Henry The VIII
Alison Weir
History | Ballantine | Hardcover | May 2001 | $28.00 | 0-345-43659-8
 
 
 
 

 

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"Merry Disports"

In the summer of 1509, Henry informed King Ferdinand that he was about to visit different parts of his kingdom.1 We know very little about this first progress, save that it was fairly extensive and included so-journs at Reading Abbey and the Old Hall at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, seat of Edward de Burgh, Lord Borough, who later married Katherine Parr.

Henry went on progress almost every summer of his reign. His purpose was not only to see his realm and be seen by his subjects, but also to enjoy the hunting that was to be had in other parts. At that time of year, many courtiers had returned to their estates to oversee the harvest, so the King was usually accompanied by a smaller retinue and sometimes just by his riding household. The Queen usually, but not always, accompanied him. As he travelled, Henry distributed alms and largesse to religious houses and individuals.2 He always took his Chapel Royal with him, to conduct religious services and provide musical entertainment, and his hunting dogs, which were transported by cart.

Unlike his daughter Elizabeth I, Henry did not routinely seek lavish hospitality from his subjects, and his visits were never as financially ruinous to his hosts as hers were. Many of his lesser houses were progress houses, and he used them whenever possible. In the first half of the reign he lodged also in the guest houses, or in apartments especially reserved for him, at monasteries. At other times he stayed as the guest of one of his courtiers or some local worthy, becoming lord of the house for the duration of his stay, with his apartments taking on, as far as possible, the functions of the Chamber at court, and his servants having priority over the residents in the allocation of accommodation and billets.3 Those closest to the King were assigned the rooms nearest his. If there was not sufficient space for his retinue in the house, barns and stables would be pressed into service, or tents set up in the grounds.

The Knight Harbinger was responsible for allocating accommodation to everyone; this was done strictly according to rank.4 When the King stayed at a private residence, one of his Gentlemen Ushers would go ahead to check that the house was structurally sound, that the roof did not leak, and that there were locks on all the doors.

Progresses could last for up to two months; they usually took place between July and October, and were carefully planned in advance, with the itinerary being set out in detailed tables called giests. The King's plans were altered only when plague broke out or the weather was bad. The Master of the Horse was responsible for organising the complicated travel arrangements required to transport the court on the move, and the Board of the Greencloth for the provision of food,5 although individual hosts would always lay on lavish hospitality for their monarch. Everything was done to make the King's transition from one house to another as smooth as possible.

Once the progress was over, the King would return to London or his palaces in the Thames Valley, where he normally spent the winter. Late in 1509, he and Queen Katherine, who was in her first pregnancy, removed to Richmond Palace by the Thames in Surrey for the festive season.

Richmond was Henry VII's masterpiece, a large, battlemented Perpendicular fantasy modelled on the ducal residences of Bruges and built--at a cost of 20,000 (over 6 million)--on the ruins of the mediaeval palace of Sheen, which had been destroyed by fire at Christmas in 1497. The new palace, built of red brick and stone between 1499 and 1503 and renamed by royal decree Richmond after the earldom held by Henry VII before his accession, was designed on a courtyard plan, and was distinguished by vast expanses of big bay windows, fairy-tale pinnacles, and turrets surmounted by bell-shaped domes and gilded weather-vanes. The palace was surrounded by an extensive deer park.6

A contemporary described Richmond as "an earthly paradise, most glorious to behold."7 There were fountains in the courtyards, orchards, and "most fair and pleasant gardens" set with knots and intersected by wide paths and statues of the King's beasts. Around the gardens were novel timber-framed, two-storey galleried walks, and nearby was the recreation complex. In the stone donjon housing the royal lodgings, the beamed ceilings were painted azure and studded with gold Tudor roses and portcullises; there were rich tapestries, panel portraits, and murals by Henry VII's painter, Maynard the Fleming, of "the noble kings of this realm in harness and robes of gold, as Brutus, Hengist, King William Rufus, King Arthur [and] King Henry . . . with swords in their hands, appearing like bold and valiant knights."8 There was a richly appointed chapel and a library established by Henry VII. A "mighty brick wall" surrounded the palace; it had a tower at each corner, and in the centre was the main gate "of double timber and heart of oak, studded full of nails and crossed with bars of iron."9 Above it were the arms of Henry VII, supported by the red dragon of Wales and the greyhound of Richmond. Henry VIII celebrated his first Christmas as king at Richmond. The occasion was marked by a joust before the palace gates, on what is now Richmond Green, where "many notable feats of arms were proved."10 The festivities were directed by one Will Wynesbury, acting as Lord of Misrule, who impudently asked the King to lend him 5 on account. "If it shall like Your Grace to give me too much," he added mischievously, "I will give you none again, and if Your Grace give me too little, I will ask more!" Henry thought this was hilarious.11

Christmas in Tudor times was a twelve-day festival, with the celebrations reaching their climax on 6 January, or Twelfth Night, which was the Feast of the Epiphany. The Advent fast ended on Christmas Eve; then there were twelve days of feasting, banqueting, pageantry, disguising, and convivial merrymaking, all presided over by the Lord of Misrule, or Master of Merry Disports,12 with his train of heralds, magicians, and fools in fancy dress; at court, this was a time when rank took second place to revelry. Henry VIII also observed the mediaeval custom of appointing a boy bishop to take the place of his senior chaplain: at Windsor, he once rewarded a lad called Nicholas with 10 marks for taking this role. CONTINUE>>

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