With the U.S. release of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on PBS this week, Americans will be 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 are learning 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 has made me curious about what history hides from us and what is revealed. I am impressed by the numerous blogs over the last few months which tout Cromwell as being very ‘American’ in his ambitions. We look at a pivotal piece of the Tudor puzzle, Queen Anne Boleyn, and still know so little about her. Today, she is loved by many due to 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 many who were favorites? If Cromwell is viewed across the centuries by our standards, how will others be viewed?
The one who captured my imagination first was Sir Francis Bryan. History tells us stories of the ‘Vicar of Hell’ as he was nicknamed by Cromwell due to Bryan’s machinations in the downfall of Queen Anne Boleyn and the rise of Queen Jane Seymour, both of whom were relatives of Sir Francis Bryan. History relays stories of his loyalty to King Henry, his lifelong friend — no small feat in an era when many lost their lives due to the whims of this volatile ruler. 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 favorite, but he could not support his position. He loved drinking and had a talent for mistruth.”
(And, to think Sir Francis favored 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.
Sir Francis Bryan, like many English Renaissance courtiers, immersed himself in literary studies. He may be, according to scholars, ‘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. Sadly 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 the life of a courtier and notes Bryan’s literary acumen.
Francis Meres, in Palladis Tamia, 1598, 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, in Heroicall Epistle of the Earl of Surrey to the Lady Geraldine, (1629), mentions…
“sacred Bryan (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 Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature: 1485–1603) ‘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 his own era disappear from history and no copies of his work, except the one, exist to the modern day?
So, my final question to you is this…by contemporary standards, is Sir Francis Bryan the first rock star? He burst on the Tudor scene like a shooting star on the horizon, only to disappear with no explanation to be found. I look forward to seeing what others have discovered during their research of this mystery.
Look for my article on Sir Francis Bryan’s American Legacy in this month’s Tudor Times. (www.TudorTimes.co.uk). Sir Francis Bryan also plays a primary role in my upcoming story Phoenix Rising, the last hour of Queen Anne Boleyn and the rise of Lady Jane Seymour. Available May 2015 by MadeGlobal Publishing. Look for the cover reveal soon via the Tudor Society. www.TudorSociety.com.
Sources noted, with the primary source being Sidney L. Lee. “Sir Francis Bryan.” Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. VII. Leslie Stephen, ed. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1886. 150–52.
Deb Hunter writes fiction as Hunter S. Jones. Her best-selling poetic romance novel September Ends won awards for Best Independently Published Novel and Best Romance, based on its unique blending of poetry and prose. Her story The Fortune Series received best-selling status on Amazon in the Cultural Heritage and Historical Fiction categories. She has been published by H3O Eco mag, LuxeCrush, Chattanooga Times-Free Press, and is now a freelance contributor for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She has recently been accepted into the prestigious Rivendell Writers Colony. Her arts, music and culture blogs on ExpatsPost.com are filled with eclectic stories regarding music, writing, the arts and climate awareness. Her undergrad degree is from a private university in Nashville, Tennessee where she graduated without honors but with a degree in History. The emphasis of her degree was the English Renaissance and Reformation. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her Scottish born husband.
This article was originally published by the English Historical Fiction Authors. You can find them here…http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/