By Nathen Amin
Anyone who has watched controversial Showtime Television Series ‘The Tudors’ will be well aware of name Charles Brandon, a brooding lothario who snagged the sister of a King. And King Henry VIII at that. We are introduced to the couple as they get together, marry without the king’s consent, suffer banishment from court, grow apart and eventually their respective deaths. But that is fiction. What Sarah-Beth Watkins succeds in accomplishing in her new book The Tudor Brandons is replace the fiction with fact, exploring the real life story of the Suffolks, bringing them to life with far greater accuracy than the television series.
Although things have changed in recent years, the Tudor book industry is still dominated by the larger than life figure of Henry VIII and his six wives, and so any book focusing on the lives of those in his circle rather than the king himself is always welcome in my house.
The book opens with a poem from the Suffolk Garland, a novel way of opening the story and setting the context for the book. We are instantaneously made aware that this is the story of the Brandons, and not their king or various sisters-in-law. An extract from the poem, perfectly summarises the couple’s early relationship, the fair Mary and the knightly Brandon;
“Eighth Henry ruling this land
He had a sister fair
That was the widow’d queen of France
Enrich’d with virtues rare
And being come to England’s court
She oft beheld a knight
Charles Brandon nam’d, in whose fair eyes
She chiefly took delight”
Before Watkins delves into their relationship however, she covers the ancestry of Charles Brandon with commendable detail, particularly as he was not descended from the great nobles of the realm and therefore information is not easily accessible. Most books which mention Brandon generally only make passing references to his lowly birth and occasionally a mention of his father who fought at Bosworth for Henry Tudor. It is here that Watkins truly distinguishes her work, covering the Brandon family story from 1443 to Bosworth. Their beginnings are not as lowly as it sometimes suggested, for it is recounted that Brandon’s grandfather William was a merchant closely aligned with the Dukes of Norfolk, perhaps ironic considering Charles Brandon’s later dealings with a duke of Norfolk in the 1520s and 30s. I enjoyed learning nuggets of trivia such as Brandon’s grandfather’s indictment for assault, theft and threatening behaviour, although he did fight for the Yorkists at the Battles of Towton and Tewkesbury. By 1483 William Brandon had transferred his loyalties to Tudor and was recorded as hiding from Richard III in Colchester, with his son, and Charles’ father, on the run. It seems that criminal behaviour run in the family, for Brandon’s father, also called William, was arrested for rape in 1478 and only just escaped hanging. It would have been an ignominious early ending to a family that would become renowned half a century later.
The rest of the Brandon story is covered, with Watkins exploring the French marriage of Princess Mary, her widowhood and her return to court with Brandon. We learn about their involvement in the rise of Anne Boleyn and what became of Brandon after his wife’s early death. It is the early years however that make this book worth its while, although the fact that Watkins doesn’t get bogged down on the minutiae of King Henry VIII’s reign, well covered elsewhere, is particularly helpful. This is, after all, the story of the Brandons and the author never strays far from her subject. Sizable extracts from surviving letters provide the reader with the sources to make their own deductions, always a bonus in historical non-fiction in my eyes.
All in all, Watkins book is a worthwhile addition to any Tudor library, its light and readable without shirking on detail and provides a brilliant introduction to the lives of the Suffolks during those momentous earlier years of Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign.
Sarah-Beth Watkins works in publishing and has a BA in Social Policy. She grew up in Richmond, Surrey and began soaking up history from an early age. Her love of writing has seen her articles published in various publications over the past twenty years. Her history works are Ireland’s Suffragettes, Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII and The Tudor Brandons.