Imagine, if you can, this scene. It is almost Christmas, everything is prepared. The presents are wrapped, the tree is hung, your mother-in-law has arrived and settled herself in your favourite chair for the duration of the holiday. The children are racing around the house, over-excited, squeezing presents and dipping their fingers into the trifle. You get them to bed early, put your feet up with a large glass of red, and have just begun to relax when disaster strikes. The boiler bursts in the loft, or the roof blows off in a gale, or horror of all horrors – a house fire breaks out.
God forbid this should happen to anyone but sometimes disaster strikes when we least expect it and to the most exulted among us.
In 1497, a few days before Christmas, fire raged through Sheen Palace
Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Margaret Beaufort and the young prince Henry, princesses Margaret and Mary were in residence. The cooks were busy in the
kitchen, the jesters and mummers practicing for the big day when …
|Henry, Margaret and Mary, at about the time of the fire.|
“About nine of the clock quite suddenly … within the king’s lodging and so continued till midnight. By violence whereof …(a) great part of the old building was burnt and much more harm done upon costrings (curtains) and hanging beds of cloth of gold and silk and much other rich apparel with plate and manifold jewels belonging to such a noble court.
How well loving therefore be to God (that) no living creature was there perished…” (Robert Hutchinson, Young Henry, P.44)
The royal household were hurried outside to safety. You can imagine the scene; the confused and crying children, hastily wrapped in blankets, clasped in their nurses’ arms. Men rushing hither and thither to fight the blaze, women weeping, screaming perhaps as the windows exploded and the ceilings collapsed in a great ball of flame. Henry and Elizabeth, and the king’s mother looked on in cold shock as their sumptuous palace was consumed in flames.
The king, for all his power, was helpless in the face of fate and, after the costly matter of his recent war with Scotland, and his pursuit of the pretender Perkin Warbeck, was horribly aware of the financial implication of the disaster. The material losses were great. The Milanese Ambassador Raimondo Soncino estimated them at 60,000 ducats which is about £7.3 million in today’s money, amounting to one tenth of Henry’s annual income.
He reported a “Great substance of richesse” destroyed,
including tapestries, wall hangings, bed, clothes, plate and furniture. And
that was not all, precious royal trinkets were also lost. In the following days
the king paid servants £20 a day to sift through the ruin looking for jewels.
(Wroe, Perkin: p.393).
|Elizabeth of York|
This was not the first time Sheen Palace had suffered destruction. It was once the favourite home of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia and when she died of the plague in 1394, the king, in his grief, ordered the palace to be completely demolished.
Henry V began construction of a palace on the site but this was hampered by his death in 1422 and work did not resume until the infant king, Henry VI, was eight years old. As the wars of the roses wagged on the palace was given into the possession of Elizabeth Woodville on her marriage to Edward IV, and passed to Henry VII after Bosworth.
It is not believed that the fire in 1497 destroyed the whole building but the privvy lodgings were lost and lavishly refurbished afterwards. Once the work was finished and the royal family ready to move back in Henry renamed Sheen as ‘Richmond Palace.’
In the years that followed the palace witnessed some of the greatest events in Tudor history. In Henry VII’s reign alone it saw the wedding of Prince Arthur to Catherine of Aragon in 1501; the official betrothal of Princess Margaret to King James of Scotland in 1503. And in 1509, in his favourite palace, the palace he had built and named in his family’s honour, Henry VII, the first Tudor king, breathed his last.
My novel A Song of Sixpence tells the tale of Elizabeth of York and her marriage to Henry VII. It considers the implications of the loss of her brothers in the Tower, her subsequent marriage to her former enemy. Often portrayed as meek or simply uninteresting, Elizabeth emerges as a brave and resilient woman in a time of suspicion and unrest.
A Song of Sixpence is available in paperback and also on Kindle.
Judith Arnopp is the author of historical novels set in the Tudor and Anglo-Saxon periods. Her work is available from Amazon and includes: