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Where history happened: Tudor courtiers with Suzannah Lipscomb

Author, historian and broadcaster Suzannah Lipscomb explores the glamorous yet precarious world of the Tudor court and visits nine associated places

A view towards the Carew estuary between a dry stone wall and the ruins of Carew Castle, Pembrokeshire, UK. (Dreamstime)
Published: March 27, 2012 at 12:09 pm
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The poet Sir Thomas Wyatt knew the Tudor court could be a deadly place. He urged whoso wished to “Stand… upon the slipper wheel/Of high estate” but concluded that he would rather “die old after the common trace” than the courtly alternative: “dazed with dreadful face”. Sir Thomas More knew, too, that “Politics be king’s games… and for the more part, played upon scaffolds”.


Sir Walter Ralegh had 13 years to reflect upon the fickleness of monarchs when, imprisoned in the Tower of London, he wrote his History of the World. Its preface describes Henry VIII and his court: “How many servants did he advance in haste (but for what virtue no man could suspect) and with the change of his fancy ruined again, no man knowing for what offence? To how many others of more desert gave he abundant flowers, from whence to gather honey, and in the end of harvest burned them in the hive?… How many princes of the blood… did he execute?”

Yet, despite knowing its dangers, none of these three men could resist the siren call of the courtly life, and two of them would ultimately meet the end that Wyatt had predicted.

The reason for their attraction was clear: the only way to achieve anything under the Tudors, as a gentleman or a noble, was to be at court. Court was the centre of a thriving cultural and intellectual life, the home of fashion, and the place to make one’s mark. Only at court might fortunes be made: there were offices, privileges and lands for those who rose to favour.

Only at court might one acquire fame, glory and honour. Only at court might a man of principle advance a political cause or accomplish something worthwhile and virtuous. There were rich rewards for those willing to embrace life in the Tudor court.

But the court was also an intensely competitive and vicious environment, filled with thrusting, ambitious young men engaged in a ruthless, covert struggle for royal favour. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I could be influenced and swayed – access to the sovereign at a crucial moment could change the fates – but monarchs were also grand puppeteers, and it was fatally easy to misjudge one’s step.

Even if possession of one’s head seemed secure, being a courtier could be an expensive affair. Expenditure to please the crown, especially under Elizabeth I, could match what one made in sinecures and patronage. Elizabeth I’s 10-day visit to William Cecil, Lord Burghley’s house, Theobalds (pronounced ‘Tibbles’) in 1591 cost him £1,000 (today, roughly £125,000). When Elizabeth visited Sir Nicholas Bacon at Gorhambury, she remarked: “My Lord, what a little house you have gotten.” By the time she returned, he had built a new wing. Meanwhile, Elizabeth I’s favourite, Sir Christopher Hatton, bankrupted himself building palaces in which to receive her, but which she never visited.

To succeed at court, you needed to believe that kings were chosen by God and what was required of their servants was consummate humility and obedience. Otherwise, you needed an amoral, remorseless streak, like Sir Richard Rich who owed everything to Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, yet gave evidence at Cromwell’s attainder for treason, profited hugely from the disposal of monastic wealth, and illegally racked the accused heretic Anne Askew with his own hands. Stubbornness – or principle – could be a dangerous trait for a courtier, as Thomas More discovered when he lost his head in 1535. The perfect courtier knew how to bend like a reed in the wind.

A fall from grace was also frequently the product of overreaching pride and narcissism: such hubris explains the executions of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham in 1521, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey in 1547, and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex in 1601. These men were all members of old aristocratic families full of resentment and frustration at the self-made nature of many who were knighted or ennobled in the Tudor age.

Despite being a century obsessed with social hierarchy, there was scope for extraordinary social mobility. In fact, many famous Tudors had humble origins. Routes to the top were

the church, law or service. Thomas Cromwell, for example, rose to the very pinnacle of Henry VIII’s court but was the son of a blacksmith. Sir Thomas Cawarden was the son of a London fuller (cloth worker); by 1540, he was a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber and was appointed Master of the Revels in 1544. Sir John Thynne, meanwhile, as steward to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, enriched himself so much through service that he was able to build a great house at Longleat.

The courtiers of Tudor England and Wales (their union was created by statute in 1536 and 1543; neither Scotland nor Ireland were under unquestioned Tudor rule) knew the dangers of attendance on the crown. But the glittering world of the court beckoned irresistibly.

9 placed linked to the Tudor court


The Vyne, Basingstoke, Hampshire

Where a Tudor courtier witnessed extraordinary royal events

The Vyne celebrates the success of courtier William, Lord Sandys, a veritable Tudor ‘Flashman’, with a front-row seat at many significant events in Henry VIII’s reign.

Sandys had served Henry VII as a Knight of the Body (an honorary bodyguard), receiving Catherine of Aragon when she arrived in England to marry Henry VII’s oldest son, Arthur, and accompanying Henry VII’s daughter, Margaret, to Scotland to wed James IV. Under Henry VIII, he escorted Mary, Henry VIII’s sister, to France to marry the aged Louis XII and was created lord chamberlain of the royal household.

Sandys renovated and rebuilt The Vyne sometime between 1515 and 1529. It was originally far larger, but it retains one of the earliest long galleries in England, with stunning linenfold panelling carved with the heraldic devices of Sandys’ contemporaries and patrons: it’s a visual ‘Who’s Who’ of 1520s England. Other treasures are a terracotta roundel bust of a Roman emperor, possibly Probus, who introduced viticulture – the vine – to England. There are also stained-glass portraits of the royal family in the chapel, featuring Henry VIII with long ginger hair.

Sandys knew how to survive at court. A fan of Catherine of Aragon he, nevertheless, faithfully attended Anne Boleyn’s coronation in 1533 and was then one of the jurors at her trial three years later.

Find out more about how to visit The Vyne and book tickets with the National Trust


Christ Church, Oxford, Oxfordshire

Where Henry VIII’s right-hand man proclaimed his power

Christ Church is one of Oxford’s largest colleges, and was founded on the site of St Frideswide’s Monastery as Cardinal College in 1524 by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, lord chancellor of England and Henry VIII’s right-hand man.

Wolsey was born to a butcher and cattle-farmer from Ipswich but, under Henry VIII, his rise was meteoric. By 1515, he was the king’s closest and most trusted adviser: a Venetian ambassador noted that Henry “leaves everything in the charge of Cardinal Wolsey”.

Cardinal College proclaimed his magnificence as a prince of the church. Wolsey oversaw the building of the kitchens, Great Hall, and three sides of the enormous Tom Quad.

Wolsey’s downfall was his inability to find a way out of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was charged in October 1529 with praemunire (allegiance to a foreign power) and required to surrender his properties and possessions to the crown. Wolsey observed:

“If I had served God as diligently as I have done the king, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.” He died en route to the Tower. The college was refounded by Henry VIII as Christ Church in 1546. It was a royalist stronghold during the Civil War and housed Charles I’s court. It can still be visited.

Find out more about how to visit Christ Church College, Oxford


Buckland Abbey, Yelverton, Devon

Where a humble yeoman became one of England’s greatest men

Buckland Abbey demonstrates that it was possible to rise from nowhere and succeed in Tudor England. For 15 years the abbey was the home of Sir Francis Drake, whose motto, ‘Sic parvis magna,’ (‘Great achievements from small beginnings,’) says it all.

Drake was a privateer, famous for defending England at sea in his raid against Cadiz, which ‘singed the king of Spain’s beard’ and for his daring, if maverick, role in capturing the Spanish prize ship, Rosario, during the Armada attack.

He was knighted on board his ship, the Golden Hind, on his return from circumnavigating the globe in 1580. Yet, Drake had been born into humble, yeoman stock. His father was a lay preacher, whose fervent Protestantism shaped Drake’s lifelong hatred of Catholic Spain.

Buckland was a Cistercian abbey, converted in 1541, after the dissolution of the monasteries, by Sir Richard Grenville whose son, Roger, died as captain of the Mary Rose in 1545.

On Sir Richard’s death, the house passed to his infant grandson, also named Richard. It was this Grenville who created a Great Hall out of the nave, but the house was sold to Drake in 1581.

While the rest of the house has been much altered (the top floor has been made into a replica ship!), the Great Hall, with its stunning plasterwork, wood panelling and tiled Tudor floor is practically unchanged.

Find out more about how to visit Buckland Abbey and book tickets with the National Trust


Raglan Castle, Monmouthshire

Where William Somerset survived a serious misjudgment 

The childhood home of Henry Tudor, later Henry VII, the majestic Raglan Castle was built between 1432 and 1549 by William ap Thomas, who fought alongside Henry V at Agincourt; William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke; and William Somerset, Earl of Worcester, whose extraordinary pliability helped him through the crises of the mid-16th century.

Worcester’s parents were Henry Somerset and Elizabeth Browne – the latter an informant against Anne Boleyn whose testimony probably sparked Anne’s investigation, trial and execution. Worcester himself served with Henry VIII in France in 1544 and 1546, became a member of the Privy Council and, in 1553, backed Lady Jane Grey over Mary I. He miraculously survived this misjudgment because of his ability to bend in the prevailing winds. He escorted Philip II of Spain to marry Mary I at Winchester Cathedral in 1555, and his presence at Mary’s happiest day won her favour.

Yet, this didn’t prevent him thriving under Elizabeth: Worcester was made a Knight of the Garter in 1570. He was one of the peers who tried Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk for treason in 1572, and a commissioner at the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay in 1586. After 1551, Worcester was the only peer to reside mainly in Wales.

Sadly, after a siege during the Civil War, Raglan was abandoned, and it is now a characterful ruin, which can still be visited.

Find out more about how to visit Raglan Castle and book tickets with CADW


Sherborne Castle, Sherborne, Dorset

Where a royal favourite fell from grace

Although it has been home to the Wingfield-Digbys since the early 17th century, Sherborne Castle was originally built by Sir Walter Ralegh.

Ralegh came to the attention of Elizabeth I because of his looks. He was six-foot tall and handsome, and as antiquarian John Aubrey observed: “Queen Elizabeth I loved to have all the servants of her court proper men.” His posthumous reputation as an explorer is somewhat undeserved. Despite securing the patent for colonisation in Virginia, he never went there and neither introduced potatoes nor tobacco to England.

His fatal flaw was that he was “damnably proud”. In 1591, he secretly married Bess Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth I’s maids-of-honour. Courtiers and ladies-in-waiting needed the queen’s permission to wed, so both were sent to the Tower, and when released, were banished from court. Ralegh then spent five years renovating Sherborne Old Castle (now in ruins) and building a new four-storey square castle next door. Inside, plaster ceilings, coats of arms and many other Tudor features are preserved.

Ralegh was later implicated in a plot to kill James I, and spent 13 years imprisoned in the Tower. He was released for a voyage to Guiana in search of El Dorado, the hidden city of gold. When he failed to find it, he returned to England and was executed for treason.

Find out more about how to visit Sherborne Castle and book tickets


Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

Where a statement of vast wealth was built

Hardwick Hall was built by the most remarkable non-royal woman of the Tudor century, Bess of Hardwick. Bess’s exceptional story demonstrates that through marriage it was possible to rise up the ranks.

Bess was born at the manor farmhouse at Hardwick in 1527, the daughter of minor gentry. Through service in a noble household, she met her first and second husbands. The latter, Sir William Cavendish, had made his money as a commissioner during the dissolution of the monasteries. When he died 10 years later, he left everything to Bess, with their house and land entailed on their eldest son only after Bess’s death.

Bess became one of Elizabeth I’s Ladies of the Bedchamber, and married her third husband, Elizabeth’s Master of the Horse, Sir William St Loe, six years later. On his death, he left everything to Bess and her heirs. This, in turn, provoked the interest of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, one of the richest men in England. He and Bess wedded in February 1568, simultaneously marrying four of their children to each other.

The marriage was troubled, but when Shrewsbury died in 1590, he left Bess the richest woman in England after the queen: rich enough to build her own prodigy house at Hardwick. Robert Cecil quipped that Hardwick Hall was “more window than wall”. Vast and richly decorated, its six towers, topped with her initials, can be seen for miles around.

Find out more about how to visit Hardwick Hall and book tickets with the National Trust


Kirby Hall, Corby, Northamptonshire

Where love led a courtier to financial ruin

Kirby Hall was built by Sir Humphrey Stafford in 1570, but was bought by Sir Christopher Hatton following Stafford’s death in 1575.

Hatton rivalled Sir Walter Ralegh, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, for Elizabeth I’s affections. Sir John Perrot said that Hatton had come to Elizabeth “by the galliard” – she spotted his dancing talent at Inner Temple in 1562. He quickly rose into positions of power, becoming a member of the Privy Council and vice chamberlain of the Royal Household before receiving the highest accolade of lord chancellor of England.

Hatton seems to have genuinely loved Elizabeth. His letters may be filled with melodramatic passion – after a separation of two days, he wrote to her: “To lack you is hell’s torment… Would God I were with you for one hour.” But he never married, and he spent his fortune on houses he hoped she would visit.

Kirby was a cutting-edge Renaissance house, full of symmetry, ornate decoration and classical features. It was designed to impress. Hatton added a state suite for Elizabeth, with magnificent double bay windows. He also built a large house at Holdenby, some of which survives.

But Elizabeth visited neither Kirby nor Holdenby. The cost of these abandoned palaces was ruinous: Hatton died with debts of £42,139 5s (today roughly £5.3m). He had given his life and riches to serve the queen.

Find out more about how to visit Kirby Hall and book tickets with English Heritage


Gawsworth Hall, Cheshire

Where a disgraced maid-of-honour retreated from court

Gawsworth Hall is one of the most beautiful buildings in Cheshire. Built by the Fitton family between 1480 and 1600, it is a half timber-framed manor, which was probably originally much larger, with a moat and central courtyard. What remains is almost entirely Tudor. The beautiful overmantle in the library and plaster frieze in the Gold Room are particularly fine.

Gawsworth was the birthplace and home of Mary Fitton. Mary was not yet 20 when she was sent to court between 1596 and 1598 to become a maid-of-honour to Elizabeth I. Talented at sewing, playing cards, dancing and music, maids were professional friends whose talk brightened Elizabeth’s days.

In 1600, Mary had an affair with William Herbert, son of the Earl of Pembroke; by January 1601, it was obvious that she was pregnant. Elizabeth was furious, and a huge scandal ensued. Herbert, now Earl of Pembroke himself, refused to marry Mary.

He was put in Fleet prison and Mary was kept under supervision until the child was born (it died soon after). In her shame, Mary retreated to Gawsworth.

Her father, Sir Edward Fitton, had intended to build gardens at Gawsworth to rival those of the great houses of the kingdom. At huge cost, he had planted avenues of lime trees, built a tiltyard and enlarged his lakes in preparation, but after Mary’s disgrace, Elizabeth would never consider visiting.

Find out more about how to visit Gawsworth Hall and book tickets

Suzannah Lipscomb is author of A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England (Ebury, March 2012) and co-presenter of Bloody Tales of the Tower of London, airing on National Geographic this month


This article was first published in the March 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 


Professor Suzannah LipscombHistorian, author, and broadcaster

Suzannah Lipscomb is Emeritus Professor at the University of Roehampton, and the author of several books about the 16th century


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