1 August 2018

Visiting St Margaret's Westhorpe - Parish Church of Mary Tudor, Queen of France and Sir Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk

While in Suffolk researching for my new book on Charles Brandon I tracked down their parish church in Westhorpe. At the far end of the tranquil village St Margaret's is where Mary Tudor and her husband Charles Brandon had worshipped for eighteen years, as although they had a private chapel at their nearby manor house, it was important to be seen by the people.

There is a local story that when Mary Tudor died in 1533, her internal organs were removed and buried near the altar of Westhorpe church. In the early years of the 17th century a Royal Herald named Henry Chitting visited St Margaret's and recorded in his diary that in the chancel:
 'By lyes under a little stone the bowells of the French Queen Mary, wife of Charles Brandon, D of Suffolk'. 
Perhaps the story is true, but if so, I saw no sign of the 'little stone' mentioned by Henry Chitting.

A Grade I listed building, St Margaret's church is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, and has Norman stone, carved with the distinctive zigzag pattern, in the south doorway.  The south chapel has a parclose screen, dating between 1350-1400 which is one of the earliest painted screens in England, and the original decorative pattern is still visible in several places.

The pew contained within the screen is referred to as the 'royal pew' and is likely to have been used by Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon. Inside the Barrow Chapel is a simple plaque which I'd come to see, in memory of Mary:

Although the church has been extensively modified over the centuries, the original Tudor 'embattlement' still survives at the rear, and could have been paid for by Charles Brandon as Duke of Suffolk:

Here is a short extract from my book Mary - Tudor Princess, which describes one of her many visits to St Margaret's church:

- April 1519 -
A hush fell over the waiting congregation as Mary made her way to their pew, the hem of her satin gown swishing on the tiled floor. Behind her followed Anne and little Mary Brandon, carrying their prayer books, with her ladies-in-waiting, Lady Anne and Lady Elizabeth Grey, all in their best Sunday gowns.
   Mary enjoyed her role as lady of the manor and her regular attendances at the parish church were her most visible commitment. A short walk from Westhorpe Hall, these services and the summer fairs provided her main contact with real people, the merchants and farmers of her adopted county of Suffolk.
   Her royal pew was one of Brandon’s more astute investments of their limited funds. He’d ordered it to be made from local oak, finely carved with red-and-white painted Tudor roses and Mary’s gilded fleur-de-lis of France. It was good to see and be seen by the people of the village, and helped pass the weeks when Brandon was away at court and on estate business, as he was much of the time. Mary missed him but knew her duty was to raise the children as well as she could.
   The village priest, a portly man with a rich local accent, waited until they were seated then led them all in a prayer of thanks to God, his deep voice echoing from the high vaulted roof.
   ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Laudamus te. Benedicimus te. Adoramus te. Glorificamus te. Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam...
   Mary clasped her hands together and bowed her head. She had much to give thanks for. Little Harry, now three years old, grew stronger and was learning to ride a pony, with patient tuition from his father. Frances had the red-gold hair of the Tudors and delighted visitors as she tottered around in her blue silk gown, trimmed with gold lace, like a miniature version of Mary.
   Her mind wandered as the priest continued with his sermon. She prayed for Queen Catherine, who had not been so fortunate. The nation mourned when the queen lost her infant daughter the previous November, the baby so weak she died before she could be christened.
   Brandon told her the king’s pregnant mistress had been moved to the Priory of St Lawrence near Ingatestone and Henry prayed for a son. Little her brother did surprised Mary. She’d said how unbearable the news must be for Catherine, particularly as Bessie Blount had been her maid of honour, but had been shocked at Brandon’s reply.
   ‘Queen Catherine is not getting any younger.’ He made it sound like an accusation.
   Mary found herself springing to her friend’s defence. ‘She could not have done more to provide my brother with an heir—’
   Brandon interrupted her with a knowing look. ‘There’s talk at court of an annulment.’ His words hung in the air like a threat.
   ‘Henry would never do such a thing to Catherine.’ She gave him a scornful look.
   Brandon shrugged. ‘All I can tell you is what I heard.’
   She suspected there was more he’d chosen to keep from her, for fear she would feel obliged to share it with Queen Catherine. In her heart, Mary knew her friend was doomed. It angered her but Brandon was right. Catherine was in her mid-thirties. With every passing year her chances of a healthy son were reduced, which meant her own little Henry could one day become king.
Tony Riches

See also:

Exploring Westhorpe Hall, Home of Mary Tudor (Queen of France) and Charles Brandon
Visiting the Tomb of Mary Tudor, Queen of France
Researching and Writing Mary – Tudor Princess

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