Thursday, December 31, 2015

"Happy New Year" from the Court of Henry VIII

by Sandy Vasoli

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King Henry VIII
Joos van Cleve, 1531

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On the afternoon of 31 December 1533, the Great Hall in the Palace of Placentia, Greenwich, was astir with industrious stewards, yeomen, and kitchen staff. They hastened to ready the massive chamber once again for a large holiday gathering – a festive celebration; the second such in a week. On New Year’s Day, King Henry VIII, his family and chief courtiers would exchange gifts, as was the custom. And this observance of the New Year would, of course, be accompanied by feasting and merriment.

On the massive hearth, the Yule log continued to smoulder and crackle. Dragged into the Hall and lighted on Christmas Eve, its flame had been nurtured and kept alive, and would be through Twelfth Night, 7 days hence. Once this Christmas season was concluded, a piece of that very log would be saved and used to enkindle the Yule timber laid for Christmas 1534. It would be sure to bring good fortune.

Fresh, aromatic rushes were being spread on the floor, and for the special day, the mix was heavy with rosemary, sage, sweet fennel and lavender. Many slippered feet, as they trod upon and crushed the herbs, would release a heavenly bouquet.

Still green and verdant, the decorative Christmas boughs of evergreen pine, holly, ivy, and yew hung from the gilded rafters. Fresh candles were being placed in the many candelabra positioned about the room. The buffets were being situated to receive platters of food and to allow ease of service for all the guests once the feasting commenced. The dais upon which the King and Queen Anne would sit was laid with a beautiful Turkey carpet, gilt chairs of estate and the royal dining table were placed upon it. At the fore of the room, a stage was constructed. During dinner, the minstrels and choir would create music from the platform. Once dinner was concluded, a colourful mummer’s play would take place on the stage, to the delight of all in attendance.

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Queen Anne Boleyn
Artist Unkown

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In late morning, the King was being dressed by his Gentlemen of the Chamber. His attire for this day would be especially magnificent, with a white velvet doublet edged in gold thread, white silk shirt puffed through slashes in the doublet. His jewelry would be well coordinated with the clothing, all in diamonds and gold. He would look every inch the splendid monarch his subjects expected. In the Queen’s closet, his wife and consort Queen Anne Boleyn was preparing for her appearance, and she was not to be outshadowed by her husband. Wearing a gown of deep Tudor green velvet, she too was accented with white satin and powdered ermine, and wore a hood edged in pearls. Around her neck was a carcanet of diamonds, and on her fingers were rings of emerald and gold.

Ready at last, Henry strode through the long galleries, accompanied by Henry Norris and George Boleyn. Through the mullioned gallery windows, falling snow was visible. The king entered the Hall to a fanfare of sackbuts and cornets, and delighted applause from the room full of guests awaiting him. There was great anticipation among them, for this gathering marked the giving of gifts from the King to his closest subjects. And, in return, they gave him tokens of their esteem and gratitude. Many were nervous. The King did not always graciously receive his gifts. His degree of appreciation served as a marker of one’s level of good standing with Henry. Nor was it easy to know what to gift a man who truly had everything!

Henry approached his Queen and she honoured him with a deep curtsey. He raised her to standing by placing her hand in his, then lifted her hand to his lips for a kiss. It was clear to all that Henry was still very much in love with Anne. Together, they moved to the dais. Their personal exchange of gifts had taken place in his privy chambers early in the morning. Henry might decide later whether or not to display their gifts for all to see.

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At the signal of the Chief Steward, the many gentlemen ushers rushed to an anteroom to bring forth the King’s gifts, while the courtiers formed a receiving line to process past the King and Queen. The first assembly were the Dukes and Earls of the realm: Lord Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, the dukes of Richmond, Norfolk, and Suffolk, the lord marquis Exeter, the Lord Steward, and the earls of Oxford, Northumberland, Westmoreland, Rutland, Wiltshire, Huntingdon, Sussex, Worcester, Derby, and Essex. To them, Henry presented gilt cups, bowls, and silver and golden basins.

In exchange, each nobleman bowed and offered the King their own gift. Cromwell presented his sovereign with a walking staff, wrought with gold. The duke of Norfolk gave Henry a woodknife, a pair of tables and chessmen, and a tablet of gold. Henry’s close friend Brandon, the duke of Suffolk, smiled as he held out a gold ball which was to hold perfume (which Henry was well known to love). The marquis of Exeter offered a bonnet trimmed with aglets and buttons and a gold brooch. The earl of Shrewsbury gave a 9 ounce flagon of gold for rosewater. The earl of Oxford provided 10 sovereigns in a kidskin glove. The earl of Northumberland deferentially handed the King a stunning gold trencher. The earl of Westmoreland had creatively designed a golden statuette of St George on horseback. The earl of Rutland provided a white silver purse. Thomas Boleyn, the King’s father-in-law and the earl of Wiltshire, gifted a box of black velvet, with a steel looking glass set in gold. The earl of Huntingdon handed the King a set of two silver gilt greyhound collars. The earl of Sussex stepped up next and knelt to the King, holding a doghook of fine gold. The earl of Worcester had made for Henry a doublet of purple satin embroidered in gold. The earl of Derby opened a box, displaying 2 bracelets of gold, worked with blue enamel.

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Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk
Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger

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Next came the Lords. The ushers stepped forward to assist in the gift exchange. One by one, they moved past the King and Queen, bowing and offering words of greeting and good cheer on the holiday. They each received from Henry golden and silver gilt bowls, salt cellars, cups, goblets and trenchers. In exchange, they presented gifts of great value and even greater creativity – all wanting to provide ‘the” gift of the festive season. Creating a growing pile in one corner of the room, once Henry and Anne had acknowledged their givers, were satin purses, beautiful carpets, gold swords, books, and fine shirts sewn of cambric.

The ladies of the court next filed past. With great deference Henry greeted them, handing them their royal offerings of golden plate, servingware, goblets and salt cellars. The women tended to give their monarch gifts which they had made themselves, or had been designed for his more personal use.
The old duchess of Norfolk proudly presented a beautiful Nativity scene with carved figurines in a wooden box. The young duchess of Norfolk held out a gold pomander. Lady Marquess Dorset had commissioned a great buckle and pendant of gold, at enormous expense. Lady Wiltshire, Anne’s mother and Henry’s mother-in-law, had completed a coffer of needlework which contained 6 shirt collars, 3 in gold and 3 in silver; a very personal gift for her son-in-law and the father of her beautiful new granddaughter Elizabeth. Lady Westmoreland struggled to hold a brace of greyhounds who strained to break free, but were gratefully acknowledged by the King who prized beautiful dogs. Lady Worcester gifted Henry with two cambric shirts sewn with black work. And on and on it went, the pile of riches growing, and the givers pleased with the King’s smiles and nods of appreciation – even if the gift cost them a significant portion of their earnings.
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The Court of Henry VIII
Artist: Fortunino Matania
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Once the parade was completed, the servers laid the tables with food for the hungry and thirsty guests. As they ate, and listened to the music played by the minstrels, they were permitted to ooh and ahh over the gifts which had been exchanged amongst the royal family. Two stewards carefully placed on a front facing table a mere sampling of that which Henry had given to Anne: gilt plate, beautiful gilt pots with round knobs behind the lids, a pair of gilt flagons embossed with the arms of France, 3 gilt salts done in a Parisian style , and golden candlesticks, basins, and chafing dishes. For his new daughter Elizabeth, Henry had commissioned from his goldsmith Cornelius Hayes stunning gilt pots and bowls, beginning her collection of gold plate.

Adding to the wonderment and excess of the day, the end of the meal was marked by a special mummer’s performance. The actors, dressed in disguises of feathers and elaborate masks, entertained the crowd with mimes and stories of Christmas and the saints. The mummers added jests and jokes, and the guests laughed uproariously, thoroughly enjoying themselves.

The day of festive introduction into the new year finally drew to a close as darkness fell. Some may have wandered outside afterward to breathe the crisp air and to throw snowballs, thus continuing the merriment.

The palace staff began to clear the Hall of the remains and the riches. They needed to prepare the Palace yet again for the final celebration of the Christmas season, which was to come: Twelfth Night, held on the 6th of January.

As the harbinger of a promised good year, there was no more magical place to be than in the court of Henry VIII of England on January the first.
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Sandra Vasoli, author of Anne Boleyn’s Letter from the Tower and Je Anne Boleyn: Struck with the Dart of Love, earned a Bachelor’s degree in English and biology from Villanova University before embarking on a thirty-five-year career in human resources for a large international company.

Having written essays, stories, and articles all her life, Vasoli was prompted by her overwhelming fascination with the Tudor dynasty to try her hand at writing both historical fiction and non-fiction. While researching what would eventually become her Je Anne Boleyn series, Vasoli was granted unprecedented access to the Papal Library. There she was able to read the original love letters from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn—an event that contributed greatly to her research and writing.

Vasoli currently lives in Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two greyhounds.

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