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



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The court was always full at Christmas. The royal palaces, like many humbler homes, were decorated with "holly, ivy and bays, and whatsoever the season afforded to be green,"13 and the public were often allowed in to watch the "goodly and gorgeous mummeries."14 In the great hall or presence chamber, the mighty Yule log crackled on the hearth, and carols were sung and danced, "to the great rejoicing of the Queen and the nobles."15

Great feasts were served at court over Yuletide. On Christmas Day, there was always the seasonal favourite, seethed brawn made from spiced boar or pork, and perhaps roast swans; the first course, however, was in-variably a boar's head, which was served "bedecked with bay and rosemary," according to the old carol printed in 1521 by the King's printer, Wynkyn de Worde. For the sumptuous banquet that marked Twelfth Night, a special cake containing dried fruit, flour, honey, and spices was baked. The cake contained a pea or a bean; whoever found it would be King or Queen of the Pea or Bean for the evening. From payments made beforehand, however, it appears that at court the lucky recipients were often selected in advance, just to be on the safe side. At the void on Twelfth Night, the choir of the Chapel Royal sang as the wassail cup, which contained spiced ale, was brought in by the Lord Steward and pre-sented to the King and Queen and then passed around the table.16

Christmas was also a time for solemn religious observances. Each Christmas Day, the King would hear mass in his closet before going in pro-cession to the Chapel Royal for matins, where he actually participated in the service. This was, observed a papal nuncio, a "very unusual proceeding," since Henry usually attended to business during public services.17 The choir usually sang "Gloria in excelsis" on these occasions, for which the King once rewarded them with 2 (600). On the Feast of the Epiphany, gold, frankincense, and myrrh were offered on behalf of the Queen.

Presents were exchanged, not on Christmas Day, but on New Year's Day. Not only the Queen and the royal family, but also every courtier and servant gave the King a gift. Each gift was presented to him by the donor or his representative in a glittering ceremony in the presence chamber, where the gifts--which might be gold or silver plate, jewellery or money--were afterwards displayed on sideboards or trestle tables for all to see. Each was then listed by the royal secretaries before being stored away. Great lords vied with one another to give the most valuable or novel items: Cardinal Wolsey regularly gave his master a gold cup worth 100 (30,000). In return, Henry distributed gifts of plate, such as cups and bowls chased with the royal cipher, each weighted according to rank, to every person at court, even the most menial members of the Household.

In January 1510, Henry staged the first of many disguisings. Early one morning, he and eleven companions dressed themselves as Robin Hood and his outlaws, donning short coats of green Kentish Kendal with hoods that concealed their faces. Then, armed with bows and arrows, swords and bucklers, they burst into the Queen's chamber--at which Katherine and her ladies were much "abashed." Nevertheless, they agreed to dance with their visitors, and only after the dancing was finished did the King and his fellows throw back their hoods and reveal who they were, to the astonishment of the ladies and the amusement of the men.18

Henry VIII's reign witnessed the Indian summer of the age of chivalry. Tournaments in the Burgundian style were hugely popular, and were staged at almost every court festival or diplomatic visit, and as regular events during May and June to provide "honourable and healthy exercise" 19 before the hunting season began. They were essentially an aristo-cratic preserve, intended to keep fighting men in peak condition in peacetime, since the King was "not minded to see young gentlemen inexpert in martial feats."20 Tournaments had also become glittering social events that afforded Henry and his courtiers the chance to show off their wealth and prowess before foreign ambassadors. Success in the lists was a sure route to royal favour.

There were different forms of combat: "barriers," with opponents fighting on foot with swords across a waist-high wooden fence; hand-to-hand combats on foot with a variety of weapons, "in imitation of Amadis and Lancelot and other knights of olden times";21 the tourney, fought out on horseback with swords; and the dramatic tilt or joust between mounted knights with lances thundering towards each other at either side of a wooden palisade. In the tilt, competitors fought in pairs; in the joust, alone. Contestants had to be courageous and strong, with a good eye and a fine sense of timing because a high degree of risk was in-volved, and men sometimes did get killed or injured. Achieving honour in the joust was nearly as prestigious as attaining glory in battle.

The tournament was the ultimate theatre of chivalry. Lavish pageantry and allegory attended these events, which were watched by spectators in covered stands. The participants would enter their names on a "Tree of Chivalry,"22 and they might arrive in the lists in fancy costume--Henry once appeared as Hercules--riding on pageant cars. Usually there was a grand procession to the tiltyard, headed by the Marshals of the Joust on horseback, followed by footmen; drummers; trumpeters; then lords and knights, two by two, all splendidly dressed and mounted; pages; the jousters, fully armed; and finally "His Majesty, armed cap-a-pie, surrounded by 30 gentlemen on foot, dressed in velvet and satin."23 Tournaments were often held over several days.

Surviving score sheets, kept by heralds, show that marks were awarded on a bar-gate system according to which parts of an opponent's armour were hit: the helmet scoring highest, closely followed by the breast-plate. 24 In the tilt, the ultimate aim was to unhorse an opponent or split his lance. Courtly love also had a role in these affairs. The winning knight would be proclaimed the champion of the day, and receive his accolade from the Queen or the highest ranking lady present. Jousts were usually held in honour of the ladies, who gave favours, such as scarves or handkerchiefs, to their chosen knights to wear in the lists.

"The King, being lusty, young and courageous, greatly delighted in feats of chivalry."25 When he was sixteen, he was reported to have exercised in the lists every day.26 On 12 January 1510, Henry tilted in public for the very first time. He and William Compton appeared in disguise in the lists at Richmond, but it was a furious contest and when Compton, in combat with Edward Neville, was "sore hurt and like to die," Henry deemed it politic to leave the field. As he rode away, someone in on the secret cried, "God save the King!" whereupon he had no choice but to "discover himself "--at which there was general amazement, for within living memory English kings had been mere spectators at such events.27

Compton fortunately recovered, and Henry went on to enjoy an illustrious career in the lists, much to the dismay of the "ancient fathers" on the Council, who worried that he might injure or even kill himself. To placate them, the King began using specially made hollow lances to reduce impact. But he still took fearful risks, "having no respect or fear of anyone in the world,"28 and was nearly killed on two occasions, as we shall hear.

Henry was literally obsessed with jousting. He trained regularly, often charging with his lance to dislodge a detachable ring from a post, or tilting at the quintain, a dummy on a revolving bar. His favourite opponents were Compton, Neville, Buckingham, and above all Brandon, who was soon being made jousting clothes to match those of the King his partner. CONTINUE>>

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