With the 2015 U.S. release of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Americans were re-introduced to the lure of England’s King Henry VIII. Many of us have shared a passion for this era in history for a while, yet others learned of the intrigue and drama of this era for the first time. In Wolf Hall, Mantel paints a literary portrait of a very human Thomas Cromwell, a man who has been viewed by centuries of historians and authors as the henchman of King Henry. Cromwell was a common man who rose to prominence based on his own merits, unlike most of the courtiers at the Henrician Court whose power was a consequence of birth.
Seeing Cromwell from a more humanist point of view made me curious about what history hides from us and what is revealed. I am impressed by blogs which tout Cromwell as being very American in his ambitions. We look at a pivotal piece of the Tudor puzzle, Queen Anne Boleyn, and know so little about her. Today, she is loved by many because of what has survived over the centuries. Her legacy of independence and her fiery nature invoke a camaraderie of spirit in a segment of contemporary females. But what of other members of the court? What do we really know about a few who were favourites of the King? If Cromwell is viewed across the centuries by our standards, how will we view others?
History tells us stories of Sir Francis Bryan, the ‘Vicar of Hell,’ as he was nicknamed by Cromwell, due to Bryan’s machinations in the downfall of Queen Anne Boleyn. Bryan played a role in the rise of Queen Jane Seymour – both of these women were his relatives. Stories of his loyalty to King Henry survive. Maintaining a friendship with this volatile ruler was no small feat in an era when many lost their lives due to his whims. Tales of Bryan’s life as a libertine and seducer of women still prevail.
Yet, this is the man King Henry VIII trusted to tell Katherine of Aragon that she was summoned to divorce court. He was sent to let Lady Jane Seymour know of the conviction of Queen Anne Boleyn and to tell her of the execution. Sir Francis Bryan was the man dispatched to bring Anne of Cleves to court. Would you send a known libertine and womanizer to attend your wives and girlfriends?
We will address this matter on another day.
During research, I found this notation to be amusing. J. le Grand, in his Histoire du Divorce de Henri VIII, 1688, writes of Sir Francis Bryan: “Neveu de Norfolc, et cousin germain d’Anne Boulen. On crût qu’avec cet apuy, il ne manqueroit pas de s’élever, et on le considera pendant quelque tems comme un favory naissant, mais il ne put se soutenir. Il aimoit boire et etoit fort sujet a mentir.”
This translates loosely as: “Nephew of Norfolk, first cousin of Anne Boleyn. One would think that with this background, he could not fail to advance, and for a time, he was considered the emerging favourite, but he could not support his position. He loved drinking and had a talent for mistruth.”
(And, to think Sir Francis favoured the French over the Spanish during his day. Little thanks he received, right?)
What I have found most intriguing about this man is his poetry. During the Tudor Era, he was known as a great poet and translator. Like many English Renaissance courtiers, he immersed himself in literary studies. According to scholars, he may be ‘Brian’ whom Erasmus mentions in his writings. He was a close friend of the poets Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Like them, he wrote poetry and was held in high regard for his literary achievements during his lifetime and into the 1600s. There is little to be found of his work today. What we do know is that Wyatt dedicated a satire to Sir Francis Bryan on the complexities of life of a courtier, and notes Bryan’s literary acumen.
Francis Meres describes Sir Francis Bryan as ‘the most passionate among us to bewail and bemoan the complexities of love.’ ‘Us’ being the great English poets of the day. The Stewart era poet, Michael Drayton, wrote…
whom the Muses kept,
And in his cradle
rockt him while he slept
Drayton also names Bryan as “honouring Surrey ‘in sacred verses most divinely pen’d.’”
The only surviving poem of Sir Francis Bryan is “The proverbes of Salmon do playnly declare.” The proverbes, as the basis for Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Third Satire, has been a fascination for historians and literati during the 20th century and continues today. I’ve found myself ensnared in this search for any of Sir Francis Bryan’s works. How could someone so prolific and renowned during their lifetime disappear from history with only one existing work surviving to the modern day?
Contemporary musician Sir Mick Jagger is quoted as saying, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” Modern historians and authors have labelled Bryan with statements such as “an irresistible charm disguised an incorrigible intriguer.”
By the standards of his time, Sir Francis Bryan was considered the ideal courtier and poet. He remained loyal to King Henry VIII until his untimely demise, at which time it is believed he was poisoned by his wife. By our standards, if Cromwell is to be judged as American due to his ability to seize opportunities, then possibly, Sir Francis Bryan is the first rock star.
February 2, 1550 Sir Francis Bryan, controversial courtier, diplomat and poet died in Clonmel in Ireland.