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.