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In early 1515, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, did the unthinkable; he married Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary Tudor, without the King’s permission. Mary was the Dowager Queen of France, recently widowed following the death of her husband, King Louis XII, just three short months after their marriage. After her marriage to Charles Brandon, the couple took up residence at Westhorpe Hall in Suffolk.
Widowed alone in a foreign country, Mary took her life into her own hands and sought a marriage with Charles Brandon. Yet Brandon was a mere duke, a beloved friend of Henry VIII but certainly no equal to Mary Tudor. Despite this, the pair were married in secret. After the event, there was much grovelling and promises were made in order to regain Henry VIII’s favour. The couple returned to England in early May 1515 and were married in a formal, public ceremony at Greenwich.
Shortly after this Brandon acquired the manor of Westhorpe, located in Suffolk, with the intention to make it his main country residence. Between 1515 and 1523 he spent heavily on building what would become Westhorpe Hall.
The Appearance of Westhorpe Hall
The hall was a moated brick house with sixteen principal rooms arranged around a 38m square courtyard with terracotta plaques and battlements. The gatehouse faced a bridge which crossed the moat. The gatehouse was three stories high with two square towers at each corner and was decorated with turrets and pinnacles. The ranges of the hall were two stories and contained galleries which gave way to a series of apartments containing outer and inner chambers.
The main chambers were located on the east side and included: a hall, a great chamber, a dining chamber, cellars, kitchens, a buttery, pantry and a number of smaller chambers. It also contained a cloistered chapel that had a magnificent stained-glass window. The hall had beautifully decorated chimneys, oak panelled rooms and even a statue of Hercules. There was also a porter’s lodge which was situated beside a three arched bridge. In addition, the surrounding parks were well stocked with deer for hunting, with the gardens designed in the French fashion. Brandon stated that the building costs for Westhorpe Hall were £12,000; around £1,000,000 today.
Life at Westhorpe Hall
Mary Tudor spent the final years of her life at Westhorpe after retiring from court. This withdrawal was for two reasons; first, her health was declining and she suffered from a series of debilitating pains in her side. Second, she did not approve of her brother’s relationship with Anne Boleyn.
Mary was very close to Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Mary and Katherine had known one another since Katherine had arrived in England in 1502. They were sisters-in-law, first through Katherine’s short-lived marriage to Arthur, and then through her marriage to Henry VIII. As sisters-in-law, the pair would have seen each other regularly at court and many records survive of Katherine and Mary attending banquets together, sitting together watching pageants and jousting events, as well as enjoying dancing and other lavish displays in one another’s company.
In addition to all this, in March 1517, Mary and Brandon hosted Queen Katherine while the queen was on pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady, at the Austin Priory at Walsingham. The women clearly became close over the years. Mary and Katherine would have shared their joys and triumphs of being queens, their fears and concerns over their husbands. They would have bonded over their mutual love for Henry VIII, as brother and husband. They would have shared heartbreak and joy in the birth and loss of their children. For Mary, to see her friend and the woman she felt to be rightly queen, cast aside for Anne Boleyn must have been shocking and infuriating.
However, being away from court provided Mary with the opportunity to visit the neighbouring towns and priories. Each Easter, Mary would make an appearance at the Bury St Edmunds Easter fair. Westhorpe Hall was located not too far away and Mary would attend the Easter fair sitting under a cloth of gold, holding court for the local townspeople. The people of Suffolk greatly respected and adored Mary, never forgetting that she was a dowager queen of France and sister to the king. They welcomed her warmly and presented her with gifts and entertainment.
By 1533, the Dowager Queen of France had been ill for some time and, in May, Brandon had returned to Westhorpe to visit his wife. Tragically, it would be the last time he would ever see her alive. Brandon was soon recalled to London to continue with the preparations for Anne’s coronation. Mary died between seven and eight o’clock in the morning on 25 June 1533. Even by the standard of the time she had not reached old age.
The Death of Mary Tudor, Queen of France
Mary’s cause of death is unknown. A number of theories have been put forward, one being that she may have suffered from angina. Another proposal is that the pain in Mary’s side that constantly bothered her throughout her life was due to an extreme kidney infection. In her younger years, Mary may have suffered from a number of urinary tract infections which ultimately lead to a kidney infection. All of these suggestions are merely theories and without further recorded information about Mary’s health it is simply impossible to know what caused her death.
Local church bells were rung at approximately eight o’clock that morning to tell the world that Mary Tudor had died. Mary’s body was carefully embalmed and she lay in state at Westhorpe Hall for three weeks. Her coffin was draped in deep blue velvet and surrounding the coffin candles burned day and night.
Mary’s coffin was taken from Westhorpe Hall to the Abbey Church at Bury St Edmunds. Mary’s funeral was held on 20 July 1533, and was an affair befitting a woman of her status.
The Destruction of Westhorpe Hall
Westhorpe Hall remained in Brandon’s possession until his death on August 22 1545, and then it passed to his eldest son, Henry Brandon. Upon Henry Brandon’s early death in 1551 the Hall reverted to the crown where it was granted to Anne of Cleves and then Sir Thomas Cornwallis.
Sadly, Westhorpe Hall was demolished in the 1760’s. Martin, a historian at Thetford noted that he:
‘…went to see the dismal ruins of Westhorpe Hall, formerly the seat of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. The workmen are now pulling it down as fast as may be, in a very careless and injudicious manner. The coping bricks, battlements and many other ornamental pieces, are made of earth, and burnt hard, as fresh as when first built. They might, with care, have been taken down whole, but all the fine chimnies, and ornaments were pulled down with ropes, and crushed to pieces in a most shameful manner. There was a monstrous figure of Hercules sitting cross legged with his club, and a lion beside him, but all shattered in pieces. The painted glass is likely to share the same fate. The timber is fresh and sound, and the building, which was very lofty, stood as when it was first built. It is a pity that care is not taken to preserve some few of our ancient fabrics. To demolish every piece of old architecture is quite barbaric.’
Where the hall used to be now stands a Georgian building which over time has been a public house, hotel, family home and finally, a residential care home. However, if you do visit the care home you will see one or two glimpses of times past. The three-arched bridge from the original Tudor age still stands and on the south side above the arches remains parts of a frieze of terracotta panels, each with Brandon’s badge, the head of a lion, in relief. And if you look above the doorway of the home, you can see the original coat of arms of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk that once was part of Westhorpe Hall.
NOTE: There are historic houses in Westhorpe that acquired some of the preserved wood and carvings from the hall when it was demolished.