Mary, Queen of France: Life Story

Chapter 1: Childhood

The first record of Mary’s birth was in the Book of Hours of her paternal grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby, where she is noted as the third daughter of her parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. The eldest, Margaret, was later Queen of Scots, the second, Elizabeth died young.  There is no other information about Mary’s birth or christening, but presumably the latter ceremony followed the usual course, probably with the silver font of Canterbury brought to London for the occasion.

Mary was born into an England nervously awaiting the outcome of the claim by a man known to history as Perkin Warbeck, that he was, in fact, Mary’s uncle, Richard, Duke of York, and thus the legitimate king. Shortly before her birth, Warbeck had landed at Deal, but had failed to impress the locals with his claims, and soon sailed away. After attempts to raise armies in Ireland, and a brief alliance with James IV of Scotland, who invaded Northern England on Warbeck’s behalf, he was finally captured.

Unfortunately, the taxes that Mary’s father had been obliged to raise to fend off the Scottish invasion, led to an uprising in Cornwall, led by Michael An Gof and Thomas Flamank. Whilst Henry VII set out to defeat the rebels, his wife and younger children, including Mary, took refuge in the Tower of London. Mary would have been too young to remember the incident, but it has been speculated to have had a long-lasting effect on her brother, Henry, Duke of York, later Henry VIII.

This alarm over, Mary spent most of her childhood at the palaces of Eltham, Greenwich and Richmond alongside Henry, her elder sister, Margaret, and her younger brother, Edmund, who lived only eighteen months. The oldest sibling, Arthur, Prince of Wales, spent most of his childhood in the Marches of Wales.

Mary is mentioned as being present at Eltham in 1499 when Thomas More, a London lawyer with connections to the royal household, took his friend, the scholar Desiderius Erasmus, to visit the royal children. Prince Henry, aged 8, solemnly greeted the guests. Mary, described as having beautiful golden hair, was playing beside him, whilst Princess Margaret was swathed in the dignity of a ten- year-old, who was soon to be married to the King of Scots.

Little is known of Mary’s education – she obviously learnt to read and write in English, as there are letters extant in her own hand. She learnt French – widely spoken at Henry VII’s court, and noted on one occasion to be his preferred language. She also learnt to play the lute and to dance, although whether she emulated Henry and Margaret in showing their dancing skills to the company at the marriage of their brother, Arthur, to Katharine of Aragon is not recorded. She was certainly present at the various ceremonies and banquets that marked this high point of Henry VII’s reign, despite being less than six years old.  She had been given two splendid new furred gowns for the occasion – one of crimson velvet, worn for the wedding, and another of russet velvet.

Whilst mediaeval kings and queens did not have the intimate day-to-day relationship with their children that modern parents have, that does not mean that there were not bonds of love between them.  Queen Elizabeth took a personal interest in her children, and visited them regularly. There are entries in her accounts for purchases of fabric for Mary (a dress of blue satin) and for sewing her clothes.

Other expenses were paid for by her father, including Mary’s ‘Letter of Pardon’ issued in the Jubilee year of 1501. It cost the king 12 pence to obtain relief from the pains of purgatory for his little daughter. More cheerfully, in 1505, he paid 13s 4d for Mary’s new lute.

In 1502, Princess Margaret was married by proxy to James IV of Scotland. Mary was present at the Mass held before the ceremony, and probably also attended the joust that followed. One of the jousters was a young man, named Charles Brandon, who had been brought up at Henry VII’s expense, after his father, William Brandon, who had acted as Henry’s standard-bearer, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth. Brandon was probably about eighteen at this time.

The happy atmosphere of Mary’s early childhood dissipated around the turn of the century. First, Prince Edmund died, then Prince Arthur, in a tragedy that affected the whole nation, although perhaps not Mary, who can scarcely have known him, then, more terribly for her, her mother, Elizabeth of York, died in childbirth with her infant daughter, Katherine, a month before Mary’s seventh birthday.

Six months after Elizabeth’s death, Mary lost her sister, Margaret, although this was to marriage and a kingdom, rather than mortality. From Mary’s point of view, it was probably the same – her mother and two older siblings gone, her baby brother dead – the only companions left were her brother Henry, who, now Prince of Wales had left the nursery and was learning to be a man and a king, and her sister-in-law, the widowed Katharine of Aragon. But even Katharine’s company was not frequent – sometimes she was housed with the court, but was often in her own lodgings, ekeing out the pittance of an allowance that Henry gave her. Their later relationship suggests that Mary and Katharine became close, despite an age gap of ten years.

Mary did have her grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was indefatigable in every way – managing her estates, promoting education, investing in scholars and colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. For a time, Mary resided with her in Margaret’s London home of Coldharbour, where Margaret no doubt attempted to inculcate in her granddaughter her own virtues of adherence to duty, strict religious observance, and charity – as well as pride in her royal blood.

Like all members of the upper echelons of society, Mary rode and hunted, and she is recorded, along with Katharine, as taking part in a hunting party at Windsor in the summer of 1504.  In the same month, her household expenses cost her father around £100. 

Mary, Queen of France

Mary, Queen of France

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