Henry VIII on Tour: Royal Progresses and Tudor Palaces

It’s June, the summer weather is with us and some lockdown restrictions have finally eased. People are feeling the urge to travel and escape their urban confines. It was precisely this time of year that Henry VIII and his queen left the favoured London palaces for the regions on what were known as the ‘summer progresses’. Head of Research, Anthony Musson investigates their role in fashioning royal image and connecting communities. 

Journeys around the kingdom were common under medieval monarchs, but the Tudors continued and refined the practice. Indeed, the sophisticated and elaborate phenomenon that it became under Elizabeth I was deliberately invoked by James VI of Scotland on his accession to the English crown.

There were obvious political advantages in such regional parades. If suitably targeted, it ensured the realm’s internal security and dampened potential rebellion. This became an acute royal concern from the mid-1530s as communities grappled discontentedly with the new religious and constitutional changes.

Royal progresses also had a diplomatic function. Magnificent tours were arranged for various international dignitaries: for French ‘hostages’ in 1519 and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor in 1522. A proposed encounter with King James of Scotland (which in the end never took place) was partly behind the elaborate northern progress of 1541. The most spectacular of all, which took place in June 1520, saw the royal party stop at various points in south-east England en route to northern France for a summit with the French king, Francis I, at Guisnes near Calais in what became known as the ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’.

Portrait of a young Henry VIII from 1520
Henry VIII by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c. 1520 © National Portrait Gallery

The summer progress enabled the king to indulge in his chief pleasures, hunting and jousting, to enjoy masques put on for his benefit and to offer his personal devotions at religious shrines. In part the progress was a very public affair: cities competed to welcome him in spectacular choreographed ‘entries’. Ordinary people got to see their sovereign in the flesh and his entourage was trailed by petitioners anxious to seek justice from him personally.

But his visits also offered time away from the public gaze and moments of privacy in which to pursue relationships and friendships. We can see the interplay of ‘soft politics’ in Henry’s personal choice of the courtiers to visit, but also in his use of the hunt (and its rewards) as way of communicating informally with a wider group of people and cementing bonds of loyalty.

Going on progress enabled the court to escape the city and avoid the threat of plague and pestilence which circled around London. More logistically, the king’s absence meant repairs could be undertaken and the lavatories in royal residences cleaned out.

Aerial image of Hampton Court Palace showing the vast Tudor architecture
Hampton Court Palace. © Historic Royal Palaces. Progresses provided an opportunity for vacant palaces to undergo building works and maintenance.

Progress Routes 

The summer progress was usually concentrated in a particular area. In some years Henry toured counties in the Midlands or East Anglia; or journeyed around the Home Counties; in other years (e.g. 1526, 1535) he ranged in to the south-west and exceptionally in 1541 he travelled as far as Yorkshire. The progress route was pre-planned with some precision and detailed instructions known as ‘giests’ were published 5 months ahead of the tour. There are comparatively few extant ‘giests’ for Henry’s reign, which hampers precise reconstruction of all his progress routes, but indications of where he stayed can be gleaned from other government papers, financial accounts and correspondence. People in the localities learned of the king’s visit either through proclamation from advance riders or by word of mouth, possibly also from experiencing royal purveyors ordering provisions and organising accommodation ahead of the visit.

While the ‘giests’ were compiled at the king’s discretion, the size of the establishment and its prospects for hunting were obvious incentives, with the result that noble men and women and those of the king’s inner circle jostled for his attention. Henry, however, did not restrict his personal presence to secular mansions and frequently stayed at religious houses (before they were dissolved) or took over bishop’s palaces. Even after the dissolution, it is noticeable how quickly former monastic sites were converted or made available for the king’s use.

Grand Designs 

The location of royal palaces, castles and manors played a fundamental role in shaping the itinerary of Henry’s progresses. During his reign, Henry spent a fortune on building and renovation. He bought, took over, modernised or rebuilt an astonishing number of manor houses, creating new palaces and hunting lodges all of which enabled him to have a pied-à-terre wherever he was touring in the country. His favourite lodgings outside London were the now largely forgotten Beaulieu (Essex), Woodstock (Oxfordshire) and Ampthill Castle (Bedfordshire).

There are a significant number of ‘lost palaces’ (including Nonsuch and Oatlands) existing now only in paintings or through archaeological re-imaginings. The surviving residences and sites (from Hampton Court to Sudeley Castle) nevertheless present a significant way of appreciating history where it happened and the connections Henry forged with the provinces. Some courtiers even undertook building programmes for his benefit. In 1535, for example, the owner of Acton Court (near Bristol), Nicholas Poyntz, built a magnificent new East Wing on to the existing moated manor house in honour of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s summer progress around the West Country.

Visiting such venues in person enables an understanding not simply of the architecture and the landscape, but also an awareness of the spatial limitations. Henry and his queen were obviously given precedence, but the problem of accommodating the whole court meant that ‘portable palaces’ in the form of deluxe tents and timber lodgings frequently had to be constructed at progress venues to ensure that both sleeping quarters and temporary reception rooms were available. While it is unlikely that Henry VIII himself was ever ‘glamping’, the decorative interiors of these tents nevertheless indicate the intention to impress those who came for audience with the king.

Excess Baggage 

Henry VIII did not travel light. Items of furniture, from his bed to his throne, clothes, sheets, napkins, silverware, tapestries, church vestments and the paraphernalia of the royal chapel, splendid gifts given and received among other objects, all had to be brought on tour with him. A taste of the opulence and magnificence of the court on tour, albeit in the special circumstances of the 1520 progress, can be appreciated from the Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King exhibition currently taking place at Hampton Court.

Objects from the Field of Cloth of Gold currently on display at Hampton Court Palace in ‘Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King’

Many Tudor objects may have found their way into the hands of private collectors as result of royal progresses. Henry and his courtiers had to contend with guests not just making off with the cutlery, but tables and cupboards, even locks on doors, not to mention deer and fish from the parks and ponds. The predeliction of modern hotel guests for removing bathrobes and other such ‘souvenirs’ seems small fry. Such was the concern that a royal ordinance was issued against the practice.

Henry on Tour Project 

Henry VIII’s progresses are now the focus of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded interdisciplinary research network led by Historic Royal Palaces in collaboration with the University of York. A wealth of archival and material evidence survives for Henry VIII’s progresses, yet their role in fashioning his royal image and connecting with communities has never been systematically or comprehensively examined for his entire reign.

Working specifically with the National Trust, English Heritage, the Historic Houses Association, the York Museums Trust and the Society of Antiquaries, the key objectives of the project are to evaluate the political, social, religious and military contexts of the progresses as well as assess their cultural and material legacy as part of the Tudor heritage phenomenon.

As a means of pursuing these themes, a community of scholars and heritage experts drawn from the UK, Continental Europe and the USA conducted its own mini-progress by meeting for a series of workshops in historical progress venues. While not emulating the magnificence and extravagance of a royal touring party, sessions held at Hampton Court Palace and Grey’s Court, Oxfordshire, which took place pre-COVID, were suitably atmospheric.

If the first Hampton Court workshop was somewhat more formal – the equivalent of say, Henry VIII’s presence chamber – then the Grey’s Court workshop was closer to a privy chamber experience, as we all crowded round a real fire in a gloriously domestic setting with food and conversation, having decamped from the period austerity of the unheated part of the Tudor manor in which proceedings were initially held.

Unfortunately, the workshop at the final staging post, the King’s Manor in York had to be held virtually as a result of COVID restrictions. Now part of the university, the King’s Manor was formerly the Abbot’s house and stands in the grounds of the ruined St Mary’s Abbey in the centre of York as a witness to Henry’s dissolution policy

Fear of Disease  

The pandemic brought the prolonged closure of heritage sites, but also enabled us to appreciate what it meant for Henry and his contemporaries. Henry had a pathological fear of disease and attempts to avoid plague and pestilence affected the length and itinerary of progresses. Getting out of London was paramount, but full progresses were often diverted, cut short or aborted entirely.

This was especially so with outbreaks of the mysterious ‘sweating sickness’, which terrorised the population during its visitations between 1485 and 1551. It has still received no medical consensus even with modern scientific insight, but may have been a deadly form of flu virus. Symptoms were cold shivers and severe pains in the head and neck, followed by hot sweats and immense tiredness. Although in many cases it resulted in quick death, it was not always fatal: Anne Boleyn contracted it in 1528 and luckily survived.

Portrait of Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn by Unknown English artist, c. 1533-36 © National Portrait Gallery

During such epidemics, Henry isolated himself from the public, kept a minimal amount of servants with him and even avoided staying in the houses of courtiers, preferring the comparative seclusion of monastic communities.

Tudor Legacy 

Studying Henry VIII’s progresses permits a re-evaluation of itinerant kingship by examining the relationship between the centre and the localities, the nature of personal connections with the court and ‘popular’ reception of the monarch. The project itself offers a chance to explore not just the experiences of the king, his queens and noble courtiers, but those who journeyed with them, attended to his whims and made his tours work from the backroom and below stairs.

It is also an opportunity to examine the places visited, the buildings used to accommodate them, the diverse people who observed or interacted with him and the spectacle the royal court afforded in general as well as the chaos and deprivation it caused before, during and after its visits.

The legacy of the Tudors is important in the 21st century as they remain very much an heritage phenomenon. The challenge post-COVID is to ensure Hampton Court, the Tower of London and the Tudor buildings and sites up and down the country remain cared for and are visited in the numbers that justifies this.

“Henry on Tour” hopes to re-connect these venues and not only provide an overarching interpretation for them within the shifting politics of Henry VIII’s reign, but encourage visitors to think about what history/heritage means to them and how an understanding of it helps an appreciation of their own community.

Want to learn more? 

If you would like to learn more about the fascinating world of Tudor Progresses, Historic Royal Palaces is hosting a free one day online conference. Registration is via Eventbrite. I look forward to seeing you there.  

Anthony Musson
Head of Research 

Historic Royal Palaces

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