“As long as Charles Brandon served me, he never betrayed a friend nor did he take unfair advantage of an enemy” – Jonathan Rhys Meyers as King Henry VIII of England.
Believe it or not, there was once a time when the name Henry Cavill wasn’t associated with donning a red cape or hunting monsters on the Continent. While nowadays it seems to be the perfect recurring joke to hum John Williams’ Superman theme or to offer to toss a coin in the actor’s presence, there was a time when hearing his name caused fans to simply swoon (not that they still don’t–he is annoyingly handsome). During this time, Henry Cavill was well-known for his role as Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, from Showtime’s The Tudors.
Because the series covers Henry Tudor’s (historically inaccurate) reign from 1519-1547, it had a habit of introducing and dropping characters and abandoning their storylines each season, with very few characters appearing for all four seasons. Charles Brandon was the only character besides King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to appear in all 38 episodes of the series’ run. As a result, I believe this allowed for Charles Brandon to be the most complex character and to have the greatest development of anyone in the series.
The charming and carefree Charles Brandon is introduced as the King’s closest and loyal friend and as a womanizer. As a young man, Brandon indulges in his impulsivities; he essentially does as he pleases; for instance, he beds the Duke of Buckingham’s daughter with no fear of consequence as he knows that his close relationship with the King would protect him. He also continues his sexual exploits through extramarital affairs during his first marriage to Margaret Tudor, the King’s sister. However, the Duke of Suffolk seems to display some sort of self-awareness regarding his behavior and immaturity. While hitting on the Queen of France and suggesting they sleep together so she can get back at her unfaithful husband, she points him out as a hypocrite, which he does not argue. He also recognizes that his hasty marriage to Margaret Tudor wasn’t the best idea, admitting, “I don’t always think.”
Brandon’s relationship with women, particularly his relationships, is a direct contrast to King Henry’s treatment to his wives. The King often projects his insecurities, dissatisfaction, and anger onto his wives, blaming them for his issues and often lashing out, having affairs, and ultimately finding ways to get rid of them. Brandon also has affairs, but after Margaret’s death, he succumbs to his guilt for being unfaithful to her during the night of her death, crying and apologizing for his behavior as he stands by her coffin. He realizes his wrongdoings and attempts to do better. During his second marriage to his ward, Catherine Brooke, he promises to remain faithful. Although he doesn’t, he displays guilt for his actions when kissing a woman in court and begs for Catherine’s forgiveness when he does break his promise by sleeping with another.
Brandon further demonstrates growth by initially declining to take on a mistress years later at Henry’s suggestion. Despite his estrangement with Catherine, Brandon states he’d prefer to have his wife’s love again. He values the love of and respect from a wife and understands that it’s not something that can be given easily. “When she consents to make love to me again, strike a medal to commemorate it.” Although he does end up having a mistress, it is a relationship borne out of love rather than some random dalliance. And even though his marriage has deteriorated, Brandon remains a father to his son. On the other hand, Henry had a tendency to disregard both of his daughters, stripping away their titles and removing them from court when his relationships with their respective mothers have ended.
The Duke of Suffolk also exhibits a more sensitive and sympathetic nature than his friend. When he is sent to visit Katherine of Aragon, he is visibly pained to be the one to tell her that his friend has married Anne Boleyn and stripped her of the title “Queen of England”. He also commends and seems to hold Katherine in high regard, telling his wife “it’s like a thing of another world to watch her courage.” Moreover, Brandon perceives the anxiousness of Anne of Cleves when he is sent to receive her before her marriage to the King. Knowing better than anyone of his friend’s history with his previous wives and the fact that Anne of Cleves is not accustomed to English culture, Brandon discerns that she has reason to be nervous and feels for her. Therefore, to put her at ease, he helps her when she requests to learn more about English customs and the King’s interests without hesitation.
As a young man, Charles Brandon initially shows no interest in politics or the responsibilities of his dukedom. However, as the years progress, he becomes more involved in matters of state and rejects the playboy personality he thrived on during his early adulthood. He is most often seen representing Henry and delivering important messages or conducting arrests in the service of the King. He also leads the Royal Army against the Northern Army uprising and negotiates with its leaders on Henry’s behalf. He ones again takes the command of the Royal Army as General during the siege of Boulogne. The Duke of Suffolk also integrates himself in the never-ending power struggle at Court. Throughout the series, Brandon adopts a quiet method of politics, working behind the scenes at his opponents’ most vulnerable moments while simultaneously actively avoiding favor from the King. Brandon’s actions are usually generated by his dislike of others in Court, especially those who may have a high influence on the King, such as Cardinal Wolsey, the Boleyn’s, and Thomas Cromwell.
However, Brandon also does not appreciate seeing people, even his enemies, suffer a cruel fate. He is visibly affected and deeply remorseful by the mass killings in the Northern Rebellion he conducted through Henry’s orders. Additionally, despite his intense dislike of both Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, he does not seem to take pleasure in their deaths. As a sign of respect, he bows in prayer with the crowd after Anne Boleyn’s speech before her beheading and is horrified by Cromwell’s gruesome beheading. The Duke of Suffolk also confronts Thomas Boleyn, disgusted by his actions; Boleyn remains alive and displays no regret while both of his children ultimately died due their father’s pursuit for power and standing. Other members of Court seem to propose intricate plots to get rid of their enemies; on the other hand, Charles Brandon simply wants them removed from their high positions of power and status along with their influence over King Henry.
Charles Brandon’s most prominent characteristic is his unwavering loyalty to his friend, King Henry. Henry trusts Charles Brandon above all else, and Brandon is the only person who remains in Henry’s good graces. He oversteps his boundaries once with the King when Brandon marries his sister, but correctly assesses that Henry’s vanity had been wounded and begs for forgiveness. Nevertheless, he does not disobey Henry’s orders ever again, whatever his own beliefs are in the matter and will consistently do his duty to the King. While Brandon will not explicitly disagree with Henry or criticize him, he appears to realize that Henry’s choices have dictated his problems while all the while remaining wise enough to keep his mouth shut about it. Brandon maintains this loyalty to Henry until his death, even managing to get up from his bed when severely ill after King Henry orders to see him. This loyalty is not forgotten by Henry, who pays for Charles Brandon’s funeral and recognizes him as a good man and friend.
It’s been years since I have watched The Tudors, and there are many aspects of the show I’ve forgotten, but the character of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk has always stuck with me. Quite frankly, I’ve always thought of King Henry as a piece of s— and would often grow tiresome of his rages every time something didn’t go his way. As a result, it was always a nice respite to watch Charles Brandon develop into the man his close friend wasn’t. There is a certain depth and emotional intelligence when it comes to a man who is able to maintain the trust and regard of a volatile king, who witnesses all the bad behavior of said king but perceives the good traits as well. Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t born royal or to the knowledge that he was going to become King of England but still got a front view of that life, or maybe he just wasn’t as vain as his close friend.
Charles Brandon’s intentions were never to gain status or power through the King; for one, he was surprised to be bestowed a dukedom and clearly was not expecting it. It seemed that the friendship was enough. He chiefly wanted to be in service of his friend. And it’s that lack of desire for power that made him observant and vigilant towards those who did want it and gained the King’s favor for selfish reasons, making him a damn good friend, a friend that King Henry arguably did not deserve.