Houses of Power: The Places that Shaped the Tudor World by Simon Thurley - review by John Guy

John Guy

Crown Estates

Houses of Power: The Places that Shaped the Tudor World


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Few properties have provided stage sets for more thrills and spills over a single century than those owned by the Tudors. Simon Thurley, whose unrivalled architectural expertise and superb writing made The Royal Palaces of Tudor England the fastest-selling art book of 1993, sets out in Houses of Power to tell the story of why the Tudor monarchs built their houses the way they did and what went on inside them. The result is a triumph: a masterly collective biography of these buildings, replete with insights into their owners’ private lives and into politics, diplomacy and court etiquette. Room layouts, tastes in interior and exterior decoration, religious observances, construction costs, transport arrangements and the matter of who had access to the king or queen predictably get full treatment. Of greater interest to most readers, though, will be Thurley’s vignettes of domesticity – kitchens, bathrooms, bedchambers and who slept in them, the royal wardrobe, nurseries, stables, gardens, leisure facilities, palace security and so on. This isn’t l’histoire totale and is not meant to be, but Thurley shows how an entire way of life was shaped by these buildings, not merely for their occupants, who could number anything from 500 to 1,500, but also for whole communities living and working within a fifty-mile radius. The fact, for instance, that Elizabeth I spent almost half the nights of her forty-four-year reign at one or other of her houses in Surrey explains why cash-strapped locals complained that, though theirs was one of the smaller counties of England, ‘it is the most charged of any, by reason that her majesty lies in or about the shire continually, and thereby it is charged with continual removes and carriage of coals, wood and provisions of the court … also by my lord treasurer for the repair of her majesty’s houses’. It puts a quite different spin on ‘Queen Elizabeth slept here’. 

Barely months after winning at Bosworth, the ‘sad’, ‘dark’ and ‘politic’ Henry VII of tradition was, in Thurley’s riveting account, already in full flood, ordering construction works and seeking to transmit the confidence and power of the monarchy through its physical settings. He filled his properties with hundreds of yards of tapestries and fine textiles, personalising everything (including stonework and woodcarving) with his badges and heraldic arms. He equipped himself with stables, barges, gardens and hunting grounds. He took a close interest in the choice of music in his chapel, the places in which he was to attend Mass, the number of friars who prayed for him and the arrangements for his dynastic mausoleum. Unsurprisingly for a ruler obsessed with state security, a careful ritual was carried out at bedtime: the straw mattress laid beneath his luxurious feather-filled mattress was stabbed several times with a dagger ‘to make sure there was nothing untoward in it’. Even though he was noted for his ‘keeping of distance’, he nonetheless developed a craze for tennis. Indoor tennis courts were built at several of his houses and a dedicated recreation zone was created at his new palace in Richmond.

Henry VIII carried on where his father left off, but on a gargantuan scale. He inherited twenty palaces and houses, along with half a dozen castles adapted for residential use. With Cardinal Wolsey behind him, he doubled this tally and then struck out on his own, acquiring twenty-five further properties, his endeavours funded from the loot Thomas Cromwell extracted from the monasteries. In total, Henry spent the colossal sum of £1 million on buildings and interior decorations at a time when only four families in the whole of England were worth £2,000 a year (I usually multiply by a thousand to give a rough estimate of modern purchasing equivalents, putting Henry’s expenditure in the region of £1 billion in today’s terms, though the actual figure could be three times as high).

Of the palaces Henry built or acquired, only St James’s Palace and Hampton Court survive (and the latter only partially) in anything approaching the shape in which he left them. By a quirk of fate, his enduring legacy is the Royal Parks, a by-product of his sporting ambitions. In order to create a vast leisure centre (including a massive tiltyard) for himself at Whitehall on the scale of a modern Olympic Park, he seized lands belonging to religious foundations or ‘swopped’ them for territories elsewhere – Westminster Abbey was stripped of the entire manor of Hyde (consisting of 620 acres). And with Trump-like zest, Henry encircled the immediate parkland – now St James’s Park – with an eleven-foot-high brick wall, a small section of which still survives on the ground floor of 10 Downing Street in an area set aside for Theresa May’s office staff to eat their sandwiches.

Henry’s passion for hunting drove him on. As a younger man, he and his chums hunted with bloodhounds, pursuing stags on horseback for miles until they were exhausted, whereupon the king would kill them like a matador. But when obesity curtailed his mobility, he armed himself with a crossbow and had the deer sent to him. Parks were enclosed with fences and entire houses were built or remodelled to satisfy this urge. The terrified deer – several hundred at a time – would be guided to him by beaters using nets; the killing would take place in front of the house to the sound of trumpets. Up to two hundred deer a day could be polished off this way. Sometimes they were driven into a conveniently placed lake, where the slaughter turned the waters red. The king’s final grand folly was an Act of Parliament that established the ‘honour’ of Hampton Court. Its effect was to create a private hunting ground covering ten thousand acres between Hampton Court and Windsor.

Henry was a tough act to follow: no monarch until George IV matched his megalomania. Neither his young son, Edward, nor his elder daughter, Mary, lived long enough (or had the money) to emulate him, while Elizabeth purposefully chose to avoid what Sir Nicholas Bacon, addressing Parliament, called ‘superfluous and sumptuous buildings of delight’. Edward’s councillors sold twelve of Henry’s houses and Mary disposed of another six. Elizabeth tended not to part with property, preferring to allow unwanted buildings to decay. Historians generally assume that architecture bored her. In a valiant if not wholly successful attempt to reverse that perception, Thurley argues that Elizabeth was an architectural connoisseur who put most of her efforts into interior decorations and was also a passionate builder of water fountains.

Improvements at Windsor included a high stone terrace with a balustrade and viewing platform, allowing her to see for miles across the countryside, along with a new privy gallery now used as the Royal Library. At Greenwich, the brick-built inner court was remodelled as a classical piazza, using stone-facing and stucco work. Elizabeth built a new privy kitchen at Hampton Court and a banqueting hall at Whitehall. Where costs allowed, her private gardens were revamped along Italian lines, with terraces, shady arbours, water features and alleys lined with box hedge. Finally, she began a major construction programme to expand her stables and house her coaches (her preferred means of travel). Like her grandfather, she liked to personalise her building works, in her case by labelling them with her initials and the date. All the same, she left a time bomb ticking for her successor. When James VI of Scotland arrived in London, he found many of the properties he’d inherited, for all their apparent splendour, in a sorry state.

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