28 May 2009

In search of Henry VIII

There are several Henry VIII exhibitions on right now, marking the 500th anniversary since he became king in 1509. I've been doing various things for the British Library's website for their Henry VIII exhibition, including this Google map of a bike tour taking in some Henry-related sites, and sights, in London.

Unfortunately, like the monasteries, there's not a lot of them left. Greenwich Palace, where he was born, for example, is a fabulous place to visit by bike, linked to central London by a characterful riverfront path - but Wren's magnificent old naval college you see today is a century and a half post-Henry.

View Henry VIII, Man and Monarch in a larger map

Traces of Henry's boyhood home at Eltham Palace remain in the shape of the Great Hall, but almost everything else there is 1930s (and it costs £8.30 to visit, and isn't an enticing bike ride). Syon House, a dissolved monastery in Brentford where Catherine Howard was imprisoned, is all a relatively recent rebuild.

Parts of the great Tudor Whitehall Palace, including the real tennis court, remain inside the Cabinet Office at 10 Downing St as part of a warren of secret tunnels and hideyholes. But you'll only ever see that if you become a cabinet minister. Despite Mr Cameron's kind invitation to me to stand as a Tory MP even without political experience, I think it's unlikely. There are other things higher on my wish-list, such as undergoing root canal work without anaesthetic.

You can cycle out west along the Thames Path to Hampton Court. Half of this was Henry's palace (once he'd nicked it off Wolsey) and he'd definitely feel at home there today (in fact he'd probably try to nick it back off Historic Royal Palaces). The other half is a baroque addition, which any fool can see is post-Tudor architecture. So, not the Daily Mail's picture caption writers, then. ('Looks just as regal five centuries after its construction', they say of the patently 200-year old part.) That's also a lovely ride, which you might combine with some Thames Crossings. Entry to Hampton Court Palace is £14 but you can spend a whole day there and they seem well-disposed to cyclists. They also have some temporary and permanent Henry exhibitions on.

In today's central London, though, our map has only four places that Henry would recognise: the Tower; Lambeth Palace; Westminster Abbey; and St James's Palace (above right).

Henry must have had fond memories of the Tower (right), partly because he lived here briefly after his father's death, but mainly because he had Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard executed there (More...).

The Tower is Bloody £17 to visit, though apparently if you turn up on a Sunday and say you're going to the church service, they have to let you in free. Inside the walls, the Tower complex has the feel of a half-quaint Sussex village. We think it's a bit overrated, in the way that locals always do about tourist tick-boxes. You can feel the atmosphere from your bike without going in by cycling north across Tower Bridge. Come off right and double back on yourself to go under the bridge, then pedal-cum-push west along the riverfront path in front of the Tower.

Lambeth Palace (right), facing the Houses of Parliament, is said to be the most complete Tudor building in London you can see from the roadside.

Come in the evening when its earthy red bricks glow in the fat orange sun and then sit outside Pico Bar, down by Vauxhall Station, for a cheap and cheerful tapas dinner, and you can glow too.

Westminster Abbey (right) is very much as Henry would remember it, and he'd be delighted to see all those dead people inside. He married Catherine of Aragon here in 1509 (and lest we forget, stayed married to her for 20 years, which these days would be long and faithful enough to be in the local paper).

To go inside costs a whopping £15; if you just want the atmosphere, wander with your bike through the alley of Dean's Yard, behind the grand facades on the south-west side, into the Oxbridge-college-like quad of the school behind. Don't expect bike parking though.

St James's Palace (right), round the corner from Buckingham Palace, is still officially a 'working palace'. If that's work, Harry and Will, I wouldn't mind doing it for a living. Its main gate on Pall Mall (right) is pretty much as it was when Henry had this as one of his 54 second homes; his expenses claims have kept historians amused ever since.

Round the side (very top right) is a picturesque lane that gives you the idea of what cycling would have been like in Tudor times. However, the sporty, slim young Henry happily used to spend eight or nine hours out hunting on his horse, so he would probably have been a road cyclist rather than a tourer.


  1. Did Henry VIII ever visit Southwark Cathedral? He would have certainly passed it on the way to the Tower, and I think it would have looked more or less the way it does now (though presumably less hemmed-in by other buildings).

    According to the cathedral website, for much of the middle ages (and long before it became a cathedral) it was known as St Mary Overy ("over the river"). After the dissolution of the monasteries it became the property of Henry VIII who "rented it to the congregation". Although it was renamed St Saviour's, its old name remained in popular usage for many years.

  2. It's such a shame that some of these places cost so much to visit and it's also a shame that a lot of Henry VIII's favourite haunts don't exist anymore. It's great that you've done this cycle route, particularly as there is so much going on at the moment for the Henry VIII 500 Year Anniversary.