Mary, Queen of France: Life Story

Chapter 9 : La Reine Blanche

Mary, dressed entirely in white, as was customary for French queens in mourning (hence the epithet ‘the White Queen’ or ‘Reine Blanche’), withdrew to the Hôtel de Cluny [1], where etiquette demanded she spend forty days to establish whether she might be carrying a posthumous son to oust François from the throne.

What should have been a time of quietude and mourning for the young widow, quickly seemed fraught with danger. François, desperate to establish his kingship, bullied her, and made advances towards her that Mary informed Henry were ‘not to her honour’. He also suggested a speedy remarriage to a French nobleman: Charles, Duke of Savoy, being his preferred candidate.

Another marriage in France would have enabled François (assuming he was King, which he immediately supposed, being crowned on 28th January) to keep Mary’s valuable household goods and her dowry in France, as well as her dower as Louis’ widow.  It would also prevent Henry arranging another marriage for her that might be to an enemy of France.

Wolsey, hearing of the imminent demise of Louis, had already written to Mary, urging her to resist any attempts of François to inveigle her into another match, and further urging her to trust only in Henry and himself, should she be widowed.  She replied, irritated, that neither Wolsey nor Henry should think her so foolish as to entertain any schemes of matrimony. She added, ‘I trust I have so ordered myself since I came hither that it hath been to the honour of the king, my brother, and me and so I trust to continue’.

Curiously, whilst at Cluny, Mary was visited by two English friars, who informed her that a marriage for her with the still-unmarried Archduke Charles was once again on the cards, and that the Duke of Suffolk was suspected of witchcraft. There is no information about who sent these friars – it must have been by someone who knew of Mary’s affection for Suffolk. Mary apparently gave them short shrift, but was disturbed by the suggestion that another political match was planned for her, despite the promise Henry had given her, that she might choose a second husband herself.

Henry decided to send Suffolk to France to fetch Mary. It is apparent that he already knew of an attachment between them – or at least that Mary was in love with Suffolk, so quite why he was prepared to risk them marrying is unclear. Suffolk was not his only choice -  he could have sent either of the dukes of Buckingham or Norfolk, who outranked Suffolk, or his and Mary’s cousin, Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset.

Perhaps he did not believe that Mary had anything more than a schoolgirl infatuation with Suffolk, and that she would not marry a man of inferior rank, although, as she had already been Queen of France, there was no-one in Europe, other Archduke Charles, whose rank would not be lower.  Perhaps Henry did not think that Suffolk, who was at least thirty, could have any real interest in a woman of eighteen.

Alternatively, Harris suggests in Power, Profit, and Passion: Mary Tudor, Charles Brandon, and the Arranged Marriage in Early Tudor England that Henry had given consent to the marriage, provided that it did not take place until the couple had returned to England – either because he meant to keep his word to Mary, or because he thought that such an agreement would encourage Suffolk to obtain Mary’s person and goods from France to as great advantage as possible.

Whatever Henry’s reasoning, to make sure that no hasty marriage could ensue, Suffolk was obliged to swear that he would not make Mary an offer of marriage (not that he would not marry her, which is, perhaps, significant).

Either King François got wind of Mary’s attachment to Suffolk, or Mary told him of it, to prevent him pursuing the idea of match with the Duke of Savoy. He soon saw that a marriage with Suffolk would neutralise the English princess’ chance of making another advantageous diplomatic marriage and encouraged it. He promised he would help her to achieve her marriage of choice. On Suffolk’s arrival at the French court, François brushed aside his denials, and offered to write to Henry on Suffolk and Mary’s behalf to ‘advance this matter betwixt her and you’.

Whether Suffolk set out to marry Mary is unclear – the driving force behind the match seems to have been all hers, and the risks to him of marrying her without Henry’s consent, were huge.  That is not to say he was not delighted at the thought of marrying the king’s sister, who was also a beautiful young woman, but, in a passion of tears (he wrote to Henry that he had ‘never seen woman weep so’) she told him he must marry her within four days, or she would refuse to return to England at all, and would enter a convent.

The two were married in secret, in the presence of ten witnesses, some time in February 1515. To prevent any attempts to have the match annulled they had, as Suffolk wrote to Wolsey in early March, ‘lain together, in so much I fear me lest she be with child’.  Now, they had to persuade Henry to forgive them. 

[1]  Now the Musée de Cluny