Historical fiction, King Henry VIII and St James’s Palace

A-Tudor-PalaceLast night the final episode of Wolf Hall left us in no doubt how terrifying it must have been to live at the court of King Henry VIII. The whole series, like the books (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), has been an intriguing observation of power and the manipulation of power. But, unlike other 21st-century historical fictional accounts of the Tudors full of 21st-century people dressed in costumes essentially behaving in a very modern manner, the characters of Wolf Hall evoke another time. Perhaps it is nearer to a true Tudor sensibility. It somehow has a feel as though this re-presentation (hyphen deliberate) floats out from the documents, art and culture surviving from the period.

Last weekend I visited the ‘Real Tudors’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London and had the opportunity to scan across six different portraits of Henry VIII as I slowly turned on my heels. Putting the different styles and skills of the various artists aside, we are looking to find the essence of the monarch caught somewhere in the brushstrokes. As I stood and looked and looked, I realised how hard it is to see Henry the human being. The difficulty with these portraits is they are of a royal personage painted at a time when to be royal was to be almost a god. The other issue with these images is that some are copies of an original portrait or even copies of copies long lost in the last 500 years. In the end I considered we will only ever have an extremely mediated view of Henry and as with our contemporary queen, their public face is all about this strange, archaic notion of royalty and nothing to do with an ordinary human sitting for a portrait. I would show you these Henry portraits but, . . .

All the copyright rules and regulations to reproduce an image nearly 500 years old!! And, guess what, one of their aims is to 'extend and broaden the range of audiences for the National Portrait Gallery'. See http://www.npg.org.uk/assets/files/pdf/corporate/busplan20132016.pdf
All the copyright rules and regulations to reproduce an image nearly 500 years old!! And, guess what, one of their aims is to ‘extend and broaden the range of audiences for the National Portrait Gallery’. See http://www.npg.org.uk/assets/files/pdf/corporate/busplan20132016.pdf

Wearing my Art Historian’s hat I find I have again to moan about access to public images held by a national art gallery. The National Portrait Gallery does not permit any photographs at all. In fact there are little signs here and there through the galleries reminding us not to take pictures. These images are part of a nation’s heritage and, of course, they are available to see and buy on their website, but that is not the same as taking my own shots.

St James's Palace Pall Mall
St James’s Palace, Pall Mall, London.
Built as St James’s House by King Henry VIII. The original Chapel Royal, gatehouse tower, turrets and two Tudor rooms in the State apartments of this red brick building still survive.

At least we are still permitted (and we are very, very grateful) to photograph royal palaces from the street. During the period between 1531 and 1536 Henry VIII had St James’s House built (now known as St James’s Palace). The Wolf Hall drama is also partially set during these years and today we can stand in front of the original Tudor gatehouse and imagine Thomas Cromwell riding through these gates perhaps to speak with Anne Boleyn the day after she was crowned queen.

The Tudor gatehouse of St James's Palace.
The Tudor gatehouse of St James’s Palace.

Renaissance tomb in Suffolk for a Tudor Norfolk

Framlingham Castle
Framlingham Castle, Framlingham, Suffolk.
One of the residences of Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk.

As Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction novels ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ receive the much lauded BBC period drama conversion to a television series, a new portrayal of Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk (1473-1554) will appear on our screens. This time the Duke is played by Bernard Hill and as in Mantel’s books he is loud, angry and ferociously ambitious. During the reign of King Henry VIII, the Duke of Norfolk was one of England’s most powerful nobles whose first wife, Anne, was sister to Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York.

Despite the Duke of Norfolk being one of the most prominent courtiers, he remained a Catholic throughout the violence and upheavals of the Reformation during the latter part of Henry’s reign and the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI. However, towards the end of the Henry’s reign both Norfolk and his son, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, ended up in the Tower of London. The pair had been found guilty of treason and in January 1547 Henry Howard was beheaded at the Tower. His father’s execution date was set for 29 January 1547 but King Henry died the day before. Following the death of Henry VIII the old Duke of Norfolk was not executed, but instead spent the next six years in the Tower. As a Catholic he was finally released on the accession to the throne of Queen Mary. He died a year later aged 80 years old at his Kenninghall residence, but before his death he had commissioned England’s finest early Renaissance tomb.

duke of norfolk tomb
The tomb of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, Church of St Michael, Framlingham, Suffolk.
From the left St Andrew, St James the Less, St James the Great and St Matthew.
Alabaster. Mid 16th century.

The chest-tomb is exquisitely carved from alabaster depicting the twelve Apostles plus St Paul and Aaron carved round the four sides with effigies of the Duke and his first wife, Anne, lying along the top.

duchess of norfolk
Effigy of Anne, first wife of the third Duke of Norfolk, daughter of King Edward IV and sister to Elizabeth of York, Queen Consort.

The representation of the twelve Apostles was a traditional Catholic theme that was found in churches across the country often painted on the rood screen. However, the interpretation of this popular medieval choice is created here in an early Renaissance European idiom, possibly carved sometime in the mid-sixteenth century. The sculptor is unnamed, but the work is regarded as Italianate in style, but also displaying French influences.

North side of tomb showing from the left St Philip, St Simon, St Jude and St Matthias with St Peter facing west.
North side of tomb showing from the left St Philip, St Simon, St Jude and St Matthias with St Peter facing west.

The individual saints stand in shell-headed narrow niches, four along the north and south sides, and three at the east and west ends of the tomb. The design of the tomb suggests it was intended to be viewed from all four sides, but this is no longer possible.

Instead, the tomb-chest is positioned up close to the east wall of the chancel. The Duke of Norfolk had been overseeing the partial rebuilding of St Michael’s Church when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The rebuilt and enlarged chancel was to provide space to accommodate the tombs that were removed from Thetford Priory with the dissolution of the monasteries. Of course, this tomb may originally have been destined for Thetford Priory where traditionally the Norfolks had been interred.

effigy thomas howard
Effigy of Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk.

According to a visiting Venetian ambassador, the Duke of Norfolk was described as ‘small and spare in person’ and here he is displayed as stern, thin and angular. The effigy wears full armour, it has a long, pointed beard and around the collar the inscription reads ‘Gracia Dei sum quod sum’ – ‘By the Grace of God I am what I am’.

Early Renaissance representation of St James the Greater and St Matthew embellishing a grand tomb for a very ambitious mortal.
Early Renaissance representation of St James the Great and St Matthew embellishing a grand tomb for a very ambitious mortal.

Mary Tudor, a favourite sister

St Mary's Bury Suffolk
St Mary’s Parish Church, Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk.
Resting place of Mary Tudor, Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk.
Mary Tudor was the fifth child of seven born to King Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York. Mary Tudor’s first marriage was to King Louis XII of France and she was his third wife.

These two pictures were displayed near Mary’s tomb. The image on the left is Mary Tudor (c.1514) painted for Louis XII. The original is attributed to Jean Perréal of Paris, Royal Painter at the French Court. The portrait was painted before Mary left England for France. The image on the right is a copy from a portrait of Mary (c.1516) painted with her husband the Duke of Suffolk. The original oil is attributed to Jan Gossaert.

The marriage to the King of France only lasted two years and upon the death of Louis, Mary scandalously married Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, in a secret ceremony in Paris.

It was a secret wedding as the couple had not gained approval from the English King Henry VIII, her brother. For a royal sister to marry without permission was considered treason and both Mary and Charles could have been executed. Fortunately, following a defence of their marriage by senior advisers such as Cardinal Wolsey, the King decided to level a large fine instead. The Duke and Duchess were then formally married in public at Greenwich Hall in London.

Buried next to the altar. Mary Tudor Queen of France. St Mary's, Bury St Edmund's, Suffolk.
Buried next to the altar.
Mary Tudor Queen of France.
St Mary’s, Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk.

Mary Tudor may have been a King’s sister and a King’s wife, but as the Duchess of Suffolk she was buried in the Abbey at Bury St Edmund’s in Suffolk. It is possible she had a stone tomb within the Abbey in the Tudor style, but following the Dissolution of the Monasteries the Abbey was spoiled and she was reburied in St Mary’s Parish Church. A space next to the altar, as her royal rank dictates, is marked as her resting place, but without a formal funereal structure.

These plaques hang above the area of Mary’s tomb.

Mary-Tudor-plaques

Sacred to the Memory of Mary Tudor, Third Daugther of Henry the 7th King of England, and Queen of France; Who was first married in 1514 to Lewis the 12th King of France, and afterwards in 1517, to Charles Brandon Duke of Suffolk. She died in His Life Time in 1533, at the Manor of Westhorp in this County and was interred in the same Year in the Monastery of St Edmund’s Bury, and was removed into this Church, after the Dissolution of the Abbey.

Interestingly, the aristocratic, but not royal Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, is buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

St Mary's interior - site of a royal Tudor burial, a pleasant English church, but no Westminster Abbey or St George's Chapel, Windsor.
St Mary’s interior – site of a royal Tudor burial, a pleasant English church, but no Westminster Abbey or St George’s Chapel, Windsor.