Why is Henry VIII’s Tomb So Small When His Life Was So Very Opulent?
Hidden under the floor in St George’s Chapel in Windsor, England where thousands of people walk every day, a forgotten tomb lies. Its inhabitant was once one of England’s most exuberant kings, yet his resting place was only re-discovered in 1813. In 1837 Henry VIII’s tomb was eventually marked in the chapel with a commemorative marble slab. It was a small dignity given to a king whose larger-than-life personality and luxurious tastes dominated the royal courts of his day.
But this was never the original plan. A manuscript discovered in the 17th century by John Speed recorded how Henry had offered an exorbitant amount, 75,000 ducals, around 8 million dollars (7.35 million euros), for a vault design by Italian sculptor Jacopo Sansovino.
A description from the lost document reads:
“the vast edifice was to be ornamented with fine oriental stones and resplendent with white marble pillars, gilded bronze angels and four life-size images of the King and Queen.”
It would also have a life-sized statue of Henry atop a horse, the ultimate image of masculinity.
Henry VIII’s tomb didn’t show the opulence or the machismo that defined his life, which, ironically, became the very reasons it was never built in the first place.
Henry VIII jousting while Queen Catherine of Aragon and her ladies watch from their luxurious seating area. (Ann Longmore-Etheridge / Public domain )
Henry VIII’s Reign: Opulence of the Highest Order
Throughout his reign, Henry displayed a remarkable level of opulence that had never before been seen in British history, in stark contrast to his simple tomb .
Every summer, Henry would go on extravagant summer tours around his kingdom. These royal “progresses” were grandiose affairs, and their purpose was to re-affirm Henry’s authority around the British Isles through a dazzling exhibition of wealth and power.
Moving from town to town, a royal progress captivated peasant and noble alike with sumptuous feasts , ostentatious processions, electrifying jousting tournaments , thrilling hunts, and elegant dances. There was a lot of preparation involved, and instructions for the progresses were usually released up to five months in advance.
Once the royal retinue arrived, they were given the most luxurious accommodation, and sometimes local aristocrats added entire wings of their houses at enormous cost to satisfy the comfort of their king.
While Henry and his queen always got the best places, the size of the royal escort meant that usually there was not enough space, so organizers would often construct magnificent tents called “portable palaces” to satiate the expensive tastes of the highborn knights and ladies who accompanied Henry VIII.
Once arrived, formal ceremonies would begin. At first Henry would be greeted on the streets of the town by crowds of his adoring subjects. Following a grand banquet, the entertainments would begin, and Henry would engage in a variety of activities that not only cemented his status as a strong leader but also the loyalty of his political allies.
Henry, a champion sportsman , would show off his physical excellence in a series of jousting tournaments designed to impress his courtiers and the people of the town with his chivalric qualities. He would also flaunt his skills with the bow and arrow on the hunting grounds, giving venison and other spoils to his supporters to ensure their continued loyalty.
The meeting of Francis I and Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. (Royal Collection / Public domain )
The Royal Extravaganza of 1520
But it was not only in England that royal progresses would proceed. Henry reserved his biggest and most flamboyant display for King Francis I of France in 1520, at an event called The Fields of Cloth and Gold, often dubbed the most extravagant royal festival that ever happened and named after the gold-embellished fabric that was used to make the tents for his entourage.
Historian Tracy Borman has written that the event was a chance for the rulers to “outdo the other in splendor and military prowess,” and it’s been estimated that it cost nearly 19 million dollars (17.45 million euros) in modern currency.
Although organized to signal the friendship between England and France, and an alliance against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles , its underlying purpose was an epic battle of one-upmanship to prove who was the grandest and most noble monarch of Europe.
Occurring between June 7th to June 24th, it was attended by 12,000 of the most genteel noblemen and women of the realm and their retainers. Historian Glenn Richardson, author of “ Field of Cloth and Gold ,” has estimated that it took almost as many artisans and craftsmen as attendants to produce such a divine spectacle.
All the familiar hallmarks of a royal progress in England appeared at the festival held between English-occupied Guînes and French-owned Ardres, including rousing jousting combat, dramatic wrestling clashes, and splendiferous feasts. For the whole 2 weeks guests stayed in elaborate temporary palaces constructed solely for the celebration made of brick, timber, canvas, and glass.
During the opening ceremonies between the two kings, it is reported that Henry wore the finest clothes, a robe, according to English chronicler Edward Hall “ribbed with cloth of gold” and “of such shape and making that it was marvelous to behold.” Equally the French ruler, keen to out-do his English counterpart, exhibited a raiment of gold frieze, jewels, and a bonnet of white plumes.
Competition extended to the jousting and wrestling arena, but as Borman, author of “ Henry VIII and the Men who Made Him ,” has remarked "The carefully established rules of the tournament dictated that the two kings could not compete against each other, so Henry contented himself with showing off his prowess—and that of his companions—against a series of French opponents.”
However, a French chronicle notes how Henry broke this agreement, and, slightly drunk, challenged the French overlord to a wrestling match, which Francis allegedly won easily!
Brigitte Webster, a Tudor food expert, comments that “The finest and the rarest foods were reserved for the royal tables and those of the highest nobility.”
King Henry VIII was famous for his opulent extravagance in food and drink. This painting, Pine Forest by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), shows just how wild and luxurious a Tudor feast could be. (Sandro Botticelli / Tudor History )
Indeed, guests dined on a mind-boggling array of food and drink, including 29,000 fish, 98,000 eggs, 6475 birds, and 216,000 gallons of wine which flowed in fountains set-up around the extravaganza. Whole herds of sheep and deer were brought over from England to supply the festivities, cooked in ovens fired by over one million planks of wood.
Up to 50 dishes were served in 3 courses at the feasts, comprising of exotic birds like swans and peacocks which were cooked and re-feathered in their colorful plumage before being festooned in gold. Other meaty treats presented to the hordes of hungry highborn included venison pie, porpoises and even dolphin meat.
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Spices from the New World , imported from such far-flung regions as Asia, Africa, and the newly discovered Americas, were utilized in an assortment of sweet pleasures, a signal of the world-wide reach and influence of both monarchs.
Supreme desserts such as candied orange peels, pears in wine, fruit jellies, and gingerbread were made with the exciting new ingredient known as sugar. In addition, statues and sculptures depicting famous biblical scenes such as the Annunciation were expertly chiseled and carved in sugar paste and marzipan.
Following on from the meal were the formal soirees, riveting concerts, and masked balls, where entrants wore disguises to hide their true identities.
On the second-to-last day, and topping the celebration off, was the enormous dragon, signifying Henry’s Welsh blood and Francis’s salamander family crest, described by Poet Jacques Dubois as a:
“splendid and hollow monster stretched out in the sky, over the earth, … thanks to the cunning art of the English constructed on the inside from hoops and on the outside woven from cloth” .
It is clear from the royal progresses and the Field of Cloth of Gold that Henry’s opulence had no boundaries. He surely would have been horrified by the simplicity of his crumbling tomb, which lay in ruin for 266 years.
A Madam Tussauds' waxwork statue of Henry VIII, King of England, who was larger than life in life and yet Henry VIII's tomb is almost invisible. Source: murdocksimages / Adobe Stock
In Life Henry VIII Was Big, Violent and Powerful
Henry VIII’s tomb, concealed and out of sight, was the very antithesis of his lifelong quest to dominate the arenas of men. Masculinity played an important role in his life, and it was an unavoidable characteristic of his personality as well as something that he fervently tried to promote for his image.
Henry was famously ferocious when angered and had a terrifying ability to be ruthless.
He infamously broke up with the Catholic Church , who excommunicated him when his requests for divorce with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, were not granted. What followed was a vicious campaign of destruction and wealth seizure against the monasteries of England between 1536 and 1540, led by his resourceful advisor Thomas Cromwell, with the nuns and monks being accused of "vicious, carnal, and abominable sin ” for supporting the Church’s right to refuse his divorce.
He also had a penchant for executing those who displeased or betrayed him.
He memorably executed two of his wives, beheading them both at the Tower of London. Ann Boleyn was executed in 1536 after accusations of treason and adultery against Henry, the only mercy given to her was a sword which would ensure a cleaner and quicker cut than an axe.
On similar charges of adultery, Katherine Howard, his fourth wife, was accused by Thomas Cranmer of cheating with two of her past lovers, with the former queen swiftly meeting her end in 1542. It is said that she still haunts Hampton Court, Henry’s prized palace, running to the chapel to beg Henry for mercy.
Sir Thomas More, who opposed Henry’s plans to break with the Catholic Church, was executed for his "crimes" by King Henry VIII. (Internet Archive Book Images / Public domain )
But it was not only wives that had to be careful with the irascible king. Before his execution in 1536, Sir Thomas More, who opposed Henry’s plans to break with the Catholic Church, warned his contemporaries:
“you often boast to me that you have the King’s ear and have fun with him, freely … This is like having fun with tamed lions – often it is harmless, but just as often there is fear of harm. Often he roars in rage for no known reason, and suddenly the fun becomes fatal”.
This was advice that Sir Thomas Cromwell, architect of the dissolution, failed to follow. Cromwell himself was executed in 1540 after simply procuring for Henry another wife, German princess Anne of Cleves, that the monarch strongly disliked. Henry declared “I like her not” before beheading Cromwell the same day.
Henry, a raging lion, always over-exaggerated his most manly achievements.
In 1545, towards the end of his life, Henry commissioned a painting showing his military victory in France entitled “ The Meeting of Henry VIII and Emperor Maxmillian .” In the picture, Henry is shown meeting his counterpart Emperor Maxmilllian, with the Battle of the Spurs, a confrontation that led to Henry’s capture of Therounne and Tournai, raging fiercely in the background.
However, in reality the ‘battle’ that took place there in 1513 was more like a small skirmish. Dale Hoaks hypothesizes that the painting “proved how much Henry VIII still dreamed of war”.
Although Henry was known as a talented sportsman in the jousting arena or tiltyard, this did not stop him from fabricating the results to suit his favor.
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At a tournament in 1511, evidence from the Westminster Roll, a pictorial depiction of the games, presented an image of Henry shattering his spear on his opponent’s helmet. However, surviving Westminster score checks reveal that he didn’t get a single hit on his opponent in the entire two days. Emma Levitt maintains that “it is apparent that the roll represented an idealized version of the jousting match.”
A French chronicler, recording Henry’s loss at an inebriated wrestling match to Francis I at the Field of Cloth and Gold, reported that the King of England handled the victory with grace, even proposing a follow-up archery competition. An examination of Henry’s masculinity, which he was evidently very sensitive about, shows this couldn’t be the case.
It was probably a good thing, then, that Henry never saw the disarray of his coffin in his final resting place: broken, collapsed, split open, and completely emasculated.
King Henry VIII’s tomb under the floor of St George's Chapel in Windsor, England where his casket was tossed in a grave that also held Jane Seymour (right casket) and King Charles I (left casket). ( The Tudor Travel Guide )
Foiled Plans for Henry VIII’s Tomb
For a man known so widely for his opulence and masculinity, the humble black marble plate that marks his subterranean crypt comes as a surprise.
Ironically, plans for a bigger memorial that would have suited his character more were dashed as his wars with France in the 1540s, where he attempted to affirm his masculinity on the battlefield for one last time against Francis I, emptied the royal coffers, making the penniless king unable to construct the monument to manliness his grave was meant to be.
There would be no life-sized statues, oriental stones, and vast marble pillars for the vivacious ruler. Instead, it would be his old rival Francis I who got the life-sized statue, which stands at nearly 2 meters tall, and the virile horseback image, located on a bas-relief, at his tomb at the Basilica Cathedral of St. Denis. In death, the French ruler had finally gained the upper-hand over Henry.
Top image: Henry VIII shares a drink with Anne Boleyn, by Daniel Maclise. Source: Public Domain
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
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