As I mentioned in my last Improvateur article presenting a brief history of Hampton Court Palace, I launched into a furnishings fantasy when I heard the narrators and experts interviewed in the PBS documentary Secrets of Henry VIII’s Palace reveal anecdotes illustrating life within the palace walls during the Tudor king’s reign, which included the court’s pastimes.
Furnishing Pastimes of Henry VIII
I suppose it was those long empty corridors—the Cartoon Gallery and the Haunted Gallery, for instance—and the sparsely furnished cavernous Great Hall crying out for full-on décor that sent me into my enterprising reveries. To find furniture of a quality high enough to be fitting, I perused the offerings available on the Lorfords Antiques site, spotting a handful of pieces that I wanted to use to visually and dramatically illustrate this historical design adventure (the King and his courtiers are merely props!). There are so many more examples than I have chosen, of course, but I only mean to make a start and I’m not being true to the periods of design history with my picks, as my intent was only to add a few wonderful items that could be animated with hints of courtly intrigue once the personalities of the era are revived.
The thread I’m using to weave this furniture fantasy is a riff on romance during Henry’s reign. And in case you believe the King was my muse, think again. Though biographers claim he was amorous, I believe he was far too narcissistic to love anyone but himself. Case in point is how devious he was at kicking women to the curb. I look at the above painting—Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Deer Shooting in Windsor Forest by William Powell Frith—and want to shout, “Best get some armor on girl, he’s got a weapon!”
That’s not to say there wasn’t romance a plenty, as the number of courtiers who were prancing and jousting and feigning lustful disinterest whilst on the premises brought an avalanche of sensual excitement with them. As an example of one of the most virile of these emissaries, I present Sir Thomas Wyatt as my inspiration. By the age of 21, he was one of 15 “esquires of the court,” meaning he was a man of name and arms, and among Henry’s innermost circle. The fact he was also a poet makes him the perfect squire for my literary design caper.
Courtly Love in the Tudor Era
The statesman and alleged spy is said to have had the sweets for Boleyn before the King put a crown on it. In her book Graven with Diamonds, Nicola Shulman writes that the question as to whether Wyatt and Boleyn were ever really lovers has exercised countless scholars to the point of exhaustion—so much so that she contends modern academicians find themselves completely done with the entire debate.
Far smarter and better-informed people than I am have peered back into history to ascertain if these two were in fact lovers without gaining conclusive answers, Shulman among these, so I’m leaving that debate in their hands. What I’m concentrating on here is using the chosen courtiers as characters in my little dramatization, which is being played out with and upon a few pieces of fabulous furniture.
Wyatt, Boleyn and Henry VIII are so perfect for my frivolity because their entire courtly lives were centered around the codes and conventions that make the era so fascinating from such a distance. I’ll throw in Thomas Cranmer for good measure, as he built the case for the annulment that allowed the King to marry Boleyn (and essentially ushered in the advent of the Anglican church in the process).
As Shulman points out, Wyatt was a courtier first and foremost, which means the lion’s share of his poems were meant as performance pieces and must be considered in that context. Think about the fact he never dated his verses and that the fashion of the time was elusion, and you can see why they would be more useful as artifacts of a ritual called courtly love than evidence of liaisons as many have tried to claim.
Here’s a stanza that offers the quintessential Wyattian style so you can sample a taste of his oeuvre:
My hope, alas! hath me abused,
And vain rejoicing hath me fed;
Lust and joy have me refused,
And careful plaint is in their stead;
Too much advancing slack’d my speed,
Mirth hath caused my heaviness,
And I remain all comfortless.*
Pastimes of Henry VIII and His Court
If you imagine this chanted in a merry voice, you can hear its lively verve and the laughter echoing around its entertainer, can’t you? Verses like these were de rigueur during larger court gatherings when the theatrical was expected. They were also cornerstones of chivalric activities when the court repaired to the Queen’s chambers for “pastime,” which included plays and musical performances put on by professional players, as well as more mysterious diversions played by members of the inmost court. These were the indoor, or feminized, division of chivalric games. “The players were few and the rules were not written down,” Shulman wrote. “All that is left of it now is the poems, themselves counters in this game, many of them written by Thomas Wyatt.” The author dubs him the supreme master of the genre.
As an example of my furnishing fantasy role-playing, imagine Wyatt fishing a folded piece of paper from his doublet, surreptitiously passing it to a friend as the courtiers waited in the Presence Chamber. They would have a good laugh over the rhythmical jest he’s composed; then he would slide it stealthily back into his pocket until Queen Anne summoned them for the evening’s performances.
Or perhaps he would nervously slide open the drawer of the ornately carved table below and place it there so the woman he has chosen to receive it will find it when she retrieves the doeskin hawking glove belonging to her secret lover. [Couldn’t you just see this table as perfect to gather my salonières around?] Wyatt saw him place it there to signal their assignation would take place, and he is letting her know he has seen—the underlying warning that she should be more careful in the future lest she wants her philandering known!
Liaisons of this ilk took place, though less audaciously than with the players in the French Court because the Brits were of a different temperament. They used love rather than sex as the newest piece of the courtly ritual puzzle to ease the disappointment of arranged marriages and the pressure to wed well. Shulman explains that given this need for proper courtship, the ladies and gentlemen of the early Tudor court considered a favorable poem on a piece of paper a romantic possession, like a handkerchief, a flower or a jewel. But when a poem held a predatory or an ominous message, it would have been a modern-day equivalent to waking up next to a severed horse’s head.
Sir Thomas Wyatt, Poet of the Court
This makes the performance criteria critical in understanding Wyatt’s writings and his popularity. On any given night, the Queen’s chambers would be filled with adoring fans of puns and riddles, which would have made them quite keen on the young courtier. “At a time when writing was an exercise in dilation, he had a talent for compression that squeezed the small, abstract vocabulary of the courtly lyric till it bulged with implications,” Shulman wrote. “He was ironic at a time when sarcasm was the common instrument of wit.”
The courtiers of the era were primed for Wyatt’s brand of the courtly lyric, which effervesced in the conventional social circumstances of the time. Imagine his face aglow, as effusive as the candles that would have been burning in these wrought iron lanterns overhead, as an audience of clever characters sat motionless, enwrapped in his mesmerizing recitations as he points to the source of the light flickering above him:
Though this the port, and I thy servant true,
And thou thyself dost cast thy beams from high
From thy chief house, promising to renew
Both joy and eke delight, behold yet how that I,
Banished from my bliss, carefully to cry.
Help now Cytheræa! my lady dear,
My fearful trust, ‘En vogant la galore.’**
When viewed as performance pieces rather than poems to read passively, his works take on new life and energy, and I’m thrilled I had Shulman’s guidance to help me see this. “Wyatt raised the stakes of the courtly game by writing poetry that sounded like he meant it,” she explained. “Poet-as-lover and lover-as-poet melt into one…”
Reviving Tudor Era Customs
Let’s say for our literary design caper’s sake that Wyatt came upon Boleyn in a corner of the Presence Chamber, seated sideways on the edge of this gothic bench, her embroidered cuff resting upon the arching back as she blots her eyes with her lacy handkerchief. Would he have inquired after her wellbeing or would he know he is the cause of her distress given the folded piece of paper she grips in her other hand holds verses written by him?
Perhaps the poem scrawled across the page began something like this:
Take heed by time, lest ye be spied:
Your loving eyes can it not hide,
At last the truth will sure be tried;
Therefore, take heed!
For some there be of crafty kind,
Though you show no part of your mind,
Surely their eyes can ye not blind;
Therefore, take heed! […]***
This is not a far-fetched fantasy, as the one thing historians seem to agree upon when it comes to Boleyn and Wyatt is that some of his poems were written for and/or about her.
Wyatt was not alone. The besotted King (before they consummated the relationship, of course) wrote verses of his own to honor Boleyn. His were no match considering Wyatt’s forceful brilliance, and it is said that Henry VIII’s poems were so lackluster Boleyn ridiculed them. This was not the result of the King’s ignorance, as he spent his childhood immersed in Henry VII’s substantive library surrounded by the allegorical tales of knights like Lancelot, Arthur and Tristan. His lack of verve could be blamed upon the fact he grew up in one of the most tone-deaf periods of British poetry of all time or that the main poet who inserted himself in his father’s court is still known as the bard who crafted the most boring poem ever written! Or could it be he lacked a poet’s talent, plain and simple?
The Poetry of King Henry VIII
In this case, comparing his verses to Wyatt’s is just unfair. I’ll let you be the judge by presenting this poem Henry VIII wrote for Anne Boleyn:
Whereto should I express
My inward heaviness?
No mirth can make me fain,
‘Till that we meet again.
Do ‘way, dear heart, not so!
Let no thought you dismay;
Though ye now part me fro,
We shall meet when we may.
When I remember me
Of your most gentil mind,
It may in no wise agree
That I should be unkind.
The daisy delectable,
The violet waning and blo—
You are not variable,
I love you and no mo.
I make you fast and sure;
It is to me great pain
Thus longë to endure
‘Till that we meet again.
Henry VIII Romances Anne Boleyn
Let’s pretend we’re watching as he reads it to her. Perhaps she fusses with the voluminous skirt of her gown as she sits in the ornate chair, making believe she is arranging it to its prettiest effect as he, kneeling beside her with one hand clasping the lion’s head ornamenting the chair’s arm, steadies the poem with his other hand. Maybe her interest in her dress in this scenario keeps him from realizing she hates it.
Or maybe she decides to put her skills as a great actress to the test, her brocade sleeve brushing up against his hand as he reads, her eyes meeting his boldly as she pretends she is simply enraptured by the tone of his voice and the juvenile words he has written for her!
Perhaps Wyatt overheard this expression of affection and it heightened his frustration. As he storms out of the Privy Chamber, he purposefully bangs his ring on the top of the refectory table placed near the doorway, leaving a tiny nick in the wood you’d find only if you looked very closely in the right light.
Or perhaps he was simply fine with it all—smiling as he dashes out to write his next quixotic composition for the evening’s pastime, his gathered sleeve brushing the corner of the table as he makes his way out of the room. If you listen closely, you’ll hear him humming the rhythm of the verses he will put down on paper as he exits through the doorway:
I have sought long with steadfastness
To have had some ease of my great smart
But naught availeth faithfulness
To grave upon your stony heart.****
Henry VIII Is Free to Marry Anne Boleyn
Panning the camera back to the love-struck couple, the King escorts his soon-to-be-wife Anne out of the room, the ability to make her such precipitated by Cranmer, who has just strolled into the room and passed Henry a document. The look on the advisor’s face tells the King he is about to get something he wants very much. He scans the paper, hurries to retrieve a quill from his desk, dips it in the well and strides back to the table where he leans down and signs it. He hands the paper back to Cranmer with a flourish and pats his adviser on the back. Will heads now roll? Is a divorce imminent? Was this the moment an entirely new religion was born?
It could have been all or none of the above, of course, and I now see I’ve created a construct akin to one of those films that nudges you along toward an end you are hoping won’t leave you guessing, though it does! We do know a few things: Wyatt survived his attraction to Boleyn while she did not. He was one of six arrested when Henry VIII decided it was time for his adored wife to lose her head—in the truest sense of the word. Charged with adultery along with Boleyn, Wyatt was the only one to survive the ordeal for reasons that flabbergast biographers.
The Anne Boleyn Files has published a snappy recap of the beheadings of the other five supposed conspirators, which includes a poem Wyatt wrote to honor his unlucky compatriots whose lives ended on May 17, 1536. I celebrate that he survived because he continued to expand his lyric legacy for another nine years, leaving us more evidence of the customs of his time—a treasure trove of historical insight.
I leave you with two writerly notes today:
As I was researching this post, I came across this video of a writing box that, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum, may have been Henry VIII’s. Even if it wasn’t his, it’s a beautiful work of art from that era at V&A.
Secondly, I learned so much from Shulman’s book, and in such an entertaining way, that if you want to know more about Tudor history but tend to find recounts of the past tedious, I highly recommend it for your summer reading list because it is so wittily written. Shulman’s way of phrasing things had me laughing aloud as I made my way back into the medieval mists of time, which is rarely the case as much as I love to follow other biographers there!
Footnotes for this DesignSalon article:
Where the Wyatt poems featured in this post can be found:
*”That Too Much Confidence Sometimes Disappointeth Hope,” page 59 The Poetical Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt.
**”The Lover Prayeth Venus To Conduct Him to the Desired Haven,” page 54, The Poetical Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt.
***”That Caution Should be Used in Love,” page 92, The Poetical Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt.
****”That Right Cannot Govern Fancy, page 69, Graven with Diamonds and on Bartleby.
The Modern Salonnière and Furnishing the Pastimes of Henry VIII © 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.