19 February 2017

Visiting King Henry VII in London


I’ve spent the past four years researching and writing about Henry Tudor’s life. During this time I’ve collected every book I can find about him, visited his birthplace in Pembroke Castle and followed his exile to Brittany. Henry was born in the first book of the Tudor trilogy, Owen, and came of age in the second book, Jasper. As I prepare for the launch of the final book, Henry, where he becomes King of England, I decided to visit his tomb and pay my respects.

Henry’s Tomb in Westminster Abbey


There is something quite surreal about making your way through Westminster Abbey to the Lady Chapel at the far end. There are many amazing distractions, as you pass the tombs of earlier kings and Henry’s granddaughter Elizabeth I in a side chapel. Henry’s tomb dominates the centre of the Lady Chapel and is surrounded by a high bronze grille. His effigy is raised too high to see, so I climbed a convenient step and peered through the holes in the grille. There lay Henry with his wife, Elizabeth of York, their gilded hands clasped in prayer.   

After visiting Henry, I entered the side chapel to visit his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. Her tomb is lower and as I stood looking at it a shaft of winter sunlight came through the stained glass windows and lit up her face. I think she would have been pleased to know she is still remembered.


I find it quite amazing that Henry’s final resting place has survived the fire of London, the English Civil War and the two World Wars in such good condition, more than five centuries after his death. The bronze grille from Henry's tomb was removed and taken to safety during WW2 when the stained glass windows were blown out by bomb blasts in 1940. You can still see the signs of damage where it was hastily taken apart and reassembled.

There is an admission charge for Westminster Abbey and no photography is allowed. The Abbey museum is closed for refurbishment until 2018, so I was unable to see the wooden funeral effigies of Henry and Elizabeth. All the same, it was an unforgettable visit and I chose to take the tour a second time using the excellent audio tour narrated by Jeremy Irons. For more information about charges and opening times please see www.westminster-abbey.org 

Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery


The National Portrait Gallery is within walking distance of Westminster Abbey and has free admission. I particularly wanted to see the famous 1505 portrait, which proved to be the first one in Room 1 when I reached the top of the stairs. At sixteen inches high it was smaller than I’d imagined but just as vibrant as the day it was painted. The earliest painting in the National Portrait Gallery's collection, the portrait is thought to have been painted as part of Henry’s unsuccessful marriage proposal to Emperor Maximilian's daughter Margaret of Savoy.

Nearby are two later portraits of Henry. One is a small oil on panel. The other is an ink and watercolour preparatory cartoon by Hans Holbein the Younger, with Henry peeping out from behind his son Henry VIII, who commissioned the work in 1537. Room 1 also includes an amazing selection of Tudor portraits, with a spectacular life-sized Elizabeth I dominating one wall.  For more information about charges and opening times please see www.npg.org.uk 

The Torrigiano bust at the V&A Museum


The final place I visited was the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I wanted to visit the medieval gallery to see the bust by Pietro Torrigiano, one of the first Italian Renaissance sculptors to work outside Italy. Torrigiano came to England in 1507 to work on the tombs in Westminster Abbey. Housed in a large glass case, the life-sized bust was probably cast from a death mask of Henry, with the shoulders and chest modelled later. One of the reasons for the good preservation of the detail is the removal of later over-painting. (Interestingly, this is one of a set of three busts, and the other two, of an unknown man and Bishop John Fisher, are now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.) For more information about charges and opening times please see www.vam.ac.uk

Tony Riches


6 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. We had a great time - and stayed in the Henry VIII hotel!

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  2. So interesting! I just bought your book 'Owen' and it is waiting for me on my kindle. I can't wait to get started and hear your take on the lives of such an amazing family!

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  3. Did you not see the funeral effigy at Westminster Abbey? It's remarkable.

    What strikes me about the portraiture of HVII is how anomalous the 1505 effort is; the Holbein, the Torrigiano and the funeral effigy (almost certainly from a death mask), and the tomb effigy, are all very similar, showing a slender face, deep set eyes and fine nose; the 1505 picture looks like someone else entirely.

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    1. Yes - I'll have to return when the museum reopens next year. Also interesting is to compare Torrigiano's bust of Bishop John Fisher, which for some reason is at the Met in NY: http://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/197752

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