On 16 July 1517, Lady Frances Brandon was born at Hatfield between two and three in the morning as the daughter of Mary Tudor, Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk, and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. She was born on St. Francis’s Day and her name commemorated the Saint.
She had a sumptuous christening, though not quite as grand as her elder brother Henry – who had been born the year before. There was plenty of cloth of gold, tapestries of the histories of Holofernes and Hercules, a crimson canopy with red and white roses, the sun and French fleurs-de-lis, along with her mother’s arms in four places.1 Her godfather was the Abbot of St. Albans, her godmothers were Catherine of Aragon and Princess Mary, but they sent deputies rather than attend in person. Nevertheless, she was a descendant of royalty and close to the throne. Mary bore a second daughter named Eleanor around 1519, followed by a second son also named Henry – as the first Henry had passed away in 1522 – but this second Henry would die young as well.
Frances became a close childhood friend of her cousin – born in 1516 – the future Queen Mary I. In their teens they would spend quite a bit of time together.
The health of Frances’s mother Mary was not good. Around 1519, Mary began to suffer from the first bouts of ill health, but she was well enough to attend to Field of Cloth of Gold. After this, Mary’s appearances at court would become more sporadic, and Frances’s parents continued to have money problems throughout their marriage. By 1526, it had become clear that Mary’s brother King Henry was infatuated with Anne Boleyn. On 23 May 1527, Mary attended her last official engagement at court and watched her brother dance with Anne Boleyn. She withdrew from court, disgusted with her brother’s behaviour.
By the time of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, Mary had been unwell for several months. Mary just about managed to travel to London for her daughter’s wedding to Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset, and it would be the last time she would see her brother. Frances’ wedding took place sometime in the spring of 1533 – with the contracts being signed on 23 March 1533. Frances was just 15 years old, and her new husband was 16 years old. Mary died on 25 June 1533, and she was still only 38 years old. The true cause of her illness was never diagnosed. She was buried on 20 July in the abbey at Bury St Edmunds with her daughter Frances acting as chief mourner. In early 1536, Frances acted as the chief mourner once more at the funeral of her aunt Catherine of Aragon.
In the early years of her marriage, Frances lost at least one child – a son – in infancy. Only his name was recorded, Henry, Lord Harington.2 Sometime before the end of May 1537, Frances gave birth to her first surviving child, a daughter named Jane for Queen Jane. She was probably born at Dorset House. Her exact date of birth was not recorded. Queen Jane was also asked to be her namesake’s godmother. Two weeks after her daughter’s birth, Frances was allowed out of bed, and she was allowed to see female relatives such as her younger sister Eleanor and her stepmother Catherine – her father had wasted no time in remarrying to his 14-year-old ward Catherine Willoughby. In October 1537, Frances was among those who mourned Queen Jane after she died shortly after giving birth to the future King Edward VI.
The family settled at Bradgate Park, and two more daughters were born to Frances and Henry – Katherine and Mary. Frances was not known to be a sentimental mother, and she put her husband’s interests before those of her daughters. The girls were very well educated and were carefully watched and instructed. They were not spoiled, and they were taught to stand straight and show respect to their elders.3 The girls received lessons in dance and music and were encouraged in their academic studies.
In 1545, Frances’s father, the Duke of Suffolk died. He had two young sons with his second wife Catherine and Frances’s half-brother Henry succeeded as the 2nd Duke. By 1546, Frances was serving as a Lady of the Privy Chamber to King Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr. She sometimes brought her eldest daughter Jane with her to court to prepare her for a role as a Maid of Honour. On 28 January 1547, King Henry VIII passed away at the age of 55, and he was succeeded by his young son King Edward VI. Soon, the future of Frances and her young daughters would be dominated by King Henry’s will. The will left the throne to Edward first, followed by his illegitimate half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth. It also excluded the entire line of Margaret Tudor, Henry’s elder sister who had married the King of Scots. Then came the descendants of Mary Tudor – Frances (though not mentioned by name as perhaps Henry assumed she would have a son by the time the other lines became extinct) and her heirs and then Eleanor and her heirs. Notably, all of these heirs were female.
In February 1547, Jane’s wardship was sold to Thomas Seymour, the King’s uncle, for £2,000 and she went to live at Sudeley Castle with him and his new wife, King Henry’s widow Catherine Parr, until Catherine died in childbirth in September 1548. Frances had tried to keep Jane at home for as long as possible, but it was no use. Nevertheless, Jane was happy at Sudeley Castle. After Catherine’s death, Jane returned home to Bradgate. Meanwhile, Frances had also lost her sister Eleanor in September 1547. She had left one surviving child – a daughter named Lady Margaret Clifford.
With her three daughters now reunited once more, Frances went to visit her childhood friend Princess Mary at Beaulieu. The two women had remained in contact despite their religious differences. Though no further visits were recorded, they probably continued to visit each other. In July 1551, Frances’s two half-brothers died within hours of each other, leaving the title of Duke of Suffolk extinct. In October 1551, Frances’s husband Henry was created Duke of Suffolk and Frances became his Duchess. In November, Frances was invited to court for the reception of Mary of Guise, dowager Queen of Scots and Frances had a place of honour by the Queen’s side. Her daughter Jane was also there – it is the first recorded occasion of Jane being present at a public reception. Frances and Henry spent Christmas of 1551 with Princess Mary.4
- The French Queen’s Letters by Erin A. Sadlack p.135
- The sisters who would be Queen: the tragedy of Mary, Katherine, & Lady Jane Grey by Leanda De Lisle p.7
- The sisters who would be Queen: the tragedy of Mary, Katherine, & Lady Jane Grey by Leanda De Lisle p.15
- Mary Tudor: the first queen by Linda Porter p.182