Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, won’t go away, but we always see him out of the corner of our eye. In panoramic sixteenth-century paintings like those showing the Field of Cloth of Gold and the sinking of the Mary Rose he is usually somewhere just behind the king. Seventeenth-century sight-seers in the Tower of London were shown two great jousting lances among the collections of royal armour: one, they were told, was Henry VIII’s, the other Charles Brandon’s. In 1953, as Disney tried to tap the market for swashbuckling historical epics, they made The Sword and the Rose about Brandon’s shocking love-match with Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, the newly widowed queen of France; but Richard Todd’s solid Brandon was outshone by Glynis Johns’ charming princess and James Robertson Justice’s booming king. In our own age a rather dim-witted Brandon has cropped up in Wolf Hall, while in The Tudors he was a more rakish and athletic friend for Henry, as befitted the casting of Henry Cavill, who went on to play Superman.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein. (Amberley Publishing)

What is true in popular culture is also true in the historical record. Brandon is always there, with the king at court, sitting on the council, commanding armies, in every decade of Henry’s reign. But he is always just out of focus. When Henry came to the throne, Brandon was just one in a gaggle of athletic young men around the king. His friends died in Henry’s first French war or faded from the scene, but no sooner had he reached the top with creation as duke of Suffolk than Cardinal Wolsey established his suffocating primacy as Henry’s chief minister. Wolsey’s fall brought noblemen like Brandon back to the centre of politics, but the rise of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell edged him aside again. In the five years before his death in 1545 he served the king in a more collective, conciliar regime, but it was bureaucrats like William Paget and younger generals like Edward Seymour and John Dudley who rose to the top, as they planned for the reign of Henry’s son Edward.

Brandon was always a supporting actor, but we can learn a lot from him. No-one survived as long at Henry’s bloody court or rose so far and so fast, from esquire to duke in just five years. If he lived today, airport bookshops would sell bulky paperbacks promising lessons for success drawn straight from his life. Such a book would have, I think, seven chapters.

The first lesson would the importance in a personal monarchy of one’s relationship with the king. Brandon’s family were courtiers under Henry VII and that gave him a good start, but it was the interests and pleasures he shared with Henry VIII, from jousting, dancing and romantic dalliance to building great houses and invading France, that built a lasting relationship of confidence between them, making Brandon, as Henry once put it, ‘the man in all the world he loved and trusted best’. That relationship was tested at various points, by his unauthorised marriage to the king’s sister, by accusations that he was compromised by his promotion of Anglo-French amity to secure her dower income from France, by various military failures and by his difficult relationship with Anne Boleyn, but it always survived.

Henry VIII jousting at the tournament to celebrate the birth of a prince, February 1511. It was at this tournament that Henry and Brandon fought one of their most dashing combats. (Amberley Publishing)

One reason for his survival, and material for lesson two, was that he could protest to the king that his aim had always been to serve him rather than to do down his colleagues: as he once put it to Henry, ‘there was never none of them in trouble but I was glad to help them to my power, and that Your Grace knows best’. He worked well with Wolsey early in his career, cooperated more readily than other noblemen with Cromwell, and late in life managed, remarkably, to collaborate closely not only with the moderate core of Henry’s council, older men like John, lord Russell and younger like the earl of Arundel, but also with the reformists like Edward Seymour who would dominate Edward VI’s reign and the conservatives, like Thomas Wriothesley, whom they would push aside. His own ambiguous, not to say confused, attitude to religious change was probably no disadvantage in keeping contemporaries on both sides of the Reformation debate happy.

A third chapter would have to point out that long careers under Henry rested not only on amiability but also on talent. The young Brandon was good at jousting, good enough to fight the king well but make sure he won, but more important in the long term was his ability in military command. Ellis Gruffudd, the Welsh soldier of the Calais garrison who served under the duke in 1523 and did not mince his words about incompetent commanders, called him ‘the flower of all the captains of the realm’. He played an important part in the capture of Tournai in 1513 and that of Boulogne in 1544, the two great conquests of Henry’s reign. In between he led English troops closer to Paris in 1523 than they had ever been since the loss of English France in the Hundred Years War, suppressed the Lincolnshire rising in 1536 and helped plan Seymour’s lightning attack on Edinburgh in 1544. No wonder Henry entrusted him with the defence of southern England in 1545 as French invasion threatened.

Double portrait of May and Charles Brandon, by an unknown artist. (Amberley Publishing)

Another chapter would have to deal with marriage, an area in which Brandon’s record was ambitious but unscrupulous. As a young man he flirted with bigamy, marrying one lady for love and another for her money in a tangle that had later to be sorted out by papal authority. He then contracted to marry a youthful ward to get control of her lands and apparently made overtures on the 1513 campaign to the widowed but vivacious Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, in an affair which probably started as an embarrassing joke of Henry’s, but turned into a diplomatic incident. The marriage to Henry’s sister Mary followed, bringing with it wealth from her French dowry and a powerful position in the royal family as well, it seems, as romantic fulfilment. After her death came another lucrative but controversial match, to Katherine Willoughby, heiress to large lands in Lincolnshire, but originally intended as a bride for Brandon’s probably sickly son Henry.

The fifth lesson to draw from Brandon’s life is that for a nobleman, as for the king, the overriding aim of marriage was to have sons to continue his line. His two sons by Mary, each called Henry, died in his lifetime but two by Katherine Willoughby, Henry and Charles, survived him. They would doubtless have played a significant part in the reign of an adult Edward VI had they not succumbed to the sweating sickness in 1551.

The landed power and local following Brandon built up for himself and his sons would make for another chapter. He started in East Anglia, Oxfordshire and Berkshire, trying to replace the previous dukes of Suffolk, the De la Pole family, but his success was mixed. He never gained control of all the De la Pole lands, he relied too heavily on his own relatives in local affairs and his relationship with the other great lords of East Anglia, the Howards dukes of Norfolk, was tense. He managed to serve the king locally in raising troops in 1523 and calming down the Amicable Grant risings in 1525, but he was never as comfortably in command of local affairs as he was in his last years, when the king gave him monastic land in Lincolnshire in exchange for his earlier estates. Together with the Willoughby inheritance of his last wife, this built a solid base for local power which he consolidated in building a following among the county gentry and settling Lincolnshire after the revolt of 1536.

Charles Brandon late in life by an unknown artist, perhaps after Holbein, c. 1540-45. (Amberley Publishing)

The last lesson of Brandon’s career was that power had to be displayed to be effective. Throughout his life he was active as a patron who could ask the king for favours for those who sought his help. Poets praised him, picking on the virtues closest to his heart: Robert Whittinton likened him to Achilles, John Parkhurst to Mars. He built or extended great houses, Suffolk Place in Southwark, Westhorpe in Suffolk, Grimsthorpe in Lincolnshire. He decorated them with fashionable turrets and terracottas, fitted them out with luxurious tapestries and Turkey carpets, and filled their stables with fine horses. He made his greatness visible in ways acceptable to his contemporaries, suggesting open-handed magnificence rather than self-seeking pride.

As a graduate student I hit on Charles Brandon as the subject of my doctoral thesis rather on the rebound. I had wanted to write a study of Henry VIII’s wars and their effects on his people, but as I set to work it seemed much too ambitious and I was wisely advised by my supervisor, C.S.L. Davies, to find a project that would make more easily for a focused and original piece of research. In a sense my original idea hatched many years later as this year’s James Ford Lectures in British History, ‘The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII’. Meanwhile the study of Charles Brandon enabled me to investigate many areas of Henry’s reign – court politics, diplomacy, warfare, Welsh government, art patronage, noble power at county level, the exploitation of landed estates – and see how they all fitted together in one man’s career. The study became my thesis and my first book. Years after it went out of print people were emailing me asking if I knew how they could get copies, as originals were selling on the internet for hundreds of pounds. It was clear that Charles Brandon would not go away. So I was pleased when Amberley Publishing asked if I would like to produce a second edition. Charles Brandon has come back, and I hope others will find his career as fascinating a way into the world of Henry VIII and his people as I have done.


Steven Gunn's book Charles Brandon: Henry VIII's Closest Friend is available for purchase now.