Monday, 12 March 2012

"WITH BEARDS AND WITHOUT BEARDS" by H.M. Castor


This post almost didn’t make it to your screen. I was so sucked in by the subject matter (a research book) that I very nearly couldn’t haul myself out in time to write these words. The book in question is as alluring to me as a large plate of cakes and as treacherous as quicksand. It mesmerises me and I can get lost in it for days. Time and again I have opened it to look up some small item (a job that should have taken moments), only to resurface several hours later, having entirely forgotten the original task in hand…


Before I tell you more, I must just explain that on April 1st my Tudor historical novel VIII is coming out in paperback, and so I am embarking on a busy few months, giving talks about Henry VIII, about my research, and about exactly what I think the connection is between Henry and Anakin Skywalker (an angle that – as Caroline Lawrence seems similarly to have found with Yoda (see her post here) – invariably goes down well in schools). In between events, I am writing a completely different book (still a Tudor historical novel, but to me it is an entirely fresh project). It is a common experience, of course, for writers to be busy promoting one book while they are writing another, but it produces a strange gear-crunching in the brain: you must haul yourself out of one mental landscape and retrieve another from your memory. Depending on how intensely you are involved in your work in progress, it can be a little disorientating.

So, to help me retrieve the world of VIII for my events, I thought I would write today about one of my favourite Henry-related research books.

It’s called ‘The Inventory of King Henry VIII: The Transcript’. When writing VIII, every time I needed to put an object under Henry’s fingers, a jewel on his clothes, or a hanging on his walls, I turned to this book. Here is a picture of it – suitably huge, weighty and golden.





Henry VIII died on 28th January 1547. Six months later, a mammoth project was begun: to make an inventory of all the moveable property he had left behind. The job took 18 months.

The modern job – of transcribing, indexing and editing the inventory – must have taken a good deal longer than that. This Herculean task has been completed by Philip Ward and Alasdair Hawkyard, under the expert editorial directorship of David Starkey, and the resulting book – even though it is in a large format with small type, and entirely without illustrations – is more than 500 pages long.

And I love it. Oh, how I love it.






Starting at the back, the index is a joy. You can look up everything from dog accessories (chains, collars, leashes – of various specified sorts) to cutlery, from games (including chessmen, card-tables and ‘Hens and a Fox’ – does anyone know how to play that?) to weapons (of which there are a fantastic variety, as you might imagine). You can look up toilet equipment, toys and timepieces, heraldry, horns and hourglasses. Everything from bath linen to artillery is here. Under ‘Designs’, there are designs for weapons, for bridges, for castles & for gowns. There are musical instruments, clocks, walking sticks, ‘Oliphants’ teeth’ and many, many pieces of jewellery.

Then, when you turn from the index to the relevant item in the inventory itself, there is very often a fascinating amount of detail provided. The men who compiled the inventory aimed to weigh every piece of precious metal, to count every jewel (as well as the holes where jewels had dropped off), to describe every piece of cloth and its trimming. Nothing was too small to mention. One entry reads simply, ‘Item, one pearl loose by itself’.

Detail, as I said, abounds. Under the heading ‘Refuse Stuffe at westminster in the Chardge of James Rufforth’ there is a wonderful entry concerning the ‘carrying chairs’ in which Henry, towards the end of his life when his ulcerated legs gave him great pain, was carried about his palaces (pity the sweating, straining men who did the carrying!):

Item Twoo Cheyres called trauewes [meaning ‘trams’ the index suggests, and I suspect pronounced ‘travoes’] for the kings Majestie to sitt in to be carried to and fro in his galleries and Chambres…

And we’re even given detail of the chairs’ fabrics:

…couered with tawny vellat allouer quilted with a cordaunte of tawny silke with a half pace vndrenethe euerie of the saide cheyres [that is to say, I think, a footrest attached to each of the chair’s front legs, as on many modern wheelchairs] and two fotestoles standing vppon everie of the saide halfe paces [so, the footrests are padded] enbrawdred vppon the backe of theym and the toppes of the twooe highe pomelles of eueries one a rose of venyce golde and frengid rounde aboute with tawnye silke.

Two further similar chairs are described, and of the second it is said: the same cheyre did serue in the kings house that goeth vpp and downe. Clearly Henry had some kind of stairlift, though no details (sadly) are given of how it operated. How I wish I could see a drawing of Henry’s “house that goeth up and down”!

The compilers of the inventory went to the Tower of London and Hampton Court, to Windsor and Westminster, to Beaulieu and Greenwich (and many other places), looking it seems into every room, no matter how small, and searching every cupboard and shelf. What I love most of all is that some of the most private spaces – small ‘closets’ next to Henry’s private bedrooms, for instance – are found to be stuffed with a chaotic mixture of items. And reading the transcript, it feels as if you are there, looking over the compilers’ shoulders, as they sort through the mess…

For example, at Greenwich in a small room over the water-stairs, they find (and for ease of reading, I have modernised the spelling):

First, upon the Shelf next [to] the door on the left hand, 17 boxes and Coffers… and under that Shelf, a Clock, a glass of Steel [a mirror made of polished metal, I assume], 4 battle axes of wood and 2 quivers with arrows, a painted table [possibly a portrait?], two window leaves, a pair of balances with weights…

Item in the window next [to] that Shelf, a round map, a standing glass of Steel in a ship…

Item a branch of flowers wrought upon wire…

Item a box with 5 slippers of velvet for women…

Item one little coffer, empty …

Item a gun upon a stock wheeled…

Item a lace for the mantle of the garter…

Item a night Cap of black velvet partly embroidered.

Item a piece of a pattern [design] for a fort…

Item a piece of a unicorn’s horn...

...and so on, and so on.


From this room over the water-stairs we can move, with the compilers, into other intriguing private rooms, ‘The lower study, being a bayne [bath]’ and ‘the highest Library’. In the latter, nearly 300 books are listed as having been found in separate desks. Their bindings are described but not their titles or contents. However, next we find a book with a very particular subject:

Item a book written in parchment of the process between king henry the eight and the lady katheryne, dowager. [i.e. Henry’s divorce!]

And in the same library:

Item under the table 16 books. [Could this mean on the floor? So it’s not just me who stacks books there…]

Item in the Jakes house [the loo – this is a library with an en-suite!] a picture and certain cases.

Item in a long settle is certain old papers and trash [spelt ‘trasshe’].

Item in a like settle is like old papers.

How I would love to see even the smallest piece of that ‘trasshe’! I find it beguiling, too, to learn that corners of Henry’s palaces were every bit as crammed & disorganised as my own loft.

So, we’ve seen part of the fascinating muddle at Greenwich; at Westminster, under the heading ‘Stuffe in the Study nexte the Kynges olde Bedde chamber’ the compilers took things one shelf at a time. On the first shelf, they found a leather case containing 4 ‘patentes’ concerning Queen Jane [Seymour], as well as three designs for war machinery, 2 targets painted with Henry’s arms, 2 boxes containing green sarcenet bags in which were stirrups & spurs, and several cases of beautiful knives (each described in detail). On the second shelf, among other things, were more knives, a velvet-covered box with nothing in it, books & papers, documents, ‘Tooles of Surgerye’, a puppet, a lantern, a clock, ‘A little boxe of crimson Satten embrodred contayninge shertes and other things for yonge children’, combs, and ‘A painted boxe with A dryed Dragon’ – I have read a suggestion that this might be some kind of herb, but I hope it’s more likely to be a real dragon (i.e. a lizard) – and a book of songs made out of linen-cloth needlework. There are two further shelves, but I will stop there!

The picture built up by the inventory is rich, complex & intriguing. Many items are sumptuous, but some are ‘old and sore worn’ – sheets are threadbare & stools have broken legs or missing feet. Of course, these are highly unlikely to have been still used by the king, but we find that Henry valued some old items just as we might – there is a sword, reputed to have belonged to Henry V, and the Order of the Garter robe that belonged to Henry’s older brother Arthur. There are, too, unextinguished traces of people who had fallen from favour – for example, in Greenwich there is a chair that must surely have belonged to the long-dead Cardinal Wolsey (and the chair had clearly seen better days):

Item one chair of wood covered over with plate of silver parcel gilt, embossed with Cardinal’s hats … one of the feet thereof lacking of the said Silver plate parcel gilt…

Also at Westminster we find a list headed ‘Stuffe brought frome the late Erle of Essex House at the Austen Freers Attaynted’ – this Earl of Essex being Thomas Cromwell, who was executed six and a half years before Henry’s own death. The list of ‘stuffe’ kept includes beds & bedlinen. There is also, at Greenwich, a bedstead decorated with the cipher of Queen Jane, on which the valances and counterpane are decorated with the cipher of Queen Anne. Which Queen Anne (Boleyn, or of Cleves) isn't specified - but could anyone really have had restful slumber in such a spot?!

Though Henry’s own children were, by the time of his death, too old to play with toys (even the youngest, 9-year-old Edward, would probably have considered himself beyond all that), the inventory does feature children’s toys, some sufficiently sumptuous that I am tempted to assume they belonged to royal children (rather than the offspring of courtiers). Might they have been kept for sentimental reasons? In ‘Sondrye parcelles’ in ‘Tholde juelhous’ at Westminster we find this richly dressed doll:

Item a great baby lying in a box of wood, having a gown of white cloth of silver and a kirtle of green velvet, the gown tied with small aglets of gold, and a small pair of beads of gold and a small chain and a collar about the neck of gold.

And, after more dolls, another kind of toy is listed: one little Tower of wood, white and gilt.

Of course, grown-ups had their own varieties of play, and the section headed ‘The Revelles’ makes entertaining reading. Under ‘Maskinge garmentes for men’ is listed,

Item 12 dozen Visors or Masks for men and women, new and serviceable, with beards and without beards.

And under ‘Maskinge garmentes for women’, amongst many other things, there are:

Two pairs of slippers of crimson Satin, Two Coifs of venice gold with perukes of hair…

Item 2 frocks or under garments for Egyptians…

Item one winding Sheet of Lawn striped incarnate with Crosses of Crimson Satin.

The mind boggles. The imagination races. I could go on – but I won’t. There are 17,810 entries after all! But I will leave you with a question. Many items, inevitably, are somewhat mysterious, and here's one entry that just now caught my eye. Seven 'Rackettes for the tennys' is clear enough as a description, but have you any suggestion as to what game 'two handes battes of Siluer guilt' might have been used for?




H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII - is published by Templar in the UK (where the paperback edition will be available from April 1st), and by Penguin in Australia.

H.M. Castor's website is here.



16 comments:

aLmYbNeNr said...

This is absolutely fascinating. I wonder if this book if available for Kindle? At least then, I could magnify the text! But wow, I would love to get my hands on it. I'll have to look into it.

Linda said...

Why five slippers for women? Did one of the queens have a Cinderella moment?

Mark Burgess said...

Wonderful post, Harriet. I hate books like that - how is one supposed to get anything done? And every object I want to see and touch and know the whole story - so frustrating!

'Two handes battes of Siluer guilt' - perhaps an early form of table tennis?

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

You're right, Harriet. Research is absolutely fascinating and these wonderful books soon suck you in. Pity your eye sight with that tiny print! I'm currently using a magnifying glass on some old maps - which is another time consuming research pleasure.

Penny Dolan said...

The book's a treasure house in itself! Such a remarkable glimpse into the life of Henry & his palaces.

Those hand battes: early form of ping-pong, played with a feather ball after an executions? (Hence guilt?)

H.M. Castor said...

Haha - I love that, Penny!

adele said...

My gob is totally SMACKED! Fantastic.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

How absolutely fascinating. No wonder you get lost in it!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

This was wonderful ... all those battle axes and arrows and quivers cheek by jowl in the room above the water stairs with five pairs of women's velvet slippers seems to fit with his 'manly' pursuits. I think he kept separate slippers for separate mistresses.The doll description was fabulous.

Am said...

Oh, I love this book, too, Harriet! I came across it while researching my book on red and could hardly tear myself away. It was part of the deep pleasure of reading VIII for me, to see how you used these kinds of fascinating and very concrete details to bring Henry and his world to life.

H.M. Castor said...

Thank you Amy for that very kind comment on VIII - and many thanks to everyone else for their comments, too! Yes, Linda, my thoughts exactly: was it 5 slippers or 5 pairs?

Emma Pass said...

This book sounds fascinating! What an amazing resource to have at hand. I'm not surprised you find it hard to tear yourself away!

Linda B-A said...

Oh! A piece of unicorn's horn! Every period of history should have such a book - what a brilliant resource.

Leslie Wilson said...

I am green with envy. To have soo much information about your subject..and thank you for telling us about it.

Alicia Johnson said...

When you say "Clearly Henry had some kind of stairlifts" on what exactly are you basing it? Cause I never heard about it before..

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