Tuesday, October 23, 2012

An Enduring Tudor Mystery: What Happened to Lady Mary Seymour?

by Sandra Byrd

Lady Mary Seymour was the only child of Queen Kateryn Parr and her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour. Parr died of child bed fever shortly after giving birth to Mary, and the baby’s father, Thomas Seymour, was executed for treason just a few short years thereafter. But what happened to their child, who seems to have vanished without trace into history? This is an enduring mystery and one which has intrigued Tudor readers for years.

Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk
Among the last known facts about the child include that her father, Thomas Seymour, did ask as a dying wish that Mary be entrusted to Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk and that desire was granted. Willoughby, although a great friend of Mary Seymour’s mother, Queen Kateryn Parr, viewed this wardship as a burden, as evidenced by her own letters which pleaded for relief.

According to Parr’s biographer Linda Porter, “In January, 1550, less than a year after her father’s death, application was made in the House of Commons for the restitution of Lady Mary Seymour…she had been made eligible by this act to inherit any remaining property that had not been returned to the Crown at the time of her father’s attainder. But in truth, Mary’s prospects were less optimistic than this might suggest. Much of her parents’ lands and goods had already passed onto the hands of others.”

Queen Kateryn Parr
The £500 required for Mary’s household would amount to approximately £100,000 British pounds, or $150,000 US today, so you can see that Willoughby had reason to shrink from such a duty. And yet the daughter of a Queen must be kept in commensurate style. There were many people who had greatly benefited from Parr’s generosity throughout the short years of her marriage to Henry. None of them stepped forward to assist Baby Mary.

Biographer Elizabeth Norton says that, “The council granted money to Mary for household wages, servants’ uniforms, and food on 13 March, 1550. This is the last evidence of Mary’s continued survival.” Susan James says Mary is, "probably buried somewhere in the parish church at Edenham."

Most of Parr’s biographers assume that Mary died young of a childhood disease. But this, by necessity, is speculative because there is no record of Mary’s death anywhere: no gravestone, no bill of death, no mention of it in anyone’s extant personal or official correspondence. Parr’s biographer during the Victorian ages, Agnes Strickland, claimed that Mary lived on to marry Edward Bushel and become a member of the household of Queen Anne, King James I of England’s wife. It's possible.  There are other possibilities.

Thomas Seymour, Baron Seymour of Sudeley
Various family biographers claimed descent from Mary, including those who came down from the Irish shipping family of Hart. This family also claimed to have had Thomas Seymour’s ring which was inscribed, What I Have, I Hold, till early in the twentieth century. I have no idea if that is true or not, but it’s a good detail and certainly possible.

According to an article in History Today by biographer Linda Porter, Kateryn Parr’s chaplain, John Parkhurst, published a book in 1573 entitled, Ludica sive Epigrammata juvenilia. Within it is a poem that speaks of someone with a “queenly mother” who died in childbirth, child of whom now lies beneath a marble after a brief life. But there is no mention of the child’s name, and 1573 is twenty-five years after Mary’s birth. It hints at Mary, but does not insist.

Fiction is a rather more generous mistress than biography, and I was therefore free to wonder. Why would the daughter of a Queen and the cousin of the King not have warranted even a tiny remark upon her death? In an era when family descent meant everything it seemed unlikely that Mary’s death would be nowhere definitively noted. Far less important people, even young children, had their deaths documented during these years; my research turned up dozens of them, most of whom were lower born than Mary.

Edward Seymour requested a state funeral for his mother (which was refused) as she was grandmother to the King. Would then the death of the cousin of a King, and the only child of the most recent Queen, not even be mentioned? The differences seem irreconcilable. Then, too, it would have been to Willoughby’s advantage to show that she was no longer responsible for the child, if Mary was dead.

Sudeley Castle, birthplace of Mary Seymour
The turmoil of the time, in which Mary’s uncle the Lord Protector was about to fall, the fact that her grandmother Lady Seymour died in 1550, and the lack of motivation any would have had to seek the child out lest they then be required to then pay for her upkeep, all added up to a potentially different ending for me. The lack of solid facts allowed me to give Mary a happy ending in my novel, The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr, an ending I feel is entirely possible given Mary’s cold trail, and one which I feel both Queen Kateryn and her little Mary deserve.

To learn more about Sandra's Ladies in Waiting Series, set in Tudor England, please visit www.sandrabyrd.com. For blogs on England and English history, visit: http://sandrabyrd.com/blog/


  1. I have always wondered about her survival and wondered how she could disappear from history like that, given that she was a prior Queen's daughter. Look forward to reading of the happy ending!

  2. It is worth noting that though no note of her death survives, that doesn't mean no note of her death was made. I think it is more unlikely that she survived to adulthood and left no trace than that no record of her death in childhood remains.

  3. Thank you, Marie, I hope you'll enjoy the book. I always wondered how she could just disappear, too. Gillian, speculating on the mystery is half the pleasure, isn't it? I "solved" both problems, fictionally, and that was fun, but someone else could certainly posit another solution!

  4. I love how you showed us all the possibilities in this article! And it makes me really want to read your book... :-)

  5. Thank you, Rosanne. I hope you do get to read it!

  6. Very informative post--probably the most comprehensive on this subject. I often wonder how the persecution of Princess Elizabeth, often based on the rumors surrounding her stay at Sudeley and allegations of a romantic attachment to Mary's father, might not have had some influence on her fate. It seems everyone was desperate to distance themselves from the younger Seymour brother.

  7. Interesting article. I wonder if we'll ever know what happened to her.

  8. Angelyn, I do think it had some effect on Elizabeth, of course. I don't think she was a willing participant in any of the shenanigans, but I think before that she certainly "crushed" on Seymour, and he took advantage. She liked handsomely dark, daring, and kind of maverick men her entire life. But she also never married any of them.

    However, as bad as he was, I don't think Seymour was quite the terrible beast some say he was at least before he went crazy over the Tudor children. Kateryn Parr was too smart to have not observed that, and he did wait for quite a long while, after all, to marry her, not knowing when or if she'd be available. If he was desperate to marry up his entire life he certainly could have done so earlier. The Seymours were in ascendancy for many years.

    I don't know if we will, Ella. I kind of hope both ways. :)

  9. Very interesting subject. I'm interested in reading your book to see how you solved the problems. Best of luck with it!

  10. I wonder why Mary wasn't given to one of the other surviving Seymours... There was a least one other brother (besides Edward) and a sister still living when Thomas was executed.

  11. Kelly, Thomas requested that his daughter be entrusted to Katherine Willoughby, who was a great friend of Kateryn Parr. That says a lot, to me, about where he felt his daughter would be best cared for. But it also seems (from this distance) that no one, not Parr's relatives nor the Seymour lot offered to take her on nor financially support her. The king, of course, was Mary's cousin, which makes it even more astounding! There's a lot we don't know, but much we can draw from what we do know, too. So... informed speculation. ;)

  12. Such a great blog post! I am definitely going to read your book.


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