Thursday, February 2, 2012

Roguish Rake: Sir Francis Bryan

Sorry things have been quiet here lately. I've just gotten over a very nasty cold.

Since today, Feb. 2, is the anniversary of the death of Sir Francis Bryan, I thought it appropriate to name him this week's Roguish Rake.

No known portrait of Sir Francis Bryan exists. However,
here is an image of his portrayal in "The Tudors."

Born around 1492, Bryan was an intimate of King Henry VIII. The first mention of him at court comes from about 1513. He was an avid huntsman, which won him great favor with the King who promoted him throughout the early 1500's. He also enjoyed jousting, a great pastyme of the King and his gentlemen. However, Bryan had a slight accident in 1526, causing him to loose an eye. He wore an eye patch the rest of his life, which added to his roguish charm, I'm sure.

A young Nicholas Carew
Bryan was sent on numerous diplomatic missions, one of which took him to France. There he became close friends with Nicholas Carew, another intimate of the King. While in France, the men got into a bit of mischief. According to one chronicler, Carew, Bryan, and other boon gentlemen "roade disguysed through Paris, throwyng Egges, stones and other foolishe trifles at the people..." Another story claims that when arriving in Calais, Bryan demanded "a soft bed and a hard harlot." He was known as a rake, often enjoying the company of the ladies of the night. It was rumored that he was happy to aid the King in his extra marital affairs, possibly even offering his own sister, Elizabeth Carew. The tricky part? She was the wife of Nicholas Carew, good friend of both the King and Sir Francis Bryan...

Boyish sports aside, Bryan was an intelligent fellow. He translated several texts into English, as well as performed his state duties (egg throwing aside) admirably. He was charming and diplomatic, when the moment called for it.

Despite this, Cardinal Wolsey did not care for Bryan, Carew, and the other gentlemen of the King's Chamber who "were so familiar and homely with [the King], and plaied suche light touches with hym that they forgat themselves..." In 1519, Wolsey formed a coup d'etat of sorts, which removed many of these gentlemen from court. Bryan, however, remained with the King. It is no surprise that Bryan wanted to get even with Wolsey.

Bryan was a cousin of Anne Boleyn, so naturally supported her rise as Queen. Anne also hated Wolsey. Together, the cousins and other supporters were able to turn Henry against his "loyal servant." Bryan also supported Anne by testifying against Katherine of Aragon during the divorce trial.

He was one of Anne's great allies...that is until Henry VIII decided he didn't much care for her anymore.  Bryan had a talent for having the same opinion as the monarch. His quick change and great help in Anne's downfall caused Thomas Cromwell to coin Bryan's nickname as the "Vicar of Hell."

Luckily, Bryan has another cousin, Jane Seymour, whom he thought might make a good Queen. He helped "coach" Jane on how to act during her courtship with the King, and was the first to report to her of her former mistress's demise.

A young Mary Tudor
He certainly kept the King entertained with his wit and bold speech. One story of such entertainment occurred when Lady Mary was restored to the King's favor and returned to court. Henry apparently sent Bryan to test Mary's knowledge of the ways of the world. He had heard it said that his daughter knew "no foul of unclean speech." Sir Francis, whilst in conversation with Mary, let a foul word "slip." When Mary did not react, Sir Francis was surprised. It seemed what the King had heard was correct.

Due to his charm, wit, and willingness to always agree with the King, Bryan remained in Henry's good graces throughout his reign. When Henry died, Bryan remained an important figure at court, though not a favorite. He died suddenly on Feb. 2, 1550 of unknown causes.

What think ye? Did Bryan deserve the title the "Vicar of Hell?" Or was he simply a Roguish Rake who knew how to keep within the good graces of the King?

Sources Used:
M.H. Keen, Chivalry.
David Loades, The Tudor Court. 
Nicholas Sanders, Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism.
Alison Wier, Henry VIII: The King and His Court.
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  1. Hi,
    I was searching information about Francis Bryan and I found your page. Your article is great, but you missed one point - Bryan turned against the Boleyns as early as 1534/35 when he quarreled with George Boleyn about unknown matter. Since then he became hostile towards them. It was also probably Bryan he brought Jane Seymour to court in 1535 - she was not at court since 1533.

  2. Thanks for the post! I knew that he had a big falling out with the Boleyns, but kind of brushed over it in the article. Thanks for bringing that point up :) Also, I didn't realize he had actually brought Seymour to court. I knew he was working behind the scenes, teaching her how to act and what to do. Interesting to know. Thanks!

  3. You are welcome :-) Yes, I think that Francis Bryan was quite active behind the scenes ;-) Especially in 1536, when the King got tired with Anne Boleyn. It's interesting that Jane Seymour who is depicted as a very demure and humble person was actually brought to court by such a notorious womanizer as Bryan. But they were cousins so Bryan probably wanted to help Jane.

  4. Kerry Ross BorenJune 29, 2012 at 5:56 PM

    Sir Francis Bryan was my 8th great-grandfather. Your account is accurate, for the most part. He was born in 1490, son of Sir Thomas Bryan and Margaret Bourchier. He was raised and educated in the household of Henry VIII as boy-companion to the future king. They remained lifelong friends. When Henry died in 1547, Bryan was at his bedside. Henry's last words were: "Bryan, we have lost all." Following Henry's death, Sir Francis married (as his second wife) Lady Joan Fitzgerald and was appointed Lord Justice of Ireland. He was poisoned by his wife in 1550 to pave the way for her marriage to her much younger cousin Gerald Fitzgerald, to unite the mighty houses of Ormond and Desmond in Ireland. He is buried in an unmarked grave in an old churchyard in Waterford, Ireland.

    1. Sir Francis Bryan was my 9th great grandfather.
      My grandfather line goes also to William Smith Bryan of Virginia. Are you related more directly to him as well?
      I just found out all this lineage info as I am taking my 2 grown sons to Ireland for the first time this summer.
      Best to you,
      M Powell
      Boston, Mass

    2. This was an enjoyable read. I am the 11th great granddaughter of Frances Bryan - and am currently working on a book about him. I'd love to share information with you. You can reach me at Hope to hear from you!

  5. The fact or story about Sir Francis Bryan was that Henry called him his Vicar of Hell as a nickname. I am not sure how he came about this but have heard it repeated many times. I think it was something to do with his anti Catholic and could not care less attitude as well as that Henry used him for some unsavory and spy missions: black opps of the worst kind. He was a kind of henchman and some of his jobs were both secret and licensed to kill kinds. If you wanted someone out of the way or some dirty job doing: Sir Francis was your man and he was certainly Henry's.

    His wearing of a patch I think gives him a pirate look, but that also may have contributed to his nickname. He was close to Henry and shared many a laddish moment with him; he even managed to clear himself when arrested for being one of those believed to have been the lover of Anne Boleyn. Guess he was just simply not her type.

  6. I have been interested in Tudor England since High School. I just found out today that Sir Francis Bryan was my 12th Great Grandfather. I found your site while doing additional research on him. Great site. There was another source that I found that listed him as a poet. Does anyone know if there are any remaining copies of his poetry. I would find it interesting to read.