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.
This Mighty Realm – The Fourth Book of The Tudor Chronicles
The fourth book of The Tudor Chronicles, This Mighty Realm, was published on December 1, 2020. Two years in the writing, this brilliant novel tells the exciting story of the stormy relationship between Queen Elizabeth I of England and the young Earl of Essex, in the twilight years of Gloriana’s reign.
What is The Tudor Chronicles, and what inspired you to write it?
The Tudor Chronicles is a set of three complete Tudor novels in four volumes. It currently consists of The Nymph From Heaven, The Baker’s Daughter, and In High Places. These three novels span the years of the reigns of four Tudor monarchs; King Henry VIII, King Edward VI, Queen Mary Tudor, and Queen Elizabeth I.
I grew up reading historical fiction novels, and watching movies about past times. I soon discovered that the vast tapestry that is “history” was a disjointed jumble in my mind. As I got older, I sought to bring a semblance of order to the chaos; I developed an overwhelming desire to understand what happened, when, and most importantly, why, in the long march of human history. I studied Ancient and Medieval History. But out of all the sweeping saga of time, the one fragment that most captured my imagination was the Tudor Era.
I became fascinated by, one might say positively obsessed with, possibly the most famous love triangle that has ever been. I read, I watched, everything I could find about Henry VIII, Katharine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn.
When I delved deeper into Tudor history, and I discovered that King Henry VIII had two sisters, I was off and running like a hound on the scent. Margaret and Mary both had very interesting lives, but I found absolutely captivating the tale of Henry’s younger sister, Mary, and her romance with Charles Brandon. However, compared to the overwhelming abundance of information on Henry, Anne, and Katharine, I found very little source material about Mary and Brandon. I had a mission now; Mary’s story was too wonderful to leave it languishing on the edges of her brother’s more popular tale. I must remedy this lack.
Up to that point, I had never thought about writing my own book. My career as a telecommunications consultant involved many aspects of writing; I wrote project briefs, training manuals, sales proposals, and reports of all sorts. I could write. But write a book…? Why not?
I started out as many aspiring writers do; I wrote a book about myself, Only the Heart Knows Why.Then I wrote two contemporary detective novels, The Heart of the Dragon and The Seven Diamonds. With that writing experience behind me, I was ready for the complicated task of writing history. I felt that Mary Tudor deserved the limelight after having been relegated to relative obscurity by her mega-famous brother and his Six Wives. I started Time Traveling back to the Tudor Era (read: daily research!). I finally gathered enough information about Mary and Brandon to weave a tale, and I embarked upon the labor of love that was writing The Nymph From Heaven, the first book of The Tudor Chronicles.
As I researched and wrote The Nymph, I quickly came to the conclusion that one could not tell Mary’s story without telling Henry’s, and so I took the approach of making Mary and Brandon’s tale the main plot, with Henry, Katharine and Anne’s story as the subplot. This methodology worked beautifully!
But as I wrote, I developed a fascination with Elizabeth Tudor. After all, how can one study the story of Henry Tudor and Anne Boleyn, and not be drawn to their famous daughter? But there was a problem… what about the veritable chasm of time between when Henry dies in 1547, and when Elizabeth finally takes the throne in 1558?
It was at this point that I realized that what I was engaged in was not just the writing of one book, but a sweeping saga that had both an alpha and an omega. But did I really want to write a book about Bloody Mary? Who would read it, since Queen Mary Tudor is reviled by so many people? But I soon found that Elizabeth’s young life was very much bound up with Mary’s, who was seventeen years older; and I also discovered that Mary Tudor’s life was such that she inspired more pity than revulsion for her acts. I grew to understand Mary as I wrote her life story. I was, in the end, very glad that I had chosen to write Mary’s heart-rending tale. Ironically, The Baker’s Daughter, a book I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write, soon became my best-selling book.
After the eight years it took to write The Baker’s Daughter, I found that I simply was not ready to say goodbye, neither to novel writing, nor to the Tudors.
When I began writing In High Places, I quickly discovered that in order to tell Elizabeth’s tale properly, one really must include the lifelong rivalry between her and her fellow queen and cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. I had read Mary’s Stuart’s story before, but it seemed that most books told either one queen’s story or the other. Intertwining the fascinating tale of these two rival queens was challenging, but very rewarding. I came to an in-depth understanding of both women and what drove them by researching the juxtaposition with each other in which they both lived their lives. That Elizabeth and Mary’s fates were inextricably linked is undeniable. But by the time I reached the heartbreaking end of Mary’s life on the executioner’s block in 1587, I realized that In High Places had reached its natural end. But what about the rest of Elizabeth’s life and reign?
I definitely wanted to write the rest of Elizabeth’s story, but many of the biographies and other sources I had used to write the first three books of The Tudor Chronicles did not contain much information on the last fifteen years of her life. After further research, I found some books that focused on Elizabeth’s relationship with Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.
Essex was Robert Dudley’s stepson; he became the second of Elizabeth’s defining relationships. There is much speculation about the nature of their relationship; the aging queen was more than thirty years Essex’s senior. We simply do not know if they were romantically involved or not. Many novelists choose to speculate that they were, but I think their relationship was much more complicated than that.
As the writing of This Mighty Realm progressed to its conclusion, I began to realize that I was not just faced with the end of my journey in telling the story of the Tudors; I was facing having to write Elizabeth’s death. That was jarring; my books take years to write because I strive to make them as historically accurate as possible, and that means an extensive research effort. I had been writing about Elizabeth literally since before she was born! And I was still not ready to say goodbye to the Tudors.
I had long since had it in my mind that I was actually writing a chronicle. But what exactly is a chronicle? What does it mean? A chronicle is “a detailed factual written account of important or historical events in the order of their occurrence.” While I applaud the efforts of fan fiction and alternative history writers, my own great desire is writing true Historical Fiction. In The Tudor Chronicles, I have strived to ensure that my facts are research-based and as true to what really happened…what we know as “history”…as possible. It is where we have gaps in the facts that the writer of fiction comes into his or her own; we must use our talents and abilities to decide what might have happened as we fill in the blanks of history with plausible assumptions, based on our knowledge of our characters, who were, after all, real people.
So in order to complete my chronicle of the Tudor Dynasty, a fifth and final book is needed. To Thine Own Self is actually many stories; it is the story of The Wars of the Roses; it is the story of the end of the Plantagenet Dynasty and the dawning of the Tudor Dynasty; it is the story of many fascinating people, including Henry VI, and his queen, Margaret of Anjou; Margaret Beaufort, and her son, Henry Tudor; Cecily Neville and Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York; Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, the “Kingmaker”; Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville, Jaquetta of Luxembourg, and many, many others.
My books take years to write because of the meticulous research involved in writing a true chronicle of accurate historical fiction; I have estimated that To Thine Own Self will take about three years to write, and will hopefully be published in 2023.
And with that, what started out as a desire to write Mary Tudor Brandon’s wonderful love story will end with five very long novels, written with love, and with great respect for my characters, over eighteen years of my life.
What’s next for you? Do you have any plans to write more novels?
Yes! I have for years been enthralled by the Borgias. Their story overlays the time period of the late Plantagenet Dynasty and early Tudor Dynasty, so should I write their story, I will not have to leave the time period in which I have Time Traveled for almost twenty years.
I am also fascinated by the many stories of the Plantagenets; in particular, King John has always been a favorite of mine. King John, as with his distant relative, Queen Mary Tudor, has an evil reputation. After the Borgias, it is likely that I will turn my attention to him.
What is the meaning of the intriguing titles of your books? Do they have special significance?
I often get this question about my book titles! In the publishing world, book titles are very important. Just as with the cover of the book, people will often be drawn to a book because of its title. Here is the genesis of my titles:
The Nymph From Heaven comes from the words of Lorenzo Pasqualigo, court jeweler to Henry VIII. Lorenzo, an Italian, was standing next to the Venetian ambassador at Mary’s proxy wedding to Charles of Castile when he saw Mary Tudor for the first time. He was so astounded by her legendary beauty that he said, “She is a paradise! A nymph from Heaven!” Lorenzo’s words found their way into the ambassador’s dispatch to the Doge of Venice, and hence onto the cover of my book!
The Baker’s Daughter comes from a broadsheet (newspapers had not been invented yet) that was circulating London at the time of Queen Mary’s proposed match with Philip of Spain. The marriage was extremely unpopular in England; the rhyme from which the title is derived is a cruel taunt, and an apt metaphor for Mary’s unfortunate life: “The baker’s daughter in her russet gown; better than Queen Mary without her crown.”
In High Places has significance only for myself. It was a phrase I seemed to encounter constantly as I read histories and biographies about royalty; those who lived their lives “in high places”. And who among us is higher than a monarch?
Finding This Mighty Realm as a title was serendipitous; it comes from the speech in Parliament given by Nicholas Heath, the Lord Chancellor of England, as he proclaimed Elizabeth “queen of this mighty realm of England…” upon the death of her sister, Queen Mary.
ToThine Own Self is a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and seemed to me to describe perfectly Henry VII’s character, and his struggle to gain the throne of England. This excellent advice is spoken from a father to his son, as he departs over the sea: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
I have remained true to my purpose of lovingly crafting my Tudor Chronicles, through the many vicissitudes and distractions of my own life; and I am glad I did, because my readers seem to enjoy reading my books as much as I enjoy writing them!
Bonny G Smith is the author of eight novels in five literary genre. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia, in the United States of America. All books are available on Amazon, and other reading venues.
February 1542 A young woman awaits her execution in the Tower of London, sent to death on the orders of her husband, Henry VIII.
Daughter of the nobility, cousin to a fallen Queen, Catherine Howard rose from the cluttered ranks of courtiers at the court of Henry VIII to become the King’s fifth wife. But hers is a tale that starts long before the crown was placed on her head. A tale of tragedy and challenges, predators and prey; the story of a young girl growing up in a perilous time, facing dangers untold.
The fifth wife of Henry VIII would end her life on the block, like her cousin Anne Boleyn… But where did her story begin?
Shadow of Persephone is Book One in the series The Story of Catherine Howard, by G. Lawrence (Gemma Lawrence)