Friday, December 05, 2008

Question from Lara - Mary "Rose" Tudor's death and her daughter Frances

Yes, this one is from me! Kathy teased us on the general blog with some information on the death of Henry VIII's sister Mary and the possible effects on her children. We also started to discuss Frances' personality and usual portrayal. So, I'm moving the thread over here to give Kathy a place to post any information she'd like to share and to give folks somewhere to continue the discussion on Frances.

Here's a link to the thread where this discussion started:


Anonymous said...

Okay, as promised, here goes:

First a disclaimer: I'm not a doctor and I don't intend to play one on the internet. I did do some medical research on the facts, but I would love to have the opinion of a medical professional.

Mary Tudor, married to Charles Brandon since 1515, died at Westhorpe, Suffolk on June 24, 1533, age 38. As she lived primarily away from court, there is not as much information as we would have if she had remained in the spotlight. During most of her youth, she seemed to be reasonably healthy, though not robustly so as her brother and sister were. She bore four live children in her twenties. It is possible she had one or more miscarriages, but we just don't know.

Evidence for what Mary died of is very scarce. The only direct evidence I have been able to find is in a letter from Charles Brandon to Cardinal Wolsey apparently in the spring of 1520 while they were preparing for The Field of the Cloth of Gold. This quotation is from Walter C. Richardson, The White Queen, page 228.

"...informing him that his wife was ill again, suffering from the 'old disease in her side' which was to plague her to the end of her life. Writing from Croyden where he and Mary were staying temporarily at the house of Sir Nicholas Carew, he apologized for his absence from recent Council sessions:

The cause why hath been that the said French Queen hath had, and yet hath, divers physicians with her for her old disease in her side and as yet can not be perfectly restored to her health. And, albeit I have been two times at London only to the intent to have waited on your lordship, yet her Grace at both times hat so sent for me that I might not otherwise do but return home betimes." (Italics mine)

Richardson doesn't cite any sources for the comment that that particular illness plagued Mary for the rest of her life, but I have read some quotes from another letter Charles supposedly wrote Henry at a later period, late 1520's I believe, that said essentially the same thing, that Mary had a severe pain her side that caused her to cry constantly. I'm sorry I can't immediately lay my hands on a citation for that letter. I know I read it in an older book, possibly Mary Croom Brown's.

The main two medical conditions I found that has pain in the side as symptomatic were gynecological problems and kidney problems. I didn't have anything that could narrow it down further until I came across some information about Eleanor Brandon Clifford. She was Charles and Mary's youngest daughter. We don't know her exact birthday, but it was probably 1519 or 1520. She died in 1547 at around the age of 27 or 28.

In Dulcie Ashdown's Tudor Cousins on page 59, she cites a letter from Eleanor to her husband dated February 14, though a year is not included. Ashdown thinks it was the year of her death though. (Incidentally, she sources the letter to Clifford Letters of the Sixteenth Century edited by A.G. Dickens, 1962, Surtees Society, vol. 172, page 126)

"Dear heart,
After my most hearty commendations, this shall be to certify you that since your departure from me I have been very sick and at this present my water is very red, whereby I suppose I have the jaundice and the ague both, for I have none abide {no appetite for] meat and I have such pains in my side and towards my back as I had at Brougham, where it began with me first...." (Italics mine)

To me, this definitely says kidney disease of some sort. And it sounds very much like Mary's symptoms from the little bit of information we have. It's possible, of course, that they both just suffered from kidney stones, but I am pretty certain that condition had to have been known by Tudor medicine and it would have been mentioned by name rather than just the symptoms as we have in both cases. Also I don't know if it is possible to die from kidney stones. Any doctors out there?

Mary and Eleanor both died very young, even for those times. And I did in my research run across several kidney diseases that had the same type of symptoms and that were potentially fatal. So I think the probability is that Mary and her daughter both died from a chronic kidney disease.

I haven't researched Frances Brandon very much, so I'm not sure if she had any similar symptoms, but she died not much older than her mother did. Also Mary's two sons (yes, there were two sons named Henry, not one as is frequently written -- but that's another issue(no pun intended)) both died very young too, though I haven't found any information at all on them.

Well, that's the state of my research into Mary's death.

Anonymous said...

First, on Kathy's evidence for Mary Tudor Brandon's cause of death. That her "water" was "red" might be attributed to many causes, including but not limited to kidney stones and other renal (kidney) diseases, various types of hepatic (liver) dysfunction, from hepatitis to cirrhosis (very relevant, given past discussions about the effect of chronic alcohol consumption in the Tudor period), chronic cystitis (bladder infections), and that old standby for royalty, porphyria. "Pain in the side" might be caused by any of the above, as well as by gynecological conditions (as Kathy noted), various gastrointestinal issues, and even neoplasms (cancers). As a former Registered Nurse, I am always deeply reluctant to take one or two vague symptoms and extrapolate from them a diagnosis, especially at a distance of more than 450 years. And to speculate that the condition was somehow genetic is even more risky, except in the case of porphyria.

Yes, the female descendants of Mary Tudor Brandon died young. But so did a very large percentage of women in the era. It is, in my opinion, incorrect to state that their ages at their deaths were significantly outside the norm for the period. A review of some of the demographic studies of England in the 16th century will support my opinion, I believe. The average life expectancy for women in Tudor England was, if I remember correctly, somewhat less than 40 years. Frances Brandon Grey died at age 42, her sister Eleanor at age 28.

And to answer Tracey's question: The issue of how Jane Grey was or was not treated as a child takes up an entire chapter in my book ... far too lengthy to discuss here. So allow me to summarize by saying that:

A) the "quote" from Jane in which she supposedly states that she was mistreated by her parents is not, in fact, a true "quote." It is instead a remembrance made by Roger Ascham some 20 years after the event and included in a very specific context ... his book of advice to tutors on how best to treat their pupils. The "quote" is extremely unreliable as "fact."

B) Even if the quote is verbatim and factual, the treatment described in it is entirely consistent with surviving advice manuals from the period. Parents were instructed, even by religious leaders, to beat children in order to obtain correct behavior and to drive out bad behavior. There were even instructions on how to beat a child and on what parts of the body to administer the beating. Perceptions that Jane was somehow mistreated, abused, or treated in a way that was unusual for the Tudor period are, in my opinion, entirely a product of 19th century mythmaking. (As is so very much of the story of Jane Grey .....) I believe Frances Brandon Grey treated her children in a manner that was entirely appropriate for any 16th century English noblewoman.

Thanks, Kathy, for the info on Frances' possible cause of death.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to read my material and replying to it, PhD Historian.

I never intended my theory to be a final diagnosis, especially since I'm not a doctor. I was just trying to arrive at a probable cause based on the information we do have, information that I think has been overlooked before now. Unfortunately I doubt we will ever acquire any more information, so it's the best we can do given what we have.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, PhD Historian, for the clarification re the Jane Grey quote. I didn't know it was a remembrance on the part of Ascham...and who knows how much of what she originally said stayed in his memory...or if she actually said anything at all!

I knew it was 'standard procedure' to beat children during this period of time. However, reading about a personal experience from a famous historical character (as in Lady Jane's case) makes it seem that beatings were rare and far between. Thus, I think the reputation of Frances of Suffolk has suffered for what Jane's tutor least, that's how I see it now.

Thanks, Kathy, for your thesis on what caused the death of Mary Tudor. My first thought was a kidney stone...I know they can be VERY painful, and who knows what the physicians used to 'cure' the problem.

Difficult to come to any conclusion this far away from the actual event...thanks for taking a stab at it!

Elizabeth M. said...

I wonder if it could also have been a gall bladder problem. I had my gall bladder out on an emergency basis last winter, as I was so sick. The pain was unbearable. I have heard of people having gall bladder pain for long periods before some diagnosis or treatment. My gall bladder had stones, and one large one was lodged at the opening of the gall bladder, and that was the cause fo the pain. And the surgeon later showed me photos of my gall bladder--it was almost like a balloon from being blocked. Some more time, and he said it would have burst, and that would have been very unpleasant, to say the least.
But as PhD Historian says, we will never know after nearly half a millennium.
I am so anxious for your book on Lady Jane to come out, PhD Historian. You have so much in-depth knowledge, and I get so much out of your posts.

Bearded Lady said...

Hi Kathy,

Thanks for the info. I had never read that letter and the red urine and pain in the side is definitely an interesting clue as to how she died. I agree with you that it is doubtful that it was kidney stones. 16th century doctors often referred to kidney stones as “the stone” and several letters survive of people complaining about this ailment. I have come across some really interesting cures for kidney stones for my next book. (pigeon dung...ick!)

And although it cannot be ruled out, it seems that if she had cystitis that she would have complained about pain during urination? I am NOT a doctor or a nurse so I have no clue.

My mind immediately jumped to porphyria, but your theory of kidney disease seems like as good as guess as any.

Thanks for sharing the info.

djd said...

I agree with PhD about there being many things that could have caused Mary's symptoms. The fact that she had jaundice leads me to believe that her liver was involved, perhaps the pancrease too. Could have been the kidney as well. In my nursing career I have treated so many patients with end-stage liver disease, be it from alcohol or cancer, and towards the end all body systems function abnormally. A painful way to die for sure. I hope they had discovered opiates back then to use for pain. I read somewhere that they did have those medicines available, and in other places it says not. Some of the toxic treatments they used back then may have even caused Mary's illness to begin with. Who knows. Thanks to all who contributed to this discussion. Very interesting!

Anonymous said...

djd, it was Eleanor that was writing about jaundice, not Mary.

Since the topic of porphyria has come up though, I have a question about that. The last time I was in Westminster Abbey, I bought a book, The Death of Kings at the bookstore there. It attempts to detail all that we know of the final illnesses of all the British monarchs from William the Conqueror down to Victoria. It's somewhat of a mixed bag as there are some completely fascinating discussions in it, but the author also is a bit loose with some historical facts. It could have used a good fact-checker and editor.

In the discussion on George III, it discusses porphyria quite extensively and makes the claim that it came down through the royal family from Margaret Tudor. It doesn't given any evidence for this though.

Does anybody know if there is any evidence that Margaret had it?

Anonymous said...

This has been discussed in another thread (, but it bears brief repeating here because the topic does come up often.

"Porphyria" is something of a catch-all term for a collection of diseases that affect the body's ability to produce heme, the central component of hemoglobin, or the substance within the red blood cells that binds and carries oxygen to the body's cells. There are multiple different forms of porphyria, classed as either acute or chronic. They can affect various stages of heme production, which occurs in or is controlled by multiple organs, so that one might have a form that affects the liver, or the bone marrow, or the kidneys.

Porphyria is a recessive genetic disorder. As such, it is possible to carry one gene without having the disease, much like hemophilia or cystic fibrosis carriers. When two carriers of the single gene produce children together, there is a 1 in 4 chance that any child will inherit the gene from both parents, giving the child the two genes necessary to produce the disease itself.

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots is sometimes argued either to have had or been a carrier of the form known as variegate porphyria, or protocoproporphyria. Margaret Tudor was, of course, Mary Stuart's grandmother.

Mary Stuart was also a direct lineal ancestor of George III (as was Margaret Tudor), whose "madness" late in life has often been attributed to the neurological symptoms of porphyria ... and the subject of an excellent film.

Other Tudor relations have also been "diagnosed" with porphyria by modern historians. Arbella Stuart, another descendant of Margaret Tudor, is sometimes thought to have had porphyria. The line of Frances Brandon, daughter of Margaret's sister Mary Tudor, is another example. Some historians believe the symptoms of "poisoning" described by Frances's daughter Jane Grey in 1553 were actually symptoms of porphyria (I disagree). And Eleanor Brandon Clifford's symptoms might easily be attributed to porphyria.

There is little or no direct evidence that Margaret Tudor had porphyria herself. However, two of her grandchildren, Mary Stuart and Henry Stuart (Lord Darnley), married each other and became the parents of James VI&I, who is generally and reliably thought to have had porphyria. Because Margaret is the only common ancestor of James's two parents, she is usually thought to have been a carrier.

In the previous thread linked above, I suggested that the porphyria gene may have been introduced into the Tudor lineage via Elizabeth of York, who had inherited it from her mother, Elizabeth Woodville. This would explain any occurrence of porphyria in the Brandon-Grey line, as both the Tudor-Brandon females and the Grey males were descendants of Woodville and intermarriage among them might easily produce children with both genes for the disease.

Merlin said...

I don't think there is any evidence that Margaret had it but my understanding is that it is thought she may have been a carrier. Her son, James V, exhibited symptoms that would be consistent with Porphyria as did his daughter (Mary Queen of Scotts)
and as it doesn't seem to have run in the Stuart line prior to that it's therefore assumed that it came via Margaret Tudor. It's certainly possible that Mary Tudor had Porphyria (the pain in her side was a symptom shared by Mary of Scotland later) and that one or both of her daughters inherrited it (the red urine is interesting). Mind you, if it was Porphyria, it raises the question of when it entered the Tudor line? I don't think there's any circumstantial evidence of Henry VII or his mother showing any symptoms. I do like a medical mystery....

Merlin said...

My post crossed with PhD's. That's interesting- I hadn't considered the Woodville connection.