The Tudor Book Reviews 5: Mary Rose: Tudor Princess, Queen of France, the Extraordinary Life of Henry VIII’s Sister by David Loades

King Henry VIII’s beautiful and spirited sister, Princess Mary, is a favourite subject for historical novelists. In the sixteenth century, an era when royal women were expected to make political marriages without regard for their personal inclinations, Mary’s clandestine second marriage with Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk stands out as an example of a princess taking control of her destiny. Unfortunately, most historical fiction about Mary is wildly inaccurate and provides little context for her bold decision to defy her brother by marrying one of his closest friends. David Loades’ scholarly biography, Mary Rose analyzes the princess’s political and historical significance, placing her marriage in its actual historical context.

In most fictional and popular retelling of Mary’s marriages, her union with Suffolk is presented as a purely emotional decision, emerging from a desire to avoid another marriage to an elderly foreign prince after the death of her first husband, King Louis XII of France. In the recent showtime series, The Tudors, Henry VIII’s two sisters are merged into a single figure named Margaret who begins an affair with Suffolk before her first marriage to an elderly King. In an older film, Sword and the Rose, Suffolk and Mary attempt to elope to the New World, fifty years before the founding of the first English settlement in North America. Even Jean Plaidy’s more historically accurate novel, Mary Queen Of France, imagines the princess as consumed by a single minded passion for Suffolk from her youth at the Tudor court.

Loades challenges all these romantic accounts of Mary’s relationship with Suffolk by providing an incisive analysis of the circumstances she faced as the widowed Queen of France. Louis XII’s son-in-law and successor, Francois I was reluctant to allow Mary to leave France to become part of second political marriage arranged by Henry VIII to benefit England. Marriage to Suffolk, the English envoy sent to arrange Mary’s return to her brother’s court, provided a means for Francois to release his predecessor’s wife without the threat that she might become part of a marriage that would increase England’s European stature at the expense of France.

Loades argues that within this context, Mary’s decision to marry Suffolk was neither emotional nor impulsive but instead combined her personal inclinations with shrewd political strategy. Henry VIII’s decision to forgive the couple for marrying without his permission, which was not his usual response to courtiers who disobeyed his wishes, undoubtedly reflected his recognition of Mary’s tenuous situation in France.

Loades also provides ample evidence of Mary’s political and cultural role as Duchess of Suffolk, at the court of King Henry VIII. As the Dowager Queen of France, Mary became a patron of French culture and fashions at her brother’s court. Along with her sister, Margaret of Scotland and sister-in-law, Catherine of Aragon, she performed an intercessory role in the Evil May Day riots of 1517. Mary’s children and grandchildren played pivotal roles in the English succession as Henry VIII’s designated them heirs to the throne after his own children. The ill fated nine days Queen, Lady Jane Grey, owed her claim to the English throne to her royal lineage through her grandmother, Mary.

The only comparatively weak section in Loades’s otherwise incisive analysis of Mary’s life and historical significance is the first chapter, “The Infant Princess.” Loades states that Mary’s mother, Elizabeth of York had little involvement in her children’s upbringing without engaging with David Starkey’s recent handwriting analysis suggesting that the Queen taught her daughters and younger son their earliest lessons. He also surmises that Mary’s formidable grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, limited her education to the traditional feminine accomplishments of French, piety, needlework and music. The political savvy Mary displayed during her brief tenure as Queen of France and widowhood suggest that she learned other practical skills from her grandmother, who was instrumental in the Tudor dynasty’s rise to power.

The biography’s title, Mary Rose, is also curious as it is the name of the famous Tudor warship, which is not discussed anywhere in the text. While certain scholars have theorized that the ship was named for Henry VIII’s sister, Loades himself questioned this hypothesis in his extensive work on the Tudor navy. The title therefore seems incongruous for his biography of Princess Mary.

Mary Rose is an important new scholarly biography of a Tudor princess whose life has been romanticized by historical novelists. David Loades restores Henry VIII’s sister to her proper place at the English and French courts, placing her within the context of the complex political and diplomatic circumstances of Henry VIII’s reign.

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