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The King’s Sister: The Grave of the other Mary Tudor

In the Gothic church of St Mary’s at Bury St Edmunds, is the tomb of a princess of England and a queen of France. Briefly the third wife of Louis XII of France, Mary Tudor was the daughter of the England’s first king of the House of Tudor, Henry VII and his consort, Elizabeth of York. Unlike her brother, King Henry VIII, who is buried at St George’s Chapel, Windsor and her parents, who occupy the magnificent Renaissance tomb by the Florentine sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano at Westminster Abbey, Mary is – by contrast – resting in an English parish church, not even a cathedral, such as that at Peterborough, which is where Henry VIII’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon is buried. There is a stranger feel about a royal tomb in a more rural setting, far from the time-honoured trappings of pageantry and ceremonial which you associate with traditional royal burials.

Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk, from the double wedding portrait, (By Attributed to Jan van Mabuse (Jan Gossaert) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps there is a parallel with the tomb of Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, Queen Catherine Parr, whose tomb is in the chapel of St Mary’s at Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire; or possibly of the tomb of Henry VIII’s beloved illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond in the Church of St Michael the Archangel at Framlingham, Suffolk. There is, however, a distant difference here. Although Mary, by her second and highly controversial marriage to Henry VIII’s close friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, became herself the Duchess of Suffolk, Mary was in fact, a royal princess of England, and while not the mother of a king, she was certainly the daughter of one.

Mary’s mother, Elizabeth of York, was famously the daughter of a King – Edward IV – the sister of a King – Edward V – the niece of a King – Richard III – and the mother of a King – Henry VIII. Mary was born in the old palace of Sheen – a site which was later rebuilt and renamed and became, the grand Tudor residence of Richmond Palace – in circa 1495. One of the most important palaces of the new dynasty, it was the setting for many significant historical events, such as the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. Though unmistakably a former Queen of France, Mary’s tomb is in Bury St Edmunds because she was the Duchess of Suffolk and because of the Suffolk residence of Westhorpe Hall (which was dismantled in the 1760s and of which only part of the earlier Hall’s household offices remain, Grade II* listed.)

Mary seems to have extracted a promise from Henry VIII to marry the aged and ailing King Louis XII of France, on condition that she could – in the case of his death – choose the husband of her choice. It is thought that Mary was in love with Charles Brandon at the time of the French marriage. King Louis XII did in the event, die – and was succeeded by his cousin, (and son-in-law) the young Duke of Angouleme, who as Francois I, became the first French king of the House of Valois.

It was Brandon who escorted the young widowed Queen back to England in 1515 – although Henry had elicited the assurance from Brandon that he would not ask Mary to marry him – by which time the couple had married secretly and without the agreement of Henry VIII – an extraordinarily risky measure; this eventually led to the couple being fined a heavy sum (£24,000), but at least they were pardoned, and the charge of treason of marrying a princess of the blood royal without the King’s consent was not pressed against Brandon. Perhaps Brandon was counting on the King’s fondness for him and his favourite sister. A double wedding portrait was painted of the initially disgraced couple, today in the possession of the Marquess of Tavistock; however, other copies were made. The Suffolk marriage produced four children – through her offspring, Mary, Duchess of Suffolk also became most notably, the maternal grandmother of the historically ill-fated Lady Jane Grey.


The ruins of the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds (Tanya Dedyukhina [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Mary, Duchess of Suffolk, died at the manor of Westhorpe, Suffolk on 25 June 1533, less than three months before Anne Boleyn – Queen of England since her coronation on 1 June – gave birth to the future Elizabeth I on 7 September 1533. Mary was buried at the magnificent Benedictine Abbey at Bury St Edmunds, where she remained until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, after which Mary’s body was moved to St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds and the Abbey gave over to ruins – today owned by English Heritage.

The only other royal burial at the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds had been that of Thomas of Brotherton, Earl of Norfolk, who was the fifth son of King Edward I and his second queen, Margaret of France. Mary’s body was re-interred at St Mary’s Church in the sanctuary. Her remains were disturbed on 6 September 1784, whereby locks of her hair were taken. Horace Walpole apparently had a lock of Mary’s hair in his famous Strawberry Hill collection, since dispersed.

Two memorial plaques exist in the church, one with Mary’s coat of arms and the words “Mary Tudor 1495-1533 Queen of France.” The other is more of a tablet, “sacred to the memory of Mary Tudor.” Beneath these two plaques, a marble demarcation surrounds her actual tombstone, which reads again, “Mary Tudor Queen of France.”

The tomb of Mary Tudor, Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk at St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds (By Jim Linwood from London [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

There are echoes here of the famous Royal Window at Canterbury Cathedral, which depicts the family of Mary’s maternal grandparents, Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville – the five daughters of Edward IV having all been depicted with long red-gold hair, behind the image of their mother, Queen Elizabeth Woodville. Mary, Duchess of Suffolk certainly had beautiful hair from the samples that have survived; it was nearly “two feet long.” A lock of it is kept in the Moyse’s Hall Museum at Bury St Edmunds (Alison Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court, pp. 527).

It has been even suggested that this hair could provide valuable DNA information, which might help to resolve one of English history’s greatest mysteries, that of the so-called ‘Princes in the Tower’, Edward V and his brother, Richard, Duke of York – but it would first be necessary to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the hair was indeed that of Mary, Duchess of Suffolk and in any case, the remains of the ‘Princes’ at Westminster Abbey are for now at least, not available for renewed scientific analysis.

St Mary’s Church at Bury St Edmunds may have acquired the popular legend that it is so named after Mary, Duchess of Suffolk although this belief is erroneous – the church, in fact, was so dedicated to honouring the Virgin Mary and not Mary Tudor.

St Mary’s Church, Bury St. Edmunds (By Martin Pettitt [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The tomb of Arthur, Prince of Wales, Mary’s brother and the eldest son of Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York, who died in 1502, is at Worcester Cathedral, in its chantry. Of Mary’s other siblings, Margaret Tudor was the eldest surviving daughter; Queen of Scotland until 1513 as the consort of King James IV, she ruled Scotland as Regent for her son, the future James V. Margaret Tudor was buried at the Carthusian Charterhouse at Perth in 1541 – although no traces remain of the Charterhouse today, the building having been destroyed in the late 1550s. So, the tomb of Mary Tudor, Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk was – and is – a somewhat unique royal monument.

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