LADY Margaret Bryan – Governess to Queen Elizabeth I.
Lady Margaret Bryan was born in England. Her year of birth was approximately 1468. She came from an aristocratic family. Her brother was Lord Bourchier. She married Sir Thomas Bryan.
When Lord Bourchier died without sons his sister inherited his estates and moveables. This made her a woman of very considerable means.
Lady Bryan’s husband died when she was in her 40s. As a widow she was able to devoted more of her time to the king’s service.
Lady Margaret was the half-sister of Anne Boleyn’s mother.
Henry VIII had a son with his mistress Bessie Blount. This boy was name Henry FitzRoy. Fitz indicated his unwed birth. Roy is derived from ‘roi’ the French for king. Although no one contemplated Henry FitzRoy inheriting the Crown he was still a notable person. Lady Margaret was his governess when he was little.
From 1525 Lady Bryan was governess to Mary Tudor: the eldest daughter of Henry VIII. Lady Margaret was made a baroness as a reward. She did a superb job and the king was deeply satisfied with her. She was highly capable and managed to curry favour with the right people.
In 1533 Henry VIII declared that Mary Tudor was born outside of wedlock. His marriage to Catherine of Aragon was annulled. Mary Tudor was enraged. Her father told her to ”lay aside the name and dignity of princess.”
She refused to accept this and insisted that she was the king’s lawful daughter and heir. Lady Margaret had to manage the teenagers moods and fury. Mary Tudor felt rejected and humiliated. She bore herself with a dignity and defiance than inspired admiration even in her enemies.
At the age of 65 she became lady mistress to the baby Elizabeth. In those times the word ‘mistress’ denoted a woman with authority and not a paramour.
When Elizabeth was three months old she was taken away from her mother. Anne Boleyn had breastfed her baby for the first few weeks and was keen to continue. Henry VIII would not hear of this breach of protocol. The child was put into the care of a wet nurse. The woman really in charge was Lady Bryan. She was not the matronly battleaxe that some might fear. Elizabeth was taken to another royal residence in December 1533. Elizabeth spent most of her time at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.
Anne Boleyn wrote to Lady Bryan very frequently with precise instructions for the child’s upbringing. Lady Bryan carried out her duties sedulously. Anne Boleyn sent her daughter the finest of clothes. The baby was dressed as a tiny adult. This was the way at the time. They made no allowances for children’s need to move more. About 40 pounds a month was spent on garments for Elizabeth. This approximates to 13 000 pounds today! Anne Boleyn seemed to be impelled to confirm her daughter’s legitimacy by making sure always appeared as regal as possible.
When Elizabeth was sent to live at Hatfield House this was also the residence of her half-sibling with Mary Tudor. The 17 year old Mary Tudor naturally resented her baby half-sister. Elizabeth had briefly replaced Mary Tudor in their father’s affections. Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn had brought huge anguish to Mary Tudor and her mother Catherine of Aragon. Although Elizabeth spent most of the time at Hatfield House they sometimes moved to Greenwich Palace. Greenwich is now considered part of London. In those days it was a small port several miles from London.
Around this time Lady Bryan married for a second time. She wed David Soche. She was well past childbearing age so there was no chance that she was going to have a baby of her own to distract her from her job.
Anne Boleyn’s voluminous instructions also laid stess on the need to degrade Mary Tudor. Anne Boleyn emphasised that Mary Tudor was a bastard and had no right to inherit the Crown nor any right to style herself princess. Anne Boleyn’s volatile temperament was notorious. It would be foolish to provoke her. Lady Bryan had to walk a tightrope. She had to keep her mistress Anne Boleyn content because she was the queen. On the other hand it felt deeply wrong to insult Mary Tudor. It was plain that public sympathy was very much on Mary Tudor’s side. Too much aggravation in the family would make for a poisonous atmosphere.
Anne Boleyn’s spitefulness and pettiness did her no credit. She had enough enemies to begin with. She boasted how she would have Mary Tudor serving her as a maid. Her vindictiveness merely earned her more enmity. Anne Boleyn’s outbursts of furious shrieking made her deeply unpopular. Perhaps Lady Bryan was canny enough to see that Anne Boleyn’s haughtiness and mean spiritedness was setting her up for a dramatic fall. That was why it would have been unwise for Lady Bryan to carry out her order to humiliate Mary Tudor with too much zeal.
Lady Bryan’s son was Sir Francis Bryan. He spent much time at court. He knew a youngish woman from an aristocratic Wiltshire family named Jane Seymour. It was possibly due to Sir Francis that Jane Seymour came to the attention of Henry VIII. Henry VIII was infatuated with Jane Seymour. There is little doubt that Sir Francis Bryan kept his mother Lady Margaret Bryan informed of developments. The more the king fell for Jane Seymour’s feminine wiles the weaker Anne Boleyn’s situation became. That was why it would not do to be too closely associated with Anne Boleyn and her cruel treatment of Mary Tudor. Jane Seymour was canny enough to coquette with Henry VIII but she would not yield to her maidenhood. She parried his amorous advances with protestations of maidenly virtue.
Lady Bryan was also a regular correspondent of Lord Chancellor Thomas Cromwell. The lord chancellor was the king’s most important minister. Thomas Cromwell was no friend of the Boleyn family. Lady Bryan may well have been in the know about Anne Boleyn’s coming fall from grace.
Lady Bryan believed in expediency. She encouraged Mary Tudor to be kind to her half-sister. It was not the child’s fault. She tried to persuade Mary Tudor to accept her new diminished status. Mary Tudor was stubborn and held out for a long time. She eventually gave in and appeared to agree that she was downgraded. Her submissiveness caused her father to look more generously on her.
Lady Bryan had to supervise Elizabeth been weaned and put ont dry food. She of course received many very detailed orders from Anne Boleyn about how to do this. Lady Bryan had brought up her own children, grandchildren and royal children. She had vastly more experienced that Anne Boleyn.
When Elizabeth was two years and eight months old disaster struck. Her mother was accused of adultery and witchcraft. For a queen consort to commit adultery was high treason. It was also high treason for a man to have carnal knowledge of a woman of the royal family outside of marriage. The charges were very likely false. Nevertheless, three men were tortured into confessing to committing adultery with Anne Boleyn. The whole affair was probably cooked up by the scheming lord chancellor: Thomas Cromwell. He was a foe of the Boleyn family. Anne Boleyn and her supposed paramours were all put to death. At a stroke he removed Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn and Henry Norris who was Cromwell’s main political rival. There was also a musician called Mark Smeaton with whom Anne Boleyn had probably no more than flirted.
Elizabeth was suddenly downgraded to an illegitimate child. Her mother was declared to be an adultress and a sorceress. Her marriage to Henry VIII was annulled. Some of the Boleyn’s foes people suggested that Elizabeth bore a striking resemblance to her mother’s putative lover Mark Smeaton. In fact that is nonsense. Every unbiased observer noted that the similiarity between Elizabeth and Henry VIII was unmistakable.
This could all be a traumatising experience for a child. Fortunately, Elizabeth was so tiny that she can scarcely have been conscious of the gravity of the situation. She had seldom seen her mother anyway. It was very common for children to be orphaned then because life expectancy was so low. Many women died in childbirth. Therefore Elizabeth may not have been as severely psychologically damaged as we might imagine.
Anne Boleyn had gone to her death with fortitude and protesting her innocence with her very last breath. On the scaffold far from fulminate against her hypocritical, adulterous, vain and murderous husband she had praised him as the kindest king ever! No doubt Anne realised that she had better say something flattering about the man who had ordered her death. Otherwise her daughter Elizabeth would suffer.
As soon as her mother was killed Elizabeth was moved to smaller and less comfortable rooms. She was no longer a princess but a lady. Her clothing allowance was immediately stopped. Within a few weeks Lady Bryan was writing to Lord Chancellor Cromwell insisting that more clothes be sent for Lady Elizabeth. ”I beg you to be good to her and hers that she may have raiment.” The letter went on, ” for she has neither gown, nor kirtle nor petticoat. ”
In fact Lady Elizabeth had received a huge consignment of clothes just before her mother was accused of adultery. It is probable that Lady Bryan was overstating her ward’s lack of raiment to ensure that her complaint was taken seriously.
Shortly after Anne Boleyn’s execution. Lady Bryan approached the king with Elizabeth in her arms and asked if he wished to see his daughter. They king scoffed angrily and doubted that the child was his.
Lady Bryan took Elizabeth to Hatfield. She did her level best to shield the child from the horror that had unfolded. Some of those who had previously harboured a quiet loyalty for Mary Tudor were now only too glad to show their scorn for Elizabeth. As Anne Boleyn had been executed Mary Tudor was back in the king’s good graces. Mary Tudor’s mother had died of natural causes a few months earlier which only gained her even more sympathy.
Lady Bryan described Elizabeth as a ”succourless and redeless creature”. (Succour is help). Lady Bryan had been used to receiving very detailed instructions from Anne Boleyn. With Anne Boleyn dead Lady Bryan had a great deal more autonomy. She did not find this entirely to her liking.
Lady Bryan did not know Elizabeth’s exact status. She wrote indignantly to Thomas Cromwell asking for clarification, ” Now Lady Elizabeth is put from that degree she was in to what degree she is in now I know not but by hearsay ”
Sir John Shelton was in charge of Hatfield House. He insisted that Lady Elizabeth dine at the high table as though her status had not been lowered. Lady Bryan had received instructions that Elizabeth had to dine on a less exalted table. She complained that Shelton was disobeying these orders. ”Mr Shelton would have my Lady Elizabeth dine every evening at board of estate. It is not meet [appropriate] for a child of this age.” The real objection was not her age but her illegitimate status. Lady Bryan paid close attention to rank. The order of precedence was everything at court. It was only by being pedantic about such things that she gained favour at court.
Mr was such a high title that it was acceptable to call a knight ‘mister’. Ordinary men did not have the dignity of being called ‘mister.’ Lady Bryan found it very difficult to get along with Shelton. This appears to have been his fault and not hers.
Lady Bryan saw fit to bother the most important man in government with news of Elizabeth’s teeth. ”My lady has great pain in her teeth which come very slowly.” She showed her motherly concern with this sentence.
Lady Margaret Bryan commented on Elizabeth’s development saying she was ”as toward a child of gentle conditions as ever I knew in my life.” ‘Toward’ in those days meant advanced. She expressed a hope that Elizabeth be allowed to be seen on public occasions. The king was at that stage minded to hide Elizabeth as a reminder of the shameful Anne Boleyn.
Thomas Cromwell had much bigger fish to fry. However, Lady Bryan was so formidable that he felt compelled to answer her and take her complaints seriously.
One historian, Agnes Strickland, summarised it as:
”Much of the future greatness of Elizabeth may reasonably be attributed to the judicious training of her sensible and conscientious her governess.”
Eleven days after Anne Boleyn’s decapitation Henry VIII was feeling in the romantic mood! He wed Jane Seymour.
In 1537 Jane Seymour was delivered of a bonny baby boy: Edward VI. Almighty God chose to call the queen to his mercy. She died 12 days after giving birth.
Lady Bryan was made governess of the infant Edward VI. This was a step up because boys were considered much more valuable than girls. Furthermore, Edward VI was undoubtly legitimate whereas in 1536 Elizabeth was declared to have been born to an unwed mother.The infant Edward VI came to live with his sisters. Lady Bryan was in charge of all three of the king’s offspring. Although she clearly had a soft spot for the girls it was made very clear to her that her main responsibility was Edward. He was far more important to the king than both his daughters put together.
Lady Bryan took satisfaction in Edward VI’s luxurious lifestyle, ”His grace was full of pretty toys as ever I saw a child in my life”, wrote Lady Bryan to Thomas Cromwell. By ‘full’ she means he had plenty of them.
When Edward VI was two years old Lady Margaret wrote to Cromwell reporting on the prince’s every little achievement. There is no mistaking the grandmotherly delight in this missive,”The minstrels played and his grace danced and played so wantonly as he could not sit still.”
Lady Margaret still gave Elizabeth presents many of them made by her own hand.
In 1537 the Sheltons were removed from Hatfield. It was relief for Lady Margaret Bryan who has always found Sir John Shelton hard to get on with. It was also a vindication of her. She was superb at her job and he was not. It was a rare victory for a woman over a man.
Lady Bryan taught Mary Tudor and Elizabeth to be good to their brother. They could so easily have resented him for replacing them in their fathers affections. However, they doted on the child.
After a few years Edward VI was moved away to a grander household. Lady Bryan moved with him. He was her sole charge. Elizabeth and Mary Tudor then lived apart. Mary Tudor was well into her 20s and did not need a governess any longer.
Lady Bryan began education with these children. They learnt the rudiments from her. Later on their education was provided by erudite men. It was their general development that was her field.
It appears that she retired in 1452. Her pension was 20 pounds per annum which was handsome indeed.
Lady Bryan served Edward VI so long as her health allowed. She died in about 1552.
Lady Bryan brought up three monarchs. By all accounts she was brilliant at her job. She was a disciplinarian who was also warm and reasonable. Her responsibilities were very serious indeed. She also had to navigate Tudor politics. Her wards were highly educated, worldly and courtly.
The three monarchs all turned out to be fairly successful in their way. Mary Tudor succeeded in restoring Catholicism though at the cost of her popularity. For Mary Tudor is was Catholicism that mattered so this was a price worth paying.