Henry VIII court rules
Henry VIII became King of England in 1509, aged 18. He was determined to be a great king, looked up to by everyone. He showed this in lots of ways: his grand portraits, his keenness for French wars and his behaviour towards his court and to other kings.
He also showed it in his control of every detail of his daily life. One measure of greatness at that time was the number of people that surrounded you, the more people, the more important you were. When Henry stayed at Hampton Court he was attended by nearly 1,000 people.
Controlling this number of people was quite a job and in 1526, while he was staying at another of his palaces, at Eltham, a strict and detailed set of rules was drawn up by his closest advisor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Here are some extracts from these rules.
Henry’s father Henry VII was always careful with money and his court was not famous for its show of wealth. Henry VIII wanted to change all that. When he met one of his rivals, King Francis I of France, just outside Calais in 1520, a complete town of tents and timber was built for the meeting. Yards of velvet, satin and cloth of gold were sent to decorate the temporary palaces. It was called ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’. Henry loved all this display: by the end of his reign he had amassed 55 palaces, 2,000 tapestries, 150 paintings and nearly 1,800 books. He also owned 41 gowns, 25 doublets (a doublet is a snug fitting buttoned jacket), 20 coats, eight cloaks, 15 capes and eight walking sticks.
The number of people waiting on the monarch was another sign of power. But even better than numbers was the quality of your servants. Kings and great barons had always taken young boys from their friends’ families into their households. It was a good education for leadership: you learnt how great men ran their affairs, how to behave, and made contacts, which would be useful all your life.
However, to get on at Henry’s court young men had to have more than noble blood. Sixteenth century monarchs were expected to play, sing and compose music, read and discuss books, speak several languages as well as wrestle, play tennis, joust and hunt. Henry could do all these things superbly and his favourite ‘gentlemen of the privy chamber’ did as well. Not surprisingly, some of the older aristocrats looked with disdain at these clever young men – ‘minions’, or pretty boys, as they called them.
Henry was intelligent enough to see that there was a point to all this. His father, Henry VII, had won the throne of England by fighting for it, winning the battle of Bosworth in 1485. Henry VII did not have a strong claim to the throne, so his son’s was not much better. In the 15th century kings and barons had been rivals for power. In fact, some barons were more powerful than the king himself. Henry VIII could see that putting a big distance between the monarchy and the barons, building up his magnificence, his separate position, made him more secure.
Everything outlined in the extracts from the Ordinances of Eltham, therefore, built up this separateness and specialness. The elaborate rules about who was allowed to get near the king and when, the requirement to be well-behaved and for servants to be keep the King’s secrets, all contributed to this image-building.
The document extracts are designed to be used in Key Stage 2, probably alongside portrait-study. They add another dimension to the strong sense of personal monarchy which will characterise any study of the Tudors.
However, there is more to it than just personal aggrandisement, just as there is more to Henry VIII than the bluff bully. The use of high-born pages and esquires, for example, was a feature of medieval courts; what Henry added was the Renaissance expectation to be excellent in a much wider range of human endeavour. The account of his getting up stresses privacy and demarcates very precisely who could actually touch the royal person (the barber is an interesting exception to this). In another 200 years – ritual at royal courts moves slowly – Louis XIV was to create a whole royal lifestyle out of the levée. By 1700 privacy, not the public attendance of masses of servants, was to be the mark of real privilege.
- Three rooms are mentioned. The ‘pallett room’ is the room where the King actually slept (a pallett is a bed). The ‘privy chamber’ is the private room next to the pallett room (privy means private). The King’s Chamber is the big room where he began the day’s public life
- Some of those mentioned are ordinary people – servants, grooms, ushers and the barber. But the pages, esquires and gentlemen of the privy chamber were the sons of rich and powerful lords and knights
Image: E344/22 – Returns of the Valor Ecclesiasticus
Sources 1, 2 and 3 – SP 2/B – Transcript of the Ordinances of Eltham
Explore Tudor Britain with our interactive exhibition
Kings and Queens of England
A short biography of Henry VIII
Hampton Court Palace
Find out more about Hampton Court Palace, home of Henry VIII