Sir Francis Bryan (about 1490 – 2 February 1550) 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 rakish sexual life and his lack of principle at the time of his cousin Anne Boleyn's downfall led to his earning the nickname the Vicar of Hell.
About 1490, Francis Bryan was born in Cheydinhall, Buckinghamshire, England. He was the son of Sir Thomas Bryan and Margaret Bourchier, and came to court at a young age. There he became, along with his brother-in-law Nicholas Carew, one of "the King's minions", a group of young gentlemen of the Privy chamber who held much sway with Henry and were known for their intemperate behaviour. In 1519, Bryan and Sir Edward Neville disgraced themselves in the eyes of the minions' detractors when, during a diplomatic mission to Paris, they threw eggs and stones at the common people.
Under the influence of Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Francis was removed from the Privy chamber in 1519, and again in 1526 as part of the Eltham Ordinances. Shortly after this he lost an eye in a tournament at Greenwich, and had to wear an eyepatch from then on. Then in 1528, when Sir William Carey's death left a vacancy in the Privy chamber, Bryan returned to fill his place, possibly through the good offices of his cousin Anne Boleyn. From then on he was highly influential, becoming one of the king's most favoured companions, and a leading member of the faction who wished to break Wolsey's grip on power. He also sat in the Parliament of England as Member for Buckinghamshire probably in 1529 and certainly in the parliaments of 1539, 1542 and 1545.
Bryan was a half cousin of both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard as well as half second cousin to Jane Seymour. He promoted the family of the latter, which was less well connected than the Boleyns and tried to find her a husband after her family had grown notorious because of the affair between Catherine Fillol and Jane's father.
He remained a friend of the King, with Henry even ending his pursuit of a lady when he heard that Bryan was seriously interested in her. 'The Vicar of Hell', as Francis was known, was also a close ally of Nicholas Carew, the husband of Francis' sister, Elizabeth Carew. There are rumours that Elizabeth became Henry's mistress in 1514, when she would have been only around thirteen.
However, by 1536 Bryan was working with Thomas Cromwell to bring about his cousin's downfall as queen. It was at this time that Cromwell coined Sir Francis' unfortunate sobriquet in a letter to the Bishop of Winchester, referring to his abandonment of Anne. After Boleyn's death, Bryan became chief Gentleman of the Privy chamber, but was removed from this post in 1539 when Cromwell turned against his former allies. Sir Francis returned to favour following Cromwell's demise, becoming vice-admiral of the fleet, and then Lord Chief Justice of Ireland during the reign of Edward VI. He died suddenly at Clonmel, Ireland in 1550.
Bryan was a distinguished diplomat, soldier, sailor, cipher, man of letters, and poet. However, he had a lifelong reputation as a rake and a libertine, and was a rumoured accomplice in the king's extramarital affairs. He was a trimmer, changing his views to suit Henry's current policy, but was also one of the few men who dared speak his mind to the king.
No portrait of Sir Francis survives.
In August 1548, he married Lady Joan Fitzgerald, the widow of James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond, and the mother of seven sons. Together they had two sons, Sir Francis Bryan and Edward Bryan, and one daughter, Elizabeth. After Bryan's death, Lady Joan married in 1551 her third husband, Gerald FitzGerald, 15th Earl of Desmond, who was many years her junior. She and Gerald had long been in love.
Portrayals in fiction
Bryan is played by actor Alan van Sprang in Season 3 of the television series, The Tudors. In the series, he arrives at Court in 1536 and wears an eye patch, much later than the actual Sir Francis, and so his family ties to the Boleyns are not mentioned, nor are his successes afterwards.
- Tudor Place website.
- Weir, Henry VIII, p. 183.
- Weir, Henry VIII, p. 379.
- Weir, Henry VIII, p. 209.
- Weir, Henry VIII, p. 217.
- Weir, Henry VIII, p. 259.
- Weir, Henry VIII, p. 262.
- Weir, Henry VIII, p. 286–7.
- Weir, Henry VIII, p. 289.
-  Article in History of Parliament Online.
- Norton, Elizabeth (2009). p. 41. Missing or empty
- Weir, Henry VIII, p. 374.
- Weir, Henry VIII, p. 382.
- Weir, Henry VIII, p. 417.
- Weir, Alison (2002). Henry VIII: King and Court. Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6451-3.
- Tudor Place website[unreliable source], accessed 18 November 2007.
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