Mary Tudor was born on 18 March 1496 as the daughter of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York at Sheen Palace, later known as Richmond Palace. She joined her siblings Arthur, Henry, Margaret in the nursery at Eltham. Her elder sister Elizabeth had died that previous September and two younger siblings, Edmund and Katherine would both die in infancy.
Her education began with the studying of languages, French and Latin, and music and dance. She learned to play the lute, the clavichord and the regal. By the age of two, the first offer of marriage was made by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan for his son, the Count of Pavia. Her father refused to consider any marriage offer until Mary was at least seven years old, but he changed his mind just two years later. In 1500, an offer came from Philip, Duke of Burgundy for Prince Henry to marry his daughter Eleanor and for Mary to marry his son, Charles (future Holy Roman Emperor), who was just four months old.
In 1501, Prince Arthur married the Spanish Infanta Catherine of Aragon, and in 1502, Princess Margaret married King James IV of Scotland. Yet, King Henry had not definitively made up his mind about Mary. The Duke of Burgundy made up his mind for him and chose a French bride for his son (this would later also fall through). On 2 April 1502, Mary’s brother Arthur died at Ludlow Castle and on 11 February 1503, her mother died shortly after giving birth to Katherine. The family became smaller once more when Margaret finally left for Scotland on 5 July 1503.
In December 1507, the possible match between Mary and Charles was once again revived as a treaty of perpetual peace was signed. The marriage was set to take place within two months of Charles’s 14th birthday in 1514. In December 1508, an official betrothal took place with Mary declaring in fluent French:
I, Mary…do accept the said Lord Charles to be my husband and spouse, and consent to receive him as my husband and spouse. And to him and to you for him, I promise that henceforth during my natural life, I will have, hold and repute him as my husband and spouse, and hereby I plight my troth to him and to you for him….
Then on 21 April 1509, Mary’s father died, and her brother Henry became King Henry VIII. He married his brother’s widow on 11 June 1509 at Greenwich. Mary watched her brother’s coronation procession from a window of a house in Cheapside. Mary’s education continued as she waited for her own wedding in 1514. A household of over 100 people was arranged to serve her but then on 30 July 1514, Mary was made to renounce her marriage to Charles as Charles’s grandfather Maximilian allied himself with the French. The wedding was off.
Henry did not have the best of relationships with the French, but now he had little choice. Negotiations began for Mary’s marriage to King Louis XII of France, who had lost his wife Anne of Brittany in January 1514. He was 34 years older than Mary and lacked a male heir. Mary had little time to consider her life with this ageing King, and her proxy marriage took place on 13 August 1514. However, she made her brother swear that if and when Louis died, she would be free to choose her next husband. By then, she was most likely already in love with Charles Brandon. She left Dover on 2 October 1514 and headed for France.
Mary married the King of France in person on 9 October, and he did everything he could to impress her. The marriage ritual was completed later that night, and Louis boasted that he “had crossed the river three times that night and would have done more had he chosen.” He suffered an attack of gout not much later and delayed their state entry into Paris for two weeks. Louis dismissed most of Mary’s English ladies, and Mary was dismayed and complained to her brother that she was “left post alone.” She would not be alone for much longer as Charles Brandon arrived for a celebratory tournament to be held in honour of Mary’s coronation. Henry must have been aware of the feelings between Mary and Charles as he made Charles promise not to make any romantic overtures towards her. Charles returned home just before the end of the year.
King Louis was dying, and he wrote his final letter to Henry on 28 December. He praised Mary with the words: “she has hitherto conducted herself and still does every day…in such a manner that I cannot be delighted with her, and love and honour her more and more each day.” She had played her role well.
On 1 January 1515 King Louis XII of France died. Mary quickly announced that she was not pregnant to allow for the quick succession of Francis I. She retired to her rooms for the mourning period of 40 days. She was once again a valuable asset in the marriage market. Henry sent Charles to negotiate Mary’s return to England. Soon rumours began to circulate that he was there to marry the widowed Queen. Whatever the true purpose, Mary convinced Charles to marry her around the end of February. Henry was furious that Charles acted without his permission and both Mary and Charles wrote letters to Henry begging for his forgiveness.
I most humbly and as your sorrowful sister requiring you to have compassion upon us both and to pardon our offences, and that it will please your Grace to write to me and to my Lord of Suffolk some comfortable words, for it be shall be the greatest comfort for us both.
Henry took his time writing back and on 16 April, Charles and Mary were at Calais waiting for permission from Henry to cross the Channel. In England, the other nobles wanted Charles’s blood; men had certainly died for less. The couple finally arrived in Dover on 2 May. Henry would make them pay dearly, but fortunately for them, it would not be with Charles’s life. On 13 May 1515, the couple married again in the Church of the Observant Friars in Greenwich. They were now back in favour at court and took up residence in Suffolk Place.
Mary became stepmother to Charles’s daughters Anne and Mary from his marriage to Anne Browne, who had died in 1511. Mary fell pregnant quite quickly and gave birth to a son named Henry on 11 March 1516. A daughter named Frances was born on 16 July 1517, followed by another daughter named Eleanor in 1519 and a son, named Henry after his elder brother who had died in 1522, in 1523. This Henry too would not live to adulthood.
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, her appearances at court would become more sporadic. The couple continued to have money problems throughout their marriage. Charles had also taken a mistress who gave birth to his illegitimate son in 1521. It was yet another blow.
By 1526, it had become clear that Mary’s brother 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. Mary had grown up with Catherine of Aragon; they had been pregnant at the same time and shared the same losses. Meanwhile, Mary’s husband publically supported the King as he sought to end his marriage to Catherine. There was nothing Mary could do for Catherine.
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. She returned home with her younger daughter Eleanor and took to her bed. She was invited to Anne Boleyn’s coronation but was most likely too ill to travel.
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. When the abbey was dissolved in 1539, she was moved to the nearby St Mary’s Church.1