Monday, May 14, 2012

The Second King: Rekindling My First Love

Last night I sat down to type up a paper that I wrote during my final year of college. I had gotten an A in the class and had even won an award for the paper, third place in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Medieval and Renaissance Studies Essay/Research Paper Contest. I had been pretty proud of myself at the time, and thought that it might be nice to post on my blog. As I typed it, though, I realized that it was pretty academic; anyone who hadn’t studied that particular place and time in history wasn’t likely to understand a good deal of what the paper dealt with. Also, it wasn’t as good as I remembered it. Maybe there was a reason I got third instead of first.

Even if the paper itself isn’t worth sharing with the general public, I can share the story of the paper. It may have been the finished product, but the process of its creation is what rekindled my love of history.

Every history major at UNL is required to take a class in which they learn to write an academic paper in the style of a historian. There are many different topics offered, and I was lucky enough to land a spot in Dr. Levin’s Wives of Henry VIII class. I was excited about the class, mostly because I had taken one of Dr. Levin’s classes before and enjoyed it immensely, but that had been back in the days when I was still enjoying being a history major.

Unfortunately, I had become a bit bored with it near the end of my college career, mostly because I had been taking classes that interested me with no thought of, oh, I dunno, graduating. Since I had taken most of the interesting classes already and had recently taken three or four that I sat through while seething with anger or boredom, I had decided to change my career choice.

After a semester off, I excitedly began taking beginning Chinese and beginning Japanese. I loved it, but at the same time I was tinged with sadness because of the time I thought I had wasted as a history major. My husband (logical as always) suggested that I talk to an adviser, just to see how far away I was from a bachelor’s degree in history. To my amazement, there were three. Just three classes. Twelve credit hours. One class this semester and two the next, and I could be holding a college diploma in my hands.

It must be the best job in the world, telling various people about your favorite stories and getting paid for it. That is how I learned all about Henry VIII’s love life, by listening to Dr. Levin, who would perch on the desk, sharing all the details like she was gossiping to her friends.

And there was plenty to gossip about during Henry’s lifetime. Our class was like a 16th century TMZ. Each member of the class picked out one of the prominent persons of the time to write a research paper on, and quickly got to work absorbing every torrid fact about their lives. (That’s a good lesson for people who try so hard to be famous: it might not be all that it’s cracked up to be, since in 500 years there might be students studying every terrible mistake you ever made.)

We were sitting in a semicircle that we’d made of the desks as Dr. Levin went from person to person, asking them which prominent Tudor England figure they would like to write about. About four people before she reached me, my first choice was taken, so when she called my name I shrugged and said, “I dunno, I guess I’ll take Charles Brandon.” She looked more excited about it than I was, but that was because she already knew all about his life while I knew nothing.

Off to the library we trekked during one of our first classes, where we were instructed in the best way to find information using the various resources available there and online, such as jstor, an index for academic journals. I enjoyed using Interlibrary Loan to find various secondary sources, but my favorite was finding primary sources. (Secondary sources: things written after the period in question, using as their sources the things that were written at the time; Primary sources: things written at the time.)

I found lots of wonderful primary sources using the online resources and on the shelves in Love Library. I would wrap a scarf around my face and plunge into the stacks, emerging with a thick, red, hardbound volume of The Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, holding my breath so that the smell of the lignin would not give me a headache as it tends to do. I would then hunch over the book at one of the ill lit tables at the end of the row, excited as I waded through the archaic language, written before spelling of the English language was standardized.

On another wonderful trip to the library, we were allowed to look at (but not to touch) a copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, printed a decade or so after the events we were studying, which was written about the tumultuous religious events in England during the reign of Henry’s oldest daugther Mary. Even though it wasn’t exactly on the topic we were concerned with, the fact that it was around in those days and now right in front of our faces was extremely exciting for a room full of history majors.

As I attended classes to listen to Dr. Levin’s “lectures” about Henry’s life, I began to research the life of his best friend. I used the resources of the library to find the article about Charles Brandon in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and I’m not ashamed to admit it now: Wikipedia, not that I cited it in the bibliography when I turned my paper in. (There’s a very good reason academics do not rely on Wikipedia as a source: it is often wrong. Don’t rely on Wikipedia for actual historical information, kids.)

After I had gotten a general idea of his life: who he had married, how many children survived him, how many titles he had been given by the King, I began to think about how I would present this information in my paper. In my research, I had come across a letter written by an agent of another monarch, Margaret of Austria, instructing his liege to recieve Brandon at his upcoming visit to her “like a second king."

Probably the writer was referring to the fact that Brandon and Henry were pretty tight and that if Margaret brushed Brandon off that Henry would hear about it and be annoyed that she hadn’t treated his best friend with enough courtesy. But the phrase resonated with me, and I started to look at the life of Henry VIII next to the life of Charles Brandon, noticing the similar patterns: both were married six times, both were survived by male heirs but those heirs unfortunately died before they were able to leave heirs of their own, and both were ultimately succeeded by their politically ambitious Tudor daughters.

The title of my paper became “Charles Brandon: the Second King.” Finally I understood the look in Dr. Levin’s eye that day when I had chosen my paper topic. Brandon’s love life may not have been as tumultuous as Henry’s, but by the time the King was in a snit with the Pope over whether he would be allowed to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Charles Brandon was on his fifth marriage.

Divorce was both embarrassingly easy and insanely difficult to obtain in those days, depending upon who you were. These opposing divorce proceedings are demonstrated in the lives of Henry and Brandon. While his best friend skated through three divorces with no problem, Henry’s first divorce became “The Great Matter,” and ultimately created the first sect of popeless western Christianity.

Brandon’s first marriage was to his childhood sweetheart, Anne Browne. Since it was most likely a spoken promise of marriage, nobody minded (except probably poor Anne) when Brandon turned around and made a match with the widowed and considerably more well endowed Dame Margaret, who, to add insult to Anne’s injury, was the aunt of the pregnant and abandoned Anne.

I think that he really did love Anne, or at least was fond of her, but at that time in his life, his ambition for property and title overwhelmed his urge to act as a man should when his wife, no matter her wealth or social status, is pregnant. But after selling off all of Dame Margaret’s lands, Brandon found quite an easy way out of that marriage: he discovered a family link between his grandmother and Dame Margaret’s first husband, and so he was easily granted an annulment.

I have a feeling that Anne was quite a bit more attractive than her aunt (especially now that her aunt had no money or lands because they belonged to Brandon), so he returned to marry her, officially this time.

His fourth marriage was for title. He contracted to marry the daughter of a late Viscount, and since the marriage had as good as taken place, Henry went ahead and granted Brandon the title. It was no skin off his nose when the young lady refused to go through with the marriage to Brandon when she came of age, the title was what he had wanted in the first place, and since he had it already, another annulment was issued.

Charles Brandon got into trouble when Henry sent him on an errand to France. He went to negotiate the return of the recently widowed French Queen’s dowry to her brother, the King of England. He definitely got the dowry back, but the Queen was married again before she returned to her childhood home, so it transferred to her new husband: Brandon.

Sisters were almost as good as daughters when it came to political marriages. Louis XII was thirty four years older than Mary Tudor, but it was a very good alliance for both countries. The problem was, nobody asked Mary. And a Tudor gets their way, even if the Tudor in question happens to be a woman. Mary had grown up in the early court of Henry VIII, who had a romantic soul and treasured his first wife Catherine (until she was unable to give him a son, of course). She felt that she should be able to choose her husband, and that it should be someone she loved.

Before going to marry the old king, eighteen year old Mary extracted a promise from her brother: that she could choose the partner of her second marriage. I’m sure that Henry’s promise was more like a “yeah, whatever, sis,” than anything he intended to keep, and that he began planning another alliance as soon as he heard that old Louis was dead. Dr. Levin used to say (and probably still does) that Mary “danced him into the grave;” she and the French King were married for less than three months when he died.

I never had an older brother with friends I could crush on, but I understand that it would be perfectly natural for Mary to be madly in love with the dashing Charles Brandon. I am convinced that, true to her willful Tudor temperament, Mary talked Brandon into marrying her before they left France.

Charles Brandon had already abandoned a woman for money. He had already contracted to marry a woman for the sake of a title. It wouldn’t have taken the Tudor insistence to get him to marry the King’s sister, who had both money and title. It probably also didn’t hurt that she was pretty hot. And I think he was genuinely fond of her, even though there’s no specific documentation of it. All he does to justify himself to Henry, after an apology, is to add that he didn’t want to break Mary’s heart by not marrying her.

The way that both men handled their new association is the best example of how strong their friendship was. Henry was obviously annoyed. The new couple did everything they could think of to placate him: showered him with apology by letter before coming home, gave Mary’s entire dowry to him when they got home, in addition to many of the jewels given to her by her recently deceased husband, and promised to pay him a large sum over the next several years. But Henry’s romantic heart and his fondness for both Brandon and his favorite sister quickly overcame his annoyance. Besides that, they had done what he was strenuously trying to do: marry for love. Brandon never did pay Henry all the money they had promised him, and Henry never noticed. The most telling evidence of their reconciliation was Henry’s naming Mary and Brandon’s sons next in line to the throne after his own children, even though the children of his older sister Margaret should have come first.

The best part about writing this paper was not the research (though that was fun), it was not learning things I had previously known nothing about (I enjoyed that as well), and it was not winning an award for the paper (which was supposed to come with a cash prize, but I don’t remember ever getting it). The best part about writing this paper was feeling like an actual historian while puzzing out the reasoning behind Charles Brandon’s final marriage. I had all the facts, all the hearsay, and one day while staring at my computer screen, I came to my own conclusion of why Brandon would marry a girl with little money and a title that’s barely worth mentioning, who was thirty six years his junior and had been originally intended for his son.

Catherine Willoughby was eight when she became a member of the Brandon household, brought there by the imposing lady of the house to grow up and eventually marry the nephew of the King, who was around her age. If things had worked out as Mary planned them, Catherine would have been Queen of England. Unfortunately, Catherine’s intended died when he was eleven.

The reason Catherine was chosen is a very important point. I can just imagine the evenings at home with the Brandons after the King began to earnestly try to escape his marriage with Catherine of Aragon. The two of them had been married for more than a decade and Catherine had been pregnant many times, though the only child who survived was their daughter Mary. The King’s sister, who had grown up in the court and had heard the many effusions of love spouted by her brother for his wife, could not understand why or how he could change his mind. Mary, seething with rage that her brother would even attempt such a thing and incensed, too, that her husband didn’t immediately agree with her, would have been alternating between loud outbursts and ferocious silence. Brandon, who didn’t want to upset either his wife or his brother-in-law, would have been both silently acknowledging his wife’s feelings so as not to provoke her further and quietly staying out of it.

Mary’s public support for Catherine of Aragon’s plight came when she brought the 12th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby into her home. Catherine Willoughby’s mother was a Spanish lady-in-waiting to the Queen, and Catherine herself had actually been named for Catherine of Aragon. What better way, thought Mary, to demonstrate her support for the Spanish Queen than to get her own Queen Catherine? This way, even if Henry succeeded in divorcing Catherine of Aragon, his lack of male heirs would mean that her son Henry would become King when her brother died, and that England would have a Spanish Catherine as their Queen once again.

Mary died one month after her brother’s marriage was declared null and void. She probably died of outrage. Though her plan for a Spanish queen was still in action, since her son Henry didn’t die until a year after his mother passed away.

What was Charles Brandon to do? His forceful Tudor wife was gone, and all he was left with was a powerful brother-in-law whose goodwill he did not want to lose and a fourteen year old ward who was the last surviving member of Mary’s plan to show the King that he was wrong. Brandon married her immediately.

Charles Brandon had married once for love, then for money, then for love again, for title, and then for all three at once. His last marriage was purely for his King and best friend. He married Catherine Willoughby to keep his friendship and status as “the second king."

It was difficult trying to articulate this concisely when accepting the award for my paper, and though it was the lowest award given, my speech was the longest. Dr. Levin understood; she laughed and her eyes twinkled the same way they had the day we picked our paper topics, as if she’d known all along that it would end this way.

I had forgotten how much I loved studying history, but taking this class, writing this paper, had reminded me. History wasn’t just learning facts and enjoying stories anymore. Now I understood that the best part of being a historian was putting all the facts together and figuring out the reason behind the actions of the important people of the day.

I enjoyed the year I spent taking Chinese and Japanese, but when my final year of college came, I was signed up for nineteen credit hours. I couldn’t fit Japanese into my schedule at all, and I ended up dropping Chinese so that I would have time to study for the other fourteen credit hours. As much as I enjoy studying language, history is my first love, and thanks to Dr. Levin’s class, it will always be.

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