This essay about the built legacy of Henry VIII is included in my new book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about reading or traveling with intention.
When Chivalry Influenced Architecture
Of course, the pose is cocky. What about Henry VIII wasn’t? Its girth is substantial and the shoulders are broad, which is not a surprise since the King had ballooned to rotundness when he wore the armor at 53 years old. He would be dead three years after he donned it during his last campaign against the French at Calais in 1544. The ensemble, made for him in Italy, sits quietly in the corner of the Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Arms and Armor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art surrounded by other suits worn by famous noblemen and kings. In the middle of the grand space, a display of horses also outfitted for battle illustrates the pageantry with which the medieval kings went to war and carried out acts of chivalry.
But there was a peace-time arena in which armor played just as important a role. Jousting was a part of the knightly system of ethics known as chivalry, which the Tudors took very seriously. These tournaments during which noblemen could prove their dexterity also required them to illustrate their wealth, particularly during Henry VIII’s reign when no expense was spared for the King’s personal effects, and he expected his comrades at court to follow suit.
Jousting was a sport in which architecture—an enduring passion for the King—mattered. Courtiers who valued their positions in Henry VIII’s progress, the name for the act of moving the court from one castle to another, had to up the ante on their dwellings to please him when he visited. One of the shrewdest examples of a man who took this seriously was Sir Henry Wyatt, who bought Allington Castle near Maidstone in Kent and renovated it in 1497 to make the palace worthy of a wealthy man of means. One of the best features of the property was a tiltyard, an enclosed courtyard for jousting, that was reputedly the oldest in England.
Celebratory occasions, such as jousts, were important aspects of chivalry and of courtly life. By the time Henry VIII had become king, the chivalric program of outdoor games was evolving away from the original purpose of training exercises for knights who would eventually face real combat. Armor was transitioning as well, to tournament wear, which was too heavy for the battlefield but perfect for splintering lances upon impact, a critical role of the uniform in the dangerous sport. “The three great princes, Henry VIII, Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain, all thought themselves the embodiment of chivalric virtue,” writes Nicola Shulman in her book Graven with Diamonds; and each excelled at pageant sports.
The programs surrounding chivalry were complex. There were Jousting Rules that outlined the protocol for a tournament. One that survives was written in 1511 when Henry VIII decreed a tournament would be held to celebrate the birth of his son Henry, the first of two Dukes of Cornwall who would be born only to die as infants. For this celebration, the King proclaimed an allegorical tournament based upon examples from the Court of the Dukes of Burgundy. The document, which is signed by the King, explains the backstory so that his courtiers would know how the tourney would unfold and they could play their parts fittingly.
Henry VIII inherited his predilection for sport honestly, as his father, Henry VII, invested in a state-of-the-art games-and-gambling complex at Richmond Palace that held facilities for jousting, bowling, tennis and archery. The elder King bet profusely on all of these pastimes and expected his son to excel in each of the sports. In his book The Royal Palaces of Tudor England, Dr. Simon Thurley credits Henry VII’s time in exile in France for his avant-garde architectural predilections that moved the built vernacular forward, though it would be his son who would completely abandon the royal domestic residences built on medieval patterns.
“Indeed the fundamental conservatism of its design explains why within thirty years Richmond [Palace] had been relegated to a third-division royal residence rarely visited by the Court,” Thurley says. In the end, it would be Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who outdistanced Henry VIII’s father when it came to the built world. This is why the younger king set his sights on the cleric’s much nicer properties, one of which was Hampton Court Palace, when he kicked Wolsey to the curb. When the Cardinal began constructing the medieval façade in 1515, he couldn’t have guessed it would become one of Henry VIII’s most prized summer playgrounds where chivalry was enacted day and night. By 1528, the King set about rebuilding and expanding it, spending a sum that would be equal to £18 million in the early 21st century.
The red bricks cladding the original medieval façade were the hottest new material when the castle was built. And interior elements include an array of decorative treatments that were unusual for their time. The Great Hall, for instance, birthed the term eavesdropping due to the carved and painted figures earnestly watching from the eaves. The architectural elements were placed there to make it possible to spy on those below, a reminder to the courtiers that they were being observed so they’d better behave.
Henry VIII received Hampton Court as a “gift” from Wolsey when the Cardinal couldn’t convince the Pope to grant the King a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, which would allow him to marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey was hoping the relinquishing of his beloved palace would appease Henry but fat chance anything would calm him down since he wasn’t getting his way, and Wolsey was the perfect scapegoat.
The provisions for the kitchen each day Henry was in residence at Hampton Court would have filled a veritable supermarket given there were 600 to 1,000 people to feed during each sitting. The King spared no expense for the feasts that routinely lasted for seven hours or more. Those meals were prepared in what are now the largest surviving Renaissance kitchen in Europe, and roasted meat was at the heart of each and every one of them. This certainly explains the King’s substantial girth by the time he wore the armor I saw at The Met.
Six fires would be burning in every roasting room prepared for these grand productions when the court descended, and the servants minding the spits described their workstations as mortal hell. It is hard to believe there was an upside to their jobs, but they had a unique perk: they were the only help allowed an unlimited amount of beer each day. It’s shocking that anyone’s rations were restricted given the palace was known for racking up orders of 600,000 gallons of the liquid refreshment each year, the majority of which was consumed when the courtiers were present.
The architectural changes at Hampton Court and his other palaces earned Henry VIII a reputation as a master builder. According to Dr. Thurley, he was regarded as “a perfect builder” as early as Elizabeth I’s reign. The author also notes the King was equally at home designing jewelry, armor “(‘suche as no armorer before that tyme had seen’), siege engines and a new sort of tiltyard.” The King’s love of the joust drove the latter innovation. His pseudonym during tournaments was “Sir Loyal Heart,” a nickname gained because he would lay trophies at the feet of his wives to call attention to his strength and libido. I find it ironic that the word “loyal” was ever associated with Henry given his penchant for turning on anyone who displeased him.
According to Shulman, this show of pageantry became a habit: “During celebrations Henry and his varied queens would sing lyrics after jousting tournaments to celebrate his sexual prowess and virility. The King got a bit carried away during one such ceremony, singing, ‘I hurt no man, I do no wrong/ I love true where I did marry.’ He was still on wife one, Catherine of Aragon, at the time!” Five more would follow, of course, making his claim of genuine affection preposterous.
A manuscript known as the Henry VIII Songbook has survived from those frolicking days. It contains 20 songs and 13 instrumental pieces ascribed to ‘The Kynge H,’ including “Pastyme With Good Companye” that celebrates the joys of princely life such as hunting, singing, and dancing. Shulman believes the manuscript was produced for Sir Henry Guildford, the Controller of the Household and Master of the Revels, somewhere around 1518 to use as a guide for festivities because it was found in his house.
“He was in charge of organizing parties, pageants, banquets, and such,” Shulman notes; “a role that had exploded since Henry VIII had taken the throne.” Exploded is no exaggeration. Upon Henry VIII’s death on January 28, 1547, it took a group of hired commissioners 18 months to compile a detailed list of his belongings. The first segment of the surviving inventory includes money, jewels, plate, artillery, munitions, ships, arms, armor, horses, masque garments, tents, religious gowns, and books. And the second covers other items in the principal royal houses, wardrobes or stores. The final tally included hundreds of thousands of objects, many of them devoted to chivalry.
Thurley believes his many sporting compounds were likely inspired by chivalry and by his father and by that first sport complex at a royal house, which is still referred to as “the father of all subsequent English royal recreation centers.” Henry VIII loved sports so much that his court was launched into an almost incessant round of it when he took the throne—hunting and jousting, the most popular and frequent sports of his youth, most often on the agenda.
And chivalry was at the heart of it all, as Thurley notes in this excerpt: “In 1465 Lord Scales proclaimed that the purpose of the tournament was the ‘augmentacion of knyghthode and recommendacion of nobley; also for the gloriouse scoole and study of Armes,’ a sentiment which Henry VIII almost certainly shared. For him tournament was the most graphic expression of the chivalric bent of his Court. The tiltyard buildings with their castellar overtones emphasised the chivalric values underlying jousting.” How anxious was Henry VIII to make his mark as a builder of recreational centers? The first noted payment he made as King was to Henry Smith for a tiltyard at the Tower of London, a project that doesn’t appear to have been realized.
At Whitehall, which he was in the process of enlarging when he died, Henry would marry Anne Boleyn in 1533 and Jane Seymour in 1536. I can only imagine the magnitude of the celebrations that would have taken place during these occasions, which would likely have included grand tournaments within the palace’s tiltyard, which is shown in sketches that exist from that era. The chivalry would have been truly over the top!
Though most of Whitehall was destroyed by fire, the tiltyard Henry VIII built there, now known as the Horse Guards Parade, survived. Richmond also burned, both losses taking with them chunks of the Tudor King’s architectural legacy and proof of his fascination with chivalry.
Not much of the version of Greenwich built by Henry VII and renovated by Henry VIII survived either. I found one reference that states the foundations of the two brick towers that flanked the spectator stands hemming the tiltyard that he built there are buried beneath the lawns of the Queen’s House. Henry VIII once again used masonry to achieve an aesthetically pleasing façade at this sporting venue, as is shown in an architectural model that has been created to illustrate the project. On the long lanes the riders would have acted out their grand ideas of chivalry.
On the grounds of this castle where he was born—atop the layers of sand, gravel, and lime plaster that he ordered be put down to form the foundation for the tiltyard—Henry VIII would suffer his most serious accident while jousting—on January 24, 1536, at the age of 44. The pain from the wound would dog him for a little more than a decade until he died, but his love of the joust never wavered. Chivalry for the medieval man was not negotiable regardless the cost.
The Architecture of Chivalry © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.by