Henry VIII's Easter at Whitehall, 1539

We go back to 1539 and see what Easter weekend looked like towards the end of the reign of Henry VIII. 

What does Henry VIII at Easter mean to you? Does it summon images of Henry throwing half-eaten chicken legs over his shoulder, laughing raucously and necking down a flagon of good ale? 

Today, Easter is all about chocolate eggs, fluffy bunnies and hot cross buns. But it's very different to the Easter traditions celebrated by the Tudors. Then, it was a much more serious and solemn affair. 

Let's go back to Henry's Easter, spent at his London palace of Whitehall, in April 1539. 

Photo by Olga Kononenko on Unsplash

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 with George Brook, Lord Cobham, who carried the sword of state with his intense stare and wispy beard. Wearing robes of either purple or crimson velvet, Henry's head was un-crowned (1) but likely covered by a matching, feathered velvet cap. He progressed past a huddle of nobles, towards the inner door of the chapel. 

This was Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, the original day of Christ's Last Supper. Earlier in the day the king would have knelt and 'received discipline', to remind him of Christ's suffering, but for Henry, probably a light wafting over his clothes was used with a device that was symbolic in giving suffering rather than one that inflicted real pain. (2)

On entry to the chapel, the altar smelled faintly of sweet red wine, having been daubed with it and then washed with water, to symbolise the blood of Christ. Henry would have kneeled on a cushion 'on the right syde of the chappell' and, after the Gospel had been read out, prepared to wash the feet of poor men and distribute alms and food to the poor. (3) Usually, Henry's queen would accompany him and wash the feet of poor women alongside, but at this Easter, Henry was single, but about to enter negotiations to marry his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. At the altar, he would have looked up at depictions of Christ's apostles, as the organ played loudly and he delivered Mass. (4)

Henry VIII, painted in around 1540. Public Domain

Luckily for us, we have a first-hand account of Henry's duties over Easter, 1539. John Worth wrote to his employer, Lord Lisle on 15 May, saying that:
'this present day, the Holy Thursday eve, the King's Grace took his barge at Whitehall, and so rowed up to Lambeth, and had his drums and fifes (pipes) playing; and so rowed up and down the Thames an hour in the evening after evensong.' (4)
It has previously been debated as to whether Henry's visits to Lambeth were to the young Catherine Howard who lived there, but she didn't come to court - and as far as we know, wasn't in Henry's sights - until the autumn of 1539, five months later. (7) In any case, after his light entertainment on the river, Henry:

'went a procession about the Court at Westminster in the Whitehall; and my Lord Cobham bare the sword before the King's Grace, with all other nobles a great multitude. And the high altar in the chapel was garnished with all the apostles on the altar, and mass by note, and the organs playing, with as much honour to God as might be devised to be done.' (4)

Lord Cobham, George Brooke, who carried the
sword in front of Henry Easter 1539,
Public Domain

The next day was Good Friday, and Henry, probably reluctantly, observed the ritual known as the 'Creeping to the Cross'. After the morning mass, a 'covered crucifix was to be brought into the chapel, placed on the high altar and unveiled.' (1) The king would take off his shoes at the door of the chapel and shuffle towards the cross at the altar, on his knees, presumably grimacing inwards from the pain this pressure would exert on the continually painful ulcer on his leg. There was even more kneeling and creeping to do over the coming days and it's perhaps no wonder he was to ban this practice in 1546. Once he reached the crucifix, held in front of him by a priest, he would lean forward and kiss it before again serving mass. (1)

John Worth again tells us: 
'upon Good Friday last past the King's Grace crept to the Cross from the chapel door upward, devoutly, and so served the priest to mass that same day, his own person, kneeling on his Grace his knees.' (4)
It was also on Good Friday that Henry blessed 'cramp rings' - a ritual that was thought to imbue the wearer of the ring with God's presence (Henry was, after all, just below God now in Earth's pecking order), promote good over evil and also, hopefully, give relief to ladies in childbirth and heal the sick. This was done in a small, enclosed area, to the side of the altar, Henry kneeling and praying, repeating his chants over and over, above platefuls of rings. He would then distribute them to sick men and women that had surrounded the court in the hope that they 'may be protected from the snares of Satan.' Each ring was raised between Henry's bejewelled fingers, as the chapel hummed with the singing of Psalms, before being sprinkled with holy water. The cross was then buried in a small chest (to represent the burial of Christ) and candles set to flicker in front of it. (5)

Sketch of Whitehall Palace, c.1554-7, Antony van den Wyngaerde, Public Domain

Easter Sunday marked the last important theatrical and religious ceremony. The cross was replaced onto the altar (to represent Christ now risen) and Henry this time entered the chapel under a lavishly woven canopy, carried by six gentlemen of the court, and then once again, crept on his knees, shoeless, to the cross that adorned the high altar. 

While on the outside, Henry had enlisted Cromwell and Cranmer in dismantling many of the perceived 'catholic' rituals of the church, inside his own palaces, he seems to have kept many of them, including taking the communion and the adoration of statues. Archbishop Cranmer even wrote to Cromwell in the summer of 1537, in frustration: 
'if in the Courte you do kepe such holydaues and fastynge days, as be abrogated, whan shal we persuade the people to ceasse from kepying them? For the kyngs own House shalbe an example unto al the realme.' (1)
Henry's stance was assured when Cranmer issued a proclamation a year later, in 1538, that: 
'Holy bread, holy water, kneeling and creeping to the Cross on Good Friday and Easter Day, setting up of lights before Corpus Christi, bearing of candles on Candlemas day, purification of women, offering of chrisms, etc must be observed till the King please to change them.' (6)
John Worth writes to Lord Lisle to say that 'the King will remove upon Monday next to Greenwich' marking the Easter ceremonies now complete. (4)

There's no doubt that feasting and other entertainments took place after Easter Sunday, when Lent - and fasting - had officially ended. (I can't find actual first-hand accounts of these, but if you do find them, let me know!) But it's interesting that the jolly chicken leg-wielding Henry is the one we think of, especially at important religious feast occasions  like Easter or Christmas - whereas his religious duties over this weekend were actually quite solemn and devout and not spoken of perhaps so widely. And they were relatively short, too. Despite all the creeping, shuffling and bearing of important symbols, the country needed running, and by Easter Monday Henry was heading back to deal with royal business at Greenwich. 

Would you like to find out what it was like to watch Henry on Good Friday on Easter 1539? Have a look at my account in the History Lives series. 

What do you think? Does this surprise you? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Fancy making a little of your own Tudor feast and making a Tudor Marchpane for Easter? It's easy! Check out my version here

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1. Kisby, Fiona. “‘When the King Goeth a Procession’: Chapel Ceremonies and Services, the Ritual Year, and Religious Reforms at the Early Tudor Court, 1485-1547.” Journal of British Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, 2001, pp. 44–75. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/3070769. Accessed 31 Mar. 2020.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. The Lisle Letters - An Abridgement by Arthur Plantagenet Lisle (Viscount), Muriel Saint Clare Byrne - Google books, page 279. Accessed 31 Mar. 2020.
5. Gareth Russell (affiliate link, your purchase helps to support the blog) - Young and Damned and Fair, 2017, Williams Collins, pp219-221
6. Henry VIII, Letters and Papers, 1538, accessed 31 Mar. 2020. 
7. Gareth Russell (affiliate link, your purchase helps to support the blog) Young and Damned and Fair, 2017, Williams Collins, p90