Long Live the King: St George’s Day and the Accession of Henry VIII

On 23 April 1509, 17 year old Henry VIII was told that his father Henry VII had died, and that he was to be crowned the new King of England. In fact, his father had died over 48 hours before, on April 21! HRP Chief Curator Tracy Borman recounts this dramatic episode in British royal history…

On the morning of 23 April 1509, the ceremonials to mark St George’s Day were in full swing at Richmond Palace. St George had started to emerge as a national patron in the 13th century and, since the reign of Edward III, he had been the special patron of the Order of the Garter, England’s highest order of chivalry. King Henry VII was in residence at Richmond but had kept to his privy chamber for several weeks.  Even though his health had been faltering for several years thanks to the onset of what was probably tuberculosis, he was always careful to hide his symptoms from his courtiers for fear that a rival claimant might take advantage. Only a handful of Henry’s most trusted advisors knew that Henry had made his last will and testament on the 10 April 1509 – an indication of just how ill the king had become. In this will Henry showed his special devotion to St George not only by naming him as one of the saints to which he commended the special care of his soul but also by bequeathing the College of St George at Windsor Castle, a dazzling gold statue of the saint set with rubies, pearls, sapphires and diamonds. Henry of course was ultimately to be buried in a gorgeous chapel in Westminster Abbey, and among the relics he bequeathed to the altar there was a leg bone of St George which had once belonged to the king of France.

The Family of Henry VII with St George and the Dragon c. 1503-9, Flemish School, RCIN 401228 © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Despite Henry’s ill health the preparations for St George’s festivities had carried on unabated. King Henry had left his son, Prince Henry, to preside over the celebrations.  A strapping seventeen-year-old with striking good looks and charm to match, Henry presented a dazzling contrast to his dour and emaciated old father.  Relations between them had deteriorated significantly during the previous few years.  The death of the king’s eldest son Arthur in 1502 had thrust Prince Henry and namesake into the limelight as the only surviving son and heir of the Tudor dynasty.  From that day forward, the king had exerted a suffocating control over every aspect of the young prince’s upbringing.  As Prince Henry grew to maturity and hungered for power, he had a series of high-profile clashes with his father.  One of the most notable was in 1508, when the king quarrelled so violently with his son that according to one eyewitness, it seemed ‘as if he sought to kill him.’

The gatehouse of Richmond Palace – all that remains of Henry VII’s once magnificent palace © The Author

Prince Henry looked on now as the heralds proclaimed his absent father’s largesse before the assembled company.  Then, after dinner, a door leading to the privy chamber was opened by one of the king’s body servants, who entered the room with a ‘smiling countenance’.  Aware that all eyes were upon him, he walked calmly over to Archbishop Warnham and ‘certain other lords’ and told them that the king wished to see them.  These men duly retired to the privy chamber for ‘a good pause’, leaving the king’s son to continue enjoying the festivities. 

What the rest of the court – Prince Henry included – did not know was that the king had died two days before.  A contemporary sketch of Henry VII’s final moments shows a number of servants and officials clustered around the deathbed.  All were sworn to secrecy by the king’s closest advisers. They feared a rebellion if word got out that this first Tudor monarch, who was viewed by many of his subjects as a usurper, had breathed his last.  During the next two days, they made frantic preparations to secure the succession for his son Henry. 

Back at the St George’s day feast, Archbishop Warham and his companions re-emerged into the throng ‘with good countenance…as though the king had not been dead, showing no great manner of mourning that men might perceive.’  Shortly afterwards, Prince Henry progressed to the Chapel Royal for evensong.  As was customary for the king and his family, he heard mass in the holyday closet, rather than the main body of the chapel.  The privacy of the closet enabled its occupants to discuss confidential matters undisturbed while the service proceeded.  It may have been here that the prince was finally told of his father’s death. 

George Vertue’s 1737 watercolour copy of The Whitehall Mural by Hans Holbein, RCIN 452658 © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

As soon as the service was over, Henry and his entourage returned to the presence chamber for the Garter supper, throughout which ‘he was served and named as prince and not as king.’  Only when the last dish had been taken away was his father’s death finally announced. The late king’s son was now King Henry VIII.

Tracy Borman, Joint Chief Curator
Historic Royal Palaces

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