On the Trail of Henry VIII

  April 18, 2009 at 4:14 pm by

Dr. David Starkey says that we can learn much about the life of Henry VIII by visiting his residences, the most well-known of which is Hampton Court.

Hever Castle

Click the image to see the gallery at The Daily Telegraph

Dr. Starkey is amazed by the Tudor royal’s “prodigious accumulation.” He is describing a neglected aspect of Henry’s reign: the number of houses and palaces he owned. When Henry became king in 1509, he had a mere 12 or 13 palaces and castles . In the end he had 55, and Starkey describes him as “the most ‘overhoused’ monarch.”

For all that Henry may have been the William Randolph Hearst of his age, most of his residences are located in the southeastern section of England. Henry only travelled to other parts of England twice.

Starkey advises travellers to begin at Greenwich, Henry’s birthplace, and preferably they should arrive by water. The River Thames was “the great highway of Tudor London”, and a water voyage would imitate those taken by the Tudor greats. The actual palace Henry knew (it was then called Placentia or Pleasure) was torn down in the 1600s, but the park and tree line would be recognizable to the king.

Much of Henry’s childhood was spent nearby at Eltham. This palace is also torn down but its Great Hall remains. This is the spot, Starkey says, “where Henry was introduced by Thomas More to Erasmus. It was like a David Frost Show of 1499.”

Henry was not quite eighteen years old when he was proclaimed king on April 24 1509. That was the day on which he moved into the Tower of London, then palace, prison and armory. The Tower is currently showing the exhibition “Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill,” with Tudor weapons and Henry’s ever-increasing suits of armor.

The next stop is Hampton Court, which is featuring views of the young Henry VIII. “This man is not the ‘fat freak’ [of popular imagination] but enjoys Obama-like adulation,” says Starkey. “He is young, handsome and educated, the ‘great white hope’.” Although Starkey does not mention this fact, Hampton Court was not originally a royal palace. It was a residence constructed by the king’s favorite, Cardinal Wolsey, and then snatched away by the mercurial monarch.

Henry also took another nearby palace, Knole in Kent, away from its owner, Thomas Cranmer. Starkey says this palace is an “absolute must” for visitors because it gives a more accurate sense of the period than Hampton Court.

Henry was “ultra-fashionable” and his palaces were the most stylish in northern Europe – if you like silver and gilt furniture and relentless ornamentation. Little remains in any of his houses of the original furnishings, bar tapestries, but Knole is the closest you get to the oppressiveness of the style – one Starkey admits he doesn’t care for.

Kent is also the home to the most beautiful of the houses that Henry acquired and rebuilt, Leeds Castle. “As far as I can say he spends three days there,” says Dr Starkey. “I call it a glorified b & b on the way to Dover.”

Starkey recommends a detour to Portsmouth and the exhibit of the Mary Rose (named after his sister). Henry was a shipbuilding fanatic, and this doomed ship was one of Henry’s great achievements. Says Starkey: “There are literally tens of thousands of artefacts from shoes to nit combs – the whole kit of a Tudor surgeon, including a dreadful thing for the administration of mercury up a chap’s urethra.”

Dr. Starkey’s favorite Tudor home is Ightham Mote, a moated manor house in Kent. Sir Richard Clement, a courtier, owned the house for part of Henry’s reign, and the interior is a great example of a senior gentleman’s home in the Tudor age.

Next you might go to Hever Castle, also in Kent, at one time home to the Boleyns and scene of part of the courtship between Anne and the King.

The southeastern portion of England must be littered with associations with Henry VIII, and Starkey seems to know them all, even giving us TMI (too much information). A final locale he recommends is the vicinity of the home (now torn down) of the second Duke of Suffolk, near near Wallingford, in Oxfordshire, when his parents spent a month in the autumn of 1490. Starkey says “You can actually go to the place where he was conceived.” The old church and almshouses remain.

Filed under Historical Royals, The United Kingdom
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