Monthly Archives: February 2015

Built for a Cardinal but Fit for a King

Of all the locations associated with King Henry VIII, himself perhaps the best known and most notorious of English monarchs, none is more evocative of the Tudor age than Hampton Court Palace.  But its grandeur, beauty and red-brick charm was the work of another man – Cardinal Thomas Wolsey – who began building his palace in 1515, 500 years ago this year.HCP Front

The son of a butcher, Wolsey took the surest route to wealth and power open to able and ambitious commoners of the time: he joined the church.  His administrative skills and political cunning ensured rapid advancement and by 1514 he was both Cardinal and Lord Chancellor of England.  Wolsey had arrived on the European stage and it was time to demonstrate that in tangible form.

Wolsey paid £50 for a 99 year lease on land southwest of London belonging to the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem and spent the next 7 years building a lavish palace.  Exteriors of striking red brick enclose luxurious apartments panelled in wood from the Order of St John’s forested lands north of London in an area known to this day as St John’s Wood.  Wolsey was determined to impress his important new friends – the princes, cardinals and bishops  from the continent of Europe.  He followed the precepts of Paulo Cortese’s De Cardinalatu, a manual on how to be a cardinal, including what to wear, what to eat and where to live.Wolsey

The result was the elegant, comfortable and (at the time) modern palace known as Hampton Court.  Wolsey ensured he had room for up to 280 guests at any time, occupying over 40 apartments around a large courtyard and bristling with individually-decorated chimneys promising many fireplaces in the warm rooms below.  Each apartment was equipped with an indoor “closet” (emptied daily by servants) for the use of privileged guests.  Those of lesser status were obliged to use a separate block of closets known as the Great House of Easement – still preferable to the normal practice of resorting to the nearest dark corner, indoors or outdoors.

Sadly Wolsey did not have long to enjoy his new palace.  His failure to secure the annulment of Henry VIII’s first marriage led to his downfall.  His attempts to return to the king’s favour included gifting him Hampton Court Palace, but it was all in vain.  Wolsey decided to absent himself from the royal court, hoping his luck would change.  It didn’t.  He was summoned back to London from York in 1529 but died in Leicester on the way.Hampton Court Wolsey Coat of Arms

Henry VIII greatly expanded Hampton Court for his own use, building the largest kitchens in Europe to feed his enormous household.  He also ordered that any signs of Wolsey’s ownership be removed.  Luckily this order was inefficiently carried through, as after Henry’s own death an intact emblem (above) bearing Wolsey’s arms was discovered over the entrance to Clock Court, where it can be seen today, 500 years later.

Click the link to the right to learn more!

The First Voice of the People

Competition for the title “world’s oldest Parliament” is intense.  Much of the discussion centres around definitions of democracy and whether or when voting was extended to all members of society.  Contenders include Greece, Iceland and the Isle of Man.  Britain’s case rests on the first recognisably representative Parliament, held in 1265, exactly 750 years ago this year.

Even in 1265 there had been a long tradition of kings consulting with advisors, usually consisting of the nobility and the clergy, before making major decisions concerning land ownership, tax and war.  These consultations did not hide the fact that the king still kept a firm hold on the reins of power.

Increasingly, however, kings had to rely on the cooperation of their barons in order to raise money and men, to fight wars and maintain their rule.  Sometimes serious rifts developed: one such occurred in the middle of the 13th century under King Henry III.Henry III

Henry was unpopular, having been crowned as a child and never managing to prove himself an effective or respected leader.  He was thought to be under the control of his wife, Eleanor of Provence, and her avaricious family, on whom Henry bestowed wealth and privileges.

The barons were steadily losing their influence over him, which they thought they had established through Magna Carta.  Their many attempts to secure participation in his administration eventually broke into open revolt.  There was effectively a coup d’état in 1258 when a council of barons led by Simon de Montfort, forced Henry III to agree to the Provisions of Oxford, a new governing structure where the king ruled through a panel of 24 barons and churchmen, selected half by the king and half by the barons.

Simon de Montfort statue in Leicester city centre

Simon de Montfort statue in Leicester city centre

However soon thereafter splits began to appear amongst the barons, which were exploited by Henry III in an attempt to escape control by the council.

This culminated in the Battle of Lewes in 1264.  De Montfort’s forces, though outnumbered, won a decisive victory.  Henry III was captured, forced to pardon the rebels and re-instate the Provisions of Oxford.

In an attempt to consolidate his Power, de Montfort called a parliament in 1265 which was to represent not just the clergy and barons, but also representatives from towns and villages throughout the country.

It was the first parliament summoned without the authority of the king.  It was also the first to invite participation by not only appointed knights from the shires but burgesses, representing towns such as York, Lincoln and the Cinque Ports (key coastal towns in south-east England).  It invited comment on wider political issues such as control over the unrestricted powers of feudal lords.  It therefore constituted the first representative parliament in England.

The 1265 de Montfort Parliament

The 1265 de Montfort Parliament

In fact the gathering was less a prototype for what we now regard as parliamentary democracy and more a highly partisan assembly of de Montfort’s supporters.  And, ironically, it led to a re-establishment of royal power in the years that followed.

His new status clearly went to de Montfort’s head, as after this parliament he began blatantly expanding his own power and wealth.  In turn a rebellion against him broke out, resulting in his defeat and death at the Battle of Evesham in August of 1265.  The rebels were led by Henry III’s son Edward, the future King Edward I.

However after the precedent set by de Montfort’s parliament, knights and burgesses continued to be included in future parliaments.  This grouping, being made up of men not part of either the nobility or the clergy, became known as the “Commons of England”, and later as the House of Commons.


Once More Unto the Breach

2015 is rich in significant anniversaries, and one notable example is the Battle of Agincourt, fought between England and France in 1415, 600 years ago.

Throughout the medieval period, the kings of England (who originally came from what is now France) were having to return there to defend their lands and castles from incursions by neighbouring rulers.  Kings of England even claimed sovereignty over France up until the 18th century.

One such king was Henry V (1413-1422), Henry Vwho launched an invasion in 1414, landing near the town of Harfleur.  He was able to capture the surrounding towns and move quite far inland before being intercepted by the French army near a village called Agincourt.  The stage was set for a major land battle typical of the Hundred Years War.

Henry’s army was outnumbered by about 3 to 1: Henry’s 8,500 men faced almost 22,000 French knights, footsoldiers and crossbowmen.   In particular, the French had overwhelming superiority in mounted knights.  The English, however, had a weapon of mass destruction: 7,000 skilled archers carrying longbows.

Aware of his numerical disadvantage, Henry chose the battlefield well.  It was narrow, flanked on both sides by dense woodland.  French troops were arrayed in three deep divisions, with the rearguard unable to play an active role in the fighting due to their distance from the front line.  Thousands of French crossbowmen were hardly used, as they had been deployed too far away to be effective.

As the battle started the French vanguard began to advance on foot over ploughed earth made wet by recent rain.  raining arrowsProgress in full armour was slow and left the French exposed to the a hail of arrows from the English longbowmen.  A six-foot-long English longbow could fire a metal-tipped arrow through chain mail and light armour.

Rate of fire was critical.  In battle, archers would prepare their arrows by planting them point first in the ground in front of them.  An skilled English longbowman could maintain a firing rate of up to 6 per minute.   In the case of Agincourt, imagine the effect of 7,000 archers firing 6 arrows per minute.  The sky would grow dark as 40,000 arrows screamed out of the heavens on to you, followed the next minute by another 40,000.

Advancing though heavy mud, in a crush of fellow soldiers, wearing 60 lbs of armour and with visors down to protect them against a hail of arrows, the French quickly became exhausted and barely able to stand, let alone use their weapons.

The French cavalry, denied the width in which to fight effectively, and seeing the slaughter of their comrades, fled the field before the battle was over.  Estimates of the losses on both sides vary widely, but all agree that the ratio of French deaths to English was about 9 to 1.  The French lost 4,000-6,000 with the English figure being around 450. 

The Battle of Agincourt forms the centrepiece of William Shakespeare’s play Henry the Fifth, and several speeches exemplify the glory and heroism of Henry’s expedition to France.  At the climax of the battle, Henry shouts:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start.
 The game’s afoot;
Follow your spirit: and upon this charge,
Cry — God for Harry! England and Saint George!