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Royal Weddings Part 2: The King’s Great Matter

If there is one monarch in British history likely to have left archaeological evidence for royal weddings, it is six-times bridegroom Henry VIII. In a desperate bid to sire a male heir – the ‘King’s Great Matter’ as the constitutional crisis was known – he personally selected four of his wives from his own court, something that would not be seen again until the 20th century. His other two wives were political matches – his brother’s wife Catharine of Aragon (married on 11th June 1509) and Anne of Cleves (4th October 1539). He married both queens in the Chapel Royal at Greenwich Palace; in January 2006, archaeologists monitoring building work at the Old Royal Naval College discovered brickwork belonging to this chapel, with its tiled floor in situ.

Greenwich Place, built on the site of the old Palace of Palentia on the banks of the River Thames, was Henry VIII’s favourite. It has never been established with certainty when the first royal occupation occurred at the site, but the accounts of the Office of the King’s Works, show that Henry VII’s palace was an entirely new development. Among the earlier buildings that were demolished to accommodate it was the old chapel, which came down in the years 1500–1511.

Construction of the new palace proceeded apace and between March 1500 and July 1504 the accounts include payments to the master mason Robert Vertue and the master carpenter Thomas Benks for work on ‘the chapel, gallery and two closets at Greenwich’. It is likely that the new Tudor chapel was built on the already consecrated ground of its predecessor.

When archaeologist Julian Bowsher finally located the Tudor chapel whilst monitoring routine building work, he found that the floor was laid with three distinct areas of tiles. In the centre were glazed Tudor tiles, formed in a chequered pattern with diagonally laid tiles at the surviving western edge. Linear breaks in the floor either side of these tiles were suggestive of partition bases. Beyond these, to the north and south, were later plain Flemish tiles. The east wall, surviving in some places to a height of 0.7 metres above the floor, had no trace of any rendering. It had been assumed that any surface at ground floor level would have been furnished with wooden panelling and plastered at the first-floor level. There were, however, two putlog holes (for supporting timberwork) within the brick face towards the southern end, clearly created during construction. The floor of the chapel seemed to have been supported by two pairs of brick walls set equidistantly apart. These walls stood directly below the partition lines within the tiled floor and the putlog holes in the east wall.  This would suggest that whatever structural feature surrounded the altar was conceived during construction and retained when the extremities of the floor were retiled.

The importance of the archaeological information about the Tudor chapel royal, which was such a focus for the majesty of monarchy and the setting for occasions of great splendour, ceremony and music, cannot be understated.  Historian and broadcaster, Dr David Starkey, said ‘This discovery brings home the reality of the weddings of Henry VIII more directly than any other surviving buildings, and gives us a real sense of the absolute heart of the Palace. When Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves in the first floor Closet, what he saw through the window was the tiled floor and altar that have now been revealed.’ Unlike Hampton Court and St James’s Palace, where the chapels have been altered, at Greenwich we can see what Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth would have seen.

Post Script: Buyer Beware!

Anyone who has ever experimented with internet dating will recognise the sinking feeling when you finally meet the object of your affections, only to find that they look nothing like their photograph. Henry VIII shares your pain.

Keen to cement a vital alliance with Germany in the wake of the Truce of Nice (1538), the King’s Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, urged a match with Anne of Cleves, daughter of a German Duke. By March 1539, negotiations were well underway, but Henry still had misgivings, and dispatched his personal artist, Hans Holbein the Younger, in the summer of 1539 to paint Anne and her younger sister Amalia, who he was also considering marrying. Holbein was under strict instruction to be as accurate as possible, and not flatter the sisters. Holbein painted Cleves, square-on and in elaborate finery.

Henry planned to meet her at Greenwich Palace, but was impatient to see his future bride, and rushed to meet her at Rochester almost as soon as she had landed in the country. Henry was woefully dismayed by her appearance, but dragged his heels to the alter nonetheless, grumbling ‘if it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must this day for none earthly thing.’ Continuing in the same vein, the couples first night was equally disagreeable, Henry later remarking ‘I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse.’

There was little love lost on her side either, and less than seven months later she returned her wedding ring, ‘desiring that it might be broken into pieces as a thing which she knew of no force or value.’ She readily agreed to an annulment, on grounds of non-consummation.

Look out for Part 3, coming soon, or check out the full article in this month’s Current Archaeology.

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