Book Corner: The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings by Sarah Bryson

Four generations of Brandon men lived and served six English kings, the most famous being Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, best friend and brother-in-law to King Henry VIII. Yet his family had a long history tied closely to the kings of the Wars of the Roses back to Henry VI. Charles Brandon’s father, Sir William Brandon, supported Henry Tudor’s claim on the throne and became his standard bearer, dying at the Battle of Bosworth. Charles’s uncle, Sir Thomas Brandon, was Henry VII’s Master of the Horse, one of the three highest positions within the court. Charles’s grandfather had ties with Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. These men held important offices, made great sacrifices, walked the fine line between being loyal courtiers and traitors, and even gave their lives, all in the name of loyalty to the king they served. No more shall the Brandon name be an obscure reference in archives. It is time for them to emerge from the shadows of history.

I have been looking forward to reading The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings by Sarah Bryson ever since I heard that Sarah was working on it. I loved her first book, La Reine Blanche: Mary Tudor, A Life in Letters, and was hoping this one would be as good. I was wrong!

The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings is even better. In telling the story of Henry VIII’s best friend, Charles Brandon, and Charles’ forebears, Sarah Bryson writes with a passion that draws the reader in from the very first pages. Sarah Bryson starts the story at the beginning, with the first known head of the Brandon family, Sir William Brandon, born in around 1425. The Brandons rose to prominence during the unsettled times of the Wars of the Roses, their fortunes turning with the tug-of-war between York and Lancaster. Sir William Brandon’s son – also William – was killed at the Battle of Bosworth while protecting the future king, Henry VII. It was this William whose son, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, took the family to its greatest heights, going so far to marry Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France and King Henry VIII’s beloved baby sister.

While the rest of the family had a no-less dramatic story, it is Charles Brandon’s which catches the attention. Brandon pursued a thriving career at court, as one of Henry VIII’s closest friends and jousting partners, while at the same time he chased after wealth and land through several scandalous marriages and betrothals. His marriage to Mary Tudor, however, was the icing on the cake; it brought him a beautiful bride, a love story that would last the ages, and the title of Duke of Suffolk as the brother-in-law to the king. It also brought him more trouble than even he could have imagined; whilst Brandon did not lose his head, he got heavily in debt trying to placate the king for his presumption in marrying the king’s sister.

Charles Brandon’s life was also tinged with family scandal, with one daughter being publicly shamed for her extramarital affair, and tragedy; two of his sons died during the duke’s lifetime, with two mores, his sons by Katherine Willoughby, dying within half an hour of each other before either reached their majority. It was Charles Brandon’s granddaughter by Mary Tudor, the tragic Lady Jane Grey, who became Queen of England for Nine Days. The Brandon story is one of the highs and lows of ambition and family; the veritable wheel of fortune that was so popular in medieval culture.

Lacking experience in military action, Henry Tudor appointed the veteran Earl of Oxford to command his troops and to lead the vanguard. Sir Gilbert Talbot took the right wing and was ordered to defend the archers and keep an eye on the battle line, while John Savage was to lead the left wing. Henry Tudor was positioned to the rear of the troops with several French mercenaries whom he had brought with him from France. Standing close to Henry was Sir William Brandon II.

Brandon had been appointed Henry’s standard-bearer. It is unclear exactly why Brandon was chosen to carry one of Henry Tudor’s standards; perhaps it was due to his unfaltering loyalty to the man he hoped would become king, or perhaps it was down to his physical toughness. We have no description of what Sir William Brandon II looked like, but his son Charles grew up to be tall, handsome, well built and extremely suited to physical pastimes such as hunting and jousting – all qualities that he may have inherited from his father.

Facing them, on King Richard’s side was John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, with Sir Robert Brackenbury leading the Yorkist vanguard. Next came a force commanded by Richard III and comprised of his bodyguard and others. In the rear was the Earl of Northumberland and his men.

When the battle cry went up, arrows flew and the roar of Richard III’s artillery filled the air. Oxford’s men clashed with the Duke of Norfolk’s, the two being old foes. Both sides paused to reorientate themselves. Oxford formed his men into a wedge and charged forward. At this second charge, Henry’s French troops attacked Norfolk’s vanguard. Soon Norfolk’s men were in trouble. Many were killed, including the duke. Others fled while some defected to fight on Henry Tudor’s side.

Northumberland and his men did not move into the fight, and it is believed that at some point the earl decided to leave the battle without throwing any of his men into the fray. Amid this chaos, some of Richard III’s supporters begged him to flee, but he declared that he would live or die as a king. Oxford’s men had pushed forward, leaving a gap, and Richard III now saw an opportunity to get to Henry Tudor directly. He charged with his men, aiming to strike Henry down.

As he advanced, Richard III’s lance pierced through Henry’s standard-bearer, Sir William Brandon II, and broke in half. History records that William Brandon ‘hevyd on high [the Tudor standard] and vamisyd it, tyll with deathe’s dent he was tryken downe.’ What was racing through Sir William’s mind in those last few moments as Richard III and his men came thundering towards him? He had given up his property, his land, his wealth, everything he had to support Henry Tudor. He had bid his wife and infant son farewell to follow Henry to England in the hopes of a better life, not just for himself or his family but for England. It was his sworn duty to protect Henry Tudor with his life, and as Richard III’s lance pierced his armour and threw him from his horse, he gave up his life to save the man he believed to be the rightful king of England. Sir William Brandon II had been loyal to his last breath.

In The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings, Sarah Bryson puts flesh on the bones of history; she brings the family, their actions, hopes and dreams, back to life. Concentrating on the human side of their story, Sarah Bryson expertly recreates the world in which the Brandon men and their families lived, from the violence, suspicion and betrayal that personified the Wars of the Roses, to the glamour, intrigue and fear of the court of Henry VIII. Neither does she shy away from the more questionable actions of the family, such as Charles Brandon’s dislike of Anne Boleyn and complicity in her downfall. Sarah Bryson examines the evidence and arguments with a neutral, if passionate, eye, giving us a wonderful portrait of Charles Brandon as a fallible human being whose ambition sometimes gets in the way of his own success. However, and above all, Charles Brandon knew where his loyalty – and his prospects – lie; with the king. He did everything to ensure that his relationship with Henry VIII, and therefore his family’s security, remained paramount in his career.

I was surprised to see that the Brandon story overlaps a little with my own research on the Warennes. Two hundred years after the demise of John de Warenne, the 7th and last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, it seems that some of the Warenne lands, notably Bromfield and Yale in Wales, found themselves in the hands of Charles Brandon – a little serendipity there.

The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings is a beautifully written non-fiction biography of a family that most people have heard of, but of which few know the particulars. Meticulously researched, with substantial notes and an excellent bibliography, it tells the story of the Brandon family and their rise to heights that none of them could have predicted in their wildest dreams. It is a story of war and conflict, love and feuds, with family ambition tempered by family tragedy. It is, above all, a story of service to the crown.

Sarah Bryson is a wonderful writer of non-fiction, whose love of the Brandons’ story comes through on every page, drawing the reader in; engaging, entertaining and enlightening you on every page. It is, in short, a thoroughly enjoyable investigation into the rise of one of the greatest families of the Tudor court, from the origins in later medieval England and the discord of the Wars of the Roses; from humble Suffolk landowners, to the great Duke of Suffolk who owned most of Lincolnshire. The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings is definitely worth reading!

To buy the book:

The Brandon Men: In the Shadow of Kings is available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon

About the author:

Sarah Bryson is a researcher, writer and educator who has a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education with Honours. She currently works with children with disabilities. She is passionate about Tudor history and has a deep interest in Mary Tudor, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and the reign of Henry VIII and the people of his court. She has run a website dedicated to Tudor history for many years and has written for various websites including ‘On the Tudor Trail’ and “QueenAnneBoleyn’. She has been studying primary sources to tell the story of Mary Tudor for a decade. She is the author of books on Mary Boleyn, Charles Brandon and La Reine Blanche. She lives in Australia. –This text refers to the hardcover edition.

My books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.


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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

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