Henry VIII swathed in cloth

Henry VIII’s Cult of Cloth

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Deer Shooting in Windsor Forest by William Powell Frith
“Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Deer Shooting in Windsor Forest” by William Powell Frith shows they wore the finest cloth available in their time. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

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

Henry VIII swathed in cloth
This portrait of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII illustrates Shulman’s observation that the King became a mountain 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.

Henry VIII Allegory of Tudor Succession
Henry VIII is surrounded by a sea of cloth in “An Allegory of the Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII,” ca. 1590, oil on panel, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

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.”

Banquet of Henry VIII Cult of Cloth
“The Banquet of Henry VIII in York Place” by James Stephanoff, circa 1832, depicting Cardinal Wolsey and courtiers with, on the right, the King meeting Anne Boleyn at the Cardinal’s residence, York Place, later Whitehall Palace. Image courtesy Royal Collection.

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.”

The West (Medieval) Front of Hampton Court Palace.
The West (Medieval) Front of Hampton Court Palace.

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.”

Henry VIII diembarks for Field of the Cloth of Gold
Henry VIII and his entourage disembarking in Dover on his way to meet King Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a massively expensive undertaking.

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

Whitehall Palace with the Banqueting House
The old palace of Whitehall by Hendrik Danckerts, the Banqueting House on the left. Image courtesy WikiMedia.

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.”

Field of the Cloth of Gold
The Field of the Cloth of Gold, oil painting of circa 1545 in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court, depicts one of Henry VIII’s most lavish road trips to party with Francis I.

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.”

Bouche of Course of Henry VIII
Pages from Henry VIII’s “Bouche of Courte,” a manuscript ca. 1571, which apportioned by rank the specific food and drink that every courtier was entitled to aside from two common meals per day, provided by the king. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

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

Living Hall of Frick Collection
The Living Hall at the Frick Collection, New York. Photo by Michael Bodycomb.

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!

Sir Thomas More at Frick Collection
Hans Holbein The Younger (1497/98–1543) Sir Thomas More, 1527 Oil on panel 29 ½ x 23 ¾ inches The Frick Collection, New York Photo: Michael Bodycomb.

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.

Thomas Cromwell at Frick Collection
Hans Holbein The Younger (1497/98–1543) Thomas Cromwell, 1532-33 Oil on oak panel (cradled) 30 7/8 x 25 3/8 inches The Frick Collection, New York Photo: Michael Bodycomb.

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?

Anne Boleyn arrest
A drawing depicting the arrest of Anne Boleyn. Image courtesy WikiMedia.

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!

Heimtextil 2017

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.

Johan Heinrich Goethe
The oil-on-canvas Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1786) by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.

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]!

Birthplace of Goethe in Frankfurt
Goethe’s birthplace in Frankfurt, Germany, Großer Hirschgraben. Image courtesy WikiMedia and Dontworry.

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.

10 Replies to “Henry VIII’s Cult of Cloth”

  1. Thanks so much, Scott. I haven’t been getting back here as much as I’d like lately so it means a lot to know I’m not as rusty as I feel! I hope your new year is off to a great start!

  2. Dear Saxon,
    Your writing enfolds and drapes us readers like the velvet sleeved robe painted by Sir Thomas More in 1527 of Hans Holbein the Younger. Saturated and deep. I can’t wait to read your reviews on the Heimtextil fair!

  3. Wow, Michael: such high praise so eloquently said! It heartens me to know someone as intelligently creative as you took the time to read this post. You’ve kicked my New Year off in such a stellar way!

  4. Coming from a writer I admire, Jana, this is music to my ears! I have your post on your holiday soirée marked to go back to and comment – you’re a terrific storyteller and I enjoyed very much how you let the party unfold through the narrative. It’s great to find others of my own tribe writing about design!

  5. Saxon,
    As usual every word was interesting and enlightening! Cheers to a brilliant 2017 for you.

  6. Aw; thanks, Dixon! I hope your New Year is off to a roaring start. I hear you took an incredible trip over the holidays. I can’t wait to hear about it! See you soon.

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