Located in the beautiful Gothic church of St Mary’s at Bury St Edmunds, is the tomb of a princess of England and a brief queen of France, the third wife of Louis XII. The wife, daughter and sister of kings, she does not rest in the same royal burial place as her brother, King Henry VIII, who is buried at St George’s Chapel, Windsor – as is her husband, the Duke of Suffolk. Had she remained in France, she might ultimately have been buried at St Denis, that royal vault so horribly ransacked during the Revolution, her tomb lost. Instead, Mary Tudor rests in a Suffolk parish church.
Royal tomb in rural settings, far from the time-honoured trappings of pageantry and ceremonial, are unusual. We might perhaps parallel it with the picturesque (Victorian) tomb of Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, Queen Catherine Parr, in the lovely chapel of St Mary’s at Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire. 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 the Duchess of Suffolk, Mary was an English princess by birth. Princess Mary was born in the old palace of Sheen – on whose site was later built Richmond Palace, one of the most important palaces of the new dynasty. 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, dismantled in the 1760s and of which only part of the earlier household offices remain.
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 choose the husband of her choice if he died. Mary may have been in love with Charles Brandon at the time of the French marriage. King Louis XII died and was succeeded by his cousin, 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, beautiful widowed French Queen back to England in 1515. Although Henry seems to have elicited the assurance from Brandon that he would not ask Mary to marry him, the couple had married secretly without the King’s agreement – an extraordinarily risky measure which eventually led to the couple being fined a heavy sum (£24,000). They were later pardoned, the charge of treason of marrying a princess of the blood royal without the King’s consent not pursued against Brandon. Perhaps Brandon was counting on the King’s old fondness for him and the fact that Mary was his favourite sister. A double wedding portrait was painted of the initially disgraced couple, today in the possession of the Marquess of Tavistock. The Suffolk marriage produced four children. Through her offspring, Mary, Duchess of Suffolk became most notably, the maternal grandmother of the historically ill-fated Lady Jane Grey.
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 in 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 maintained by English Heritage.
The only other royal burial at the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds had been that of Thomas of Brotherton, Earl of Norfolk, 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. There are possible 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 their long and beautiful red-gold hair, behind the image of their mother, Queen Elizabeth Woodville. Mary, Duchess of Suffolk certainly had lovely hair from the samples that have survived; it was nearly “two feet long.” A lock of Mary’s hair is today kept in the Moyse’s Hall Museum at Bury St Edmunds.
Two memorial plaques exist in the Suffolk church that fittingly illustrate Mary’s lineage as the daughter of one king and wife of another, 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.”
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, like so many, was so dedicated to honouring the Virgin Mary and not Mary Tudor, Princess of England and one-time Queen of France.
Other Tudors have unusual last places of rest, which a closer look at their lives explain. The tomb of Arthur, Prince of Wales, Mary’s brother and the eldest son of Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York, is in the chantry at Worcester Cathedral. Of Mary’s other siblings, Margaret Tudor, her eldest sister and Queen of Scotland until 1513 as the queen of James IV, was buried at the Carthusian Charterhouse at Perth in 1541, although no traces remain of the Charterhouse today, as the building was destroyed in the late 1550s. Henry VIII is, of course, at Windsor.
So, the tomb of Mary Tudor, Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk remains a somewhat unique royal monument.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019