Kathy’s Report of Steven Gunn’s lecture on Charles Brandon

Steven Gunn’s lecture on Charles Brandon
Gainsborough Old Hall, July 10, 2009

First of all, I have to recommend that everybody interested in Tudor times visit Gainsborough Old Hall. It’s a bit off the beaten tourist path, but just a short train ride from Lincoln. I don’t think their website does them justice, but check it out, especially their amazing list of events and speakers — Gainsborough Old Hall.

I took the train up to Lincoln, checked into my hotel, and after a leisurely tour of the cathedral, took the train to Gainsborough. Marilyn R from the boards here met me and, after coffee, drove me to the Old Hall, where I got a private tour, and she pointed out various aspects of the history. I won’t go into detail, but I was very much impressed with the restoration work they had done there. A lot of extensive restorations end up looking very slick and modern like a faux antique. But they have avoided that at Gainsborough, and the Old Hall is the better for it.

I had a chance to shake hands with Steven Gunn briefly before we all filed into the great hall for the lecture complete with a powerpoint presentation of pictures. I would have picked him out as an academic (in the very best sense of the word) in a crowd – he just had that air about him. But he was also relatively young, enthusiastic about his subject, and happy to share his knowledge. And nicest of all, he had a sense of humor.

The first picture that went up on the screen was the portrait of Brandon in his later years. “If I tell you that this is Charles Brandon, you will expect to be in for a dull lecture about a dull old man this evening,” Gunn began. “But he looked much different than that in his younger years.” And up went a picture of Henry Cavill in The Tudors. That got a hearty laugh.

And just how does somebody like Charles Brandon come from being an obscure squire to become one of the most powerful nobles in the kingdom and and the king’s brother-in-law? That was the question of the evening.

Gunn answered it by tracing Charles’s early life through his arrival at court and subsequent career.

I don’t mean to write a biography of Charles Brandon here, so I’ll just hit the highlights as Gunn wove them into a compelling portrait of somebody who was seemingly lucky as he was talented.

How to get ahead at the Tudor court:

1. Be friends with the king. This, of course, is the quickest and surest way. Henry VIII was very generous to his friends. And Brandon was in a unique position to achieve this.

2. Have a dead hero for a father. Charles’s father, Sir William Brandon, was Henry VII’s standard bearer and died at the battle of Bosworth, killed by Richard III himself as he tried to shield Henry. Nothing will endear you to a Tudor more than unquestioned loyalty.

3. Have a relative in a position to get you to court. In Charles’s case, it was his uncle Sir Thomas Brandon, who was very well-positioned and could easily get his nephew a place, which it is believed that he did, though the details are a little murky.

4. Share an interest with the king. In this case, it was jousting. Charles excelled at all things athletic and was probably better than the king, though he quite obviously let Henry win on most occasions.

(A brief aside here. There is a debate on whether or not Henry was allowed to joust in his teens. He may have been prevented from it. The only evidence hinges on the interpretation of one word in a Latin text. David Starkey insists Henry was forbidden to participate, but Gunn believes he was allowed and said he would disagree with Starkey as a general principle. I got the very strong impression he does not view Starkey favorably.)

5. Be friends with everybody. Charles seems to have a knack for getting along with people. Some people, notably the Boleyns, did not like him, but that was based mainly on jealously because of his close relationship with the king. Other than situations like that, he got along very well with most people. Gunn thinks he cultivated and practiced this ability.

6. Have a talent the king needs. Henry VIII had a very good eye for spotting talent and putting people in positions to use their talent to further his own reign. Gunn believes Charles’s main talent was military command. He was considered an excellent leader and was especially good at making divergent elements of the military follow him.

7. Marry well. Charles married Henry’s sister, Mary, the Dowager Queen of France. You can’t marry any better than that. The details of the match are a bit murky, but it was clearly a love match, neither being forced into it. In the eyes of the church, that marriage made Henry and Charles brothers.

8. Build up your land and your wealth. This Charles set about doing very assiduously the entire time he was a duke.

And finally, 9. Display power. This involved making sure you looked the part you aspired to, including have the proper clothes, servants, manors, etc. Again, Charles did this very well, though he doesn’t seem to have been interested in wealth for its own sake.

I can’t say I really learned anything new about Charles Brandon that I wasn’t aware of before. But I have spent years studying him, so I didn’t really expect to. Gunn made some very minor errors during the lecture, but I think those were done in the interests of expediency, so I won’t fault him for that. And it was a treat hearing somebody else’s take on a person I have been studying for so long.

After the lecture I had the opportunity to talk to with Gunn and asked him to autograph my copy of his book on Brandon, now out of print. He seemed delighted to be asked for an autograph and willingly signed it. I told him how difficult it was to obtain a copy of the book, and how ridiculously priced they were on the net. He was unaware of this and said he was going to check into it. I think he’s at the mercy of his publisher — much as Alison Weir is — but it would be nice if they reissued it. I hope he can talk them into it.

In return for the autograph, I offered him a bit of information I didn’t think he knew, mainly because nobody seems to have noticed this before except me: the date of Charles Brandon’s death, August 22, 1545, was the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth. Gunn looked absolutely stunned and said slowly, “You know, I do believe you are right!”

We then retired for coffee to an adjoining room — the same room that Henry VIII occupied when he was at the Old Hall in 1541! I would love to have talked to Steven Gunn some more but decided I really shouldn’t be monopolize him. I ended up talking to the vicar of the nearby All Saints Church. I had seen the church on the way into the Old Hall and wondered if that was the church Henry would have attended when he stayed in Gainsborough. The vicar says unfortunately it isn’t the same one as several have built on the site over the years. Henry would certainly have attended whichever one was there at the time though. The vicar did mention other interesting item. The original church from back in the Middle Ages was built by Templar Knights, so it would have been round. I think they should get Time Team in to look for that one and to see if they can find any remains from the Tudor era as well.

After that, the lovely evening ended, and Marilyn and her friend Joy drove me safely back to Lincoln. I am profoundly grateful to them and to all the Tudor fans (most of them from this site!) who took me under their wing while I was in England, making sure I didn’t get lost on the train system, getting me into places that tourists normally don’t see, and just being there for scintillating Tudor conversation. It was definitely Pastime With Good Companye.


  1. I am very jealous! Dr. Gunn was one of my tutors at Oxford and I loved his tutorials. I’ve always wanted to hear him in action on Charles Brandon!

  2. Thank you so much for posting this and thank you very much to Marylin as well for asking my question!

    It sounds like a very good entertaining lecture. I have only started reading up on Brandon and there are still big puzzle pieces missing for me, so I would have loved to be there.

    You made some points I didn’t know. Is it actually confirmed that William Brandon was killed by Richard III? I thought that was a rumour. And at what age did Brandon come to court, do you know? I have read about different speculations ranging from 7 to 17 years old, but nothing definite (what did they do with children at court anyway?)

    You can see I would not have minded you writing a biography! 🙂

    You have a good eye for spotting that Charles’s death was on the day of the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth! I wonder if Henry VIII was struck by this.

    Thanks again for going to the trouble of typing a report of the lecture!

  3. Gareth, Gunn was your tutor? I’m jealous of you!

    Feuerrabe, I’ve never delved deeply into the Battle of Bosworth, but the story that Sir William Brandon was killed by Richard III himself seems pretty well confirmed. As Henry Tudor’s standard bearer, William would have been close to Henry when Richard made his final assault to keep Henry from gaining support from the Stanleys whose forces were neutral at the time. All accounts say Richard barrelled down a hill lance pointed and ran right into William Brandon, hitting him so hard the lance ran through him and shattered, killing him immediately.

    It’s hard to tell how old Charles was when he came to court because we don’t know when he was born. You usually see 1484, which seems reasonable. I’m not sure exactly when he came to court either, though there is possibly some mention of him in documentation. We do know he was in Prince Arthur’s household initially. After Arthur’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and move to Wales, Charles moved over to Prince Henry’s household — and the rest is history as they say. (I think Charles probably would have started out as a page and progressed from there at court.)

    I’ve been trying to get somebody to write a biography of Charles. Alison Weir seemed interested, but doesn’t think her publisher would agree to it as they only seem to be interested in Anne Boleyn. I’ve been playing around with the idea of opening a website to put up some information I’ve discovered abot Charles and Mary. I haven’t had the time to get around to it yet though.

  4. Kathy, it was a pleasure to show you around the Old Hall

  5. Ohhhh! Open up that web site! 😀 Pretty please? If it helps I’m willing to make big puppy eyes at you!

    There is so much stuff out there on the net about Charles that is just simply not true or badly researched (and his wikipedia article could use some brushing up as well), that I would absolutely love to see a good site with soundly researched info on him.

    Thank you for the info on William Brandon. Sounds like it was a quick death at least for him. (Unlike Richard’s standard bearer, who got both his legs hacked off and didn’t immediately die of that!)

    I really wonder what it was like for Charles to come to court with both his parents dead. Did he maybe live with his uncle or did they have other accomodations? I’m really interested in every day life when it comes to history so these kinds of questions tickle me! 🙂

    I’m curious to know what you discovered about Charles and Mary. I find them fascinating as a couple. Share? Maybe on a shiny new website?

  6. Feuerrabe, I honestly don’t think I am the person to write a biography of Charles Brandon much as I’m tempted. But I don’t live in England and don’t have access to the documents that I would want to do a proper job of it. At the moment, I’m just thinking of putting up items I’ve run across or pieced together that haven’t come out elsewhere. But it’s not enough to make a biography. Mainly I just try to talk people who could do it (such as Alison Weir) into doing it. No luck so far though.

    As to where Charles would have lived at court, if he came in as a page, he would probably have lived with the other pages, dormitory style with many to a room. Otherwise, he may have stayed with his uncle, Sir Thomas Brandon.

    I don’t even bother looking at the wikipedia article on Charles any more because it’s always made me angry to read the garbage that was on it. Ignoring it makes me a lot happier.

    I’ll eventually get around to sharing the bits of knowledge I have — the item on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth was one of them.

  7. Oh, I didn’t mean writing a complete biography, just putting some stuff you know up online. You could even just blog about it. I must admit I don’t know if I would be very happy with Alison Weir doing a biography. Her writing style is a little too fictional for my taste. I like Gunn’s style much better, but if he doesn’t want to do a biography either… 🙁

    Wikipedia is easily edited and you don’t even have to know anything about html to make changes there and getting an account takes all of 10 minutes. I have been thoroughly tempted to edit some stuff, but I would need to get an account for the English wikipedia (I only have one for the German wikipedia so far) and I don’t feel I know enough yet to seriously tackle the article. Besides I don’t really want to meddle there in a language that isn’t my mother tongue, I’d rather leave that to the native speakers.

    Anyway, I hope you decide to share some knowledge with us soon! There are not enough Charles fans out there! 🙂

  8. Reply from Steven Gunn regarding Charles Brandon’s siblings and the age at which he came to court.

  9. @MarylinR: Thank you very much! I was really curious about the siblings. Some pages state he had three brothers William, Robert and Thomas, but Robert and Thomas might have been his cousins by his uncle then, if they weren’t his siblings.

    (As for their birthdates I must say I wouldn’t think it impossible that one of them might have been a posthumous child and could have been born as late as early 1486, but that’s just speculation of course)

    About his coming to court: I read an account of the Duke of Norfolk in Starkey’s “Rivals in Power” a short while ago, where he states he knew Charles Brandon from the age of 8 or 10. They probably met at court, so he must have been there that early. I guess it makes sense that he and his siblings moved in with their uncle after their parent’s and grandfather’s deaths.

    Thank you again for asking Steven Gunn for me!

  10. In Starkey’s book Virtuos Prince, Ambassadors at Henry vii’s court reported that the young Prince Henry “rang at the ring” .

  11. Thank you Kathy for posting :)!
    Wow, wish I could have been there.

    I am studying Charles Brandon but unfortunately there seems to be no second-hand copy on the net?
    Can anybody help me – where can I buy Steven Gunns book of Charles Brandon (seems to be impossible though)?

    Thank you,

  12. @ Feuerrabe:
    You are from Germany? Great! I am from Stuttgart and i honestly never met anyone else interested in the life of Charles Brandon. In fact, no one even seemed to heard of him at all.

    Schreib mir doch mal, ich w

  13. I love all of the information you have given here about Charles Brandon! Thanks so much for sharing-its very interesting!! Information on Brandon proves to be quite elusive, and I have a question, if you don’t mind. I was wondering if anyone knows how he died. I would also be interested in Gunns book, and would love to have a copy!!! Thanks in advance for an answer to my question about the death!

  14. Dear All
    I’ve just stumbled on your discussion today and am really pleased to see all the interest in Charles Brandon! I am attempting to write a new biography of Charles and have an agent seeking a publisher for me. I would love to hear of any leads you have found and plan to chat with Steven Gunn in the New Year if things progress with my biog proposal.


  15. I too am envious of your opportunity. I am fascinated with Charles, and have played him at Waxahachie

  16. Hi all

    I found this old blog while searching Charles Brandon.I’ve taken an interest in the Tudors in the last 6 months and its like an addiction…its all I want to read about.

    Charles is someone at the top of my list to discover more about….if I was to write about any Tudor he would be the one.

    Talking about writing about Charles it is mentioned in comments that people here want to write about him…Is anyone working on one.

    My dream to oneday write something is only a dream atm…I don’t live in the UK and I’m not a writer just an enthusiast.

    Well I don’t know if anyone will see this because of the age of it but I would love to hear from other Charles fans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *