Sir Francis Bryan I "The Vicar of Hell", Lord Chief Justice of Ireland

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Francis Bryan, I

Also Known As: "Francis Bryan"
Birthplace: Cheddington, Buckinghamshire, England
Death: Died in Clonmel, Tiperary, Munster, Ireland
Cause of death: Suspected to have been poisoned by second wife, Lady Joan Fitzgerald
Place of Burial: Clonmel, South Tipperary, Tipperary, Ireland
Immediate Family:

Son of Sir Thomas Bryan, II, Kt. and Margaret Bryan, Lady Bryan
Husband of Phillipa Bryan and Lady Joan Fitzgerald, Duchess of Ormond
Father of Edward John Bryan; Elizabeth Bryan and Sir Francis Bryan, II, Justicar of Ireland
Brother of Elizabeth Bryan, Lady Carew; John Bryan; Thomas Bryan and Margaret Guildford

Occupation: Sir Knight Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, Lord Marchall of Ireland, "The Vicar of Hell"l Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland
Managed by: Ann Margrethe Nilsen
Last Updated:

About Sir Francis Bryan I "The Vicar of Hell", Lord Chief Justice of Ireland

Family and Education b. by 1492, 1st surv. s. of Sir Thomas Bryan of Ashridge, Herts. by Margaret, da. of Sir Humphrey Bourchier (d.1471), s. and h. of John, 1st Lord Berners. educ. ?Oxf. m. (1) by Mar. 1522, Philippa, da. and h. of Humphrey Spice of Black Notley, Essex, wid. of John Fortescue of Ponsbourne, Herts.; (2) by 29 Aug. 1548, Joan, da. of James Fitzmaurice (Fitzgerald), 10th Earl of Desmond, wid. of James Butler (d.1546), 9th Earl of Ormond; at least 1s. illegit. suc. fa. by 31 Jan. 1518. Kntd. 2 July 1522, banneret Sept. 1547.3

Offices Held Capt. Margaret Bonaventure 1513; master of the toils 1518-48; constable, Hertford castle, Herts. 1518-34, Harlech castle, Merion. 1521-d., Wallingford castle, Berks. 1536, jt. constable, Warwick castle, Warws. 1528-d.; cipherer, the Household 1520; gent. privy chamber by 1521; esquire of the body by 1522; commr. subsidy, Herts. 1523, Essex 1524, survey lands, Calais 1532, tenths of spiritualities, Beds. 1535, benevolence 1544/45, musters 1546; forester, Enfield Chase, Mdx. 1524-6; v.-adm. 1525, 1543; j.p. Beds. 1525-d., Bucks. 1525-42, Herts. 1526; master of the henchmen 1526-49; custos rot. Bucks. 1528; keeper, Richmond Park, Surr. 1529-46, jt. (with Francis Bulstrode) Brogborough Park, Beds., 1547; ambassador to France and Rome Aug. 1528-Oct. 1529, France Oct. 1530-Dec. 1531, Nov. 1535, Apr.-Aug. 1538, to the Empire Oct.-Dec. 1543; steward, the Chiltern hundreds 1536, Ewelme and Nuneham Courtnay, Oxon. 1538; chief butler, Eng. 1537-d.; recorder, Bedford c.1548; marshal, Ireland Nov. 1548, ld. justice Dec. 1549.4

Biography Francis Bryan was born into a family well-endowed by the achievements of his grandfather. Sir Thomas Bryan, chief justice of common pleas, died in 1500 holding lands in Buckinghamshire and seven other counties stretching from Kent to Yorkshire. Sir Thomas Bryan, the judge’s son, made his career at court where he was a knight of the body to Henry VII and Henry VIII and vice-chamberlain to Queen Catherine of Aragon: he married into a cultured baronial family prominent at court and his widow, who was something of a blue-stocking, was to become governess to the princesses Mary and Elizabeth. Francis Bryan may have been the second son of this marriage: he had a brother Thomas who died before 1508 and was buried in Ashridge chapel. There is no reference to either brother in their grandfather’s will of 1496, but Francis was almost certainly born before that date: the abbot of Woburn was to describe him in 1538 as ‘now growing in age’. As a boy he may have been placed in the household of Sir Thomas Parr (d.1517), whom in later life he was to call his special patron, and he is thought to have finished his education at Oxford. As the son of one courtier and the protégé of another, Bryan soon found his own place at court, where one of his sisters became the wife of Sir Henry Guildford and the other of Sir Nicholas Carew.5

The first glimpse of Bryan comes in 1513 when during the admiralty of his kinsman Sir Thomas Howard he held a command in the navy. Within two years he had established himself as a favourite with the King, who was of an age with him: a frequent sharer in the royal pastimes, his enthusiasm for the chase was rewarded by his appointment in 1518 as master of the toils, but in the years that followed he was given posts of greater responsibility. The extent of Bryan’s patrimony is not known, but between 1517 and 1523 the King’s favour brought him a number of stewardships and bailiwicks in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. In 1522 he obtained the wardship of Henry Fortescue, whose mother he had already married. Five years later he was assessed for the subsidy in the Household at £400 in lands and fees.6

Bryan’s career overseas began inauspiciously. In 1518, while his uncle the 2nd Lord Berners journeyed to Spain, he visited the French court with several other young men, among them Nicholas Carew. They found such boon companions in France that on returning to England they ‘were all French in eating, drinking and apparel’. Their behaviour led to their dismissal from the court in May 1519 on the ground that ‘after their appetite’ they ‘governed the King’. Carew was removed to Calais, but Bryan kept his post and was in Henry VIII’s retinue in 1520, when he doubtless revelled in the Field of Cloth of Gold. His flair for languages commended him to Wolsey, who in 1521 employed him on a mission to Bruges and the Netherlands and thereafter increasingly on special assignments. In 1522 he served in the expedition against Brittany, and after the fall of Morlaix he received the accolade ‘for hardiness and noble courage’. He came to no harm in battle, but in the mock warfare of the court he was less fortunate, one of his eyes being put out by the ‘shivering’ of a spear.7

In the summer of 1528 Bryan went to Paris to confer with Francis I and to meet Cardinal Campeggio on his journey to England. Of this mission John Clerk, Wolsey’s chaplain, reported a month later that Bryan had ‘right well done his part’, especially in his attentions to Campeggio. Later in the autumn Bryan was appointed ambassador with Peter Vannes, the King’s secretary, to travel by way of Paris to Rome to promote a peace between Francis I and the Emperor and to further the King’s divorce. In the following January, when they were joined by Gardiner, Vannes informed Wolsey that Bryan was behaving prudently and was beloved by all. A cousin of Anne Boleyn through their common grandmother Elizabeth Tilney, Bryan was wholly in favour of the divorce: he called Anne ‘my mistress that shall be’ and said that he would not write to her until he could relate what would please her most in the world. Although during the summer he was reporting pessimistically about the mission and asking to return home, he was not recalled until October.8

Bryan undertook special missions in France during 1530 and at the end of that year was appointed resident ambassador at the French court in place of John Welsborne. He remained there for the next 12 months and earned the King’s approval for his ‘dexterity, diligence and good behaviour’: his only shortcoming was his lack of Latin, and to make this good the King’s almoner Edward Foxe was sent to join him. Although from 1532 more of Bryan’s time was to be spent in England, he served on further missions to France between 1533 and 1538 with his kinsman the 3rd Duke of Norfolk or Stephen Gardiner and led his own embassy there in 1537.9

As a gentleman of the privy chamber Bryan was expected to be in attendance for alternate periods of six weeks, and when in England he was a central figure at court. His depositions as to certain remarks and actions by Catherine of Aragon were used against her in 1533. Cromwell thought him implicated in the misdeeds of Anne Boleyn and denounced him as ‘vicar of hell’, but when he peremptorily called Bryan before him nothing was proved and in a rearrangement of offices a few days before the execution Bryan became chief gentleman of the privy chamber and bore the King’s personal announcement of the event to Jane Seymour. In 1537 he attended the christening of Prince Edward and two years later the reception of Anne of Cleves, where he was noted for his rich apparel and a chain of great worth and strange fashion. Apart from the episode at the time of Anne Boleyn’s fall his relations with Cromwell were evidently correct, if not friendly: even then Cromwell had spoken to the King on his behalf, and when he was abroad in 1537 and 1538 he thanked the minister for being good to him, as he learned from Sir John Russell and other friends.10

During his early married life Bryan may have been domiciled at the Fortescue manor of Faulkbourne, Essex, which was visited several times by the King. For a period from 1539 he lived at Woburn, Bedfordshire, after acquiring a lease of the site of the dissolved abbey there. His fees from court offices were supplemented by his many leases and stewardships in the home counties and the midlands. These brought him nominations to local commissions, especially in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, but although thrice put forward as sheriff, for Essex and Hertfordshire in 1522 and 1523 and for Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in 1528, he was never pricked. In 1535 and 1537 he reported to Cromwell on matters of treason heard at the sessions at Brickhill, Bedfordshire, and in 1535 the bishop of Lincoln commended ‘the good order’ Bryan had taken in Buckinghamshire ‘in redressing the heresies hitherto used in this woody country of Chiltern’.11

Bryan was not one of the Members originally returned to the Parliament of 1529, but after the list of Members had been revised in the spring of 1532 Cromwell nominated him (in preference to Sir Robert Lee of Quarrendon) for Buckinghamshire, where a vacancy had existed since the translation of Sir Andrew Windsor to the Lords during the first session. It must have been either as Windsor’s successor or, if he was passed over for the shire, as a borough Member that Bryan entered the Commons: he was there by the penultimate session, when his name appears on a list of Members thought to have had a particular connexion with the treasons bill then passing through Parliament, perhaps as belonging to a committee. He may have served again for the same constituency in the following Parliament, that of June 1536, when the King asked for the re-election of the previous Members, although his connexion with the doomed Queen perhaps told against him on that occasion: the statement that he sat for a borough in this Parliament rests on a misreading of the name of Sir Francis Bigod in a document compiled by the rebels of 1536.12

On the outbreak of that rebellion Bryan was joined with Sir John Russell and Sir William Parr in mustering the forces of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, and his signature appears with theirs and Sir William Fitzwilliam I’s on reports to the King. In the autumn of 1538 he fell ill and lost favour with the King when he drank too much and committed other ‘follies’ after losing money in Provence, but he recovered both health and favour in time to be elected a knight for Buckinghamshire to the Parliament of the following year. After the dissolution of this Parliament he was sent a letter about the collection of the subsidy he had helped to grant. He reappeared in the following Parliament, that of 1542, this time taking the senior place for the shire: the honour was perhaps a measure of the continuing confidence placed in him by a King who had recently rejected another cousin of his, Catherine Howard. In 1543, on the appointment of John Dudley, Lord Lisle as admiral, Bryan was made vice-admiral because of ‘his experience in sea matters’. An embassy to the Emperor in October 1543 was followed in the next year by service in the rearguard of the army in France with a personal muster of some 200 billmen and archers: the despatches sent to England in June and July bore his signature. These services were rewarded by a grant of the site and demesne lands of the late priory of Taunton, Somerset. In the summer of 1545 he reviewed the defence of the south-west coast in company with Russell, who suggested Bryan to the Council as the most suitable man to deputize for him. It was with Russell’s son Francis that in the autumn Bryan was elected for Buckinghamshire in the last Parliament of the reign.13

With Henry VIII’s death Bryan’s own career entered its last phase: no longer a court favourite (although his mother was ‘lady mistress’ of the new King’s household) he remained a considerable figure, not least by reason of his landed wealth which was assessed for subsidy at £888 a year. In May 1547 he was granted the keepership of six royal parks in Bedfordshire, to be held for life, in each case with one other grantee who probably acted as his deputy. For his part in the Protector Somerset’s expedition against Scotland in September Bryan was created a knight banneret, and in the following year he was granted the bishop’s palace at Norwich and given continued tenancy of extensive parts of the Blackfriars in London. He was not, however, elected to the first Edwardian Parliament, the knighthoods for Buckinghamshire going to Francis Russell and Anthony Lee, with each of whom Bryan had sat earlier.14

Bryan’s marriage to the widow of the 9th Earl of Ormond was probably a political match designed to prevent her marriage to the Desmond heir, a union which in the event it merely postponed. In November 1548 Bryan arrived in Dublin to take up the office of lord marshal: a year later he was made lord justice pending the arrival of a new lord deputy to replace (Sir) Edward Bellingham, who had resented his appointment, but on 2 Feb. 1550 he died suddenly at Clonmel from an unknown cause. If he made a will it has not been found and nothing is known of the disposition of his lands, most of which appear to have been held on lease. His son, who is mentioned as carrying a despatch to London in 1548 from the French admiral, was illegitimate.15

The course of Bryan’s career and the witness of his contemporaries show him as a man of character and ability. His cultural interests were fostered especially by his uncle Lord Berners, whose many translations included, at Bryan’s request, The golden boke of Marcus Aurelius. In 1548 Bryan himself translated from the French Antonio de Guevara’s collection of stories and sayings under the title of A dispraise of the life of a courtier and a commendation of the life of the Labouryng man: in dedicating the work to William Parr, Marquess of Northampton, Bryan explained that he had undertaken it after seeing the marquess reading the book. Intimate with the circle of Sir Thomas Wyatt I and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Bryan had a reputation as a poet of almost the same calibre as his friends. He was also a man who, according to the abbot of Woburn, dared to speak his mind to the King; on foreign missions he could on occasion be equally outspoken, if not arrogant. Roger Ascham, who presumably knew him well, described his youthful personality as being maintained even when ‘spent by years’, and one of Wyatt’s satires addressed him as

Bryan ... who knows how great a grace In writing is to counsel man the right. To thee ... that trots still up and down And never rests, but running day and night From realm to realm, from city, street and town, Why dost thou wear thy body to the bones?16

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558 Author: M. K. Dale Notes 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament; LP Hen. VIII, vii. 56 citing SP1/82, f. 59; 1522(ii) citing SP1/87, f. 106v. 2. E159/319, brev. ret. Mich. r. [1-2]. 3. Date of birth estimated from first reference. DNB; PCC 4 Ayloffe; CP, ii. 153; Emden, Biog. Reg. Univ. Oxf. 1501-40, pp. 654-5; Essex Feet of Fines, iv. ed. Reaney and Fitch, 253; LP Hen. VIII, iii; Corresp. Politique de Odet de Selve 1546-9, ed. Lefevre-Pontalis, 466. 4.LP Hen. VIII, i-xxi; CPR, 1547-8, pp. 80, 339; 1549-51, p. 179; Somerville, Duchy, i. 561, 604, 612; The Gen. xxx. 19; Ordinances and Regulations, R. Household (Soc. Antiq. 1790), 168-9; LC2/2, ff. 37, 41; E. Breese, Kalendars of Gwynedd, 133; W. C. Richardson, Tudor Chamber Admin. 486; PRO Lists, ii. 15; information from Bedford town clerk; CSP Ire. 1509-73, passim. 5. Foss, Judges, v. 40-41; CFR, 1485-1509, no. 690; PCC 13 Moone, 4 Ayloffe; LP Hen. VIII, i-ii; Cat. Anct. Deeds, iii. D. 1094; Emden, 654-5. 6.LP Hen. VIII, i-iv; Privy Purse Expenses, Hen. VIII, ed. Nicolas, passim. 7.LP Hen. VIII, ii-iv; Hall, Chron. 597-8, 613, 643, 660, 708, 772; CSP Ven. 1520-6, nos. 306, 308. 8.LP Hen. VIII, iv. 9. Ibid. iv-vi, ix, xii, xiii; Hall, 797; CSP Span. 1529-42, passim. 10.LP Hen. VIII, v-x, xii, xiii; Hall, 832; CPR, 1548-9, p. 100; CSP Span. 1536-8, p. 129. 11.LP Hen. VIII, iii, iv, vi, xiv; Archaeologia, xxvi. 450-3; Trans. Essex Arch. Soc. n.s. xv. 51-53; G. Scott Thomson, Two Cents. of Fam. Hist. 181-2. 12.LP Hen. VIII, iv-xii; SP1/82, f. 59, 87, f. 106v; Elton, Policy and Police, 126 n. 3, 165. 13.LP Hen. VIII, iii, viii, x-xii, xx; M. H. and R. Dodds, Pilgrimage of Grace, i. 358; Elton, Tudor Constitution, 291-3; VCH Bucks. iii. 20; E. Viney, Sheriffs, Bucks. 101-2. 14.CPR, 1548-9, pp. 67, 100; 1553-4, p. 212; E179/69/51. 15.CPR, 1548-9, p. 67; CSP Ire. 1509-73, passim; Corresp. Politique, 466. 16. J. K. McConica, Eng. Humanists and Reformation Pol. 254-5; LP Hen. VIII, vi, xii, xiii; CSP Span. 1538-42, pp. 7-9; Sotheby’s Cat. 26 June 1967, nos. 573, 588; APC, iii. 279.

Sir Francis Bryan born about 1490, died 2 February 1550.

Sir Francis Bryan was an English courtier and diplomat during the reign of Henry VIII. He was Chief Gentleman of the Privy chamber and Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bryan always retained Henry's favour, achieving this by altering his opinions to conform to the king's. His lack of principle at the time of his cousin Anne Boleyn's downfall led to his earning the nickname "the Vicar of Hell"

Family and Education

b. by 1492, 1st surv. s. of Sir Thomas Bryan of Ashridge, Herts. by Margaret, da. of Sir Humphrey Bourchier (d.1471), s. and h. of John, 1st Lord Berners. educ. ?Oxf. m. (1) by Mar. 1522, Philippa, da. and h. of Humphrey Spice of Black Notley, Essex, wid. of John Fortescue of Ponsbourne, Herts.; (2) by 29 Aug. 1548, Joan, da. of James Fitzmaurice (Fitzgerald), 10th Earl of Desmond, wid. of James Butler (d.1546), 9th Earl of Ormond; at least 1s. illegit. suc. fa. by 31 Jan. 1518. Kntd. 2 July 1522, banneret Sept. 1547. On 2 Feb. 1550 he died suddenly at Clonmel from an unknown cause.


Documentary evidence has confirmed Sir Francis Bryan had one unnamed son who was an adult at the time of Sir Francis's marriage to Joan, Countess of Ormond. (See translated document at the bottom of page two of this discussion.)



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Sir Francis Bryan I "The Vicar of Hell", Lord Chief Justice of Ireland's Timeline

June 1, 1490
Cheddington, Buckinghamshire, England
June 1, 1549
Age 59
County Clare, Munster, Ireland
February 2, 1550
Age 59
Clonmel, Tiperary, Munster, Ireland
Age 59
April 3, 1952
Age 59
April 18, 1952
Age 59