Henry VIII, a Portrait, and a Visit to Warwick Castle

Portrait of Henry VIII, c.1532, formerly in the collection of Warwick Castle.
Image supplied by Aaron Manning

In 2015, a portrait of King Henry VIII, painted by the studio of Hans Holbein during the lifetime of England’s most iconic king, was sold by Merlin Entertainments at Sothebys in what marked the end of an association between castle and king. In truth, the connection between Warwick Castle and Henry VIII has been, at best, considered tenuous and disappointing. Despite Henry VIII finding his way onto the ‘owners’ list of the castle, his supposed lack of connection to the castle during his own lifetime made the link rather weak.

The sale of a portrait that may have been seen by courtiers or politicians who knew the king intimately, if not the by the king himself, was seen as little consequence to the history of Warwick Castle and to its long, fabled history. However, the sale of the portrait tethered what is possibly a link to the castle’s most infamous lodger in the thousand year history of royal visits – a story hidden within plain sight.1

A background to the visit

Henry VIII ascended to the throne in 1509 after the death of his father and inherited a ripe royal estate stretching from the Scottish border to the southern coast. The crown had been wrestled from the medieval Plantagenet dynasty in 1485 after Richard III’s defeat at Bosworth and, even two decades later, the country was still fractured from almost a century of divisive conflict. The Tudor kings, and later queens, were largely successful in stemming any potential threat with the use of royal progresses around the country, sniffing out trouble and presenting themselves as able and worthy rulers to rural townsfolk and communities. Almost immediately after his ascension, Henry VIII had been encouraged to embark on a progress through England to show himself to his subjects and courtiers. His first such progress came in the summer of 1510 when he travelled the south coast through Hampshire and Dorset.

In the summer of 1511, after the birth and premature death of his first son, Henry VIII and his queen Katherine of Aragon progressed north into the Midlands. They left Greenwich in mid-July 1511, reaching Northampton before 26 July. They then moved onto Nottingham Castle by 9 August, stayed at Leicester Abbey between 24 and 30 August, and entered the city of Coventry on 31 August. After Coventry the king headed south to his next destination, Warwick.

Warwick Castle and its estate had been under Crown jurisdiction since 1471 when the Kingmaker Earl of Warwick was killed at Barnet. Royal ownership was punctured by a short period when the castle returned to the Kingmaker’s dowager Anne, Countess of Warwick, until her death in 1492. The revenues of the earldom had swelled the royal coffers for almost two decades before Henry VIII’s first visit to his midland estate.

Fanfare and pageantry

One can imagine the fanfare and pageantry south along the long Coventry road as the king passed Guy’s Cliffe, over the hill beyond the priory and through St John’s quarter until it reached the ancient gates of Warwick’s east wall, where Henry VIII’s progress entered the town. This was the first royal visit to the town since Richard III in 1483.

A contemporary tournament roll produced in 1511 gives an idea of the typical royal entourage that may have accompanied the King and Queen.2 Henry VIII riding atop his horse, clad in the finest blue and white silks embroidered with the initials of his and the Queen’s first names [H and K], his pages dressed in the finest yellow damaske of the early 16th century, followed by noble courtiers, including Charles Brandon, dukes and earls in tow, followed by a company of trumpeters emblazoned with the royal coat of arms. The entourage may have included John Blanke, the famous Moorish trumpeter well-respected at the Tudor court. Henry VIII, then, had arrived at Warwick Castle.

1 I am thankful, as ever, for the long conversations shared with Adam Busiakiewicz over all things Warwick Castle and its earls.
2 The Westminster Tournament Roll 1511, College of Arms, Harley Charter 83 H 1, depicts Henry VIII and his court arriving at a joust in Westminster in February 1511. While the progress would have been more reserved than a tournament, it gives an indication of the people who followed the king’s court, and their livery.

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