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


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As early as 1510 Luis Caroz observed, "There are many young men who excel in this kind of warfare, but the most conspicuous among them all, the most assiduous and the most interested in the combats is the King himself, who never omits being present at them."29 A Venetian reported in 1515 that Henry jousted "marvellously." That afternoon the King had invited this envoy and his suite "to see him joust, running upwards of 30 courses, in one of which he capsized his opponent, who is the finest jouster in the kingdom [Brandon?], horse and all. He then took off his helmet and came under the windows where we were, and talked and laughed with us to our very great honour, and to the surprise of all be-holders." 30 On another occasion, wearing "cloth of gold with a raised pile," he "looked like St. George in person" as he entered the lists.31 Again in 1515, Giustinian watched enthralled as, for three hours, "the King excelled all others, shivering many lances and unhorsing one of his opponents."32 A drawing of Henry armed for the tilt and on horseback is in the British Library.

Thanks to the King's personal involvement and enthusiasm, the English tournaments became renowned throughout Europe, where such events were regarded as crucial to a kingdom's international prestige.

Life was not all heroic pleasures. In January 1510, Henry went in procession to open his first Parliament at Westminster. He looked resplendent in his crimson and ermine robes of estate with their long train, walking beneath a canopy carried by the monks of Westminster Abbey, preceded by mitred abbots, bishops, heralds, Archbishop Warham, Garter King of Arms, the royal mace-bearer, and the Duke of Buckingham bearing the Cap of Estate; the Duke's heir, Henry Stafford, carried the Sword of Estate. After sitting enthroned through mass in the Abbey, the King proceeded into the Parliament Chamber, where he put on the Cap of Estate. The Earls of Oxford and Surrey stood to the left of the throne as the Lord Chancellor addressed the assembly.33

Henry was eagerly anticipating the birth of a son and heir. He ordered a new cover for the baptismal font and linen towels to be used at the christening, as well as a sumptuous cradle of estate padded with crimson cloth of gold embroidered with the royal arms, linen for the Queen's bed, swaddling bands in which to wrap the baby, beds for the nurse and two rockers, and a "groaning chair" for the delivery. This was similar to a modern birthing chair, with a cut-away seat, but it was upholstered in cloth of gold and came complete with a copper-gilt bowl for receiving the blood and the afterbirth.34 But the Queen's pregnancy had not gone to term when, on 31 January, she went into labour; her pains were so agonising that she vowed to donate her richest headdress to the shrine of St. Peter the Martyr in Spain in return for a happy outcome. Crushingly, she was delivered of a stillborn daughter. No public announcement was made, and it was four months before Katherine could bring herself to in-form King Ferdinand of her loss. Despite God's failure to answer her prayers, she kept her promise to send the headdress to Spain.35

The King swallowed his disappointment. On Shrove Tuesday, he astonished his courtiers by publicly taking part in a revel for the first time, and thereby setting a new precedent. The occasion was a banquet held in honour of all the foreign ambassadors at Westminster. The King and Queen led their ladies and nobles into the Parliament Chamber, where Henry personally showed his guests to their seats before taking his place next to Katherine at the high table. He was soon up again, walking around the tables and chatting with his wife and the ambassadors. Then he disappeared with the Earl of Essex. Some time later they returned dressed up "in Turkey fashion," carrying scimitars and accompanied by six gentlemen dressed as Prussians, and torchbearers blacked-up as Moors. After play-acting in these roles for a time, the King withdrew again, then reappeared in a short doublet of blue and crimson, slashed with cloth of gold. He and the other gentlemen then danced with the ladies, Henry partnering his sister Mary.36 From now on, the monarch was also a showman.

The feast day of St. George, the patron saint of England and of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, fell on 23 April. Henry had been proclaimed King on that date, and he used it as his official birthday. St. George was his hero, and he had been a Knight of the Garter since the age of four. Every year on 23 April, the King held a chapter of the Order, not always at Windsor, but wherever he happened to be; during the thirty-seven years of his reign, twenty-four chapters of the Order were held at Greenwich.

Founded in 1348 by Edward III, the Garter was England's highest and most coveted order of chivalry, having been revived in imitation of the Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece by both Edward IV, who had built St. George's Chapel at Windsor, and Henry VII. Henry VIII, with his passion for ancient chivalric values and his policy of accentuating his own magnificence, would continue this tradition.

The Order comprised the sovereign and twenty-five elected Knights Companions, who were only replaced upon death or disgrace. Vacancies were filled at the annual chapter meeting. Each chapter was marked with a magnificent feast; at Windsor, this took place in St. George's Hall. The Knights wore "a blue velvet mantle with a Garter on the left shoulder, lined with white sarcanet, [and] scarlet hose with black velvet around the thighs."37 Each sported a light blue 38 silk garter with a gold buckle and embroidered Tudor roses round his leg--the garter being the oldest item of the insignia--and the rich gold collar introduced by Edward IV or Henry VII. Henry VIII decreed in 1510 that the collar consist of twelve Tudor roses set within blue garters, interspersed with twelve tasselled knots; from it hung a "Great George"--a jewelled pendant of St. George slaying the dragon. The Knights were allowed to wear their insignia only on St. George's Day and the great feast days of the court, so in 1521 Henry instituted a smaller pendant, the "Lesser George," for everyday use. This was suspended from a gold chain or a blue ribbon, and might be set with a rare cameo. The King is known to have owned three such Lesser Georges.39

In the roof of St. George's Chapel, at the east end of the nave, is a roof boss bearing the arms of Henry VIII surrounded by the escutcheons of his Knights of the Garter; their shields also appear on stall plates in the chapel. Legend has it that the motto of the Order, "Honi soit qui mal y pense" ("Evil be to he who evil thinks"), was first uttered by Edward III in reproof to courtiers who laughed when the garter of his mistress, the Countess of Salisbury, fell to the floor during a court dance. Whatever the truth of their origin, the words were adopted as the personal motto of the sovereign. The Garter was bestowed as a mark of great honour and friendship on foreign princes such as the Emperor Maximilian I, who usually returned the compliment: Henry VIII had been admitted to the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1505, and was painted wearing its insignia by Hans Holbein for the Whitehall mural of 1537.

Although the first chapter of the Order had been held at Greenwich in 1509, the election of new members had been postponed until May because of the death of the late King. The first chapter proper and feast took place in April 1510.

May Day, originally a pagan fertility festival, was one of the great holidays of the year. It was the occasion of cheerful merrymaking at court, with the King going a-Maying with much triumph and the celebrations lasting up to four days. On "the morn of May," everyone ventured "into the woods and meadows to divert themselves"40 --not always in ways of which moralists would have approved--and later there were sports, horse races, jousts, and dances around the maypole, after which it was customary for cakes and cream to be served.41 On 1 May 1510, "His Grace, being young and not willing to be idle, rose very early to fetch in the may and green boughs, himself fresh and richly apparelled, and all his knights in white satin, . . . and went every man with his bow and arrows shooting in the wood, and so returned to court, every man with a green bough in his cap."42

That month saw Henry back in the tiltyard at Greenwich. "The King of England amuses himself almost every day of the week with running the ring and with jousts and tournaments on foot. Two days in the week are consecrated to this kind of tournament, which is to continue till the Feast of St. John."43 CONTINUE>>

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