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Court Life in the time of Henry VIII

Finding out about life at court helps us to see the big difference between the lives of the rich and the poor in Tudor times.

What was the Court?

This was the place where the king lived. Henry VIII did not live alone in his palaces. He was surrounded by ladies and gentlemen called courtiers who lived with him at court. When Henry visited any of his palaces, the court went too.

Where did the king live?

Henry spent time at several royal homes in London. These were the Tower of London, the Palace of Westminster and Baynard's Castle (near St Paul's Cathedral). There were palaces at Richmond and Eltham. Henry also took over Hampton Court in 1528. He took it from Cardinal Wolsey, who had failed to get Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

A bit of a show off

The court was a great place for Henry to show how rich and important he was. This would make people from other countries see him as very powerful. It would put off people from plotting to take his throne. Henry used Hampton Court in this way. In August 1546, he entertained the French ambassador and 200 companions, plus 1,300 of the English court for six days!

All the activities at court were planned to show Henry's talents and interests. So the court was a centre for art, music, dance, poetry and tournaments. The court was the most fashionable place in the land.

Henry had artists and musicians at court. Hans Holbein was the court painter by 1536. He may have painted as many as 150 portraits of the king, his wives and family and courtiers. He painted a large mural (painting on the wall) for the Palace of Whitehall. It showed Henry and his third wife, Jane Seymour, and his parents, the first Tudors. Holbein also designed furniture, jewellery, buttons, buckles and the king's state robes. He died of the plague in 1543.

The poor people of England would not have seen these paintings or heard the music and poetry because it took place at court. This shows another difference between the lives of the rich and the poor.

Who came to court?

Courtiers were the richest and most important people in the country. They had to be rich to come to court. They would need to give the king presents that cost a lot of money.

In order to look the part, they had to wear expensive clothes. Sir Walter Raleigh paid 30 for a hatband! Clothes were made from silk, velvet and lace. They were often decorated with jewels, embroidery (sewing with coloured threads) and fur to keep out the cold. Many of the fashions worn by the English court came from France.

Courtiers and royalty moved in a stiff and unbending way. They could not move quickly. Clothes were heavy and it would have been difficult to work in them. If you were rich, you had servants to work for you. Poorer people wore more comfortable clothing partly because they had to work.

Courtiers wanted to be near the king because it was a chance to be noticed and to make a good impression. In return, they might get jobs and titles for their family and friends. When Catherine Parr married Henry, her uncle, William, became her chamberlain (like a butler in charge of a large group of servants). He was also made a baron. The rewards at court were great if you had friends in high places. All Tudor kings and queens chose their servants from those who were closest to them. This is why the court was the centre of power.

Living at court

Life at court was not safe. Henry had complete power over his servants and ministers. If they upset him or did not obey him, he would punish them. Sometimes people were put to death. The court was often the centre of secrets and squabbles between courtiers. Everyone wanted to be in favour with the king.

Courtiers had their own rooms in Henry's palaces. They brought their own servants with them who often had to make do with sleeping in the corridors. When Henry stayed at Hampton Court, up to a thousand people attended court.

Providing food for everyone was a tough job because the numbers were so big. This is why Hampton Court had three large kitchens.

The diet of the king and his court was far from healthy. They ate very few vegetables as these were considered to be the food of the poor. There was a wide range of meat to eat such as beef, lamb, veal, rabbit and even hedgehog. They also ate pheasant, blackbirds, swans and peacocks.

They used a lot of salt to stop their meat from going off. Freezers had not been invented to keep food fresh. All the salt in their food made them thirsty. Courtiers were allowed a certain amount of wine each day. Servants were allowed to drink beer.

The Tudors liked spicy sauces and pies. They ate fresh–water fish such as eels, trout and salmon. Wealthy people also enjoyed a bread called manchet that had all the healthy bran and wheat germ taken out.

The Tudors loved sweet things, including puddings made with sugar and honey. They ate "marchpane" (mazipan), a sweet made from ground almonds and sugar. It was often made into fancy shapes. No wonder many of the courtiers had rotten teeth!

Useful links for pupils
How did Henry VIII get up in the morning?

Useful links for teachers
This site contains biographical information on people during the Tudor period, as well as information on life during the period, Tudor architecture and more.

What was life like at the court of Henry VIII?

Find out more about life at Henry's court.
Court life

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The Tudors – court of Henry VIII

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