The Death of Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk

21 November marks the anniversary of the death of Lady Jane Grey’s mother, Frances Brandon. To mark the occasion, I’ve written a short piece about her death.

Effigy of Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk, Westminster Abbey

On 21 November 1559, Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk, died at the age of forty-two. Frances was the mother of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, and a Tudor princess in her own right. Following the execution of her seventeen-year-old daughter and her husband, Henry Grey in February 1554, Frances had swiftly remarried, taking as her second husband a gentleman named Adrian Stokes. The couple had one child, a daughter named Elizabeth who died just months after her birth. Frances also had two surviving daughters from her first marriage, Katherine and Mary.

P.10-1979 Portrait miniature of Lady Katherine Grey (1540 - 68), Countess of Hertford; attributed to Levina Teerlinc (1505 - 76); Probably English; c.1555 - 60. Watercolour on vellum put down on card in a box of turned ivory.

By 1559 Katherine Grey had fallen in love with Edward Seymour, and the couple sought to marry. Realising that Queen Elizabeth’s permission was necessary before they could proceed, Katherine petitioned her mother for help in obtaining it. Frances approved of such a match, and on 2 October she began to write a letter to the Queen: ‘the Earl of Hertford doth bear goodwill to my daughter the Lady Katherine, and I do humbly require the Queen’s Highness to be a good and gracious lady unto her, and that it may please Her Majesty to assent to her marriage to the said Earl’. Sadly for Katherine, the letter was never finished. Frances’s health had deteriorated, and she was in no fit state to complete it.

There is no indication as to the nature of her illness, but it was of a serious enough nature for Frances herself to become aware of the fact that her days were numbered. Realising that time was running out, on 3 November she wrote to Sir William Cecil to thank him for his help with selling one of her jointure lands, and three days later a list was drawn up which stated the value of all of her lands. On 9 November she made her will.

In the name of God, Amen. I lady Frances Duchess of Suffolk, wife to Adrian Stokes esquire, considering how uncertain the hour of death is, and how certain it is that every creature shall die when it shall please God, being sick in body but whole in mind, thanks be to Almighty God; and considering with myself that the said Adrian Stokes my husband is indebted to divers and sundry persons in great sums of money, and also that the charge of my funeral, if God call me to his mercy, shall be great charges to him, minding he shall have, possess, and enjoy all goods, chattels, as well real as personal, as all debts, legacies and all other things whatsoever I may give, dispose, limit, or appoint by my last will and testament for the discharge of the said debts and funeral, do ordain and make this my present last will and testament, and do by the same constitute and make the said Adrian Stokes my husband my sole executor to all respects, ententes, and purposes. In witness whereof I have hereunto put my hand and seal the ninth day of November, in the first year of the reign of our sovereign lady Elizabeth, by the grace of God Queen of England, France, and Ireland, defender of the faith, etc. Frances Suffolk.

The fact that Frances left all of her possessions to her husband is a testimony to the success of their marriage and her trust in him. She also doubtless believed that he would take care of her daughters, now aged nineteen and fourteen.

Shortly after making her will it became clear that Frances’s remaining time on earth was running out. On 21 November Frances died at the sheenpriorywyngaerdedetailCharterhouse, her Sheen home. There is no record of whether Adrian or her daughters, now orphans, were present.

Queen Elizabeth was acutely aware that Frances was a princess of the royal blood. At the Queen’s command she was therefore given a magnificent royal funeral paid for by the Crown. A detailed account of the proceedings survives in the College of Arms, and the service took place in Westminster Abbey. The Queen, who clearly had not felt threatened by Frances’s status, ordered that her arms should be augmented and westminsterabbey-north-facade001mquartered with the royal arms to be placed on the escutcheon at her funeral. This took place on 5 December, and was the first funeral to be conducted in English with Protestant rites in Westminster Abbey. As etiquette dictated Adrian did not attend, and the Chief Mourner was Frances’s eldest daughter, Katherine, while Mary was also present. According to the diarist Henry Machyn, ‘many mourners’ attended Frances’s funeral and the ceremony was conducted with great pomp. Once the service had been concluded the funeral party returned to the Charterhouse.

Frances was laid to rest in St Edmund’s Chapel within the Abbey, not far from the resting place of her cousin, Mary I. In 1563 a magnificent tomb was erected to her memory, reportedly under the auspices of Adrian who also paid the famous Cornelius Cure to carve it. Frances wears her ermine lined robes that reflect her royal status, her ducal coronet, and a pendant hangs around her neck. It is an extremely fitting memorial.


Inscribed on her tomb is a Latin inscription:

Dirge for the most noble Lady Frances, onetime Duchess of Suffolk; naught avails glory or splendour, naught avails titles of kings; naught profits a magnificent abode, resplendent with wealth. All, all are passed away: the glory of virtue alone remained, impervious to the funeral pyres of Tartarus [part of Hades or the Underworld]. She was married first to the Duke, and after was wife to Mr Stock, Esq. Now, in death, may you fare well, united to God.

Frances’s death drew little comment from her contemporaries. Following the execution of her daughter and her first husband she had largely withdrawn from public life, a role she appears to have been happy to relinquish. Primarily her family and those who were close to her, therefore, probably mourned her. There can be little doubt however that she made her mark on English history. Despite being known simply as the mother of the tragic Lady Jane Grey, Frances was her own person whose impact on the events of her time was crucial. Her splendid tomb is a tangible reminder of this formidable woman who is so often overlooked, while her blood still runs in the veins of the Dukes of Somerset to this day. Lady Frances Brandon was in truth as well as in deed, a Tudor Princess.



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