It’s spring in London and the flowers are bursting forth on Cheyne Walk, which skirts the edge of the River Thames until it gives way to the Chelsea Embankment. I have ambled along the street for nearly an hour identifying plaques representing the famous people who’ve lived on nearly every block. Finally, I’ve reached Roper’s Garden, a quiet spot that will allow me to contemplate medieval politics of a noble nature. This is the perfect place to do so because I am surrounded by the ghosts of historical figures once caught up in battles ranging from military to humanistic.
The two main phantoms inspiring my reverie, King Richard III and Sir Thomas More, spent time within architectural gems that flank the garden. To my right is a modernized Crosby Hall, which was originally built in 1466 in Bishopsgate. It served as a residence for the Duke of Gloucester, later to become Richard III, when he came to London on business in 1483. The original building burned in 1572 and the handful of architectural elements that survived have been incorporated into the new building, which began its rebirth on Cheyne Walk in 1909.
Architect Walter Godfrey designed the new structure to closely resemble the Bishopsgate building and was asked by the British Federation of University Women, who occupied the property in 1925, to add a north wing that year. The building served as the backdrop for a handful of organizations until wealthy entrepreneur Christopher Moran purchased it as his private residence in 1988. Keen to treat it with the respect it deserved, he began the process of turning it into a medieval gem.
In a 2003 article for Country Life Magazine, which is posted on Moran’s website, Simon Thurley, the former Director of English Heritage, writes that the businessman is creating a setting for the great hall that could have really existed during medieval times: “Modern building techniques were to be used, but every detail, form and feature were to be based on an identifiable precedent from the 16thcentury.” Tudor customs drove the designs of a number of the decorative elements, such as the heraldic motifs and badges on the building’s exterior.
To maintain authenticity, Moran had the College of Arms devise heraldic symbols for him, such as the coat of arms that now adorns the building in several places. Other features that make the new Crosby Hall an amalgamation of Tudor majesty are references to a long list of significant properties, including Cardinal Wolsey’s Hampton Court Palace of the 1520s and Henry VIII’s lost palace at Rochester. Thurley explains, “The intention of this range is to capture the heraldic flamboyance of Henry VIII’s reign, and the charming mix of late-Gothic and Renaissance details that characterizes the first half of the 16th century.”
As I study the strong personality of the building’s profile, the sun rises just high enough that rays of light eclipse the roofline in an effervescent explosion. Witnessing such a dramatic display makes me wonder what story those walls would tell of Richard III could they talk. Would they declare he was the usurper so many during his reign considered him to be—a villainous monarch along the lines of Shakespeare’s portrayal of him? Or would they deem him a kind man who cared about his subjects, as was claimed by the people who were under his authority as a landowner in York? As is often the case, I suspect it could be a bit of both.
One certainty we know of his life is that it was awash in conflict from the time he was a very young boy. Significant players in the Wars of the Roses, his parents were forced to flee by the time he was seven, a circumstance that compelled them to send Richard and his brother George to live with powerful friends who could ensure their safety. Decades later, while his brother Edward IV ruled, he gained a reputation as an astute military man, suppressing the uprisings of the Welsh as the Constable of England. After proving himself a capable commander numerous times as his life wore on, he would also die at war, gaining the distinction as the last English king to perish on the battlefield.
In case you think this brings an aura of glory to his legacy, this is far from true because his death was precipitated by the purposeful negligence of nobles he believed were loyal to him. After he was slain during the Battle of Bosworth, they further humiliated him by slinging his naked body over a pack-horse and taking him to Leicester for an unceremonious burial in the Grey Friars’ chapel. But an even bigger insult was coming: his remains went missing for centuries until they were found buried in an unmarked grave beneath a parking lot in Leicester on August 25, 2012.
His skeleton wasn’t given a burial befitting a king until over five centuries later, the reinterment at Leicester Cathedral taking place during a celebration on March 26, 2015. Philippa Langley and the late John Ashdown-Hill spearheaded the project to find and identify his remains, each of them saying it felt good to lay him to rest with the full dignity and honor he hadn’t received in 1485. As I watch the bright sunlight glance off the masonry of Crosby Hall on this resplendent April day less than a month after he was properly buried, I admit I feel the same compassion for him given he was a notable character in the long human drama we call history.
Thirty-five years after Richard III’s death, Sir Thomas More was busy settling his family on the plot of land I have chosen for this late morning meditation. The parcel he had acquired, which was described as having spacious, formal grounds, encompassed the garden surrounding me. The acreage, which skirts a busy London thoroughfare now, would have been bucolic then, rolling down to the riverfront as it did where his barge was always on the ready to take him to Westminster or Hampton Court to meet with Henry VIII on state business. A plaque on a brick wall at one of the entries to the garden notes that the park, which was commemorated on March 11, 1964, was included in the land More gave his daughter Margaret as a wedding gift when she married William Roper in 1521. Sadly, any built history that had existed within the footprint of the garden was destroyed during the Blitz of World War II.
The More house, which was situated several blocks behind me, was knocked down by Sir Hans Sloane after he bought the property in 1737. All that remains of it are fragmentary walls shoring up the cellars of a row of homes on Beaufort Street. But a piece of More’s personal architectural legacy does exist to my left. It’s a chapel tucked within Chelsea Old Church that he commissioned in 1528 to serve as his private place of worship. I watch the flag snapping atop the tower of the church that reaches into the sky thinking how appropriate it is that the thought of him striding into the finished chapel for the first time is accompanied by a stiffening wind.
Describing More’s involvement with the church, Edward Walford wrote, “He and his family worshipped there regularly. Sir Thomas usually attended Divine service on Sundays at Chelsea Church, and very often assisted at the celebration of mass.” A commanding statue with the word Saint carved into the back of the stone base hunches near the chapel on the church grounds, its demeanor making his presence palpable. It’s as if he is about to unclasp his hands and step down from the frozen stance, his slightly furrowed brow and serious expression giving away the trying tenor of his years as Lord Chancellor. The last of these he would have been spent knowing he could meet a brutal end given he would not support Henry VIII in his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.
Walford illustrates just how uncertain More was about the monarch’s loyalty: “One day the king came unexpectedly to Chelsea, and dined with him, and after dinner walked in his garden for the space of an hour, holding his arm about his neck. As soon as his Majesty was gone, Sir Thomas’s son-in-law observed to him how happy he was, since the king had treated him with that familiarity he had never used to any person before, except Cardinal Wolsey, with whom he once saw his Majesty walk arm-in-arm. ‘I thank our Lord,’ answered Sir Thomas, ‘I find his grace my very good lord indeed; and I believe he doth as singularly love me as any subject within this realm; however, son Roper, I may tell thee I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go off.’”
More’s character is still hotly debated, particularly when a new film, television series or historical novel debuts with him as one of the main characters. Jasper Ridley claims he was not the loving family man that many historical fictive pieces paint him to be. He calls him a nasty sadomasochistic pervert who enjoyed being flogged by his favorite daughter as much as he relished “flogging heretics, beggars and lunatics in his garden.” As a clergyman of his time, the concept of heretics was a singular obsession for him, so much so that a black marble tablet memorializing him on the south wall of the chancel inside Chelsea Old Church once included the word.
Church records show that More erected the shrine in 1532—just three years before his death. At some point during a restoration, the word heretics was replaced by a blank space in the narrative. I marvel at details like this that prove just how much history spun around this slip of a park with its rectangles of freshly mowed grass. Hans Holbein occupied rooms in More’s house for several years while he cemented his popularity as a sought-after artist, which included creating portraits of the chancellor and his family. Walford claims that Anne of Cleves died in the More house in 1557, and that Katharine Parr occupied it when she was charged with the care of a thirteen-year-old princess named Elizabeth. I highly recommend his books in the series Old and New London and The King’s Grave for any history buff’s summer reading list.
An interesting coincidence to note in this commingling of historical characters is that Sir Thomas More also lived in Crosby Hall from 1523 to 1524, moving into the Bishopsgate home 40 years after Richard III first occupied it. Clouds have been gathering on the horizon for a while and the air is growing chillier, both of which serve as my cue that it is time to make my way back to the Chelsea Arts Club where I am staying. I traverse the concrete path that leads me out of the park toward the church and the cloaked statue of More. I draw as close to his face as the blocky base will allow and study his features. The prominent nose, the crimped lips and the sullen displeasure in his gaze are also evident in the famous portrait of him painted by Holbein, which hangs in The Frick Collection opposite Thomas Cromwell’s portrait by the artist. In that formal setting, the adversaries face the fireplace, a distance that seems powerfully necessary to this very day!
Suddenly something I’ve been trying to accomplish for years happens: I can at last disentangle the real man from the actors who have portrayed him in the modern productions I devour. I see the weight of his duties in those beleaguered eyes—his complex role as secretary, interpreter, speech-writer, chief diplomat, advisor and confidant to a notoriously rebellious man his undoing in the end. Maybe there was a degenerate in him—there is certainly something deeply disturbed lurking behind that gold mask—but it’s clear that life had rested heavily upon those rounded shoulders and I don’t imagine any but the bravest modern man could have held as steady a tack as he did with such a tremendous force pushing against him. Proof of this permeates our time given the lack of political loyalty we are experiencing, noble or otherwise.
Footnote: If you want to see wonderful images of the interior of the Old Chelsea Church that include the More memorial, the bombed remains of the original church and a pre-war photo of the church before it was partially destroyed, visit this post on “A London Inheritance.”
The Modern Salonnière and The Nature of Noble Loyalty © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose booksinclude Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.She is the co-founder of Sharktooth Press. You can see recommendations for books from many of her posts on her Amazon Influencer page and find her essays on Medium.