Interview with Dr Erin Sadlack

Dr Erin Sadlack is the author of ‘The French Queen’s Letters: Mary Tudor Brandon and the Politics of Marriage in 16th Century Europe.’

I was lucky enough to have lunch with Erin last May and had a very enjoyable discussion about Mary Tudor, Lady Jane, and tv show ‘The Tudors.’

Many thanks to Erin for answering my questions.

Why did you choose to write about Mary Tudor Queen of France & Duchess of Suffolk?

A little over ten years ago, I read some of Mary’s letters in Mary Ann Everett Wood’s Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain. At the time, I was starting research for my dissertation on medieval and early modern women’s letter-writing and I still remember how incredulous I felt while reading a letter in which Mary effectively blackmails her brother Henry by threatening to enter a convent should he not keep his promise to let her marry where she pleased. I showed the letter to one of my dissertation directors, who suggested that I find the original manuscript to make sure she really did say something that extraordinary. It turned out that she really had. But what I found in reading Mary’s various manuscript letters was that this was not just an isolated instance, but rather, that she had a remarkably keen rhetorical ability and that her letters were a fascinating trove of examples of early modern women’s political maneuvering. So in the end, she became the subject of the second chapter of my dissertation.

However, although I was concentrating on Mary’s letters surrounding the marriage scandal, I kept investigating the rest of her life. When I turned in the first draft of that chapter, my director warned gently that I had to cut a lot of material since it wasn’t really relevant, but suggested that I save it, because she thought that clearly I wanted to write Mary’s biography. It turned out to be an excellent suggestion, because a few years after I finished the dissertation, I received an invitation from Carole Levin to put together a proposal on Mary for the Queenship and Power series she was editing for Palgrave with Charles Beem. I was delighted to have the opportunity to expand on that early work and to think more about what Mary’s life could teach about the complexity of women’s exercise of queenship in the sixteenth century.

What does your book add to the existing works about Mary Tudor?

I focus on Mary through the lens of recent scholarship on letters and spectacle to situate her life and her writing within the context of early modern attitudes about marriage, politics, and queenship.

One thing that frustrates me about a lot of existing work on Mary is that sometimes scholars seem to get caught up in the romantic legends created about her relationship with Brandon (legends crafted as early as the sixteenth century), and that as a result, she gets dismissed as a lovesick, willful, or even hysterical woman.

The problem is that these writers have usually portrayed Mary’s letters (and other letters by the major players involved, especially Charles Brandon) as telling absolute truth. The best example is the letter in which Brandon writes, “I never saw woman so weep,” a line often used to prove Mary’s hysteria. Scholars who study early modern letters, however, have demonstrated how important it is to avoid labeling documents into categories of “history” or “fiction,” and consider instead how letter-writers crafted their works carefully to portray a specific image. So could Mary have burst into tears on seeing Brandon? Of course, but frankly, what interests me more is thinking about the rhetorical value of those tears and why she and Brandon might have chosen to depict her that way in the letter to Henry.

Throughout the book, I give that kind of consideration to all of Mary’s letters and other documentary evidence, ultimately showing that whether acting as princess, queen, or dowager queen, Mary exercised influence in varied and sophisticated ways. I think that studying her life and writing reveals a lot about the complexity of queenship and the methods that women used to engage in sixteenth-century European politics.

Which of Mary’s letters is your favourite and why?

It’s hard to choose. I mentioned before how the blackmail letter written early in 1515 first caught my attention and that remains one of my favorites because I appreciate the way she deftly surrounds the threat with all kinds of gentle persuasion. She opens by telling him how much she loves and trusts him, reminds him of his promises to her, unleashes this huge threat, and then goes back to the language of love and trust. It’s quite a rhetorical sandwich she puts together.

If I can add a few honorable mentions, I think the letters she writes after her second marriage are remarkable for the ways she takes complete credit for the whole thing, trying to exonerate Brandon, who was much more vulnerable to Henry’s wrath. She’s very firm that this was her choice and her right to choose. Then, in the years after the marriage scandal, there’s a wonderful letter she writes to her friend Jane Popincourt, who had remained in France, about Anthoine du Val, who had been part of Mary’s household in France and whom Mary was trying to get a new position. Mary first thanks her friend for the presents Jane had sent to Mary’s children, affirms their lasting friendship, and then asks Jane to badger a French courtier to whom Mary had been writing on du Val’s behalf. It’s a great example of women’s networks of influence. There’s a nice letter to Henry in September, 1516, too, just keeping in touch with him, that closes by sending her love to her sister-in-law Catherine and her niece Mary. It’s a good example of how women used letters to sustain family ties. These are all some of my favorites.

Which of Mary’s letters is most important politically?

It’s hard to weigh degree. However, although I think all of Mary’s letters are valuable for what they reveal about women’s engagement in politics, there are a few that stand out. Her earliest surviving letter, which is preserved in the Morgan Library in New York, was written when Mary was married by proxy to Charles of Castile. It’s written to Margaret of Austria, Charles’s aunt, and shows how Mary employed letters to suggest the strength of the marriage, and by extension, bolster the impression of strong ties between England and the Low Countries.

Another good example is the one written during her marriage to Louis; Mary wrote Henry to ask him to arrange a low ransom for a French prisoner held in England and in it, she mentions her desire to impress the king and other French nobles with her influence on Henry. I think that’s a very important letter for what it reveals about her political acumen and the role that she was expected to play as a kind of ambassador with unique ties to England and France.

Equally, I think the letter that only survives in draft, the one where she composes the first draft and Wolsey corrects it, is a fascinating example of the kind of political negotiation happening through letters. Among many alterations, at the opening, Wolsey changes her address to Henry “in most tender and loving manner” to “in most humble manner” and most of all, changes her promise to give Henry “half” of the gold and jewels Louis gave her to “all.”

You write that ‘Mary was a queen who drew on two sources of authority to increase the power of her position: the conventions of early modern letter writing and the rhetoric of chivalry that imbued the French and English courts.’ (p3)

Was one source of authority more effective than the other? Or did they have to be used together to achieve Mary’s aims?

I don’t think that they needed to be used together, but rather that Mary used both effectively to achieve her aims. Sometimes she used them simultaneously, to be sure, such as when she emphasizes her vulnerability as a young widow in France in her letters to Henry after Louis’s death. If he is a good chivalric king, he will protect his sister. And in fact, there’s a long tradition in chivalric romance of the power of women’s letters, so that it is difficult to separate them.

However, if we consider chivalric rhetoric in terms of spectacle, such as tournaments or ceremonies, versus the letter, I would say that they are very different kinds of power in terms of Mary’s level of control. Mary wrote her letters herself, tailoring her arguments to influence both primary and secondary audiences (because early modern writers expected their letters to be read by many people, not just the person to whom it was ostensibly written, Mary knew that she could influence Henry by praising him for others to see or even tailor her arguments to assuage the fears of Henry’s Privy Council, for example).

When Mary participated in spectacle, she was aware of the visual rhetoric and its effect on the immediate audience. In the ceremonies in which she starred, such as her coronation or wedding, she would have conformed largely to the rituals others created. However, she was cognizant that her performance within the role would influence public opinion of her and so clearly worked hard to create the right impression—town chronicles all along her route to Paris comment favorably on her demeanor, kindness, and generosity—but given the ephemeral quality of such events, she had to rely on the reports of ambassadors or chroniclers for that influence to travel beyond the immediate audience of the spectacle in question.

‘Mary’s choice to return to England and remain close with her brother thus had significant ramifications for the English succession; had her son survived, he almost certainly would have been crowned King after the death of Edward VI.’ (p.136)

Do you think people would have accepted Henry Brandon over Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII?

I think it’s a strong possibility. Henry VIII seems to have seen his nephew as a possible heir. The first Henry Brandon received a christening of royal sumptuousness, and King Henry bestowed the title of Earl of Lincoln on the second Henry Brandon (the first died young) the same day Henry made his illegitimate son Duke of Richmond and gave his daughter Mary her own household, a move calculated to underscore Henry Brandon’s importance to the succession. In addition, all Edward’s various drafts of his “Device for the Succession” favored Mary’s line, particularly its male heirs, and when there were no male children amongst Mary’s descendants at the time of his death, he ignored his sisters in favor of Jane Grey. Had Henry Brandon survived, Edward would surely have named his cousin the next king. The ingrained tradition of male rulers would likely have ensured popular support as well.

A lock of Mary’s hair was part of the Horace Walpole & Strawberry Hill exhibition at the V&A in 2010. Have you seen any items belonging to Mary?

In addition to her letters, most of which I have been able to read in manuscript, I had the chance to see Mary’s own Book of Hours, which is preserved in the library at Queen’s College, Oxford, whose librarians were very kind and gracious about allowing me to examine it as long as I needed. It’s a beautiful volume, typical of its genre in content, and illuminated gorgeously. There are a lot of images of women, especially women reading, and many of them with the red-gold hair for which the Tudors were famous. That’s a coincidence—the volume wasn’t commissioned specifically for Mary—but it’s easy to see how she could have felt a connection to the saints depicted therein, especially with regard to the many different roles these women played.

In addition, the marginalia in the book is fascinating; there’s a note in a sixteenth-century hand that the book belonged to Mary and had been given to the Lady Florence Clifford by Frances, Mary’s daughter, showing how Mary’s ownership of the book gave the volume a certain cachet. Other marginal notes refer to the theft of some of the images; one repentant eighteenth-century thief returned some of the images and the librarian at the time commented that he hoped “And so may conscience prick all those that have wronged the Library.” Such notes give vibrancy to the book’s material history.

You refer to Susan Groag Bell’s theory that the ‘City of Ladies’ tapestry set bought for Mary by Henry VIII could have been passed to Lady Jane Grey. Have you come across any evidence for this? Or do you have an opinion about this?

While mentioning that Henry VIII left a set of City of Ladies tapestries to Edward and to Elizabeth, Groag Bell speculates that one of them might have been purchased for Mary at the time of her wedding to Louis. However, she rejected that argument, thinking that if Mary had been given them, they would have passed to Jane. I think it’s possible that Groag Bell’s initial conjecture might have been correct after all, since Mary had to return most of her household stuff to Henry as part of the financial penalty she paid for marrying Brandon. If they did belong to Mary, that sets up an intriguing connection between Mary and the ideas of Christine de Pizan.

Read more about ‘The French Queen’s Letters’

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