Simon Thurley on the architectural history of the Tudors

Simon Thurley talks to Matt Elton about his new book, which explores how the five Tudor monarchs used architecture to project their power...

A view of Hampton Court Palace, London. (Getty Images)

Q. Why did you want to write an architectural history of the Tudors?

A. I’ve been interested in royal palaces since the late 1980s and I’ve had incredible opportunities to investigate what remains of them first hand. Combining that with the documentary evidence is a very good way of understanding this period, because residence and governance were intimately linked. Unless you understand the residences, you can’t possibly understand the governance.

Q. How much architectural work was required as a result of Henry VII coming to the throne?

A. Initially, it was a matter of scrubbing out the badges and the insignia of his predecessor, Richard III. But later in his reign there were significant changes, because Henry VII was nervous he was going to be pushed off the throne – as his most recent predecessors had been. He discovered plot after plot, including one in which his lord chamberlain was implicated. At that point Henry instituted a fundamental change to the way that his palaces were organised, which allowed him to retreat into a series of very private rooms guarded by fiercely loyal people.

You can still see some of these changes. At Windsor Castle, from the terrace you can see the stone-built rooms in which Henry locked himself away from his court.

Q. Can we tell how different Henry VIII was from his father through the places in which he lived?

A. Henry VIII inherited a series of buildings that were formed by his very controlling, paranoid father, which weren’t at all suited to the sort of Tudor spoilt brat that this teenage king was. Therefore, he had to either adapt his way of life to fit the buildings, or adapt the buildings to suit his way of life. Luckily, very soon after Henry VIII came to the throne, Westminster Palace – the principal palace of English kings back to Edward the Confessor – was wrecked by fire. This gave him a great opportunity to build new palaces that better suited his way of life, which was all about having quite a lot of fun. He was very keen on hunting, jousting and sport, including tennis, bowls and cockfighting, so he built lots of recreation buildings to accommodate his interests.

Q. Why did Henry VIII only develop an interest in architecture later on in his reign?

A. As a young man, all of Henry’s buildings were essentially connected to his recreational pursuits, a trend that lasted for more or less the whole of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. But the breakdown of that marriage and his relationship with Anne Boleyn brought all sorts of changes in Henry’s life. Among them was the necessity to have a palace in which he could live with his mistress without his wife being there. When you bear in mind there were all these rigid rules, he had to get round them – and the best way to do that was create new buildings. So Henry became interested in architecture for an intensely practical reason – to create a series of love nests, if you like – but out of that grew a genuine interest in building and stylistic issues.

Q. How important were possessions to Henry VIII?

A. Henry was a very rich man, and during the dissolution of the monasteries he became even richer. He spent prodigiously, buying tapestries, clothes, paintings, maps, horses and much more. He was very materialistic and obsessed with having objects around him. I compare Henry to a fat dragon sitting astride a mountain of treasure, licking his lips. Nobody needs 60 houses; that’s more than one per week! Nobody needs the sheer quantity of tapestries and furnishings that he had, and indeed no monarch before him had owned that quantity of objects.

Q. What changed as we move into the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI?

A. Edward was on the throne very briefly, but the fundamental change was in religion. You can learn a huge amount about the religious views and direction of his court, and those of Mary and Elizabeth, by the architectural changes in the royal chapels. The battle is fought in royal palaces and chapels just as much as in the country’s parish churches.

Edward VI immediately painted over a lot of the imagery in the royal chapels, demolished all the stone altars, and replaced them with wooden communion tables. The moment his sister came to the throne the altars were all put back, then when Elizabeth’s reign began they were replaced with the tables again. The chapels are a bellwether for what happened elsewhere in the country.

Q. How did the fact that Mary I was a woman impact on the built environment of the court?

A. This was completely unknown territory. When Mary married, it was made very clear that her husband was not the king: she lived in the king’s apartment and he lived in the queen’s apartments. A whole new etiquette had to be devised to make this situation work, and it was very confusing for everyone to begin with.

Under Henry and Edward, the men who were permitted access to the private areas of the palace were the men who were involved in running the country. Those men, under Mary, were not allowed in, so where was the nexus? To solve this problem, those places were moved out of the private rooms and into the council chamber.

Q. What was Elizabeth I’s architectural contribution?

A. There’s been a view that Elizabeth wasn’t interested in building – indeed, that she didn’t build anything, and that she sponged off her courtiers and stayed in other people’s houses. And let me be clear: I have written that myself in the past. But I actually no longer think that’s true. When Elizabeth came to the throne there was a terrible glut of royal property. She didn’t need 60 houses any more than her father did, and she couldn’t afford to maintain that many properties. So she came to realise that she was very unlikely to be a very great builder, because there wasn’t a need.

That didn’t mean that she wasn’t interested in architecture or building, though, and there are a few things that I think people – including myself – haven’t spotted before which demonstrate very clearly that she was deeply interested in architecture. For instance, she let people know when she made a change to a building: every single thing she ever did architecturally features her initials. Henry VIII never did that.

Q. What led you to change your mind?

A. A pretty forensic analysis of the documents. The building accounts have been looked through by quite a lot of historians, but what’s never really been examined are her wardrobe accounts. People have looked at them because they were interested in what she wore, but nobody has analysed them in terms of what they tell us about how she spent money on the interiors of her palaces.

Two things came out strongly: firstly, that she was interested in good housekeeping. She would cut up clothes that had belonged to her dead brother, Edward, and use them to reupholster stools. Such frugality was a feminine virtue that was very much admired among the Tudors. The second thing that comes through from these records is her taste. We know what kind curtains she liked to have, for example – striped, with heavy fringing and gold and silver braids. We also know that she loved huge floor cushions and much preferred to lie on a bank of cushions than sit on a chair. Her ladies would loll around on cushions, and visiting ambassadors would be invited to lie down next to the queen.

Another thing that’s never been spotted before is that Elizabeth was mad about fountains, and commissioned ever more elaborate examples. She had a wicked sense of humour, too, and loved fountains that had secret dials you could use to squirt people. That’s not the Elizabeth we’re used to!

Q. Life in the Tudor court was increasingly governed by a set of rules and regulations. How is this evidenced through the buildings?

A. As the Tudor period went on, the rules at court got more carefully defined and more rigorously enforced. By Elizabeth I’s reign, people were living in a highly regulated environment, in which everybody knew what was going to happen when. This was a change from what went before, because Elizabeth wasn’t relying on physical strength to tell people what to do. She had to rely on a much more subtle matrix of elements to maintain her authority – of which etiquette was one of the most important.

What we learn about these buildings through the records is that, under Henry VII, there were a very small number of very tightly controlled rooms into which he retreated. By the time you get to the accession of James I and VI, about a quarter of large palaces such as Whitehall or Hampton Court were private zones reserved more or less only for ladies. Elizabeth was living in a very different sort of building from her grandfather, Henry VII.

Q. What new impression of the Tudors would you like to leave readers with?

A. The biggest thing I’d like people to take away is the way in which religion dominated. It’s easy to think that, after Henry VIII’s break from Rome, religion was over, but the courts of the Tudors were 100 per cent organised around religious observance and display. The houses themselves were organised to allow the monarchs to get to their chapels in a magnificent, impressive way. Religion was absolutely at the heart of it all.

Simon Thurley followed senior roles at Historic Royal Palaces and the Museum of London with a 13-year stint as chief executive of English Heritage, where he oversaw its move to become a self-financing charity. His books include Houses of Power: The Places that Shaped the Tudor World (Bantam, 496 pages, £30), Whitehall Palace: The Official Illustrated History (Merrell, 2008) and Men from the Ministry: How Britain Saved Its Heritage (Yale University Press, 2013).

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In context

As Simon Thurley shows in his new book, from Henry VII sweeping the Plantagenet architectural legacy aside, to the profligate Henry VIII with his glut of palaces and possessions, and on to the more practically-minded Elizabeth, the Tudors’ architectural projects reflect the personalities of the dynasty. And it’s a legacy that can still be seen, from the fragmentary remains of Richmond and Whitehall to still-standing gems like St James’s Palace and Hampton Court.