Editorial provided by Rosemary Mees
In 1515, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk married Mary Rose, widow of King Louis XII of France and the younger sister of King Henry VIII. In order to establish himself as a magnate in Suffolk, he needed to acquire a magnificent residence for them both where he could display his wealth and status. This he built in Westhorpe, on the site of the present Westhorpe Hall.
Charles Brandon was born c.1484, the second but only surviving son of Sir William Brandon and Elizabeth Bruyn, widow of Thomas Tyrell of Gipping. Although Charles was not born in Suffolk, his grandparents Sir William Brandon and Elizabeth, nee Wingfield, were from East Anglia.
The Wingfields were an important Suffolk family and have connections with Westhorpe. When Charles was just one year old, his father was killed on the Field of Bosworth bearing Henry VII's standard, an action which possibly prepared the way for his son's future fame. Sir Thomas Brandon, Charles' uncle, was a leading courtier to Henry VII and he took young Charles to court where he waited at table on Henry VII and Arthur, Prince of Wales. It is likely that Charles grew up in court. Between 1505 and 1509, he held the position of Master of the Horse to the Earl of Essex and this allowed him to take part in court jousts. Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509 and his love of jousting is well known. The King and Charles became close friends which led to Charles Brandon's meteoric rise. He was knighted in 1512 and following a successful military intervention in France, he was created Duke of Suffolk in 1514, the third layman of the realm.
Charles had probably met and become attracted to Mary in court before her marriage to the King of France. The marriage was short-lived as Louis died within three months of the wedding. Henry VIII sent his friend, Charles Brandon, to France in order to bring his sister home. It is thought that Mary was terrified that Henry would marry her off again to another man, advantageous to the Crown but unappetising to her. Gunn suggests that she begged Charles to marry her there and then and a secret wedding took place. Henry was outraged on their return, feeling that Charles had badly let him down. Cardinal Wolsey tried to intervene and a financial settlement was arranged in the form of a heavy fine imposed on Charles and Mary. Finally, the couple were publicly married in Greenwich on 13th May, 1515.
Charles began to build. Firstly, he had his uncle's house in Southwark rebuilt to a spectacular style and then he turned his attention to East Anglia. The manor of Westhorpe was acquired by the Crown from the De la Pole family along with many of their estates. This old Suffolk family were considered to be a threat to the Crown and Charles Brandon needed to use his influence and royal connections in order to replace their power. The manor of Westhorpe came to Charles Brandon in 1515 and he set about creating a residence suitable for the Duke of Suffolk and his bride, still known as the French Queen.
In East Anglia, a queen attracted more attention than a duke. The couple progressed around Suffolk and Norfolk during the summer of 1515. Records show Mary received a lot more reverence than her consort, in particular when they visited Butley Priory. Cambridge sent Mary the gift of a pike. At the fair in Bury St Edmunds, Charles arranged a number of impressive tournaments whilst Mary sat in a tent with her retinue and musicians and received a stream of admirers. One can only imagine the effect on the residents of Westhorpe on finding such a lady living in their village.
It took several years to build the house at Westhorpe. Its magnificence and importance is indicated alone by the scale of the expenditure. Brandon claimed it cost him £12,000 which is an astonishing sum in the 16th century. The approach led through a three-storey gatehouse with a brick bridge crossing a dry moat. The bridge itself was elaborately decorated with stone pillars mounted with stone beasts. The palace was encrusted with fashionable terracotta plaques and battlements, ornate chimneys and a statue of Hercules. Mary enjoyed setting out the extensive gardens in the French style. The couple enjoyed the sport of hunting and joined hunting parties across the county. Charles stocked the park at Westhorpe which, in 1538, held one hundred red deer and two hundred fallow deer. Would it be fanciful to think that the deer which can still be seen on the site of the old park are their descendants?
Charles Brandon's role locally did, however, take second place to his role as a courtier. Gunn describes how he took part in the Royal ceremonies and diplomatic meetings. He met foreign dignitaries, sat in Star Chamber and attended council meetings. In the late 1520s, Charles was involved in dealing with the civil unrest which broke out in various parts of the country, such as the rising in Essex and Suffolk known as the Amicable Grace in 1525. Although his importance in Suffolk grew, Mary was still the more honoured. They were often apart. Mary spent much of her time at Westhorpe or visiting around the county. In the summer of 1527, she spent a month at Butley Priory and the following summer, she returned for such a long visit her furnishings accompanied her.
Sadly, in June 1533, Mary died at Westhorpe. Her embalmed body lay in the chapel for almost a month whilst her chaplains sang daily mass. After a final mass on 21st July, her coffin left Westhorpe and processed to Bury St Edmunds Abbey where she was buried. Her entrails were buried in the chancel of the church at Westhorpe.
Charles Brandon remarried surprisingly quickly although it is suggested that he needed a wealthy bride to meet his financial commitments which had to be settled on the death of Mary. His choice was also surprising; Katherine Willoughby was just fourteen years old and destined to marry one of Charles' sons. Despite Katherine bringing to the marriage extensive lands, Charles was forced to sell off his estates in Oxfordshire and Berkshire as well as Suffolk Place in Southwark to settle his debts.
The Lincolnshire Revolt which arose in 1536 following the dissolution of the monasteries brought Charles Brandon back into prominence in national affairs. His appointment as King's lieutenant saw him raising a large army and riding to Lincolnshire to disperse the rioters and pacify the people. The unrest spread to Yorkshire which resulted in the Pilgrimage of Grace which is thought to be the greatest challenge to Henry VIII during his reign. It would be many months before Charles Brandon returned to Suffolk whereupon the King ordered him to move his residence to Lincolnshire. In the spring of 1537, he began the move, exchanging his East Anglian estates, including Leiston Abbey and Eye Priory, for land in Lincolnshire. Westhorpe was returned to the Crown and although Henry intended to visit in the summer of 1541, he never did so. The house was maintained for a few years but then the kitchens were stripped out and equipment sold off. Although Westhorpe was granted to Anne of Cleves in 1553 and passed on following her death, it seems that it was never properly inhabited and in 1750 it was pulled down. It is thought that the house was simply too big for anyone to live in.
Documentary evidence gives us a picture of the state of the house in mid-18th century. Thomas Martin, an antiquary, visited the demolition site which he describes as ‘the dismal ruin of Westhorpe Hall, formerly the seat of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk ..... The workmen are now pulling it down in a very careless and injudicious manner. The coping bricks, battlements and many other ornamental pieces are made of earth and burnt hard and are as fresh as when first built and might have been taken down whole (if care had been taken) but all the fine chimneys and ornaments were pull'd down with ropes and crush'd to pieces in a shamefull manner. There was a monstrous figure of Hercules, sitting cross-leg'd with a club and lyon beside him, but all shattered to pieces and the painted glass is likely to share the same fate.'
There is very little to see today of Charles Brandon's great house. A coat of arms placed in the brickwork of the new Hall, some of the footings into the moat are still visible and the lovely Tudor three-arched bridge crossing the moat, providing access to the house.
In his later years, Charles Brandon continued to faithfully serve his King taking major roles in his wars in France and Scotland. He managed his estates in Lincolnshire and continued in his work at court. He died in Guildford in Surrey in 1545 and on the orders of Henry VIII, was buried in St George's Chapel at Windsor. This was a very high status resting place and a mark of Henry's regard for his loyal friend and servant.
 Gunn, S; Charles Brandon Henry VIII's Closest Friend, Amberley Pub, (2015), p:50
 ibid, p:53
 SIAH, Proceedings,
 Letters and Papers,xvi.677(xi)
 Proceedings of Suffolk Institute of History and Archaeology, 145 (1988); Gunn SJ and Lindley PG, Charles Brandon's Westhorpe : an Early Tudor Courtyard House in Suffolk; p:276