History Lives: Henry VIII's Good Friday, 1539 at The Palace of Whitehall

This is one in a series of History Lives: a piece of creative writing based on historical accuracy which aims to put the reader in the shoes of the people that experienced it first-hand. If you'd like to find more in this series, visit the History Lives index page

Henry VIII stands alongside some of the most important nobles in the realm, as he leaves his royal apartments and processes solemnly and slowly towards the richly-decorated chapel inside Whitehall Palace. The muddy water of the Thames lapping at the pale stone walls outside, Henry led the procession wearing robes of purple velvet, and a matching cap topped with an ostrich feather that swayed as he walked. He walked, solemnly past a huddle of nobles who bowed and curtseyed as he passed, towards the inner door of the royal chapel. 

It was Good Friday, 1539. The previous day, Henry had carried out the duties of Maundy Thursday. The kneeling and 'receiving discipline', as a steward wafted a baton across Henry's elaborately embroidered back in a bid to recreate the - at least symbolic - suffering experienced by Christ. The altar, sweet with the fruity tang of red wine and then washed clean. As he progressed through the walls of Whitehall, with their portraits and fireplaces, he remembered kneeling on the cushion that had been placed to the side of the chapel, while the Gospel was read out to the congregation. He washed the dusty, bare, thin feet of the poor men that had been brought, while they whispered their clumsy, grateful thanks to him, as he moved on to the next. This year, there had been no queen to carry out the ritual with him, but he was confident that he would next Easter: negotiations had recently begun with the Duke of Cleves that would bring him a much-needed alliance in Europe and a young wife from the continent. And, if her graceful portrait with slightly downcast, timid eyes was anything to go by, more sons. 

Henry came to a stop just before the chapel door and heard the shuffle of nobles' feet stop awkwardly behind him. Inwardly, he sighed. 

The peak of today's religious ceremony was the ritual of Creeping to the Cross, and Henry secretly dreaded it. The tall wooden door of the chapel, with its iron bolts, was opened with a quiet creak, and the boom of the chapel's organ flooded out into the hallway outside. Henry, with the help of a steward, lowered himself to his knees and his shoes were removed. As he looked up towards the altar ahead of him he saw the Crucifix, its linen veil theatrically removed. On it bore the image of Christ, his muscular frame pinned to the cross and his feet crossed at the base. 

Henry looked back down and, shuffling one knee in front and then the other, made his way slowly to the cross in front of him. He remembered when he could complete this task easily and without exertion as a younger man. But now, heavier in frame and troubled by an ulcer on his leg that wept and caused him great pain, he winced inwardly as he shuffled, somewhat ungainly, to the cross. If anyone noticed, they didn't reveal themselves, looking on devoutly as he shuffled past. On reaching it, the priest held the cross out for Henry, and he leaned forward, pursed his small pink lips surrounded by the short, grey-copper beard and kissed the feet of the Saviour. 

Henry gratefully stood to ease the pressure on his leg to give Mass, and then the organ played again. 

There was a clatter to his left. He knew the sound. He had done this many times before. He processed regally - always conscious of being observed - to a small, enclosed area where a plate had been laid, and on it, a variety of small metal rings. These were 'cramp rings', and Henry was about to imbue them with his religious and divine presence, as the adoring congregation gazed on. 

Henry knelt again on a cushion, a little clumsily, and prayed out loud, lifting each ring up between a jewelled thumb and forefinger, chanting for the rings to cure the sick, give relief to women in childbirth and ensure the wearer chose good over evil. These would be distributed to the poor after the service. As his murmuring lips worked, the chapel around him hummed with the singing of Psalms by the congregation and the choir. With his other hand, Henry sprinkled the rings with holy water and dried his hands with a small, embroidered cloth that had been left to one side. 

As Henry, with some difficulty now, stood once more, he felt the tingle of blood return to his lower legs and watched as the crucifix he had kissed was ritually and solemnly lifted from the altar and placed into a wooden box below. It would be locked with a click and guarded by flickering candles. 

Henry's job, this Good Friday, was done. He processed devoutly through the doors of the chapel and back towards his private apartments, courtiers bowing and curtseying their greeting to him as he went, followed by men of his Privy Chamber. He burst into his apartments, the men shuffling in after him, awaiting their orders. Henry swung around.

"Prepare my boat and musicians", demanded Henry, in his high-pitched, authoritative voice. "I wish for entertainment on the river."

This account is partly fictional, as we can only glean the events from tiny snippets of sources what actually did happen on that day in 1539, the rest being padded out from imagination. But I wanted to give you a sense of what it may have been like to watch Henry carry out his religious duties on Good Friday in this year, as if you were there yourself. I've used events that exist in the historical record, and made the effort to be as true to accuracy as possible, with a distance of 500 years. In saying that, we have no evidence that Henry dreaded creeping to the cross, but bearing in mind the painful ulcers that would, in a few years, mean he was unable to walk unaided, it seems like a reasonable assumption. The narrative is based on various accounts and sources, which you can find in the general post about Henry's Good Friday at Whitehall. 

For more events in this series, visit the History Lives index page.