to be teed off. Yep, marrying a royal princess without permission from your king? That’s treason, my friend. Uh-oh.
34. She Risked Her Neck for Love
For a long, tense moment, Mary’s life and marriage hung in the balance. The punishment for treason was execution, and Henry had to seriously mull over his next actions. If he let the rebel lovers get away with it, he’d look like a sucker. But if he punished Charles, he’d lose his friend and break his sister’s heart. In the end, Henry came up with an ingenious solution.
35. She Paid for Her Sins
What’s better than executing your sister’s new husband? Why, milking the couple for every penny they’re worth, of course. Henry VIII fined Mary and Charles an exorbitant sum. On top of that, he demanded that Mary give him her dowry and any expensive gifts that Louis XII had given her during their brief marriage. As we’ll see, though, this didn’t mean the sibling rivalry was over.
36. She Declared Her Love to the World
Once they had agreed to the terms of their punishment, Mary and Brandon had a second wedding ceremony at Greenwich Hall in London, with Henry VIII and the rest of the English court in attendance. Henry was so pleased with the union that he even reduced their fine—perhaps he considered it a wedding gift. His good mood didn’t last long.
37. She Stood by Her Friends
One woman came between Mary and her royal brother: Anne Boleyn. In the late 1520s, Henry was infamously getting tired of Catherine of Aragon, all while become very enamored with Boleyn. Well, Mary was staunchly in the “Team Catherine” camp, and not just because the queen was her long-time friend. As it happened, she also despised Anne Boleyn.
38. She Had a Formidable Enemy
As it happened, Boleyn served as one of Mary’s maids of honor in her first marriage to King Louis XII, and apparently she did not make a good impression. Mary never really got along with her, and wasn’t particularly sad to see her go way back then. So when Henry VIII began to seek out ways to annul his marriage to Catherine and wed Anne, Mary didn’t take it lying down.
39. Her Court Was a Mess
Tensions were running high in Henry’s court at this time, and it all culminated in a brutal rampage. In 1532, one of Anne Boleyn’s supporters actually killed a man from Mary and Charles Brandon’s entourage. At first, people wrote the unfortunate incident off as a only a private quarrel between the two macho men. But soon, the dark truth came out.
40. She Gave a Legendary Insult
One man was lying cold in his grave, and the tragedy somehow led directly back to Mary Tudor. As the dust settled on the incident, people began to explain that the whole duel had started because our girl Mary had uttered “opprobrious language” against “Madame Boleyn.” Boy, what I wouldn’t give to hear what devastating burn Mary came up with to stir that much trouble.
41. She Had to Admit Defeat
In 1533, Mary’s worst nightmare came true. After years of trying to support her friend Catherine of Aragon’s cause, the jig was up. Following a secret church service, Henry publicly married Anne Boleyn, and Mary had lost the game. She lost even more than that, though: The struggle had taken its toll, and her health problems began to worsen.
42. She Wrote a Tragic Letter
Following Anne’s coronation, Mary tried to mend fences with her brother. Hopeful for a reconciliation, she wrote him a letter. It contents were heartbreaking. In it, she told him frankly that she missed him and wanted to see him again, “as she has been a great while out of his sight, and hopes not to be so long again.” Perhaps she knew the end was near.
43. She Gave Her Brother a Touching Tribute
In 1515, Mary and Charles Brandon started growing their small family, and when Mary gave birth to a boy, she even named him “Henry” after her beloved brother. In the coming years, her household expanded steadily, with daughters Frances and Eleanor arriving soon after. Finally, Mary was supposed to be settling down…until heartbreak made its awful return.
44. She Couldn’t Escape Bad Fortune
By this time in her life, Mary Tudor knew tragedy intimately—but nothing could prepare her for what happened in 1522. Her firstborn son and heir, Lord Henry Brandon, passed when he was just six years old. Once again, the devastation and shock of it all had horrifying effects on Mary’s health, which she needed now more than ever.
45. Her Namesake Earned a Bad Reputation
When Catherine of Aragon gave birth to a healthy baby girl in 1516, she honored Mary by naming the girl after her. Granted, after a few dark turns, the child came to be known as Bloody Mary. Can’t win em all!
46. She Met a Gutwrenching Fate
Back in 1528, Mary caught a sweating sickness that she never quite recovered from, which only complicated her already dubious medical history. She suffered from recurring fevers, a pain in her side, and any number of shivering spells throughout her life, but by 1533, her illness had reached an absolute crisis. On June 25, 1533, Mary Tudor died—and the causes are still mysterious.
47. Her End Was a Mystery
Mary was just 37 when she passed, which was relatively young even in the Tudor period. Yet given her chronic ill health, historians have had difficulty understanding exactly what felled her. Experts have suggested ailments ranging from angina, tuberculosis, appendicitis, or even cancer. Regardless, it was a tragic loss for the House of Tudor, yet Mary’s story doesn’t end there.
48. She Had a Morbid Following
Mary Tudor’s repose was far from peaceful. Centuries after her swift, tragic end, a motley group of English noblemen and women dug up her remains and pried open her coffin in a truly strange episode. They took locks of her hair—an early example of the Tudormania which has persisted in the centuries since this bizarre incident.
49. Her Funeral Was Frantic
Henry VIII arranged for a lavish funeral befitting of Mary’s stature. Her children were there to mourn her, and her stepdaughters were so distraught that they pushed to the front to watch as attendants lowered her remains into the crypt. Her family had obviously loved her very much—but one member moved on suspiciously quickly.
50. Her Husband Betrayed Her
Before Mary was cold in her grave, her beloved Charles Brandon dealt her a cruel betrayal. Try this one on for size: That same year, he married their 14-year-old ward, Catherine Willoughby. Sure, instead of a love match, it was a legal manoeuvre to help Charles retain Mary’s lands after her passing. But, uh, does that make it any better?
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18