A trip to Frankfurt to attend Heimtextil a week from today has inspired me to share one of my favorite anecdotes about Henry VIII and his court, as it describes how the Tudor King doted on textiles. I came across the depictions of his wanderlusting ways in Nicola Shulman’s book Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt. The author wrote that Henry VIII made a cult of cloth, swathing himself in luxurious fabrics as effusively as his predecessors had donned their furs.
Henry VIII’s Cult of Cloth
“Books wore brilliant velvet jackets, harnesses came sleeved in satin and velvet,” she wrote. Everything he valued was covered in textiles, including his ample frame. The layered fabrics he is wearing in the two images above illustrates why she describes the king as a “mountain of cloth” even as a young, fit man.
But it is this glimpse into his reign that I found to be the most fascinating because it proves how important fabrics were in the most fashionable sense. “His court had no geographical location, but consisted of a group of men (and ladies, when the queen was in place) riding from one large, cold, unfurnished palace to another,” Shulman wrote. “Ahead of them went trains of wagons loaded with what it took to create a suitable court setting.”
Framed paintings and mirrors would never have survived the journey on medieval roads, but cloth and plate, the other ornamental staple of Henry VIII’s regime, could. Can’t you just see these descriptions come to life in the banquet scene depicted above? “The great gold-thread narrative tapestry sequences from Henry’s immense collection, hanging edge to edge and tier upon tier, filled the temporary halls with warmth and glitter,” Shulman noted; “and, because textile is better than painting at representing cloth itself, the heroic figures in the tapestries mirrored and approved the figures milling below, in their slashed satins and damasks and sarcanets and brocades.”
These anecdotes about fabric proliferating in Henry VIII’s décor made me curious about how much he and his decorative wares were on the move, and I found some excellent answers in Dr. Simon Thurley’s The Royal Palaces of Tudor England, which describes them moving from castle to castle, one of which was Hampton Court in the image above: “Under Henry VIII, there was an important distinction between the itinerant Court and the royal progress. On a progress the King and Court followed an extended itinerary which had been planned, often months in advance, in contrast with frequent ad-hoc moves between houses in the Thames valley. This distinction also had a seasonal aspect: the summer months, the ‘grass season’ (the time when the hay was cut and hunting was best, August to October), were progress time; by contrast, the winter months were generally times of random moves between the houses in the vicinity of the capital.”
Thurley points out that most years, the King’s summer travels were defined by the issue of a table of movements, known as the giests, adding, “These were lists setting out the King’s movements from place to place with the number of miles between stops and the time to be spent at each location.”
The issue of giests was eagerly awaited, as the personal costs and inconvenience of a progress to most courtiers could be great. “In 1543, Thomas Heneage, the King’s Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, had to write to Mr. Eton, his father-in-law, requesting a loan to ‘go on this progress’ and promising to repay it at Michaelmas. Geists were not prepared every year, for Hall relates that in 1521 ‘no great jestes’ were appointed, but this seems to be an exception, and the lists survive for several years.”
The Tudor Court on Progress
Thurley notes that the size of the full Court on progress is difficult to estimate, but there are records—in 1541, for instance, the French ambassador believed that four- to five-times the normal number of one thousand horses was used on the progress to York (their destination would have been Whitehall Palace, shown in the painting above). “This estimate would include the horses necessary to pull the carts loaded with household equipment,” he wrote. “From the evidence provided by the accounts of the King’s visit to the Earl of Hertford in 1539, about eight hundred members of the Court were present. This figure roughly agrees with the ambassador’s estimate. As the full winter Court numbered approximately fifteen hundred people, the Court seems to have halved in size during progress time.”
These figures fluctuated particularly if any other members of the royal family accompanied the king, Thurley explained, adding, “His successive wives often had their own itineraries, separate from his. For instance, Catherine of Aragon went on her own pilgrimages at least four times, in 1515, 1517, 1519 and 1521.”
Transporting such large numbers of people on progress during the Tudor Era was an enormous task. “The principal household officers and courtiers had their own horses, but moving the staff of the Lord Stewart’s department often required additional transport to be commandeered,” Thurley explained. “A list found amongst the papers of William Thynne, Clerk of the Kitchen from 1526 to 1546, shows how much transport the constables of Ropley in Hampshire had to provide for the King when he moved house.”
Thurley cites this account of Henry VIII’s removal from Westminster to Richmond in 1501 as illustrating how massive a job it was:
“…the kinges officers of Houssold imbuysid themself in all their deligens and pouer to trusse and stuffe ther great and huge standards, coffers, chestes, clothe sakkes, with all othir vesselles of conveyaunce, every officer with such things as he hadde in his governaunce and ruele, and this sent forthe by many cartes and chariattes by lande, and also in dyvers botes and wherys by watir.”
This writing box that, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum, may have been Henry VIII’s, would have been among the many treasures carted around as the Court moved hither and yon. Note how the interior is lined with velvet, another item in the everyday life of the Tudor king that was made more lovely by fabric.
Cloth Tells the Story
Two of the movers and shakers during Henry VIII’s reign, who would have been trundling around at the King’s beck and call, illustrate how textiles were used to indicate rank during the Tudor era, even for the clerics who were duking it out over the Church of England debacle. These two paintings by Hans Holbein The Younger flank the fireplace in the Living Hall at the Frick Collection, which is crowned by a powerful painting of St Jerome of El Greco. On the left, facing the mantle, is Sir Thomas More staring earnestly in the direction of Thomas Cromwell, who seems to be glaring back at him! Seeing this face-off for the first time stopped me dead in my tracks: brilliant, I thought; the adversaries would be silently confronting each other into eternity!
Cromwell seems much more cynical than More—his right eyebrow slightly cocked, his mouth stern. The gilded box on the desk and the papers scattered show a man of position, the one folded piece grasped in his hand levitates there like a question mark: “Who was this missive for?” I can’t help but ask, the blue unblinking eye of his ring an all-seeing relic that’s as silent as the tomb.
The textiles in his vignette, painted between 1532 and 1533, “read” as less sumptuous than the fabrics in More’s portrait, which was painted four years later. Considering these two adversaries side-by-side brings up two questions for me: was the luxuriousness of More’s depiction meant to present a grander representation of wealth and power than Cromwell’s or had Holbein simply gained greater skill at representing light and shadow in his paintings in the interim?
Regardless whether it was pomp and circumstance or skill, with both of these paintings, the fabrics and furs “make the man”—the rendering of the textiles in each composition telling each cleric’s story more profoundly than the pieces of paper clasped in their grasps, however important they were intended to make them seem. In “The Arrest of Anne Boleyn” above textiles dominate the storytelling down to a cloak draped across the bow of the boat that will ferry Boleyn to her demise (so much for chivalry!). It’s such an odd place for a drape, which means it was intended to further the narrative, a fact that I adore!
I’m looking forward to attending the Heimtextil fair because it has been on my list for years due to the fact it is one of the few trade fairs that has impressed me greatly for an ability to set the trends we all follow year-in and year-out. Look for posts on various platforms I manage in the coming weeks—I’ll be posting them on social media channels per usual.
While in Frankfurt, I’ll take some seriously cool literary design adventures, visiting locales associated with one of the “brainy boys” in literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was born in Frankfurt. Großer Hirschgraben, his birthplace (below) is one of them, and the Goetheturm Sachsenhausen, or Goethe Tower, built at the northern edge of Frankfurt City Forest, is another. Thimo Schwenzfeier, the director of marketing and communication for Messe Frankfurt, which produces Heimtextil, alerted me to its presence. I can’t wait to take it all in—Bis zum nächsten Mal [see you next time]!
The Modern Salonnière and Henry VIII’s Cult of Cloth © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.
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