Medieval Paris,  Paris,  Podcast

PGB 4: Mary Tudor at the Cluny—Plucky Princess Takes On Three Kings!   

Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, defied convention and married the man she wanted! But first she had to marry the King of France. How does she pull this off?! Discover what Tudor secrets the very French Hôtel de Cluny (Musée de Moyan Age) holds in the latest episode of Paris Gone By! 

The Setting

Our story takes place at the Hôtel de Cluny, the former private home of the abbots of Cluny, a powerful and wealthy monastic order based in Burgundy. In fact, a portion of the land south of the hôtel belonged to the Cluny order. The Cluniacs had built a college to help educate and train their novitiates or new members of the order. The land it occupied now makes up the south side of the place de la Sorbonne. If you’ve ever eaten at the Pret a Manger there on the corner, you were eating on that spot!

Circa 1550. The hôtel is on the left, the college on the right. Mystery man is in white. What is he doing?

The building we enjoy now as the le Musée National du Moyen Âge began life in 1485. The museum’s site states that the abbots had an earlier home in Paris, but that there is only a mention that it existed. They don’t state (or know?) if it was on the same spot. The museum further details the difficulty of building at the location, because of the Gallo-Roman thermal baths that are also on the site. I love how this translated over:

“The survival of these imposing ancient buildings and their integration are not a singularity; the economic dimension of the architectural project partly explains this. It would have been very expensive to destroy these ancient buildings to obtain cleared land, to incur colossal labor costs without being able to sell the recovered materials. The project manager therefore accommodated himself to these constraints and turned them with genius to his advantage.”

-Musée National du Moyen Âge

Thanks to the cost of removing it, we still have the incredible Roman remains as well! How many ancient buildings survived into the Middle Ages just to be robbed out for other building sites?

The man responsible for building the hôtel was the Abbot of Cluny Jacques d’Amboise. He was part of the powerful Amboise family, who were well integrated into political life at the time. His own father supposedly fought with Jeanne d’Arc and his grandfather died at Agincourt. Many of his 16(!) siblings had high ranks within the clergy and royal court.

The Hôtel de Cluny would continue its ecclesiastical ties, including as a home of Cardinal Mazarin, until the early 18th century. Then it went through a number of phases, including as the home of printer with links to Marie Antoinette, a naval observatory, and the chapel was even used for dissections for awhile.

Finally, medieval enthusiast and collector Alexandre Du Sommerard moved into part of the hôtel in 1832. When he died nine years later, the building and Du Sommerard’s huge medieval collection were bought by the state. And our museum was born!

The Cluny around 1890-1900. I hope they bring some of the greenery back!

The Key Players

In addition to the awesome Cluny Museum, we have a number of key players in this royal drama:

Mary Tudor

The Princess/Queen/Duchess herself. Not to be confused with her niece, the future Bloody Mary, our Mary has a story that stands out in history. She defied convention and managed to marry for love. Or at least lust and a strong desire to not be wed to a man more than twice her age and shipped off to foreign shores again. Either/or, really.

How She Did It

She pulled it off by using all of her resources at hand:

  • Her physical beauty
  • Her positions as the favorite sister of a king and the widow of another
  • The attraction (however unwanted) and power plays of yet a third king
  • The value of both her dowry and dower (widow’s) lands
  • The relative power of the man she wanted, Charles Brandon: Henry VIII’s BFF who also happened to be a Duke and who had a keen eye for self-advancement
  • Last but not least, the support of Cardinal Wolsey, the second-most powerful man in England

Mary was able to play all of these competing interests against each other and pull off what must have seemed like a miracle at the time. After less than three months in an unwanted marriage to King Louis XII of France, she got what she wanted all along: marriage to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

This was not easy. After the death of her husband Louis, Mary had to convince the new French King Francois I to both leave off his sexual advances and to help her pursue another man instead. While reminding her brother that he had promised to allow her to marry Charles if Louis died. She also had to coerce Charles into breaking his vow to his king and marry her now, not later.

Louis XII and Mary Tudor during their brief marriage

All of this was done during her forced seclusion away from court to see if she was pregnant by Louis. She had to rely largely on cross-Channel letters and go at it without her usual attendants. Mary was incredibly resourceful, as well as lucky to have so many resources at her disposal. Few other royal women would have had such an arsenal at hand.

We may cringe today at the forces governing Mary’s life, including an incredibly repressive patriarchal society and the men that ruled within it. Or maybe things haven’t changed that much at all? 😕 But regardless of the era, we all have to play the hand we’re dealt. And Mary definitely won the game!

Life After France

We don’t know if her marriage to Charles panned out as she expected—with him regularly away, focused on advancement at court—or if she ended up resentful of their time apart. Their marriage, scandalous beginning aside, was similar to most at the time. She ran the estates, bore and cared for the children, and played second fiddle to her husband’s political and social aspirations. This was the expected path.

Personally, I suspect this may have been the life she wanted. She knew what she was giving up. She had already been a queen and does not seem to have wanted to play the game again. If Mary did want more, she probably could have asked her doting brother for whatever she desired. After he had forgotten about that little episode at the Cluny, of course!

What do you think? Is Mary a plucky princess who fought for what she wanted? Or is she a victim of her era? Or perhaps a little of both?

Mary and Charles, circa 1516

The Men

The other players in this drama are nearly all men, of course. Let’s meet the arbiters of Mary’s fate:

The Desired Husband: Charles Brandon

Rising up from the lower nobility, Charles Brandon had basically always been at court. His father had died serving as Henry VII’s standard bearer at the Battle of Bosworth field. That loyalty and sacrifice was never forgotten. About seven years older than Henry VIII, he was both Henry’s BFF and possibly like an older brother figure.

Charles is notable for his nearly super-human ability to never fall completely out of favor with Henry. Even when he crossed the king, like with his marriage to Mary, he was able to finagle his way back into favor. Anyone else would have been severely punished or probably executed for trying Henry’s patience. But not Charles!

Before Mary, he had already been married twice. It’s rather convoluted, but one wife had already died and the other was still alive (but the marriage annulled) at the time of his marriage to Mary. For his fourth and final wife, Charles selected his 14-year old ward, Katherine Willoughby. He was about 49. Katherine was originally intended to be his son’s bride. 😑

Katherine had a much more active role in court life than his previous wives and is an interesting study in her own right (if I only had time to do a Tudor blog, too!). She would go on to outlive Charles and participate in intrigues for decades to come.

Obligatory Historic Images

Looking Confident, circa 1530
It’s a tiny image, but it’s too resplendent to miss!

For Your Viewing Pleasure

Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon in the series The Tudors:

I admit, for all of his myriad faults, I do have a soft spot for Charles. I blame Henry Cavill. 😉

The Unwanted Husband: King Louis XII

Louis XII, the aging king of France. As mentioned in the episode, Mary was Louis’s third and final bride. He had set aside his first wife, Joan of France, who was childless and possibly had physical deformities or ailments, in a nasty annulment. He in turn married Anne, Duchess of Brittany, who was also his predecessor’s widow. They had no surviving sons, but their daughter Claude would marry Francois, Count d’Angeloume and Duke de Valois, the future Francois I. This was Louis’s backup plan to ensure Brittany (which Claude had inherited) would remain under French control, since it seemed likely he would die without a son of his own.

But he wanted one last shot for a direct heir. Enter Mary Tudor. He was 52 to Mary’s 18 at the time of their nuptials. While not a desirable bridegroom for a young woman, his age, rank, and poor health definitely made him more palatable. If she could just close her eyes and think of England for a bit, Mary would walk away with her freedom and a new fortune in gifts from her husband.

Louis XII, about the time of his marriage to Mary. It could be (and maybe was) worse?

To be fair to Louis, if we look at his reign on the whole, he was considered a good and popular king. He made many positive changes to the laws and bureaucracy, earning him the nickname, “Father of the People.” Of our three kings, he definitely has the best legacy (none of them are good spouses!). Though, as a historian and history lover, Henry and Francois are far more fun!

Louis XII’s emblem: a fairly adorable porcupine. An interesting symbolic choice! Proceed with caution?

The Doting But Dangerous Brother: King Henry VIII

Ah, Henry VIII. He of the six wives. His fame precedes him. Because his story is so well known, we won’t rehash it here.

For the purposes of this episode, Henry at this point was 23, happily married to Catherine of Aragon, and seeking to make his mark in the world through alliances and warfare. His older sister Margaret was already on her second husband. So, until he had surviving children of his own, he only had his younger sister Mary to place on the marriage market. It was his duty to ensure a valuable marriage for her—one that would be advantageous for England. And it was her duty to live up to whatever bargain had been struck for her marriage contract.

Both Henry and Mary broke the “rules” with the Brandon deal. She was pushing the bounds by asking for Henry’s promise to marry for happiness next time round. And he was unusually indulgent in agreeing to it or permitting it to stand, regardless of his true motivations. It’s a side of Henry that we rarely see, especially in his later years. He gave up her value in potential future alliances and suffered some embarrassment for his leniency toward the couple. This is the Henry that is lost in the ensuing years of disappointment, bad health, intrigue, and paranoia.

King Henry VIII, circa 1520. He was already over the Cluny Incident.

The Amorous But Helpful New King: Francois I

Francois, Count d’Angeloume, Duke de Valois, Dauphin of France (by marriage), and King of France after the death of Louis XII. Our helpful, if lusty, matchmaker is actually one of my favorite French kings, even if I pick on him a bit here.

He, like Henry VIII, ruled at time of rapid change as Europe moved from the medieval into the early modern. And, also like Henry, he has suffered a mixed reputation based on both his political and personal behavior. Even though they both stumbled at times, in different and sometimes very deadly ways, neither of their countries nor the history of the world would be the same without them!

Because we’ll visit Francois many times in our future adventures, for now here he is in 1515, at about the same time as our events:

Definitely less bling than Henry! But more attractive? If only we could see their calves…

The Power Behind The Throne: Cardinal Wolsey

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who at the time of our story was allied with Charles Brandon, was the couple’s secret weapon in this affair. Wolsey was Henry VIII’s right-hand man. He had risen up from nothing—he was supposedly a butcher’s son—to Henry’s Lord Chancellor. He also moved up the ranks in the clergy. By 1514, he was an Archbishop, and around the time of our events, he became Cardinal.

Wolsey helped act as a liaison between the couple and Henry. He went so far as writing out letters for Mary to transcribe into her own hand, using language and arguments he felt would work in her favor. Clearly, his heavy involvement in the communications worked quite well!

Friend or Foe?

However, despite this aid, Wolsey and Brandon would not always be allies. They were locked in a duel for the King’s affection, that would only end when Wolsey fell from favor during the Anne Boleyn years. The Cardinal was unable to obtain the desired annulment for Henry’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Suffolk, master survivalist, was among those who suggested that Wolsey failed because he wanted to fail. That he favored Catherine, a staunch Catholic, over Anne Boleyn, who was part of the proto-Protestant movement. Wolsey died on the way to his trial (and probable execution), leaving Charles with even more power.

Unicorns Are Real

Lastly, because I really do love that unicorn (and his sardonic lion buddy), here are the surviving Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Are the rumors true? Are we looking at Mary Tudor?

Mon seul désir

The museum released this video about the tapestries and their journey through the restoration works. Even unicorns need a good dusting from time to time!

Further Reading

Mary’s adventures in France are recorded in a variety of places, as well as written about from many angles over the ensuing centuries. In addition to basic histories found in places like Wikipedia (both English and French–always use caution!), Britannica, and several online Tudor histories, I found these sources to be particularly helpful:

“Power, Profit, and Passion: Mary Tudor, Charles Brandon, and the Arranged Marriage in Early Tudor England” by Barbara J. Harris. Feminist Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1, Women, Family, and Work (Spring, 1989), pp. 59-88 (30 pages). Available on JSTOR (free account required).

“Epistolary Negotiations: Mary the French Queen and the Politics of Letter-Writing” by Erin A. Sadlack. The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Fall 2010), pp. 691-711 (21 pages). Available on JSTOR (free account required).

A research website dedicated to the Mary Tudor Saga, “Dame Licorne. In French. The author has also written several books on the topic. It’s a little scattered and dated, but has lots of resources and references to expand your search.

One of the more interesting chronicles of the period is Hall’s Chronicle. The 1548 edition is available on Haith Trust. Hall touches briefly on the affair of Mary and Brandon. Check out text pages 581 and 582.

A shout-out to fellow history blogger, Plume d’Histoire. She wrote a great article on the Louis XII marriage (in French). It’s fun to see it from the French perspective!

And an honorable mention that’s credited in most of the modern sources. The French Queen’s Letters: Mary Tudor Brandon and the Politics of Marriage in Sixteenth-Century Europe, also by Erin A. Sadlock. This is a book that I’m apparently going to be waiting for even longer than Mary’s seclusion to get from interlibrary loan. If I discover anything juicy once I get it, I’ll share it, of course! 😄

Visiting The Museum

Want to see where this all went down? Or ponder what exactly is the meaning of À Mon Seul Desir? The Musée de Cluny is located on the Left Bank, not far from the river off the Boulevard Saint-Michel. The entrance is off rue Du Sommerard.

For those that have been before, they have created an entirely new entrance experience in a new building addition. This also houses improved mobility access to all the floors, updated restrooms, and an updated giftshop. There is also now a café in the museum. I love being able to spend even more time in the Cluny, without having to lurk! Not that I’ve ever done that. *cough*

You can buy tickets on the website or use the Paris Museum Pass for entrance. The museum is closed Mondays. Check the website before you go for any new restrictions or other changes.

The museum is as excited as we are that they are back open!

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Musée de Cluny (@museecluny)

Their Instagram is awesome, btw. Be sure to check it out!  

The End of the Tale

At the end of this romantic(?) adventure, what are your thoughts? Would you choose a settled domestic life with a self-interested Duke? Or would rather take the risk and be queen, even if the king is a lecherous, gouty mess? Of these two choices, I’m going for the duke. Especially if he looks like Henry Cavill!😉 But in reality, perhaps being a member of the wealthy bourgeois merchant class would be a bit better than surviving life at court?

Did you enjoy this crossover between the Valois and Tudors? Do you need more medieval content or do you have a different favorite era? Let me know below!

À bientôt!


Image Credits

Header Image: Created by author, using the couples’ portraits listed below. ©2022 Michelle Keel.
1550 Cluny Map: Excerpt from the 1550 Map of Paris by Truschet and Hoyau, from Basel University Library. Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by Paris16. Public Domain.
Cluny Postcard: Circa 1890-1900 Postcard.  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. LC-DIG-ppmsc-05172.
Louis XII & Mary Tudor. Excerpt from Pageants for the Reception of Queen Mary of France (1514–15) in Paris, 6 November 1514. By Pierre Gringoire. Cotton MS Vespasian B II at the British Library. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by Aethelswyth. Public Domain.
Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon: Portrait of Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon. circa 1516. Collection of the Earl of Yarborough; Brocklesby Park, Lincolnshire. Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by Feuerrabe. Public Domain.
Charles Brandon Portrait. Master of the Brandon Portrait, Charles Brandon, circa 1530. Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by PKM. Public Domain.
Charles Brandon Full Body. From Wikitree Entry for Charles Brandon. Unsourced, undated.
Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon: All from Pinterest. Seated: Pin 11047961575910558 Standing: Pin 708894797577257173
Louis XII: Portrait of Louis XII of France, painting in Windsor Castle. Circa 1514. Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by Guise. Public Domain.
Louis XII Porcupine Emblem: From the Chateau de Blois. Wikimedia Commons, “Chateau de Blois 02.jpg“. Uploaded by user Shadowgate, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Henry VIII. Henry VIII, by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist oil on panel, circa 1520 NPG 4690 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons License.
Francois I.Portrait de François Ier (1494-1547)”, by Jean Clouet, circa 1515. At the Musée Condé. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
Cardinal Wolsey. Portrait of Cardinal Wolsey. circa 1520? Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by Portraitsofkings. Public Domain.
Tapestries: À Mon Seul Desir | Touch | Taste | Smell | Hearing | Sight | All Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, taken by Didier Descouens, 2021. Uploaded by Archaeodontosaurus.

To support PGB with a donation, you can buy me a (virtual) coffee through this magic button:

You can also follow along on Instagram and YouTube.

Simply want more history? Check out all the blog posts or the podcasts. Even your curiosité helps!

Looking for a new book or gift for a Francophile Friend? Browse the Boutique!

For more support ideas, check out the Support Page!

Lastly, if you would like to learn more and stay up-to-date, please sign up for the newsletter!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *