Charles Brandon: Henry VIII’s Closest Friend 
by Steven Gunn.
Amberley, 304 pp., £20, October 2015, 978 1 4456 4184 3
Show More
Show More

On​ their West Country progress in the summer of 1535, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn visited Thornbury Castle near Bristol. Thornbury is an upmarket hotel now, a popular choice for guests working through their bucket list. Now that every narrative is a ‘journey’, TripAdvisor is an illuminating guide to what people expect when they go in search of the past. Some guests are content to know the place was ‘used by Henry and Anne, back in the day’, while others like to believe it was where the king spent ‘one of his many honeymoons’. Guests praise ‘a brilliant, authentic experience of castle life’ and the ease of finding the place, ‘especially if you use a GPS’, but some claim a lack of attention to their particular pleasures: ‘there is an archery set there to play with, but one of the arrows is broken.’ Others have grumbled about poor wifi, peeling paint, lacklustre cocktails, weddings, children and mice. One review from 2015 sums up the general feeling that the past never quite lives up to its billing: ‘Somewhat lacking in luxury, service and Tudor’.

What does it mean, to be lacking in Tudor? If Tudor is terror in the name of the church and torture in the name of the state, iconoclasm, cruelty to animals and poor sanitation, the castle must fall short. If it is ‘living like royalty and fine dining’, as one guest puts it, it seems Thornbury makes a good effort. To be Tudor is to pose. It is to strut down a long gallery, to have a chest stiffened with gemstones, and padded shoulders that block doorways. It is to wear a codpiece, take your own gold plate when you travel, and live off the fat of the land. If Tudor is measured on a scale, and scored by size of beard, love of jousting and trouble with wives, Charles Brandon would come near the top, second only to the king he served.

The subtitle of Steven Gunn’s scholarly biography describes its subject as ‘Henry VIII’s Closest Friend’. What a prospect of damp-palmed horror that phrase evokes! The knocking of Tudor knees echoes down the years. Can a king have friends? Could Henry VIII have friends? The pertinent anecdote is well known: he walked affectionately with Thomas More, an arm around his neck, but More told his son-in-law: ‘If my head would win him a castle in France … it would not fail to go.’ Charles Brandon fought in showy campaigns to recover those bits of France Henry thought he owned, so he must have felt the truth of More’s words in every shuddering vertebra. He was one of a group of athletic courtiers employed to serve the leisure of Hooray Henry; they overlapped with, but can be distinguished from, the machiavels who served the policy of Horrid Henry, and the poets and priests employed to flatter the intellect and ease the conscience of Holy Henry. Henry came to the throne in 1509. Charles Brandon’s power as a court favourite endured till death removed him in 1545. A long run, on ground slippery with blood: how did Charles do it?

His family had been gentleman merchants in Norfolk. They had served the dukes of Norfolk when the Mowbray family held that title. The Mowbray line came to an end in 1481, but before that Charles’s grandfather had married into the powerful Wingfield family and passed into the service of Edward IV. Charles’s father was William Brandon, who according to the Paston letters got himself a bad reputation, ‘for that he should have by force ravished and swived an ancient gentlewoman, and yet was not therewith eased, but swived her oldest daughter, and then would have swived the other sister both’. He fought for the invading Tudor forces against Richard III. Unsubstantiated legend has him as a standard-bearer at Bosworth, cut down close to the person of the man who would soon be king. Whatever the exact truth, he died a hero with a claim on the gratitude of the new regime. He did not leave much land for Charles, but his uncle Thomas had inherited a family property in Southwark which brought privileges in the borough. Thomas married well and began to build a career at court, becoming Henry VII’s master of the horse. He died early in the new reign, but left nephew Charles a network of good connections.

There is no record at all of Charles’s education. He would not share his prince’s intellectual interests, and his spelling is among the strangest in an era when inconsistency was the rule. Charles followed his father in becoming an enthusiastic swiver. He followed his uncle in becoming a fearless and skilled jouster, beginning his career at the age of 17 in the reign of the old king. Henry VII was not, as legend suggests, a misery who went about with his garments in holes. As the Tudor family were not really very royal at all, he placed calculated reliance on flamboyant display, asserting his regime’s legitimacy through allegory and pageant. The tournament was a self-consciously medieval survival, a link with the knightly past, and was at the heart of the court’s solemn and costly pleasures. Charles became a star, watched with increasing admiration by the heir to the throne, who was some six years younger than he was. The old king guarded his heir closely, having already lost one prince of Wales, and while his father was alive Henry had to confine himself to martial exercises on the practice ground. But once he was his own boss, he threw himself into the pursuit, practising every day and seeking out the best opponents. He was a prince of exuberant physical energy, and had the height and weight to succeed at a sport so expensive and dangerous that it was still thought valid preparation for the battlefield. In jousting it’s only with a well-matched opponent that you can make a good score. You are dependent on him to hurtle at you with full force. But more than brutality is required. The placing, the pace and the angle are crucial. Sometimes the king and Charles Brandon dressed alike, fighting as a team. Sometimes they challenged each other. Did Charles ever let Henry win? Having paid close attention to the score sheets, Gunn suggests he did. But Charles in his gilt armour could defeat any other challenger – at least, once early death in a small war had removed some of his rivals.

Charles Brandon was part of a coterie of special favourites, with Edward Howard, Thomas Knyvett and Henry Guildford. In 1512, the young king went to war with France. Charles was given command of troops for a sea attack on Brittany, to be led by Edward Howard. With Thomas Knyvett on board, the Regent engaged the Cordelière, sailing out of Brest. The Cordelière exploded, and one of the bravest of Henry’s captains was blown to pieces. Edward Howard said he would not look the king in the face till he had revenged their friend; a year on, he launched an attack on French galleys, and was drowned. Two of the men closest to Henry had perished in a war that achieved very little in any permanent sense. Henry Guildford’s power lasted until 1532 when, tired of the Boleyns, he handed Henry his resignation from the post of comptroller of the household, went off to the country and died of disgust. It was Charles who was the great survivor. His influence waxed and waned but he saw out five of Henry’s queens and any number of ministers and favourites. In Mary Rose, his book about Brandon’s third wife, David Loades says: ‘He was present everywhere, but it is hard to pinpoint what he actually did.’ Throughout his career Charles accumulated grand-sounding titles, which confused outsiders into overestimating his importance as a policymaker. When he became master of the horse in 1512, he had a real job to do – the master controlled transport for the vast, itinerant royal household, and supplied the king’s horses in time of war. But on great occasions of state, he rode by the king as a squire would ride by his knight. Someone so close to the king’s person must, foreign observers reasoned, be of first importance. In the war of 1513, he appeared to onlookers as a ‘second king’. In that year Henry campaigned in France and took Tournai; when he handed Brandon the city keys, Italian observers deduced he was giving his prize to a bastard brother. To boost his status among Henry’s commanders, he was allowed to assume the style of ‘viscount’, a title which belonged to his ward. In the English ranks, there were murmurs that Charles was overpromoted. But already his survival skills were evident. His very lack of political acumen, his absence of ambition, took him out of the front line of faction fighting. He was not subtle, so aroused no suspicion of plotting; congenial, and disinclined to pursue grudges, he survived men who had far greater intelligence and cunning. A flair for display, fine equipage, costly and elaborate clothes, a sense of theatre – these were what made a Tudor grandee. Charles’s secret was simple: he always did what Henry wanted, promptly and gladly, when he could work out what that was.

Gunn​ is now a senior figure in Tudor studies, but this book was first published in 1988. The new edition is handsomely produced and illustrated, but the text is of specialist interest; it is only on painstaking work like this that narratives can confidently be built. It results from work in the archives which will not need to be repeated, and is devoted quite properly to the details of the duke’s labyrinthine property dealings, lawsuits and household matters, with the political backdrop sketched in only lightly. As close work with the documents, it’s hard to see how it could be done better. Gunn points to the gaps in the evidence and is not tempted to fill them by speculation. The book is never picturesque. You have to bring your own Tudor. But the driest treatment cannot conceal Charles’s violent human interest. At 19, he had become involved with Anne Browne, daughter of a prominent courtier. They were pledged, they anticipated the marriage, and Anne became pregnant. But Charles abandoned her and married her aunt, Margaret Mortimer, who had more money. Having sold off some of the aunt’s property, he then returned to the niece, who had given birth to a daughter. In 1508 he did marry her, trying to keep the fact quiet, but her family insisted on a second, public ceremony. Two years on, Anne gave birth to a second girl, and died. Later, when Charles got around to thinking about the formalities, he was able to disentangle all this, obtaining with seeming ease a dispensation from the pope freeing him from the Mortimer marriage. Margaret at some stage had an illegitimate child by a priest; Charles had three recognised illegitimate children who, confusingly, share names with his legitimate ones. The addled writers of the HBO series The Tudors strained every nerve to come up with sensational storylines, without rivalling the truth of these people’s lives. We do not know, because there is no evidence, what Charles thought of his own conduct – we never know. But his next step was to enter into a contract of marriage with his ward, Elizabeth Lady Lisle, whose title he had taken. Elizabeth was only eight but she was an heiress and the move took her off the market till she grew up, giving Charles the use of her resources. As long as the marriage was unconsummated, Charles could free himself if he found a better prospect. In 1515 he found one in the king of England’s sister.

The year before, Charles had been created Duke of Suffolk, and the elderly earl of Surrey, Thomas Howard, had become Duke of Norfolk. The Howard family picked the wrong side at Bosworth, and so lost their ducal status. They earned it back by Surrey’s annihilation of the Scottish army at Flodden. While Henry was fighting in France, the Scots forces had come over the border, with ruinous results for their kingdom. The senior Howard was covered in glory, and so was his son Lord Thomas, who had served under him. The son would become Duke of Norfolk in his turn, and for the rest of Henry’s reign the two great East Anglians would vie for the king’s attention. At the time of his elevation it was unclear what Brandon had done to deserve a dukedom. Erasmus in a letter compared him to a drunken stable boy. Charles had shown himself a capable leader in the French campaign, but there had been no solid opportunity to distinguish himself. And he was now a duke without a ducal income. As a man close to the king he attracted gifts to persuade him to use his influence, and he had amassed a portfolio of offices and grants, but making them pay was harder. As a magnate in East Anglia, he would find himself working with Thomas Howard to keep the region peaceful and the king’s revenues flowing. The Howard family had more resources, wider and deeper connections, and Lord Thomas – who was as lean, sinewy and irritable as Charles was stout and amenable – was an astute and busily ambitious man. But it was Charles who took the eye of a princess.

In the summer of 1514, Wolsey, the king’s chief councillor, negotiated an Anglo-French treaty. Its cornerstone was a match between 18-year-old Mary Rose, the younger of Henry’s two sisters, and Louis XII, who was 52, a widower in poor health. Louis sent giddily generous presents, including a fabulous diamond called the Mirror of Naples – which Henry at once sent to be valued. Louis also sent an artist to paint the princess and advise her on her new wardrobe. There was a bizarre proxy ceremony in which the princess lay down on a ceremonial bed while the chief French envoy removed his red stocking and touched his bare leg against her body; the marriage was then considered consummated. In the autumn Charles and the cream of the English nobility escorted her to France. Much jousting was involved. The marriage lasted 82 days before Louis succumbed, possibly to overexcitement. Wearing white for mourning, Mary Rose was sequestered until it could be known if she was carrying a child. She was not, but during this period ‘la reine blanche’ felt vulnerable: the new king, Francis, would penetrate her seclusion and make insinuations. She thought that he was planning to ruin her good name, or marry her to a French nobleman, or both; for his part, Francis was afraid that Henry would snatch her back and marry her into the Habsburg family. So when Charles arrived to take her home, and the widow said she had chosen her new husband already, Francis did not stand in the way.

It seems that before leaving England the princess had extracted a promise from Henry: once her elderly fiancé died, she would be allowed to choose her next husband for herself. Henry knew Charles and his sister were englamoured by each other – but had told his friend that nothing must happen between them till they were back in England. Perhaps they did not trust him to keep the promise. On the ground in France, matters were urgent. I had to marry her, Charles explained; I ‘newar sawe woman soo wyepe’. On their return they had to face Henry. ‘Hall me trost es in you,’ the duke wrote to Wolsey. It had to be, since untangling his rich bride’s finances was ‘past me lerneng’.

It’s impossible to say how much of Henry’s anger was for show. He was determined the crown should be the financial gainer, and to compensate himself he annexed a large percentage of the future income from Mary’s dower lands. For the former queen, getting hold of her income was not easy. It was never a matter of collecting a bag of gold at Calais. When Anglo-French relations were under strain, the money would be cut off, and the couple had to renegotiate their debt to the king. Sometimes their payments were suspended and Henry charged interest. In any year the dowry income formed a large proportion of Charles’s total assets. Charles had already been in debt to the king when the marriage took place. Mary would always be called ‘the French queen’, and maintain royal style. She also kept up French fashions and introduced French architecture and garden design in their various properties. Though the marriage hugely enhanced Charles’s prestige, it also created an embarrassing and potentially dangerous situation. The French treated him as being in their pocket, which he was, and expected him to serve their interests.

In 1522, when the Emperor Charles visited England, the Duke of Suffolk was in the king’s suite at his reception, and both king and emperor dined at Suffolk Place and hunted in the park. Charles, with his deep knowledge of heraldic and chivalric matters, was useful for entertaining ambassadors and leading parades; as Gunn says, he ‘combined status and amiability’. The emperor saw the point of him, and offered him a pension. Like other councillors, he was now in receipt of money from both great European powers, and the two commitments might be seen as balancing out. England was a small nation, punching above its weight because it had a brilliant chief minister. Wolsey’s strategy was to maintain a balance of power, and his chief weapon was flattery and the foresight to make swift and nimble adjustments. He could promise English friendship, money, troops, first to France, then to the emperor – try to keep them hostile to each other openly or covertly, and hope he wouldn’t have to cost out his promises and to go to war.

In 1523 Henry allied with the emperor and made another incursion to France, despite the fact that an obscure member of the Commons called Thomas Cromwell advised him that if he were captured and had to be ransomed, England couldn’t afford him; the war was likely to use up all England’s gold, and reduce the country to exchanging leather tokens for money. Brandon was put in charge of an army of ten thousand men. The English came within reach of Paris, but a combination of cold weather and lukewarm allies made the campaign, unpopular at home, pointless in the end. But it did Charles no harm, and when Henry planned – there was more planning than actual fighting – Charles always figured as a senior commander. Charles’s interest, as a member of a warrior caste, was war; his personal interest was in peace, at least with the French, because then his income flowed freely. With his wife, he necessarily spent time in his own territories, but there was always the danger of being supplanted by new favourites, and the king tended to seek the company of younger men, the new tournament stars. A courtier had to be vigilant and he had to be present; access and proximity were everything; secret business, one must suppose, was transacted face to face and left no trace on the records. Documents preserve the duke for us in facts and figures, and Gunn extracts every scrap of evidence from them. States of mind are harder to assess. But it is not difficult to imagine his horror when in 1524 he came near to killing the king. Henry was running against Charles in new armour of his own design. For some reason he failed to put down his visor. Charles’s scoring touch was accurate – Henry’s helm filled with splinters from the broken lance. Charles swore he would never ride against the king again. When they next appeared in the lists, it was as a team of two, wearing identical silver beards.

Until the birth​ of Prince Edward in 1537, Henry did not have a legitimate male heir, so the children of his two sisters were potential successors. Charles and la reine blanche had two daughters, a son called Henry, who died, and then another Henry, who was created earl of Lincoln. The creation signified the maturity of Henry’s power, his dynastic grip. The last earl of Lincoln had been John de la Pole, the Yorkist claimant to the throne, killed fighting Henry VII at the battle of Stoke in 1487. His younger brother, Edmund de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, was executed in 1513; his brother William was securely shut in the Tower; another brother, Richard, was killed at Pavia in 1525. The ancient line had been erased, and Charles Brandon written in, no longer a parvenu but a feature of the Tudor landscape as solid as a Norman castle.

We don’t know if the marriage was happy. Mary’s health was frail. In the 1520s she came to court, but no longer danced. The shadow of the king’s ‘great matter’ fell over the end of her life. As a royal lady, she was devoted to Catherine of Aragon, herself the daughter of two reigning monarchs. But she could make only mute protests – staying away from great occasions – when Henry began the long war that was to lead to Catherine’s displacement by Anne Boleyn. Charles was required to play his part in harassing Catherine, who was sent off to the country with a reduced household. One of his missions ended when Catherine shut herself in her room and left him to shout at her through a locked door. He didn’t enjoy this work, but he did it, just as he played his part in bringing Wolsey down. The chief agents may have been the men whom the French called ‘le duc de Nortfoch et sa bande’, but Suffolk marched in with Thomas Howard to confiscate the Great Seal, and declared: ‘there never was legate nor cardinall, that did good in England.’

In the resulting power vacuum, the imperial ambassador thought that ‘tous les grans d’Angleterre’ would have to work together and Charles would be one of them. Norfolk, as the uncle of Anne Boleyn, was set to gain under the new regime. Relations between the two dukes were fragile, though Norfolk would later insist: ‘I always called him cousyn Charles.’ Anne Boleyn was more outspoken in her dislike. In 1531 she suggested that Suffolk was sleeping with one of his daughters. Charles in his turn is said to have told the king that Anne had slept with Thomas Wyatt – another redoubtable jouster. The Boleyn family took up religious reform, but Charles didn’t quarrel with them on those grounds. He seemed to have no firm religious orientation of his own. Neither papist nor reformer, he wisely took his cue from the king.

In 1533 Mary Rose died. We know everything about her funeral, but nothing about what Charles felt. It was certainly a financial blow. Her French income would cease once the arrears were collected. Cromwell, the new chief minister, looked into the tangled matter of Charles’s finances and a fresh settlement was reached between the duke and the crown. Debts were pardoned, the dead woman’s liabilities were cancelled, Charles gave up his estates in Oxford and Berkshire and gained property in Lincolnshire, which would become the seat of his power. It was in this region that in 1536 a revolt broke out. Charles was still a new boy in the county, but during the Pilgrimage of Grace he was able to hold and pacify the region, moderating the belligerent and sometimes incoherent instructions from central government. It suited Henry to have Charles to keep a hand on a part of the country where there was continued potential for trouble, and Charles was capable. Through his career he was well served by a corps of advisers, by lawyers and accountants, auditors and surveyors. He worked amicably with Cromwell, whose letters to him are models of silky man-management. When Charles was called on to give up the prestigious office of earl marshal to Thomas Howard, Cromwell told him how glad he was to do it; such a sacrifice gave Charles, Cromwell said, the chance to show how much he cared about the happiness of the Duke of Norfolk, which clearly mattered to him more than any office in the world. It did the king’s heart good to see Charles take it so well, and ‘his subjects so lovingly and friendly, the one to love the other’. Moreover, if Charles got himself to court with ‘resonable spede’, he would be just in time to see Norfolk off to France in his new ambassadorial role: the effort is strongly advised, in case Henry take any foot-dragging as ‘unkyndness’, and meanwhile, ‘the holye trynyte preserve your lordship in long lyffe and good helthe.’

A few months after the death of Mary Rose, Charles married an heiress of 14. Catherine Willoughby had been intended as his son’s bride, but the second Henry died in March 1534, aged 10 or 11. Catherine was the daughter of one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting, who had married an English lord with extensive estates in East Anglia and Lincolnshire. Catherine and Charles quickly had a son, another Henry, whose godfathers – sign of the times – were the king and Thomas Cromwell. This Henry survived his father and became Duke of Suffolk in his turn, but died during a summer epidemic the year he was 16; his brother Charles’s accession to the title was followed by his own death, within the hour. Their portraits by Holbein, made when they were small boys, were all that remained of them. Charles’s title passed to Frances, his eldest daughter by Mary Rose; her daughter was Jane Grey, who ruled England for a matter of days and ended on the block. The drunken horseboy had not only married a queen, he had passed on his genes to another. Charles was no fool, but gave the impression of being barely able to spell his name; his granddaughter studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew, Chaldean and Aramaic. Jane Grey loved God; her grandfather loved his king. His later years were spent holding a mirror to reflect Henry’s glory. His prestige inevitably waned with the passing of his royal wife, and in 1534 the Venetian ambassador wrote him off as not worth bribing. But he sat in Parliament and in the council, attended garter ceremonies, helped to christen Prince Edward, bury Queen Jane, welcome Anne of Cleves and in 1542 investigate the adultery of Katherine Howard. In Cromwell’s household reforms of 1539 he was given the post of lord steward of the royal household, renamed the Great Mastership. His health was declining by then, and Henry was obese and ill. Their occupations changed; in early middle age, jousting had given way to tennis and bowls, then to games of cards. But in the early 1540s, he acted as Henry’s lieutenant in the north, and if it came to invading Scotland, he was willing: ‘I dowt not to sustaigne not oonly that jornaye, but I trust many worse then that, as well as they that arr more yonger then I.’ When Henry went to war in France again, Charles was back in harness. He directed the siege of Boulogne until Henry himself arrived and was able to make a triumphal entry as conqueror. After the king returned to England, the French in turn laid siege to the town, but back in England Charles was handsomely rewarded, and was lined up to go to the town’s relief. But Henry concluded a peace, and succeeded in keeping Boulogne; Charles turned to organising the south of England for when that peace would break down and the French try to invade. He died suddenly, at Guildford, on 22 August 1545.

Charles Brandon’s inner life, if he had one, is inaccessible to us. Gunn’s thorough and discriminating history is built on recoverable facts. Charles is all persona and every inch of him is Tudor, as Tudor would be understood by the guests at Thornbury: he is a playing-card knight, flat and bright. In The Tudors he was played by Henry Cavill, soon to be cast as Superman in Man of Steel. In the RSC’s Wolf Hall plays, he was impersonated by the towering and handsome Nicholas Boulton, who was snapped up between seasons by Game of Thrones, where he was beheaded in a gladiatorial arena in a spectacularly bloody fashion. Though Charles’s career was packed with spectacular incident, it lacks the final flourish of an execution, which probably accounts for his comparatively low profile in Tudor pop mythology. A natural death, for one of Henry’s councillors, seems an almost unnatural feat. Charles managed it because he was in no way Henry’s rival, though he was his accredited double: as a commentator on the site The Tudor Enthusiast puts it, ‘the original Charles Brandon is same fat ugly dude like henry the 8th himself, perhaps that’s why he likes him so much.’ Henry must sometimes have wondered what his ministers thought of him, not as a king but as a man – but from Charles he could count on straightforward admiration and gratitude. The Boleyns may have prospered because they were sexy and sneaky, Wolsey and Cromwell because they were smart, the Duke of Norfolk because of his inherited martial grit and double-tongued hypocrisy; Charles Brandon never forgot ‘youre highnez only under God have brought hym to his estate’. He made few enemies unless he was ordered to make them. Often he swerved trouble when it was coming to meet him head on, and it is difficult to say whether this was ‘tactical cunning’ or ‘ineffectual lethargy’, as Gunn remarks. If he made a mistake, he was ‘humble and soryfull’. Henry accepted what he had to give, his strong arm and ‘gentill herte’. Charles lived up to his motto, ‘loyaulte me oblige.’ He spoke of the king as a lover, as Tudor men tended to speak of each other: as he told Wolsey in 1516, ‘my hert and mynde be alwaye with hym, and daily appeteth and desireth to see his grace.’ Charles died less than 18 months before the king, and is buried near him in St George’s Chapel in Windsor. It was rumoured that Henry might snap up Charles’s widow as his seventh wife, though in the event he decided to stick with Catherine Parr. He paid for Charles’s lavish funeral, and didn’t even try to recover the costs from the estate.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences