Sir Francis Bryan is one of the figures from the Tudor period I know very little about. I keep coming across him in fictional form, in novels like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Alison Weir’s Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen, but this new biography by Sarah-Beth Watkins is the first opportunity I’ve had to read a non-fiction account of his life.
Subtitled Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Ambassador, the book takes us through Bryan’s life beginning with his arrival at court at a young age, when he and his brother-in-law Nicholas Carew became close companions of the king, and ending with his final days in Ireland. In the years between, he held a number of positions at Henry’s court including Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, Master of the Toils, Master of the Henchmen and Chief Cupbearer, as well as carrying out diplomatic missions to France and Rome. He was also, at various times, a soldier, sailor, cipherer, poet and translator. However, his greatest skill seems to have been his ability to keep the king happy and tell him what he wanted to hear, keeping his head while those around him, including his cousins Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were not so fortunate. Some people saw this as lacking principles, others as common sense and self-preservation.
This is a short book and a very quick read, with the author sticking mainly to the facts and rarely providing any analysis or deeper insight into Francis Bryan’s actions or character. Nicknamed The Vicar of Hell and known for his love of wine, women and gambling and his reputation as ‘a rake and a libertine’, I had initially expected him to be a fascinating character to read about, but I felt that he never really came to life on the page at all. I suppose it depends on the type of non-fiction you like – other reviews of this book are glowingly positive – but I found it a bit dry and not quite what I’d been hoping for.
Despite the book being so short, it does appear to have been thoroughly researched and contains a large amount of factual information. The author draws on primary sources such as letters and often reproduces large chunks of them in the text. However, in many cases I didn’t feel that the letters added much to my understanding of Francis Bryan – sometimes he is only briefly referred to once or twice and the rest of the letter is not particularly relevant. Without these long excerpts, though, the book would have been even shorter and less substantial, and the letters do still have value if you’re interested in the Tudor period in general.
Overall, this book has given me a good overview of what Francis Bryan did and achieved, even though it isn’t the more personal sort of biography I prefer. I appreciate that there’s a limit to what we actually know about Bryan, though. We don’t even have any idea what he looked like; in 1526, he lost an eye during a jousting tournament and after that wore an eye patch which, as Watkins tells us, could have explained why he never allowed any portraits to be painted.
I have looked to see if any other books about Sir Francis Bryan have been written but this is the only one I can find. If you’re aware of any, please let me know!
Thanks to Chronos Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.