Anyone who harbours serious political ambitions in 21st-century England must first become a member of parliament. Things were very different in 1516, during the reign of Henry VIII, when the most prized courtly positions were, superficially, the most degrading. Dr Edward Dutton reveals more…


In the autocracy of Tudor England the political arena wasn’t parliament; it was the royal court. Becoming a courtier, not an MP, was the beginning of your rise to real influence. Through the right connections, sometimes cultivated by first being a ‘knight of the shire,’ you’d be sworn in as a courtier by the lord chamberlain, the court’s ‘office manager’. You’d then do some menial job for the king, but in doing so you could impress him and one of the leaders of the various ‘factions’ that competed for his favour. These factions tended to be broadly Protestant (radical) or Catholic (conservative) and were based around particular leaders like Thomas Cromwell or Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk.

As a courtier you were seen to represent the king’s majesty. As such, it could be the springboard from which you’d reach meteoric heights, dominating your home county or even the entire nation. And the more intimate you were with the king, the more he’d bond with you and the more important you’d thus become to faction leaders who had influence over him, making your promotion to some great office of state more likely…

The lion’s den

Whichever palace Henry stayed in, the centre of the court was his ‘privy chamber’: Henry’s own suite of rooms with his bedchamber being the inner sanctum. The ‘gentlemen of the chamber’ were paid to be Henry’s dogsbodies and friends.

Slightly more intimate were the grooms of chamber. They’d not only be Henry’s ‘friends’; they would help him put on his outer clothes. These positions were held, in 1536, by Sir Francis Weston and William Brereton. That year, Thomas Cromwell orchestrated their executions on (likely trumped up) charges of adultery with Anne Boleyn. These dressers-of-the-king were powerful enough that they could potentially stand in the way of Cromwell’s ambitions.

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Groom of the stool

But the most intimate position of all was the ‘groom of the stool’, the man who helped Henry go to the toilet. Henry so trusted and confided in this figure that he was called the ‘chief gentlemen of the chamber’. From the time of Henry VII onwards, this man was also in charge of the ‘privy purse’ – he was the king’s personal treasurer. In fact, he practically directed England’s fiscal policy.

Towards the end of Henry VII’s reign, it was decided that the royal court needed more money and so various schemes were instituted to expropriate money from the gentry [the wealthy ‘lower nobility’ composed of knights, un-knighted descendants of knights and gentleman farmers].

In particular, the king’s ancient feudal rights, many of them long forgotten, began to be rigorously enforced. Gentry would be heavily fined for minor offences and minors who inherited feudal estates would become wards-of-the-crown. The crown could therefore run their estates for its own profit until the minors reached full-age, and use the minors themselves as court servants.

This ‘fiscal terrorism’ made the crown, and thus the government, immensely rich, and was ultimately directed by the groom of the stool.

Sir William Compton

Henry’s first groom of the stool, holding the role from 1509 until 1526, was Sir William Compton of Compton in Warwickshire (c1482–1528). His father died when he was around 11. As the heir, Compton became a ward of Henry VII, who made him a page to the infant Prince Henry, who would later become Henry VIII. This involved being the boy’s personal servant and messenger, and the pair became very close.

When Henry VIII came to the throne he appointed his life-long friend as his bottom-wiper-in-chief. Compton would arrange romantic trysts for the young Henry at his London home on Thames Street, and on the back of his royal intimacy (and consequent ability to influence royal patronage), Compton became exceptionally rich. Henry showered him with lucrative offices, including chancellor of Ireland, sheriff of Worcestershire, and sheriff of Somerset and Dorset. By 1521 Compton stewarded (managed) more royal estates than all the other courtiers put together.

Henry knighted Compton in 1513, following the battle of the Spurs at Tornai in which English forces defeated the French. Drawing upon the system of ‘bastard feudalism’, whereby feudal tenants either had to fight for their lord of the manor or pay a fine, Compton mustered 578 soldiers from the assorted manors he owned or stewarded. This was more than all the other members of the privy chamber raised in total.

Compton served Henry at the famous diplomatic meeting with the king of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, outside Calais, in 1520. Both kings turned up with enormous retinues of servants (and their servants' servants) to display their power. Compton was there to help Henry wash and to advise him.

Compton was also with the king when he met Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor [Charles visited England in 1520]. Testimony to Compton’s dramatic rise was his son’s eventual marriage to a daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Compton died of sweating sickness in 1528.

Henry VIII meets the king of France near Calais (1520) to try to negotiate an alliance, at what became known as ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sir Henry Norris

Like Compton, Sir Henry Norris (c1490–1536) of Berkshire was from a gentry family. He began as a page (a servant to and a messenger for other courtiers – for example, pages awoke the esquires of the body so that they could in turn awake the king), and by 1517 had been made a gentleman of the privy chamber. He accrued numerous lucrative offices, such as bailiff of Watlington and keeper of Langley New Park, becoming wealthier than most of the nobility.

In 1526 Norris became groom of the stool and helped Anne Boleyn establish herself at court and become a leader of her faction. By 1536 this faction advocated using money from the dissolved monasteries to help the poor and welcomed the reaching of an alliance with France. Thomas Cromwell, however, wanted to use the money for the king and himself, and for allying with the Holy Roman Empire. Anne and her supporters were a threat to Cromwell’s position, so he moved to eliminate them.

The queen was highly flirtatious, raising suspicions of adultery, so Cromwell searched for evidence. He discovered that on 28 April 1536 Anne had said to Norris “if ought come to the king but good, you would look to have to me”. Though said in jest, it was treason to imagine the king’s death. On 29 April, Cromwell interrogated the court musician Mark Smeaton and he confessed, perhaps under torture, to adultery with Anne and named Norris and others as also guilty.

The meeting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, 1520s, (1842). Anne became the second wife and Queen Consort of King Henry VIII. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
The meeting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, 1520s (image dated 1842).(Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

On May Day 1536, Henry VIII and his closest courtiers were celebrating with a joust at Greenwich when Henry was handed a note. Suddenly he got up, abandoning his wife, and demanded that Norris ride with him to Westminster. Henry interrogated Norris the entire journey. By the end of the month the queen and the courtiers George Boleyn [Anne’s brother], Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, Francis Weston and William Brereton had all been beheaded for treason.

Sir Anthony Denny

Henry’s last groom was Sir Anthony Denny (1501–49). Denny’s father, Edmund, was a ‘baron of the exchequer’ – a judge who presided over financial disputes. After attending Cambridge University in his teens – at that time it was effectively a school, even teaching subjects such as grammar – Denny became a diplomat, going on missions to France.

An extreme Protestant, Denny allied with Cromwell and became a courtier in the 1520s. Denny brought his sister-in-law, Katherine Ashley, into court as a servant of the young Princess Elizabeth. In 1539 he was appointed a gentleman of the privy chamber. Henry confided in Denny how little he was attracted to his then queen, Anne of Cleves. “She was not as she was reported, but had breasts so slack and other parts of body in such sort that he somewhat suspected her virginity,” Denny recorded.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1800: Sir Anthony Denny 1501-1549. Close confident of Henry VIII Proponent of Protestant reform at court. From the book 'Lodge's British Portraits' published London 1823. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Sir Anthony Denny, from the book 'Lodge's British Portraits’, published in London in 1823. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

By the time of Henry’s death in 1547, Denny was groom of the stool and controlled who could see the bedridden monarch. Henry’s will needed to be finalised, but it was treason to tell the king he was dying. So Denny, Henry’s most intimate companion, took the risk. This meant Denny could ensure that Edward Seymour was appointed lord protector, thus securing power for the Protestant faction upon Henry’s death.

Denny was the maternal uncle of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster.

Esquire of the body

Intimacy in Henry VIII’s court could, however, be gained in other ways. A group of six ‘esquires of the body’ worked around the king’s bedchamber in shifts. They awoke the king at 8am, put him to bed in the evening and helped him change his vest and pants. They also helped him eat and controlled access to him at night.

Sir Piers Dutton (c1480–1545) of Dutton, Cheshire was an esquire of the body in 1520 and rose to be knight (chief esquire) of the body by 1527. He was the uncle of William Brereton but loathed this rival for power in their native Cheshire. Local power was very important because the crown only had limited control of the provinces and relied on local magnates to keep order, meaning political power was more local than it is today. Cheshire was a semi-autonomous 'palatine' with no MPs; its own de facto parliament; its own legal system and its own head of state – the king in his capacity as Earl of Chester. As such, the leaders of Cheshire wielded real power, and rivalry for it was fierce.

The son of a gentry outlaw, Dutton rose from languishing in Chester jail for breaches of the peace to being a powerful mayor of Chester. He was made a courtier as part of an attempt to flatter local magnates and so keep the distant, lawless provinces under crown control. However, his strongly Protestant wife was acquainted with the Protestant Cromwell and after allying himself with Cromwell (as esquire of the body), Dutton’s ascent began.

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Found in the collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger. Found in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Both keen to eliminate William Brereton, Cromwell helped ensure that Dutton inherited a huge estate from a distant cousin to which Brereton allies had a better claim. Cromwell appointed Dutton to Cheshire offices, which Brereton had held, and had him made sheriff of Cheshire. When Brereton was executed [in May 1536] Dutton took over even more of his nephew’s offices and Cromwell had a man in charge of (fiercely independent) Cheshire who would do anything he wanted.

In 1535, the king had crossed out other candidates suggested to him for sheriff, insisting Dutton was reappointed. Dutton put down a pro-monastery rebellion, plundered the abbeys and had enemies murdered, boasting that he was above the law because he was so intimate with the king.

George Boleyn

George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford (c1503–36), was the brother of Anne and son of the ambassador and courtier Sir Thomas Boleyn. He was introduced to court aged about 10 at a Christmas feast and became a page. He later became a court poet and was criticised by other poets of the time for being an arrogant womaniser.

In 1524 Boleyn was appointed gentleman of the privy chamber but was sacked after six months when their numbers were halved, possibly to curve Anne’s growing influence. Nevertheless George became an esquire of the body in 1528. Drawing on this relationship with the king he led a diplomatic envoy to France, and was a leading advocate for Henry displacing the pope as head of the church. Boleyn argued passionately for this before a sceptical parliament and was credited with convincing many doubters.

Boleyn was eventually found guilty of incest with Anne and executed in 1536. His widow was executed in 1542 for aiding Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, commit adultery.

Edward Seymour

Edward Seymour (c1500–52) was the son of Sir John Seymour of Wolf Hall, Wiltshire, (himself a one-time esquire of the body of Henry VIII). He began as a young page boy and, thanks to court contacts via his father, worked as a diplomat for Cardinal Wolsey and was a leading soldier in France before being made Esquire of the Body in 1531. Accordingly he became close friends with the king, who visited Seymour’s Hampshire home. Seymour was made a viscount after Henry married his sister Jane. When Jane Seymour produced Edward VI, Edward Seymour was elevated to Earl of Hertford.

Edward Seymour, brother of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII's third wife. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Now uncle to the heir, Seymour was highly influential. In 1544, as lieutenant-general of the north, he was put in charge of what later became known as the ‘rough wooing’. This saw Seymour invading Scotland and sacking Edinburgh to punish the Scots for going back on their promise to marry off Mary, Queen of Scots to the future Edward VI. Just before Henry’s death the Protestant faction, led by Seymour and John Dudley, managed to take control and, upon the succession of his nine-year-old nephew, Seymour was made lord protector and Duke of Somerset.

As de facto king, Seymour was by Tudor standards extraordinarily democratic. He championed land rights for the poor (infuriating the gentry) and tried to negotiate with enemies France and Scotland, and he encouraged a nationwide theological debate about what the church should be like (angering religious extremists).

When these policies failed there were rebellions and wars. The court faction led by John Dudley managed to persuade the king to send Seymour to the Tower, and Dudley replaced him as lord protector in 1550. Ultimately, Dudley himself was found guilty of trumped-up charges of treason and, in 1552, he lost his head.

The Tudor court, then, was a lion’s den. But even so, changing the king’s underpants was clearly one of the best ways to ensure that you could one day change the country...

Dr Edward Dutton is adjunct professor of the anthropology of religion at the University of Oulu, Finland and the author of The Ruler of Cheshire: Sir Piers Dutton, Tudor Gangland and the Violent Politics of the Palatine (Leonie Press, 2015). He also runs Dutton’s Genealogy.


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in April 2016