Nobles Go Dating: The Five Wives of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk
The paparazzi would have loved Charles Brandon.
He had everything you’d want for some good, gossipy stories – he was handsome and charming, rose to the top of the Tudor court from near the bottom and he hung out with all the A-Listers (he is the only close friend and courtier of Henry VIII’s to actually last practically the whole reign and not lose all his power and prestige/get his head cut off, so fair play). But most of all, his love life was absolutely insane.
Charles Brandon was played by the delicious Henry Cavill in the HBO series of The Tudors. As a show, The Tudors was both inaccurate and sexed up in a lot of places – but not really with Charles Brandon. That’s right, even a trashy drama didn’t do his trashy sex life justice.
Generally speaking, Brandon was known for being a womaniser, so I’m sure there’s plenty of women that he had affairs or hooked up with, but unfortunately we don’t know who they are. Or I don’t, anyway, and there’s enough women about to come up in this post to worry about, so enough introduction, and let’s see whose up first…
Family Affairs: Anne, Margaret and er, Anne again
Anne Browne was one of the ladies in waiting to Queen Elizabeth of York (Henry VIII’s mother). Charles was engaged to her and he was by all accounts handsome, brave and charming, so she must have been at least a bit pleased with such a catch because before they got married, she gave him a daughter. Everything was great, until 22 year old Charles decided to wriggle out of this pre-contract in 1506/7 and marry Anne’s 43 year old aunt, Margaret Mortimor instead, because sometimes, really, men are trash.
This marriage to Margaret, however, finished pretty quickly, because it was annulled on the grounds of consanguinity, which basically means because he was engaged to her niece, they’re essentially related and it’s gross so please stop it. Margaret wasn’t happy about this, and years later she still pops up in the records complaining that the annulment was invalid; it’s only really put to bed in the 1520’s when the Pope’s had enough and declares it null and void, probably because that time Charles was already re-re-married. No, that’s not a typo.
In 1508, poor, long-suffering Anne Browne is abducted by Charles and they actually marry. Yes, the first Anne. She then gives him two more daughters before dying in 1512. Her aunt Margaret still wants to be married to sexy (creepy) Charles Brandon, but he has other fish to fry.
That’s what they should call him, but they don’t. In 1513, Charles gets betrothed to his ward, Elizabeth. She is the heiress to John Grey, Viscount of Lisle, and because her parents are dead, Charles uses their betrothal to assume the title of Viscount of Lisle.
Elizabeth was 9.
This betrothal was then annulled. Charles Brandon was clearly keen to advance his way up their hierarchy, and being Henry VIII’s best friend definitely was helping him with this ambition. At Candlemas in 1514, he was created the Duke of Suffolk, which infuriated people that this son of a standard bearer could be raised so high. The Howards, who were in possession of the only other Dukedom in the kingdom (The head of the Howard family was the Duke of Norfolk) were furious, and poised to destroy Charles – at which point, he seemed to make the move to destroy himself.
Bro code: A Bro shall not sleep with another Bro’s sister
In 1515, Princess Mary, Henry VIII’s beautiful 18-year-old sister was packed off to marry the King of France, Louis, who was 52 and kind of gross and ill. She really didn’t want to marry him, but struck a deal with her brother that if/when her husband died, she would get to choose her next one. Henry, probably just trying to get her on the boat, agreed. Sort of. Mary already had made her mind up on who Husband #2 was going to be.
When Louis died, after three months of marriage, Henry had to pick someone high ranking to go and collect his gorgeous widowed sister, and decided that the best man for the job would 100% be Charles Brandon, who had proved already that he was great and reliable around women. When he arrived in France, he went to visit Mary, who cried and pestered, and before Charles knew it, he was married to the King’s sister and potentially about to get his head chopped off.
The marriage had been consummated, at which point Charles freaked out, and contacted Henry to let him know what had happened, and also to point out to everyone that it was Mary’s fault, because she kept crying and he didn’t know how to get her to stop.
The Lords back in England (lead by the Howards) were baying for his blood; the privy council were trying to get him executed or imprisoned, and Henry was raging. It was treason to marry a princess of the blood without permission – Charles had massively, massively overstepped the mark.
Luckily, Charles and Mary managed to get the extremely powerful and influential Cardinal Wolsey on their side, and, somehow, although they had to pay Henry a crippling fine, Charles managed to escape with his head. Not only that, he remained married to Mary. who had four children with Charles, and he once again returned to court and remained close, friendly and influential with Henry.
Things got strained with the King when his sister opposed Henry’s relationship with Anne Boleyn. Mary hated Anne, for being a commoner and potentially soon out-ranking her, and for pushing her friend Catherine of Aragon off her throne and out of her marriage. However this tension was conveniently ended when Mary died, aged 37, in June 1533.
The Grieving Widower
Ten weeks after Mary died, on the same day that Queen Elizabeth I was born, Charles Brandon married Katherine Willoughby, his 14 year old ward.
Katherine was smart, witty and lively, and she had been betrothed to Charles’ son, Henry. Charles annulled the betrothal between the two, and married her himself. According to some, his son Henry then died of sorrow, and it was said that “my Lord of Suffolk kills one son to beget another”, but Henry had been in poor health for a while, and actually died in March 1534. It doesn’t make it any less weird, but it does kind of make a lie out of that statement.
Despite the 35 year old age gap, the creepiness of Katherine having been his son’s fiancee and the face that Charles was by now getting really very fat, this marriage was a success. They had two sons, and remained married until his unexpected death on 22 August 1545. Henry, despite everything, was devastated and paid for the costs of Charles’ funeral. Katherine, who was a great friend to Queen Catherine Parr, an intellectual and devout Protestant, remained a widow for several years until re-marrying her master of the horse for love and living until she was 61.
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