A Secret Tudor Wedding

The Holbein Gate. Crown Copyright: Historic Royal Palaces.
The Holbein Gate. Crown Copyright: Historic Royal Palaces.

In the early morning of 25 January 1533, Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn in a secret marriage service in Whitehall Palace. Henry was 41 and his bride ten years younger. Only a handful of witnesses were present: a chaplain, two members from Henry’s privy chamber and one of Anne Boleyn’s attendants.

Secrecy was essential as Henry had not completed his divorce from his first wife and Anne was already pregnant. While Henry did have a license to marry from the Pope, this was dependent on a declaration stating his marriage to Katherine of Aragon was void. Tradition has it that the chaplain asked the king for the license reminding him that without proper permission everyone present faced excommunication. Henry cunningly assured the chaplain that he had the required permission but that the license was held elsewhere in the palace and fetching it would risk exposing the clandestine service.

Due to the secrecy of the marriage, the setting of the service had to be carefully chosen. While the ceremonial rooms of Whitehall Palace would have matched the importance of the occasion, they were far too public. The wedding was consequently held in “the highest chamber” of the palace. The room in question was located in the Holbein Gate, a three story black and white gatehouse erected by Henry VIII in 1532.

The gatehouse formed an integral part of Henry’s new palace at Whitehall. Originally the riverside townhouse of Cardinal Wolsey, Whitehall Palace was built on two sides of a public thoroughfare leading towards Westminster. This road, which would eventually become modern-day Whitehall, was “very foul and full of pits and sloughs”. Constructed over this “very perilous” road, the Holbein Gate connected the two sides of the palace. It allowed the king to walk from his apartments on the east to the leisure facilities on the western side of the palace, without having to mingle with his subjects in the public street.

Plan of Whitehall Palace in 1670. The Holbein Gate is seen in the middle linking the two sides of the palace. Crown Copyright: Historic Royal Palaces
Plan of Whitehall Palace in 1670. The Holbein Gate is seen in the middle linking the two sides of the palace. Crown Copyright: Historic Royal Palaces

The upper floors of the Holbein Gate contained rooms that Henry used as a library, study and in later life, a storage space for his wheelchairs. It was in one of these chambers that the secret wedding took place. After the lovers’ brief vows the wedding party would have quickly left the gatehouse, dispersing into the palace before daybreak to avoid discovery. This proved successful as it was not until February that a court ambassador reported on Henry and Anne’s matrimony.

Throughout the history of the palace, the gatehouse continued to be used as a passageway linking the two sides of Whitehall as well as serving as courtiers’ apartments. The Holbein Gate survived the fire that destroyed Whitehall Palace in 1698. However, only a few decades later the gate was identified as an impediment to traffic. In 1759 the gatehouse was demolished to allow for the widening of the road through Whitehall and the materials of the destroyed gate were incorporated into several buildings in Windsor Park.

While the magnificent structure no longer exists, you can still experience elements of the lost building on Whitehall. Methods of transport have changed but the level of traffic has remained largely the same. Looking down busy Whitehall, it is easy to understand Henry VIII’s desire for a gatehouse here. Wouldn’t you rather cross this road through a lavishly decorated private bridge? However, nothing remains to suggest a private wedding service happened here on an early winter’s morning in 1533. 500 years later, and Henry and Anne’s secret prevails.

The Holbein Gate in the 18th century, before demolishment. The Banqueting House is seen on the left and Horse Guards on the right. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.
The Holbein Gate in the 18th century, before demolishment. The Banqueting House is seen on the left and Horse Guards on the right. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

The Lost Palace brings Whitehall Palace to life again by digitally transforming Whitehall’s modern streets into the rooms, gardens, courtyards and passages of the once great Tudor and Stuart palace. The Lost Palace runs as a new visitor experience at the Banqueting House until 4 September 2016.

Anni Mantyniemi, Curatorial Assistant

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