Sir Francis Bryan was nicknamed either by Henry VIII or Thomas Cromwell as the Vicar of Hell. Henry allegedly asked what sort of sin it was to ruin a mother and then her child where upon Bryan commented that it was the same sort of sin as eating a hen and then its chicken. Alternatively online sources suggest that Cromwell gave Bryan the name on account of his role in bringing the Boleyn faction down.
The dissolute vicar who managed to survive Henry’s reign without falling foul of the Tudor terror had one surviving sister. Her name was Elizabeth and she became Lady Carew when she was about twelve. By the time she was thirteen she was a mother, Henry VIII was purchasing mink coats for her and giving her husband Sir Nicholas Carew (pictured right) his very own tilt yard. If that wasn’t sufficiently intriguing a look up the family tree reveals that Francis’ mother Margaret Bourchier was Anne and Mary Boleyn’s auntie. Elizabeth Howard, their mother, was Margaret’s half sister.
Lady Margaret Bryan is best known in history as the Lady Governess of Mary Tudor and then Princess Elizabeth – it is Lady Bryan who writes to Cromwell in 1536 asking how the royal toddler should be treated. Lady Margaret didn’t have much longer to influence Elizabeth as she would become Prince Edward’s Lady Governess in turn.
Sir Francis became Henry VIII’s cup bearer in 1516 and two years later was admitted to the ranks of Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber. The following year Francis was one of the young men that Wolsey had removed from court as a bad influence on the king and overly familiar with the monarch- not least because he’d been on a mission to France and returned with an expensive taste in French tailoring and a habit of mocking those dressed in the English fashion- but it wasn’t long before he was back. He turns up in 1520 with Henry at the Field of Cloth of Gold but it would be several more years before he was re-admitted to the privy chamber.
In 1522 and 23 he was fighting alongside his Howard kin in France and then Scotland. In between times he hunted, gambled, spent a lot of time at his tailors, womanised and jousted. It was the latter that caused him to lose an eye in 1526 after which he sported a rather rakish eyepatch.
The king trusted him sufficiently to send him to Rome to discuss the annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon with the Pope. Despite Bryan’s smooth talking he was unsuccessful. There is a rather lively letter from the period that Byran writes to Lord Lisle requiring that the Captain of Calais should find him a soft bed and a young woman.
In August 1533 it fell to Francis to tell his king that the Pope had excommunicated him. By this time Francis’ cousin Anne was not only queen but heavily pregnant. By the following year though things were turning sour. Chapuys noted that the king was involved romantically with a young lady – another of Francis’ cousins but Francis was closely associated with the Boleyn’s. So perhaps it is not surprising that it was in 1534 that Francis’ got into an argument with George Boleyn (pictured right)- after all Francis had a long experience of Henry’s pattern of womanising and knew when the king’s interest had moved on. Even so in 1536 when a list of all Anne Boleyn’s relations was drawn up Francis’ name was on it and he was questioned about his cousin but unlike George was not arrested. In fact he was promoted to Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber and sent off to tell Jane Seymour the good news although he managed to plot his copybooks because he appears to have been sympathetic to Mary Tudor and queried whether or not she could be returned to the rank of princess.
This was an unusual slip on Byran’s part who was liked by Henry for his plain talking and honesty but most of the time Bryan was canny enough to know what sort of truths Henry wanted to hear. Part of the problem was that Francis’ mother had been a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon as well as Mary Tudor’s Lady Governess. Another issue was the fact that despite his nickname “the vicar of hell” that he was Catholic. Not that this seems to have been an issue in 1536 when he went off to do battle with the rebellious pilgrims in the Pilgrimage of Grace.
The following year Bryan arrived in France intending to have Reginald Pole kidnapped or possibly assassinated – though it would appear that he may have been the one to warn the cardinal of his own intentions giving Reginald the opportunity to escape Henry’s clutches. Byran’s other unconventional methods of diplomacy included sleeping with a prostitute in Rome to find out what the pope’s views were. In 1538 he actually became the English ambassador at the french court but it wasn’t hugely successful because he spent much of the time drunk, gambling and generally misbehaving. He was summoned home not that it should have been a total surprise that he wasn’t cut out to be an ambassador. In 1519 he’d got himself into hot water for throwing eggs at the French while in Paris.
In 1539 Sir Nicholas Carew, another of Henry VIII’s old friends, and Francis’ brother-in-law found himself on the wrong side of the king – or more likely the wrong side of Thomas Cromwell. He had been teaching Jane Seymour how to best become queen rather than just another mistress – which was not what Cromwell wanted. Jane was favoured by the Howard faction who were traditional in their religious beliefs and thus not sympathetic to the reforms that were being instituted. Carew was implicated in the Exeter Plot which aimed to remove Henry from the throne and replace him with Reginald Pole. Francis sat on the jury that convicted him. It was Lady Margaret Bryan who wrote to Cromwell on her daughter’s behalf asking that some finances be provided for her care.
Francis’ reward for his loyalty to the Crown was to be sent off to France to ask the french king to send prospective wives to Calais for Henry to inspect. After that debacle Francis was probably grateful when Henry selected Anne of Cleves.
During all this time Francis was loyal to his mother’s Howard kin but by the end of Henry’s reign he had become more associated with the Seymour family – which was just as well as the duke of Norfolk was imprisoned for treason along with his son.
Bryan was married to Philippa Fortescue by 1522 but the pair had no children. He married for a second time to Joan Butler who was the dowager countess of Ormond (Yes there are Boleyn links there) and was able to make the most of this marriage to become Lord Marshall and Lord Justice of Ireland. He died at Clonmel on the 2nd February 1550.
There are no portraits of Francis.