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Life in a Tudor Palace
By Christopher Gidlow
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Christopher Gidlow
All rights reserved.
The reign of King Henry VIII was one of the great dramas of English history. As often as not this drama was played out on the magnificent stage provided by his palaces.
By inheritance, confiscation and construction, King Henry amassed some sixty residences, of which two-thirds were in regular use. They ranged from ancient castles (Windsor and the Tower of London), rambling hunting lodges (Woodstock) and glorified manor houses (Eltham), to newly constructed Tudor palaces such as those at Nonsuch, Hampton Court and Whitehall.
Among these many residences seven stood out, the so-called 'Great Houses', at Greenwich, Westminster/Whitehall, Hampton Court, Woodstock, Richmond, Eltham and Beaulieu. It is on life in these Tudor palaces that this book focuses.
These palaces were symbols of Henry VIII's power and magnificence, and also practical bases from which he could govern the kingdom while enjoying his favourite pastimes. They were residences, too, of the extensive Tudor Court. The court existed to serve the king, from the 'gong-scourers' who cleaned out the toilets, to the Lord Great Master, one of the highest nobles in the land.
The palaces of Tudor England have all but vanished, victims of accidental fires or changes in taste. The Great Halls of Eltham and Westminster, already old in Henry's time, still stand, if in much altered surroundings. Only at Hampton Court do substantial remnants of the main apartments, courtiers' lodgings and the kitchens that served them survive to be visited. Even here, the private chambers of the king and his family have vanished.
For evidence, we must search the account books, which record the vast expenditure lavished on the buildings and the food and wages of those who worked within. Detailed inventories of the palaces taken on Henry's death offer tantalising glimpses of the mundane and the magnificent objects that filled them. Additionally, ambassadors and courtiers themselves left accounts, which illuminate life within the walls.
We have one very significant piece of information on how a Tudor palace functioned. In 1527, King Henry VIII and his Council (which in practice meant his all-powerful Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey) issued the Eltham Ordinances. These were detailed rules for 'the establishment of good order and reformation of sundry errors and misuses' in the court.
The Ordinances, in a bound volume, signed by the king, were kept in the Compting House, the office of the palace accountants. Here they could be consulted regularly by the head officers of the chamber and household. The councillors would make quarterly inspections of the palaces to ensure the Ordinances were being kept.
These Ordinances provide an invaluable record of how the meticulously minded cardinal wanted the court to function, with the minimum of mistakes and unnecessary waste. In reality, the court was dynamic and fluid, dominated by the changing whims of the largerthan-life monarch and the personalities who surrounded him. The great cardinal himself lost power barely two years after the Ordinances were drawn up. We can see in them, however, both the theory he had tried to impose and the problems that could arise to challenge it.
We shall follow King Henry VIII and his court through a typical day at a Tudor palace, between the publication of the Ordinances at Eltham Palace in 1527 and his death at Westminster/Whitehall Palace in 1547. In practice there was no such thing as a 'typical' day over that period, which encompassed six wives, the fall and execution of numerous ministers, a split with Rome and the physical degeneration of an ageing, ailing monarch. We shall imagine, though, a day that was not a particular feast day, one without any specific great business to attend to or important visitors to be received; a very ordinary day, of which most of the history of the time must have been composed.CHAPTER 2
The Tudor Court
The way a Tudor palace worked derived from the much simpler pattern of noble life in the Middle Ages. The main building used by a medieval noble was the Great Hall. This was used for public life, eating and as a place where servants could sleep. At the back of the hall would be a separate room, a chamber, in which the lord would sleep, conduct private business and be entertained. At the opposite end you would find separate kitchens, stables and stores.
The hall and its dependencies were the responsibility of the Steward, while the chamber was the domain of the Chamberlain.
This traditional structure continued, in a magnified and more complex form, in the Tudor palaces. Here, the Lord Steward presided over the household, the Great Hall and the departments necessary to its functioning, while the Lord Chamberlain looked after the 'chamber', aspects of the king's private life as well as his actual bedroom.
The buildings where the court resided were largely incidental. The structure remained the same, whatever its physical surroundings. The king travelled from residence to residence. His favourite palace was Greenwich. Business kept him at Westminster or the neighbouring Whitehall for much of the year, and Windsor Castle was his principal residence outside London. Next in favour came the newly built Hampton Court Palace.
The court arrives
The Tudor palaces were massive complexes, which dominated their surrounding areas. Towers, pinnacles, chimneys and vanes signalled their presence from afar.
The first warning that the king was on his way would be the harbingers galloping into view. Led by the knight harbinger, these men were responsible for preparing the king's arrival and assigning lodgings for the courtiers who accompanied him. Shortly afterwards, the gentlemen ushers and yeoman ushers would arrive.
The harbingers and ushers had with them a book, signed by the king, 'describing the number of every person, of what estate, degree or condition he be' who was allowed to lodge in or around the palace. They were ordered, on pain of losing their offices, not to give lodgings to anyone else unless directed by the king or council. If there were more courtiers than the palace could accommodate, local householders might be compelled to offer hospitality. The ushers would take note of what items were left in the lodging and take charge of the keys. Householders were paid double compensation for any losses caused by thoughtless young nobles making free with their property.
The palaces had 'abiding households' that looked after them while the king was elsewhere. Although it was possible for the court to arrive unexpectedly, in practice its movements were fairly regular. The king tended to stay in Whitehall for the law terms, when Parliament sat. Itineraries were worked out in advance, with the court moving every few weeks in summer. In the winter, it might move even more frequently, except when hindered by the weather. Even the best plans could be thrown into disarray by an outbreak of plague, forcing it to move swiftly to a more healthy location.
A Tudor would not have wondered why the court moved. This had been the regular custom for as long as there had been kings. One reason was the demand the court placed on its location, devouring food stocks, over-hunting the parks and monopolising lodgings. Another was for the king to display himself to his subjects. Although moving the court was difficult, it was easier for the king to move to meet his people than for them to travel to see him. We can also imagine that a change of scene simply added to the king's enjoyment of life, preventing him from getting too bored.
An important early arrival was the clerk of the market. He would note local economic conditions, then set 'convenient and reasonable' prices for food and drink, fodder, lodging and bedding. He would check local weights and measures and source seasonably good and wholesome provisions. This was an important safeguard, since otherwise prices would be bound to rise with the arrival of so many wealthy consumers.
Soon the road leading to the palace would be creaking with the carts of the Lord Steward's men. The offices, as the different departments were called, had their own staff and equipment carts. Their job was to set up the kitchens so that there would be food waiting when the rest of the court arrived.
There was always work to be done to make the palace ready. Carpenters, joiners, masons, painters and other craftsmen worked swiftly, going from chamber to chamber. The accommodation would be swept, washed and dusted. Unforeseen circumstances gave rise to extra work. For example, before the first arrival of Queen Anne Boleyn at Hampton Court, craftsmen laboured through the night removing all references to Catherine of Aragon. Three years later they had to repeat the process, replacing Anne's decorations with ones relating to Jane Seymour!
Yeomen and grooms of the Wardrobe hung the chambers and set the soft furnishings, including the beds. The 'Standing Wardrobes' were large stores, for beds, arrases (large Flemish tapestries), great carpets, cushions and hangings, and ladders to put them up. The Wardrobe of the Robes was used for clothes and the Jewel House for the king's small personal items.
The palace and surrounding area were designated as 'the Verge'. Within the Verge, law and order were kept by the knight marshall and his officers and deputies, with cases heard by the Lord Steward or his under-steward. This saved wrangling with local sheriffs and mayors, and reflected the seriousness of crimes committed close to the king. Assaults on courtiers within the Verge were punishable by loss of the offending hand. It was understood, however, that beating errant servants, even to the extent of drawing blood, was perfectly permissible.
The knight marshall and his officers excluded 'boys and vile persons', punished vagabonds and 'mighty beggars' and took 'good regard' of the 'unthrifty and common women' who followed the court. As occasion demanded, these would be banished from the palace and its vicinity.
Most of the palaces stood on the Thames, which meant that the court would often arrive by water. The king's main entrance was the watergate, connected by a gallery directly to his chambers. Other courtiers and staff would pass through the distinctive Gate House. To facilitate travel by boat, the astronomical clock at Hampton Court gave the time of the tides. Alternatively, the king might come by road from one of his lesser houses. However he arrived, he expected to find a newly decorated and clean palace, with the Lord Steward standing at the entrance ready to present him with the keys.
The people of the palace
Once the whole court had arrived, there would be about 800 men, 200 of whom were part of the Lord Steward's department, not including guests or those serving the queen or the royal children. With up to 1,000 inhabitants, a Tudor palace would have a population equivalent to a small market town.
Almost all those who worked at the palace were men. Women were put on the payroll for low-paid seasonal work, such as weeding. The king contracted a fine laundress, Anne Harris, to wash his own linen. There were also women with specialist accomplishments such as musicians or Levinia Teerlinc, a portrait painter. One 'wife who makes the king's puddings' worked among the men in the kitchens at Hampton Court.
The queen also had women to attend her, close companions such as her ladies-in-waiting, but her staff members were generally men. Catherine of Aragon had a household of 200. Catherine Parr, who lived more simply than Henry's previous wives, still had a household of seventy and a chamber of thirty-nine. The king's son had his wet-nurse and, once weaned, a drynurse; but, like his father, he was attended by men.
The people of the palaces were generally young, though it is difficult to pin down their exact ages: the pages would probably have been young teenagers, but the 'boys' who turned the spits in the Great Kitchen were probably strapping young adults. A large number of the courtiers would have been under 21. Many others were in their twenties.
For much of his reign, Henry VIII would have been one of the oldest people at court. He liked to be surrounded by active young people, which increased his feeling of virility. Apart from Catherine of Aragon, all his wives were younger, often considerably younger, than himself, which added to the youthful atmosphere of the palace.
Tudor society was hierarchical, with the king at the top. The court was the main way of advancing in society. It was important to attract the notice of the king and gain his favour, so courtiers would continually try to get close to the king. In return, the king depended on courtiers to govern the country.
A person's position in the hierarchy determined where he or she worked, ate, slept and even went to the toilet in the palace. Most inhabitants of Tudor England ranked simply as 'men and wives'. They had no land and worked for other people. Above them came the yeomen, smallholders with their own land, and masters and mistresses, professionals or business owners.
Gentlemen and gentlewomen made up some 5 per cent of the population. They were landowners from established families, recognisable by coats of arms, upbringing or wealth. Priests ranked with this group. About 200 gentlemen were knights. Originally, these were military officers, but by Tudor times, knighthood could be bestowed for civilian service. Gentlemen ran most of the palace departments. Sir Henry Guilford, for example, was the Comptroller of the Household. Gentlemen were carefully distinguished from yeomen, even if their functions might be similar.
The nobility were a very small group, no more than about forty lords and their families, as well as twenty-seven bishops. They were considered natural companions and councillors of the king. A few nobles had particular jobs at the top of the palace organisation. In the Eltham Ordinances, the Lord Steward was the Earl of Shrewsbury. Subsequently, Henry's friend the Duke of Suffolk was given the job, with the elevated title of 'Lord Great Master'.
The difference between ranks could be blurred. A bishop complained that because of the extravagant fashions at court 'a man cannot well discern a gentleman from a yeoman, a lord from a gentleman, a prince from a lord'. Laws called Acts of Apparel regulated what clothes and materials different classes could wear.
Many servants at the palace wore livery, essentially uniform coats. The servants of the king's chamber, including the Yeomen of the Guard, wore red livery, decorated with the royal cipher 'HR' in black and gold. Some of the lower-ranking servants wore green livery, the colour of the Tudor dynasty.
The members of staff had to be 'honest in gesture and behaviour' and expert in their jobs. The Vice-Chamberlain and the Captain of the Guard appraised the staff of the chamber, while the Comptroller of the Household had the oversight of the bulk of the staff. They had to replace any who were 'impotent, fickle, unable or unmeet'. The king wanted servants able and willing to progress, who behaved and looked the part. His household was 'a mirror and example to all others within this realm'.CHAPTER 3
A Day at the Tudor Palace
6 a.m. The King's Chambers
In a world where people usually worked according to the length of daylight, the Tudor Palace ran to the regular pace of mechanical clocks. Towards the end of Henry VIII's reign, a gigantic astronomical clock was installed at Hampton Court. This was the work of the king's clockmaker, Nicholas Oursian, who also provided portable clocks. In the Privy Chamber there was a clock on a carved pillar.
The earliest risers were the king's personal attendants. They were expected to be up and ready at 7 o'clock in the morning, or earlier if the king had decided the night before that he would need an early start. In 1520, for example, Henry rose daily at 4 or 5 a.m., and hunted until 9 or 10 at night.
Getting up for 7 meant, for much of the year, working by the light of expensive wax candles. This was an expense Tudors generally liked to avoid. The rest of the court rose later and finished earlier to make the best use of daylight.
Next up were the four grooms of the Privy Chamber. They were named in the Ordinances as William and Hyrcan Brereton, Walter Welsh and John Cary. Personal servants would often be found sleeping in the same chamber as their master. Although Henry's grooms were assigned lodging elsewhere in the palace, at least two of them were to be ready and waiting in the Privy Chamber between 6 and 7 o'clock in the morning. They had to clear away the pallets (the straw mats on which staff had been sleeping), make the fire, tidy the room, strew clean straw on the floor and clean out 'all manner of filthiness'. When the king got up he would 'find the said Chamber pure, clean, wholesome and meet without any displeasant air or thing, as the health, commodity and pleasure of his most noble person doth require'.
Excerpted from Life in a Tudor Palace by Christopher Gidlow. Copyright © 2011 Christopher Gidlow. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
2 The Tudor Court,
3 A Day at the Tudor Palace,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I really enjoyed this book. I hope the author will do many more. It gives a review of one day in the life of Henry VIII (England, 1500's) and examples of the culture of the time. It is entertaining and informative. I enjoy reading history and this book contains many interesting small details other books don't include.