Sir Francis Bryan (or Bryant), an English poet and warrior, was born of a genteel family, educated at Oxford, and afterwards spent some time in travelling abroad.
Thus begins the entry for Sir Francis Bryan, a lifelong friend and companion to King Henry VIII, in General Biographical Dictionary, by Alexander Chalmers, 1812–1817.
Why is there a cloak of mystery around one of the most visual companions to King Henry VIII?
“No portrait survives so we know nothing of his appearance. Bryan was a typical Renaissance courtier, a poet and man of letters who was also to distinguish himself as a soldier, sailor and diplomat. His irresistible charm disguised an incorrigible intriguer who was two-faced, manipulative and promiscuous; once, on a trip to Calais, he demanded “a soft bed then a hard harlot”. He was full of pent-up energy; highly articulate and viciously witty. Observers were astonished at the familiarity he used towards the King, both in speaking his mind and telling jokes. Bryan was no creature of principle; by altering his loyalties and opinions to conform to the King’s changes of policy, he managed to remain in favour throughout the reign”
We have an equal supply of myths and documented information.
He was the son of Sir Thomas Bryan and Margaret Bourchier. Through his mother, he was a descendant of King Edward III, therefore giving him a royal Plantagenet pedigree.
We know he lost an eye in a joust. From that day he wore an eye patch. Did you know it is rumored that Alexander Dumas based the villain in The Three Musketeers on Sir Francis Bryan?
Sir Francis was a legendary carouser; known as one of the King’s minions. His behavior led Cardinal Wolsey to banish him from the Privy chamber. King Henry and Queen Anne saw to it that he was received back by 1528.
Oxford Historian, Susan Bridgen, writes of how he bedded a courtesan at the papal court to gain intelligence for King Henry VIII during the Great Matter of his divorce from Queen Katherine of Aragon.
His nickname, “the Vicar of Hell”, was given to him by Thomas Cromwell, due to the vindictiveness he displayed during the downfall of his own relative, Queen Anne Boleyn.
Sir Francis was a relative of both Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Jane Seymour. As commanded by King Henry, he delivered a message to Jane Seymour when Queen Anne was sentenced, and he told Jane once the execution was completed.
A celebrated poet during his lifetime, the only documented copy which has survived until today is “The proverbes of Salmon do playnly declare” found in “The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature: 1485-1603”.
He was questioned but not arrested during the Boleyn investigations.
It is rumored that the last words of King Henry VIII were, “Bryan all is lost.” This is based on family stories and I cannot find it documented.
At the time of his death, he was Lord Chief Justice of Ireland due to his marriage to Lady Joan Fitzgerald, widow of James Butler, the 9th Earl of Ormond. Their son, Francis Bryan II, served Queen Elizabeth I.
This is where the American legacy enters the picture. According to various family histories and the Register of Kentucky State Historical Society (4), the grandson of Sir Francis Bryan, William Smith Bryan, attempted to gain the throne of Ireland. Due to this, Oliver Cromwell deported him in 1650 as a troublesome subject. “He landed at Gloucester Beach, Virginia, and his twenty-one sons and grandsons settled Gloucester County.” An article in “The Thoroughbred Record” credits him with being among the first to bring thoroughbred horses to America.
It gets really interesting when the son of William Smith Bryan returned to Ireland in an attempt to regain the family estates. Long story short, it didn’t work. His two sons, William and Morgan, returned to Virginia.
This is where we will leave the details of this family story for another day. It should be noted that the daughter of Morgan Bryan, Rebecca, married an American frontiersman. That frontiersman is none other than the legendary, Daniel Boone.
So, we see how information may be lacking for the works and details of the life of Sir Francis Bryan. Would we be safe to assert that he had an eye for opportunity? (Pun intended.) He was known for his ability to survive, at a time when others could not be as adaptable. Now we see how his legacy lived on in the New World and played a part in shaping the character of a new country.
Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia, 1598.
Henry VIII: The King and His Court, Ballantine Books, 2001.
J. le Grand, Histoire du Divorce de Henri VIII, 1688.
Michael Drayton, Heroicall Epistle of the Earl of Surrey to the Lady Geraldine, 1629.
Sidney L. Lee. “Sir Francis Bryan”. Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. VII. Leslie Stephen, ed. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1886. 150-52.
The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature: 1485-1603.
1812 Chalmers’ Biography / B / Sir Francis Bryan (?–1550) [vol. 7, p. 203]
Alison Weir, Henry VIII and his Court, 2001.
Register of Kentucky State Historical Society, Volume 40, No. 132, pp. 318-322. C1974 KY State Historical Society, Frankfort, KY.
*Portions originally published via Tudor Times