The second creation of the dukes of Suffolk:  The Brandon family

Some quotes are taken from the following: Lady Jane Grey, by Alison Plowden, paperback, published by The History Press and referenced as AP; Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk c1484 - 1545 by S J Gunn, published by Basil Blackwell, 1988 and referenced as SJG; Catherine Duchess of Suffolk by Evelyn Read, published by Jonathan Cape, 1962, referenced as ER.

Family origins

The Brandon family were originally small merchant traders based around the Norfolk port of Lynn.  They were, however, on their way up.

“Charles’ younger uncle, Sir Thomas, inherited from old Sir William the family house in Southwark and the office that went with it, that of marshal of the king’s bench prison.  He followed Sir Wiliam’s lead in building a career in the royal household ... and was one of Henry 7’s most active courtiers, including being master of the horse. ... At Henry 8’s accession he exploited his position at court ... he seemed set for great things ... but he became fatally ill and died on the 27th of January 1510.  An important legacy to Charles was the office of marshal of the king’s bench ... which gave him the chance to enhance his career in royal service”. (SJG).

Charles Brandon - career and achievements

The early years

“His uncle’s position gave Charles the chance to begin a career in royal service. ... What marked him out at court, presumably before 1509 (i.e. Henry 8 accession) and certainly soon afterwards, was a close personal friendship with the young Henry 8” (SJG).

When war with France broke out in 1512 first Sir Thomas Knyvet and then his closest friend Sir Edward Howard died at sea. Thus Charles also lost the one rival who consistently outshone him in the court and at war.  With Knyvet and Howard dead it was natural that he should become the king’s closest friend.

In tournaments Charles Brandon dominated at jousting having started in 1501.  At the coronation jousts he was the only one in completely gilt armour.  He had the good sense not to outdo Henry 8 thus highlighting the king’s own skill against someone who dominated all other opponents.  Furthermore he alone adopted similar dress style to Henry thus proclaiming to others a special relationship.  His jousting prowess continued for many years.

In 1511 Charles was jointly granted the office of marshal of the king’s household, which became solely his when the joint holder died in the same disaster as Knyvet.  Combined with the king’s bench marshalcy it made him remarkably strong in Southwark.  He was knighted on 30 March 1512.

Military commands and the duchy of Suffolk

His military responsibilities grew and his first major command was for a raid in Brittany that was not a success but still demonstrated his high favour.  He was then created high marshal of the army for a campaign in France where he “seems to have performed well” (SJG).

Having been created Viscount Lisle through his wardship of Elizabeth Grey (see later) the Lord Lisle (i.e. Charles) and Thomas Wolsey, a rising cleric from Ipswich, were said to govern everything between them. 

On 1 February 1514 Charles was created duke of Suffolk at the same time as a Howard was restored as a duke of Norfolk.  There were of some sound political reasons for the move.  “Apart from sending an unmistakeable message to Richard de la Pole, the last significant Yorkist claimant still at large on the Continent, the new duke, allied with Wolsey, would help to counter the influence of the powerful Howard family and their faction at the council table”. (AP)

On 1 February 1515 Henry granted Charles almost the entire De la Pole estate but this was a mixed blessing as most manors were already granted to others and Charles Brandon had to buy them out causing a short-term cash flow problem (p39 SJG) that never really went away (pp41/2). 

Charles took tours of East Anglia to establish his presence and to counter any remaining loyalties to the De la Poles. The De la Poles, by virtue of the Yorkist Richard being still at large on the continent, were still perceived as a risk to the crown and this continued until the death of Richard fighting with the French at Pavia 24 Feb 1525.

Marriage to Mary Tudor

In 1515 Charles made a defining marriage: to Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry 7 and sister of Henry 8 (not to be confused with Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry 8 and Katherine of Aragon, and later queen Mary 1).  She was also the widow of Louis 12 and always known as the French Queen.  It made him brother-in-law to the king and put his children from this marriage into the line of succession to the throne. 

The marriage provided him with income from Mary’s French interests but it also provided debts and liabilities that never really went away.

Mary Tudor would only agree with Henry 8 to marry Louis 12, king of France, a widower in his fifties, on condition that she could marry of her own choice when she was free again to do so - she believed she had this agreement.  Mary must have exhausted Louis because he died (probably happily) after 82 days.  On their wedding night he had boasted that he had “crossed the river three times”.

Curiously, Henry appointed Charles to go to France to wind-up Mary’s affairs there but sought his assurance that the matter would be kept on strictly formal terms.  Nevertheless, and probably predictably, Charles came under immense emotional pressure from Mary.  At the risk of upsetting either Henry or Mary he followed his heart (or loins) and married her quietly in February 1515 at the Chapel of Cluny, thus becoming the king’s brother-in-law.  Whilst this made Mary the duchess of Suffolk she was mostly still known as the French Queen.

A month later rumours about the marriage began to circulate and Charles wrote a letter to Thomas Wolsey, formerly from Ipswich and now Archbishop of York, asking for representations to be made to Henry.  Henry was at first disbelieving but in the end used it to extract a financial penalty including the surrender of Elizabeth Grey’s wardship (p15 AP).  Charles and Mary were then free to return to England and they had a(nother) grand wedding at Greenwich on 13th May 1515.

His marriage to Mary increased his status as it gave his children a claim to the throne.  At this time his normal residences in Suffolk were Wingfield Castle and Henham Hall (since demolished but the grounds are used for the Latitude Festival).

The scattered nature of his estates, including those in Oxfordshire and Berkshire, remained a problem but his strength remained in Southwark where he reconstructed the Brandon house, at Suffolk Place near Borough High St., into a palace. There is still a Great Suffolk Street off Borough High Street today.

In May 1520 the duke and duchess of Suffolk had a leading role at the ‘Camp du Drap d’Or’ or Field of the Cloth of Gold, with Charles and Mary in one wing of Henry’s prefabricated palace there.

In 1523 Charles commanded the largest army Henry ever sent to the continent in a war with France.  However, Henry’s allies, notably Margaret of Austria, ran into trouble and the venture failed although it remained the deepest penetration of France since Henry 5.  Fortunately, Brandon’s martial reputation survived unscathed and possibly enhanced. A planned repeat in 1525, with him at the helm, was avoided following peaceful negotiations with the French.

In 1527 work began on a grand new brick courtyard house at Westhorpe decorated with terracotta figures and impressive battlements.  The cost, of £12000, was probably paid from Mary’s French income.  Though still unfinished in 1538 Westhorpe was in regular use from 1532, a symbol of Charles’ coming of age as an East Anglian magnate. (SJG)  The gardens were laid out in the French manner under Mary’s influence.  As well as Westhorpe, Charles continued to use Wingfield Castle and Henham Hall as residences.

Shortly after the wedding of their daughter Frances, Mary died at Westhorpe Hall. Her funeral was on 21 July 1533 where she was laid to rest at the great Abbey Church in Bury St Edmunds, about 12 miles from Westhorpe.  Later, after the dissolution of the monasteries she was re-interred at St Mary’s, also in Bury St Edmunds (Pevsner Suffolk, p145).

A decline in power

In 1529 Charles was caught up in the controversy over Anne Boleyn and was for the first time named as one of Wolsey’s enemies but his opposition was cautious and he was with the king more than he was against Wolsey.

Brandon’s influence declined in the following years but he remained on good terms with the king who visited his property at Ewelme in Oxfordshire in 1531, 1532 and 1535 where they gambled, played tennis, and listened to the French Queen’s sackbut players. Henry’s problems with wives, divorces and children actually strengthened the claims of the Brandon children to the throne and Charles was treated with suitable caution.

When Mary died in June 1533 this was a political as well as a personal loss.  It involved a financial settlement between the duke and the crown resulting in the loss of property.  The personal loss was magnified by the death of his only son, Henry, earl of Lincoln, in March 1534.  He had probably been sickly for some time and was 10 at his mother’s death.

Marriage to Catherine Willoughby and a return to power from Lincolnshire

The Brandon’s had acquired the wardship of Catherine Willoughby in 1528 and she started living with them at Westhorpe, growing up alongside Frances, Eleanor and Henry, with Charles and Mary as effectively her foster parents.  It was intended that she marry Henry.

Barely two months after the death of Mary, Charles, then about 48, decided to change from foster parent to husband and married again in September 1533 - this time to the14 years old Catherine Willoughby.  She was then, more importantly, the heiress of Lord Willoughby of Eresby who had been an important landowner, notably at Parham in Suffolk and in Lincolnshire.  She had been born at Parham and baptised at Suffolk.  Henry, the son of Charles and Mary and her intended husband, died the following year, thus avoiding the need for Charles to find him another wife.

This was another defining marriage: Catherine came from an influential family and it gained him rights to land in many parts of Lincolnshire.  By 1538 Brandon was the greatest landowner in Lincolnshire.

The Lincolnshire Rising of October 1536 put Brandon back at the forefront of Henry’s aides as he was sent to deal with the revolt and by December Charles and Henry had exchanged their most fulsome letters for years.

In 1536/7 Brandon’s still remained a force in East Anglia and whilst disposing of rights was also still acquiring the sites of Leiston Abbey and Eye Priory (resulting from the dissolution of the monasteries) to add to his empire. Nevertheless, as noted already, the king was encouraging him to establish himself in Lincolnshire to secure the good order there but also to eliminate any conflict in East Anglia with the Howards.  Henry enforced this by hard bargaining over the Mary settlements and this also included giving up Westhorpe, Henham and Wingfield.

Brandon’s preferred residence in Lincolnshire was Tattershall Castle but he also used Willoughby houses at Eresby and Grimsthorpe.  Grimsthorpe Castle, at Edenham, is stone but is noted in passing under Belleau (another Willoughby building of brick) in Jane Wight’s Brick Building in England as being “partly C13 but mostly mid-C16 work of Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk”.

By 1539, after the death of Jane Seymour and when Henry was thinking of marrying once again, the duke and Catherine spent more time in London at Suffolk Place or at the Barbican, another Willoughby home.  The names live on with Willoughby House and Brandon Way in the 1970s Barbican development.

1539 saw another demonstration that he was still highly regarded by Henry.  He was appointed lord stewardship of the royal household, renamed the great mastership, and was upgraded to take precedence over the lord chamberlain.

Despite declining health Brandon was called to return to battle in the 1540s, first against the Scots (1542/3) and then the French.  Against the Scots he was mostly involved in stalemate and negotiation and in administration in the border region but he prepared the way for an invasion by others in 1544.  In 1544 he was in France where he conducted a siege on Boulogne and rode in on 14 September to sign a treaty made in his name.  His illegitimate son Charles was knighted during this campaign.  Thereafter allies withdrew, forcing the English to withdraw to Calais and by 22 November he was back in the privy council.  Nevertheless, Brandon came out of it well.

In the 1540s Brandon commissioned a spate of drawings and paintings of family members by Holbein including two miniatures of his sons Henry and Charles.

Charles’ liaisons and their issue

Anne Browne

In 1505 Charles was engaged to Anne Browne, daughter of the governor of Calais. Anne had a daughter (also Anne, the future Lady Powis) in 1506 but meanwhile he had married a wealthy widow, the aunt of Anne Browne twice his age - Margaret Mortimer - although this was later invalidated.  He then secretly married Anne Browne at Stepney in early 1508 and on advice married again, this time publicly in St Michael’s Cornhill.

Margaret Mortimer

As noted above, he abandoned Anne to marry her aunt, Margaret Nevill (Dame Margaret Mortimer) 27 years his senior, with an eye on her share of the Montague inheritance.  She was daughter of the earl of Northumberland and widow of Sir John Mortimer. Brandon had this marriage invalidated.

Engagement to Elizabeth Grey

According to AP (p7), in December 1512 Charles acquired the wardship of Elizabeth Grey (then 7 years old) to whom he became engaged in spring 1513.  Brandon only had to contract to marry her when she came of age to enable the king to create him Viscount Lisle in virtue of his ‘wife’.  He broke off the engagement some time in 1514. As pages 28/29 of SJG note, he appears never to have intended to carry out the contract of marriage if better prospects came into view, as indeed they did.

Illegitimate lines

In his “Ducal Family” chart on p94, SJG shows an illegitimate line with a further son and two daughters.

Mary Tudor, the French Queen.

In March 1516 a son was born and named Henry but he died before his 5th birthday.  Two daughters followed: Frances, born 16 July 1517, and Eleanor, two years later.  In 1522 there was another son, also called Henry (the intended husband of Catherine Willoughby).

Frances married Henry Grey, leading to a later creation of a duke of Suffolk and to Lady Jane Grey.

Catherine Willoughby (sometimes Katherine)

By 1537, Catherine and Charles Brandon had two sons. Their first was born in September 1535. They named him Henry (Charles’ third son of that name) and the second son was named after his father, Charles Brandon.  They both became later dukes of Suffolk (see on).

Catherine died in September 1580 but it is not clear where.  She is buried with a later husband in the Church at Spilsby in Lincolnshire.

Death of Charles

Charles Brandon died on August 22nd 1545 at just over 60 years old.  His will called for his body to be buried at Tattershall but the king thought otherwise.  He was buried at Henry 8’s expense at Windsor in the Chapel of St George near the south door of the choir. 

“Many besides his own family mourned the duke's death.  Not the least of these was his king, who was deeply grieved.  When the death was announced in the Privy Council meeting, Henry remarked that in all their long friendship the duke had never attempted to hurt an adversary, nor had he ever said a word to injure anyone. “is there any of you, my Lords” the king added, “who can say as much?”  (ER)

Henry and Charles Brandon: the 2nd and 3rd dukes

Catherine and Charles Brandon had two sons. Their first was born in September 1535. They named him Henry, and the king was his godfather.  Early in 1537, a second son was born to the duchess, a boy whom she named after his father, Charles Brandon.

“Henry 8 died on January 28th, 1547, and on February 20th the boy king, Edward 6, was crowned in Westminster Abbey.  Henry Brandon, the young duke of Suffolk, Catherine's son, carried the orb in the coronation procession, and both he and his younger brother Charles were among

those made Knights of the Bath in the coronation honours”.  (ER)

In the autumn of 1549 the two sons had entered St John’s College, Cambridge.  Henry was then about 14 and Charles a year or so younger. The duchess took a house in the village of Kingston a few kilometres west of Cambridge so that she could be near them.

In July 1551 a disease for which there was no cure, called sweating sickness, a form of plague, struck Cambridge.  Henry and Charles were both promptly taken away to Buckden for safety. They reached Buckden but it was too late - they had already succumbed to the disease.  Henry died within the next few hours passing the title of duke of Suffolk on to Charles who lay ill in another room,

The duchess, who was unwell herself at her house in Kingston, heard that her boys had been taken to Buckden and followed them there.  She arrived to find Henry dead and Charles dying:  about half an hour from the death of Henry, Charles Brandon was also dead, making, and holding ever since, the record for the shortest ever peerage.  They were buried at Buckden where their table-tomb can be seen in the churchyard there.

With the death of the two Brandon boys, the second creation of the duchy of Suffolk had become extinct in the male line and it reverted to the crown.

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