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Rendering of a photograph of Alan Van Sprang as Sir Francis Bryan in Showtime's 'The Tudors'.
Sir Francis Bryan  (d. 1550)

SIR FRANCIS BRYAN* (d. 1550), poet, translator, soldier, and diplomatist, was the son of Sir Thomas Bryan, and grandson of Sir Thomas Bryan, chief justice of the common pleas from 1471 till his death in 1500. His father was knighted by Henry VII in 1497, was 'knight of the body' at the opening of Henry VIII's reign, and repeatedly served on the commission of the peace for Buckinghamshire, where the family property was settled. Francis Bryan's mother was Margaret, daughter of Humphry Bourchier, and sister of John Bourchier, lord Berners. Lady Bryan was for a time governess to the princesses Mary and Elizabeth, and died in 1551-2. Anne Boleyn is stated to have been his cousin; but we have been unable to discover the exact genealogical connection.1

Bryan's prominence in politics was mainly due to the lasting affection which Henry VIII conceived for him in early youth. Bryan is believed to have been educated at Oxford. In April 1513 he received his first official appointment, that of captain of the Margaret Bonaventure, a ship in the retinue of Sir Thomas Howard, afterwards duke of Norfolk, the newly appointed admiral. In the court entertainments held at Richmond (19 April 1515), at Eltham (Christmas 1516), and at Greenwich (7 July 1517), Bryan took a prominent part, and received very rich apparel from the king on each occasion. He became the king's cupbearer in 1516. In December 1518 he was acting as 'master of the Toyles,' and storing Greenwich Park with 'quick deer.' In 1520 he attended Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and took part in the jousts2 there under the captaincy of the Earl of Devonshire; and on 29 Sept. he received a pension from the king of 33l. 6s. 8d.3 as a servant and 'a cipherer'.4

He served in Brittany under the Earl of Surrey in July 1522, and was knighted by his commander for his hardiness and courage. He was one of the sheriffs of Essex and Hertfordshire in 1523, and accompanied Wolsey on his visit to Calais (9 July 1527), where he remained some days. A year later he escorted the papal envoy Campeggio, on his way to England from Orleans, to Calais. In November 1528 Bryan was sent to Rome by Henry to obtain the papal sanction for his divorce from Catherine. Bryan was especially instructed to induce the pope [Clement VII] to withdraw from his friendship with the emperor, and to discover the instructions originally given to Campeggio. Much to his disappointment, Bryan failed in his mission. Soon after leaving England he had written to his cousin, Anne Boleyn, encouraging her to look forward to the immediate removal of all obstacles between her and the title of queen; but he subsequently (5 May 1529) had to confess to the king that nothing would serve to gain the pope's consent to Catherine's divorce.

On 10 May 1533 Bryan, with Sir Thomas Gage and Lord Vaux, presented to Queen Catherine at Ampthill the summons bidding her appear before Archbishop Cranmer's court at Dunstable, to show cause why the divorce should not proceed; but the queen, who felt the presence of Bryan, a relative of Anne Boleyn, a new insult, informed the messengers that she did not acknowledge the court's competency. In 1531 Bryan was sent as ambassador to France, whither he was soon followed by Sir Nicholas Carew, his sister's husband, and at the time as zealous a champion of Anne Boleyn as himself. Between May and August 1533 Bryan was travelling with the Duke of Norfolk in France seeking to prevent an alliance or even a meeting between the pope [Clement VII] and the king of France, and he was engaged in similar negotiations, together with Bishop Gardiner and Sir John Wallop, in December 1535.

Bryan during all these years remained the king's permanent favourite. Throughout the reign almost all Henry's amusements were shared in by him, and he acquired on that account an unrivalled reputation for dissoluteness.5 Undoubtedly Bryan retained his place in the king's affection by very questionable means. When the influence of the Boleyn family was declining, Bryan entered upon a convenient quarrel with Lord Rochford, which enabled the king to break with his brother-in-law by openly declaring himself on his favourite's side. In May 1536 Anne Boleyn was charged with the offences for which she suffered on the scaffold, and Cromwell — no doubt without the knowledge of Henry VIII — at first suspected Bryan of being one of the queen's accomplices. When the charges were being formulated, Cromwell, who had no liking for Bryan, hastily sent for him from the country; but no further steps were taken against him, and there is no ground for believing the suspicion to have been well founded.

It is clear that Bryan was very anxious to secure the queen's conviction (Froude's History, ii. 385, quotes from Cotton MS. E. ix. the deposition of the abbot of Woburn relating to an important conversation with Bryan on this subject. [link]), and he had the baseness to undertake the office of conveying to Jane Seymour, Anne's successor, the news of Anne Boleyn's condemnation (15 May 1536). A pension vacated by one of Anne's accomplices was promptly bestowed on Bryan by the king. Cromwell, in writing of this circumstance to Gardiner and Wallop, calls Bryan 'the vicar of hell' — a popular nickname which his cruel indifference to the fate of his cousin Anne Boleyn proves that he well deserved. Bryan conspicuously aided the government in repressing the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace in October of the same year. On 15 Oct. 1537 he played a prominent part at the christening of Prince Edward. In December 1539 he was one of the king's household deputed to meet Anne of Cleves near Calais on her way to England, and Hall, the chronicler, notes the splendour of his dress on the occasion. At the funeral of Henry VIII, on 14 Feb. 1546-7, Bryan was assigned a chief place as 'master of the henchmen.'

As a member of the privy council Bryan took part in public affairs until the close of Henry VIII's reign, and at the beginning of Edward VI's reign he was given a large share of the lands which the dissolution of the monasteries had handed over to the crown. He fought, as a captain of light horse, under the Duke of Somerset at Musselburgh 27 Sept. 1547, when he was created a knight banneret.

Soon afterwards Bryan rendered the government a very curious service. In 1548 James Butler, ninth earl of Ormonde, an Irish noble, whose powerful influence was obnoxious to the government at Dublin, although there were no valid grounds for suspecting his loyalty, died in London of poison under very suspicious circumstances. Thereupon his widow, Joan, daughter and heiress of James FitzJohn Fitzgerald, eleventh earl of Desmond, sought to marry her relative, Gerald Fitzgerald, the heir of the fifteenth earl of Desmond. To prevent this marriage, which would have united the leading representatives of the two chief Irish noble houses, Bryan was induced to prefer a suit to the lady himself. He had previously married (after 1517) Philippa, a rich heiress and widow of Sir John Fortescue; but Bryan's first wife died some time after 1534, and in 1548 he married the widowed countess. He was immediately nominated lord marshal of Ireland, and arrived in Dublin with his wife in November 1548. Sir Edward Bellingham, the haughty lord-deputy, resented his appointment, but Bryan's marriage gave him the command of the Butler influence, and Bellingham was unable to injure him. On Bellingham's departure from Ireland on 16 Dec. 1549 the Irish council recognised Bryan's powerful position by electing him lord-justice, pending the arrival of a new deputy.

But on 2 Feb. 1549-50 Bryan died suddenly at Clonmel. A postmortem examination was ordered to determine the cause of death, but the doctors came to no more satisfactory conclusion than that he died of grief, a conclusion unsupported by external evidence. Sir John Allen, the Irish chancellor, who was present at Bryan's death and at the autopsy, states that 'he departed very godly.' Roger Ascham, in the 'Scholemaster,' 1568, writes: 'Some men being never so old and spent by yeares will still be full of youthfull conditions, as was Syr F. Bryan, and evermore wold have bene.'

Bryan, like many other of Henry VIII's courtiers, interested himself deeply in literature. He is probably the 'Brian' to whom Erasmus frequently refers in his correspondence as one of his admirers in England, and he was the intimate friend of the poets Wyatt and Surrey. Like them he wrote poetry, but although Bryan had once a high reputation as a poet, his poetry is now unfortunately undiscoverable. He was an anonymous contributor to the 'Songes and Sonettes written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Howard, late earl of Surrey, and others,' 1557, usually known as 'Tottel's Miscellany;' but it is impossible to distinguish his work there from that of the other anonymous writers. Of the high esteem in which his poetry was held in the sixteenth century there is abundant evidence. Wyatt dedicated a bitter satire to Bryan on the contemptible practices of court life; and while rallying him on his restless activity in politics, speaks of his fine literary taste. Drayton, in his 'Heroicall Epistle' of the Earl of Surrey to the Lady Geraldine (first published in 1629, but written much earlier), refers to

sacred Bryan (whom the Muses kept,
And in his cradle rockt him while he slept);

the poet represents Bryan as honouring Surrey 'in sacred verses most divinely pen'd.' Similarly Drayton, in his 'Letter ... of Poets and Poesie,' is as enthusiastic in praise of Bryan as of Surrey and Wyatt, and distinctly states that he was a chief author

Of those small poems which the title beare
Of Songs and Sonnets—

a reference to 'Tottel's Miscellany.' Francis Meres, in his 'Palladis Tamia,' 1598, describes Bryan with many other famous poets as 'the most passionate among us to bewail and bemoan the complexities of love.'

Bryan was also a student of foreign languages and literature. It is clear that his uncle, John Bourchier, lord Berners, consulted him about much of his literary work. It was at Bryan's desire that Lord Berners undertook his translation of Guevara's 'Marcus Aurelius' (1534). Guevara, the founder of Euphuism, was apparently Bryan's favourite author. Not content with suggesting and editing his uncle's translation of one of the famous Spanish writer's books, he himself translated another through the French. It first appeared anonymously in 1548 under the title of 'A Dispraise of the Life of a Courtier and a Commendacion of the Life of a Labouryng Man,' London (by Berthelet), August 1548. In this form the work is of excessive rarity. In 1575 'T. Tymme, minister,' reprinted the book as 'A Looking-glasse for the Courte, composed in the Castilion tongue by the Lorde Anthony of Guevarra, Bishop of Mondonent and Cronicler to the Emperor Charles, and out of Castilion drawne into Frenche by Anthony A laygre, and out of the Frenche tongue into Englishe by Sir Frauncis Briant, Knight, one of the priuye chamber in the raygn of K. Henry the eyght.' The editor added a poem in praise of the English translator. A great many of Bryan's letters are printed in Brewer and Gairdner's 'Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII.' Three interesting manuscript letters are in the British Museum (Cotton MS. Vitell. B. x. 73, 77 ; and Harl. MS. 296, f. 18).

(Sidney L. Lee)

[Anniina Jokinen Notes:

* Variously Bryan, Brian, Bryant, or Briant, spelling of names being fluid in the Renaissance.
1. Terry Fuller, in the preface to The Spear and the Spindle: Ancestors of Sir Francis Bryan (Heritage Books, 1993), states that Bryan's mother was half-sister to Anne Boleyn's mother.
2. It was in a jousting accident in 1526, that Bryan lost an eye — he used an eyepatch for the rest of his life. See Weir, 267.
3. 33l. 6s. 8d. in 1519 was roughly equivalent in purchasing power to £24,000 in 2020.
Source: Measuring Worth.
4. There is ambiguity what 'a cipherer' meant—in his biographical entry on Sir Nicholas Carew, James Gairdner states 'cypherers', "appears to mean cupbearers", but only a few decades later the term meant someone proficient in cryptography, who could decypher cyphers, coded messages.
5. Le Grand, in his Histoire du Divorce, writes of him: "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." Translated, it says: "Nephew of Norfolk, first cousin of Anne Boleyn. One would think that with these things to recommend him, he wouldn't lack for advancement, and for some time he was considered the rising favorite, but he could not maintain that position. He loved to drink and had a talent for lying." -- my translation. French quote from Sander's Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, London, Burns & Oates, 1877, p24.]


      Lee, Sidney L. "Sir Francis Bryan."
      Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. VII. Leslie Stephen, ed.
      New York: Macmillan and Co., 1886. 150-152.

Books for further study:

Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: The King and His Court
           Ballantine Books, 2002.

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