I have a list in my head of the places, events and people I would travel to see as soon as someone gets round to inventing a time machine. My list includes visits to the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 followed, a few years later, by a visit to Hampton Court Palace to see Cardinal Wolsey’s new long gallery; and to Paris in May 1913 to see the riotous first performance of Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’. The list goes on and I could bore you with it for hours.
One of my first trips would be to London at the end of May 1533 to witness the celebration of the coronation of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. It was an event that involved a heady mix of spectacular pageantry and deep political tension. How could I resist?
In a way as a curator I am able to time travel already (in my imagination at least) and over the past few months, as we have prepared for our Tudors at the Tower weekend, I have been able to spend some time immersing myself in the contemporary accounts of Anne’s coronation. They paint a vivid picture and as I read them I felt that I could really imagine the scenes in London during that long weekend in May 1533; for me reading those accounts is the next best thing to actually being there.
Anne Boleyn, already heavily pregnant with the future Elizabeth I, was crowned at Westminster Abbey on Sunday 1st June 1533, but the celebrations and pageantry had started days earlier. On the Thursday before she had travelled along the Thames from Greenwich Palace to the Tower of London in a flotilla of 50 boats and barges all decorated with banners and streamers and filled with musicians and members of the city’s guilds. At the head of this flotilla the court chronicler Edward Hall records that there was a foist (a small river boat with both oars and sails) on which stood ‘a great Dragon continually moving and casting wildfire, and […] terrible monsters and wild-men casting fire, and making hideous noises’. Presumably these were automaton or puppets but a trip in the time machine would be worthwhile if only to view this spectacular boat and to see how it worked.
As the river pageant arrived at the Tower of London canons were fired in a huge gun salute that was, according to Hall, louder than any heard before. Disembarking on Tower wharf Anne was led to the Byward Postern gate where Henry was waiting for her and greeted her with a kiss. From there she was taken to her own apartments at the heart of the Tower in buildings that have long-since disappeared but that in 1533 had been freshly renovated to receive the Queen. A quick tour of those lost royal apartments would certainly make it onto my time travelling itinerary.
The following day, Friday 30th May, the Tower witnessed the creation of 18 new Knights of the Bath; a ceremony that had become an integral part of coronation festivities. On the upper floor of the White Tower – itself refurbished for the occasion – 18 bath tubs were set out next to 18 beds, where the esquires chosen for knighthood were shaved, ritually bathed and put to bed to dry-off before processing to the chapel for a whole night of prayers and religious observances. The following morning, Saturday 31st, they were dubbed by the king before taking part in Anne’s great procession from the Tower to Westminster where her coronation would take place.
Alden Gregory, Assistant Curator of Historic Buildings (Tower of London)