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Lady Jane Grey
Nine Days Queen
By Alison Plowden
The History PressCopyright © 2011 The estate of Alison Plowden
All rights reserved.
Eighth Henry ruling this land,
He had a sister fair ...
And being come to England's Court,
She oft beheld a knight,
Charles Brandon nam'd, in whose fair eyes,
She chiefly took delight.
Song of an English Knight (The Suffolk Garland)
On a spring day in the year 1533 Henry Grey, marquess of Dorset, and the king's niece Lady Frances Brandon were married in the chapel at Suffolk Place, London, the home of the bride's parents. There is no reason to suppose that any romance was involved. Marriages at this level were, with very rare exceptions, strictly business arrangements, planned with financial and/or dynastic advantage in mind. In this case, however, the existence of a long-standing bond of friendship and shared experience between the Brandons and the Greys makes it likely that the young people concerned – Frances was not quite sixteen, Henry Grey about a year older – would have had more opportunity than many such couples of getting to know one another before the knot was tied.
At first glance it might have seemed a somewhat unequal match for the bride, with her impressive royal connections, but the Greys – their name is said to derive from the castle of Croy in Picardy – were an ancient and well-respected family with royal connections of their own. Recorded as being settled at Rotherfield in Oxfordshire shortly after the Conquest, their first mention in Dugdale's Baronage concerns Henry de Grey who received a grant of land at Thurrock in Essex from King Richard Lionheart in 1194 and, according to Dugdale, it was from the sons of this Henry that the numerous Greys of Wilton and Ruthyn were descended. Edward, eldest son by a second marriage of the third Lord Grey of Ruthyn, married the heiress to the barony of Ferrers of Groby in Leicestershire and it was their son, Sir John Grey of Groby, who, in the middle of the fifteenth century, took to wife Elizabeth, the daughter of Richard Woodville of Grafton near Stony Stratford. This marriage was more or less contemporaneous with the early stages of that long-drawn-out, murderous family quarrel between York and Lancaster, conveniently known as the Wars of the Roses, and John Grey was killed fighting on the Lancastrian side at the second battle of St Albans in 1461. Three years later his widow, a beautiful but designing lady, so captivated the impressionable Yorkist king, Edward IV, that he married her – an unpopular misalliance widely held to have contributed to the eventual downfall of his house.
Elizabeth Woodville, as she is always better known, was notorious for the strength and tenacity of her family feelings, and she worked hard to promote the interests of her sons by her first marriage. Thomas, the elder, was created marquess of Dorset by his stepfather and looked to be all set for a secure and prosperous future. Then, suddenly, in April 1483 Edward IV was dead. By the end of the summer the throne had been seized by his brother Richard of Gloucester and his two young sons – 'the little princes in the Tower' – had disappeared from public view. That autumn there was an unsuccessful counter-coup led by Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham, and supported by, among others, the Woodvilles and the Greys. The attempt to unseat King Richard collapsed and Buckingham was executed, but Thomas Grey and his young son escaped to Brittany where Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, the last surviving male representative of the house of Lancaster, had been living in precarious exile for the past twelve years. Also among the select band of political refugees now gathering across the Channel were the brothers William and Thomas Brandon from East Anglia.
Unlike the Greys, the Brandons could not claim ancient or noble lineage, their immediate forebears having been small merchant traders based around the Norfolk port of Lynn. They were, however, on their way up. Their father, having made a good marriage and been fortunate in his business ventures, had invested in landed property, acquired a knighthood and set himself up as a prominent and 'worshipful' member of local society. The family had always been Yorkists loyal to Edward IV – William and Thomas had both been members of his household – but in 1483 they appear to have gambled on the overthrow of Richard Crookback and were consequently obliged to leave the country in a hurry.
That Christmas Henry Tudor made his celebrated solemn vow 'that so soon as he should be king he would marry Elizabeth, King Edward's daughter', after which his assembled followers did him homage 'as though he had been already created king'. But the New Year was not a happy one for the Lancastrian/Tudor cause. Henry himself only narrowly avoided being handed over by his Breton hosts and was forced to make a dash for the frontier to seek the protection of the king of France – so perhaps it was hardly surprising that some members of his entourage should have begun to have second thoughts. The marquess of Dorset in particular had been receiving some very tempting offers from England, so that 'partly despairing for that cause of Earl Henry's success, partly suborned by King Richard's fair promises, [he] departed privily in the night time from Paris, and with great journeys travelled into Flanders'. This had serious implications for the exiles, as Dorset knew all their secrets, and he was pursued and 'persuaded' to return.
It was presumably this display of untrustworthiness that led to the marquess being left behind as one of the sureties for loans received from the French government when Henry Tudor finally set out to make his historic bid for the English throne. But the two Brandons were members of the little expeditionary force which sailed from Harfleur on 1 August 1485 and William Brandon, acting as Henry's standard-bearer, was to die a hero's death at Bosworth, struck down in the thick of the battle by King Richard himself.
Dorset was called home and became one of the new king Henry VII's councillors but suffered a brief eclipse at the time of the first Yorkist rising in 1487 when the king, remembering that worrying episode in France, ordered him to be placed in preventive detention in the Tower, although the order was accompanied by a fair message 'that he should bear that disgrace with patience, for that the king meant not his hurt' – his lordship was, after all, the new queen's half-brother. He was released after a few months with, it seems, no hard feelings on either side and two years later was given a command in Henry's only foreign war. Thomas Brandon, meanwhile, continued to serve the king as a councillor and increasingly on diplomatic missions abroad, but it was William's son – born, according to one authority, during his father's exile and christened Charles in honour of the king of France – who would be responsible for the family's rise to semi-royal grandeur.
Sponsored by his uncle, young Charles had begun his career at court in unspectacular fashion as a humble esquire of the body, and it was not until the accession of the second Henry Tudor in April 1509 that his fortunes took their dramatic upward turn. The new king of England was still a teenager and the nation, in particular the property-owning classes who had been finding the old king's regime increasingly oppressive and expensive, went wild with delight over their 'natural, young, lusty and courageous prince and sovereign lord King Harry the eighth'. The intelligentsia, too, were in transports over the appearance of this 'new and auspicious star', this charismatic Christian prince who spoke so earnestly about his love of learning, his respect for justice and virtue; while foreign observers almost ran out of adjectives in their efforts to describe his liberality, his magnificence, his amazing good looks, physical presence and personal charm.
Thanks to old Henry's statesmanship and prudent housekeeping, young Henry had succeeded unopposed to a secure and solvent throne – an advantage not enjoyed by an English monarch for very nearly a century – and throughout that first carefree summer the court was given over to a season of 'continual festival'. Revels, tilts and tournaments, pageants, banquets and 'disguises' followed one another in a non-stop, glittering, extravagant stream and conspicuous among the crowd of light-hearted, boisterous young men eager to help the king enjoy himself was Charles Brandon. It is probable that they were already friends, drawn together by a shared interest in sport, for Charles, like Henry, was a fine all-round athlete, tireless in the hunting field and a skilful and courageous performer in the jousts – that elaborate medieval war game so beloved by the English nobility. A cheerful, good-natured extrovert, without very much in the way of intellectual equipment, he made a perfect foil for his resplendent sovereign lord to whom he offered an uncritical, dog-like devotion. Henry found him excellent company and before long Charles was recognised as a leading member of the charmed circle of royal intimates.
The perquisites of this favoured position were well worth having, and Charles Brandon quickly became Marshal of the Household, Master of the Horse, Keeper of the important royal estate of Wanstead in Essex and Ranger of the New Forest. He was knighted, showered with stewardships, receiverships, wardships and valuable licences to export wool, leather, lead and tin – and it was pretty clear that this was only the beginning.
By the winter of 1512 the king was busy preparing for his first military adventure overseas. England had recently joined an offensive league of European powers aimed at containing French expansion in northern Italy and Henry was impatient to prove his manhood on the field of battle where, naturally, his best friend would fill a major supporting role. Everyone expected the king to confer a title on Brandon before they crossed the Channel, but as it happened his first step in rank came, ironically enough, via the Grey family in the person of his eight-year-old ward and affianced wife Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of the late John Grey, Viscount Lisle, and great-granddaughter of Edward Grey, Baron Ferrers of Groby.
By now in his late twenties, Charles Brandon already had quite a colourful matrimonial career behind him. Back in 1505 or thereabouts he had become engaged to Anne Browne, daughter of the Governor of Calais. The couple were betrothed per verba de praesenti, thus entering into a contract regarded as binding in canon law even if no church ceremony followed the exchange of vows. But it was not uncommon for an unprincipled man to repudiate his fiancée if someone better turned up, even if cohabitation had taken place, and this is what seems to have happened here. Certainly Charles and Anne had slept together without benefit of clergy, for she bore him a daughter some time in 1506. The faithless Charles, meanwhile, had married Margaret Mortimer, a wealthy widow approximately twice his age, prompting a Venetian observer of the English social scene to comment caustically on the mercenary habits of young men who were willing to marry for money ladies old enough to be their mothers. This union, though, was short-lived, being annulled, possibly as a result of action by the Browne family, on the grounds of the groom's pre-contract and cohabitation with his previous partner. Charles and Anne then went through a public marriage ceremony and another daughter was born in the summer of 1510. Anne Browne died shortly afterwards and in December 1512 her widower acquired the wardship of Elizabeth Grey.
Under English law the wardship of any minor child who inherited landed property passed automatically to the Crown, which normally gave (or, more usually, sold) it back to the relatives of the child concerned or some other favoured applicant. The guardian was then free to enjoy the income from the property until the minor came of age – by which time he would either have sold his ward's marriage to the highest bidder or else have arranged a marriage ensuring that control of the inheritance remained within his own family circle, so no one was surprised when, in the spring of 1513, Charles Brandon announced his engagement to Elizabeth Grey. On 15 May Letters Patent were issued creating him Viscount Lisle in right of his 'wife' and a few weeks later the new Lord Lisle accompanied the king to France as 'marshal of the host and captain of the fore-ward' with three thousand men under his command.
The rest of the summer was spent playing soldiers in Picardy, where both Henry and Viscount Lisle duly established their reputations as fighting men and the king astonished everyone by his courage and endurance in the face of the enemy. It is true that the enemy proved disappointingly elusive and it was bad luck that Henry should have missed the best bit of action – a scrambling cavalry skirmish near Guinegate, later dignified with the title of the Battle of the Spurs. But on the whole it was a very nice little war and Henry, firing a cannon with his own hands, dubbing knights on the field of battle and riding round the camp at night in full armour, enjoyed himself so much that he quite failed to notice that the two frontier towns of Therouanne and Tournai, captured by the English army, were of value only to his ally, the Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian.
Autumn found both the friends at Lille in southern Flanders as guests at the court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, and, encouraged by the king, Lord Lisle embarked on a playful flirtation with his hostess. Unfortunately, what had begun as a bit of a joke became the subject of gossip and rumours of an impending marriage had to be hurriedly denied by embarrassed diplomats. Lord Lisle might be an important figure at the English court – he and the king's almoner, a rising cleric named Thomas Wolsey, were said to govern everything between them – but by no stretch of the imagination could he be regarded as husband material for a Hapsburg princess accustomed to being wooed by reigning monarchs.
All the same Charles Brandon was about to take a giant step up the social ladder when, on 1 February, he was created duke of Suffolk, a title previously held by the great Yorkist family of de la Pole. This sudden and startling elevation of the king's favourite – there were currently only two other dukes in England – raised eyebrows and hackles in establishment circles. 'Many people considered it very surprising that Charles should be so honoured' observed the contemporary historian Polydore Vergil. There were, of course, some quite sound political reasons for the move. Apart from sending an unmistakable message to Richard de la Pole, the last significant Yorkist claimant still at large on the Continent, the new duke, allied with Wolsey, would help to counter the influence of the powerful Howard family and their faction at the council table. But there seems no reason to doubt that Henry was also motivated by a genuine affection for his 'dearest Brandon' and a desire to reward and encourage him.
If 1514 marked a decisive stage in the saga of the Brandon family, it was also notable for an abrupt change of direction in English foreign policy. The king had fallen out with his European allies, having belatedly realised the extent to which they had been making use of him for their own ends, and that summer he concluded an alliance with France to be sealed by the marriage of his sister Mary to the French king, Louis XII.
Nineteen-year-old Mary Tudor, the youngest surviving child of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, was the beauty of the English royal family – with her elegant figure, perfect complexion and wonderful red-gold hair, she was generally conceded to have been one of the loveliest women of her day. High-spirited, wilful and more than a little spoilt, in the five years since her father's death she had been enjoying a most unusual amount of fun and freedom for an unmarried princess; but the king was fond of his sister, who shared his exuberant delight in dancing, party-going, dressing up and showing off, and he liked having her around and encouraged her to play a full part in the hectic social life of the court. The dangers inherent in this sort of permissiveness were obvious enough – it was not for nothing that royal brides were normally shipped off to their husbands the moment they became nubile. Mary was a warm-blooded young woman surrounded by the pick of the eligible men in the kingdom, and inevitably she had formed an attachment of her own, the object of her affections being no less a person than the controversial new duke of Suffolk. She would, of course, have known him from a distance since childhood, but by 1514 what may perhaps have begun as a little girl's hero-worship for one of her brother's lordly friends had ripened into something altogether more mature.
Excerpted from Lady Jane Grey by Alison Plowden. Copyright © 2011 The estate of Alison Plowden. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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