On July 17, 1517, John Alen wrote to George, Earl of Shrewsbury, to report that Henry VIII’s sister Mary, known as the French Queen because of her brief marriage to Louis XII, “was yesterday delivered of a daughter.” Mary, as is well known, had married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, after Louis’s death.
Born at Hatfield, the palace of the Bishop of Ely, between two and three in the morning, Frances, as the girl would be called, was Charles’s and Mary’s first daughter. Their son, Henry, had been born in 1515 and had received a grand christening, with the king himself attending as one of the godfathers. Frances’s christening, though more modest, was nonetheless a splendid affair. It took place on July 18:
The road to the church was strewed with rushes; the church porch hung with rich cloth of gold and needlework; the church with arras of the history of Holofernes and Hercules; the chancel, with arras of silk and gold; and the altar with rich cloth of tissue, and covered with images, relics, and jewels. In the said chancel were, as deputies for the Queen and Princess, Lady Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Grey. The Abbot of St. Alban’s was godfather. The font was hung with a canopy of crimson satin, powdered with roses, half red and half white, with the sun shining, and fleur de lis gold, and the French Queen’s arms in four places, all of needlework. On the way to church were eighty torches borne by yeomen, and eight by gentlemen. The basin, covered, was borne by Mr. Sturton, the taper by Mr. Richard Long, the salt by Mr. Humphrey Barnes, the chrism by Lady Chelton. Mrs. Dorothy Verney bore the young lady, was assisted by the Lord Powes and Sir Roger Pelston, and accompanied by sixty ladies and gentlemen, and the prelates Sir Oliver Poole and Sir Christopher, and other of my Lord’s chaplains. She was named Frances, being born on St. Francis’s day.
The queen and princess, of course, were Catherine of Aragon and Princess Mary. The princess, born on February 16, 1516, was not much older than her new goddaughter. But who was the mysterious “Lady Boleyn”? Walter Richardson suggests that she was Anne Boleyn–not the future queen, who was at the French court, but her aunt, the wife of Edward Boleyn. Others, like Retha Warnicke, have suggested that she was Elizabeth Boleyn, the future queen’s mother; Eric Ives, Anne Boleyn’s biographer, does not discuss the matter, but in an endnote cites the ceremony as an example of Elizabeth Boleyn’s presence at court. A seating chart for a great banquet at Greenwich held on July 7, 1517, names Lady Elizabeth Boleyn and Elizabeth Grey (and the expectant mother herself) among the prominent guests; Elizabeth Boleyn, then, might have been readily at hand to dispatch to the christening when news arrived of Frances’s birth.
The description of the christening indicates that Frances was named for St. Francis (ironically, given St. Francis’s status as the patron saint of animals and the undeserved reputation that Frances has acquired in our own century as an insatiable huntress, based on a single occasion where she is known to have been part of a hunting party). Erin Sadlack points out, however, that the infant’s name might have also honored King Louis’s successor, Francis.
Charlotte Merton describes Frances as the first Englishwoman to bear that name. There was a Frances born to Arthur Plantagenet some time between 1512 and 1520, however. As she was married in 1538 to her stepbrother, John Basset, who was eighteen, it seems likely that she was about the same age as her husband and thus would have been born around 1520 or so–thereby making it likely that her name was inspired by Frances Brandon’s.
Muriel St. Clare Byrne, ed., The Lisle Letters, vol. 1. Chicago and London: The Chicago University Press, 1981.
Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
Charlotte Merton, “Women, Friendship, and Memory.” In Alice Hunt and Anna Whitelock, eds., Tudor Queenship: The Reigns of Mary and Elizabeth. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Walter C. Richardson, Mary Tudor: The White Queen. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1970.
Erin A. Sadlack, The French Queen’s Letters: Mary Tudor Brandon and the Politics of Marriage in Sixteenth Century Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Retha Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.