On 1 June 1523 a solemn cortege set off from St Swithin’s church close to the enigmatic ‘London Stone’ in present-day London’s Cannon Street. The splendid entourage was conducting the body of Lord Henry Marney, who had died on 24 May, on the 50 mile journey to his ancestral home at Layer Marney in Essex. Layer Marney was one of the venues on Henry VIII’s progress through Hertfordshire and Essex in the summer of 1522 prior to visiting the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham in Norfolk later that year.
The year of Marney’s birth (probably during Henry VI’s reign) has yet to be established, but his career, which started under Henry VII and survived the transition to his son, included military service with the king in his campaign against the French at Tournay in 1513 as Captain of the Guard. Marney nearly did not make it there as he broke his leg on the way to Calais as a result of being kicked by a horse. He was later part of the retinue accompanying Henry VIII on his spectacular progress to Calais in June 1520 for the summit with the French king, Francis I, at the lavish display dubbed ‘the Field of Cloth of Gold’.
Two years later, he was amongst the lords in attendance with Henry VIII and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V on their remarkable joint progress around the palaces, ports and forests of southern England. One of a coterie of loyal soldiers and skilled administrators upon whom Henry VIII relied, Marney’s talents and support were recognised and rewarded with lands and sinecures and he received a gilt cup from the king as a New Year gift on several occasions. Appointed to high office as Lord Privy Seal in February 1523, he was also Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Steward of the Duchy of Cornwall and Master Forester of Dartmoor. Elevation to the Order of the Garter in 1510 was capped by ennoblement just a month before his death.
Successfully steering a course through the whirlpools and eddies of Tudor political life, Marney was able to realise his own aspirations and project his presence in the Colchester area through his flamboyant rebuilding of the existing manor house at Layer Marney. His innovative conception for the mansion, which was to comprise two courtyards, focuses attention on its key surviving feature, the remarkable 3 storey, 8-staged quadruple-turreted octagonal Tower, which dominates the skyline and permits a view out to sea. The prominence of Italian-influenced terracotta work (included moulded putti) not only demonstrates his substantial wealth, but also his credentials as a devotee of the latest Renaissance fashion. The moulded terracotta motifs and the characteristic twisted chimneys bear comparison with Wolsey’s palace at Hampton Court.
Surviving Tudor heraldic glass, adorning windows within the house indicates that he was proud to display his august connections, including the image of an ostrich feather, a symbol of the Duchy of Cornwall. No doubt there was some competition for masons and carpenters (or may be co-operation from those) working around the same time on Henry VIII’s conversion of Sir Thomas Boleyn’s former manor house at nearby Newhall into a royal palace. Despite Marney’s best efforts, however, only the Tower and part of the first courtyard were completed in time for his crowning honour: a visit from the king on progress.
Henry VIII arrived at Layer Marney on 25 August 1522 after three-weeks at Newhall and spent a couple of nights as a guest there before leaving on 27 August for Stansted Hall, the earl of Essex’s residence. It is likely that the royal household were able to eat reasonably well as accounts show that Layer Marney was supplied with produce from local farms, which grew wheat and reared sheep, cattle and pigs, as well as receiving herrings from nearby Maldon and beer that had been brewed in Colchester. With Epping Forest on their doorstep, Marney would have ensured that Henry had the opportunity to go hunting and enjoy the venison or other game at a subsequent banquet. In light of the incomplete nature of Marney’s ambitious building project, it is not clear where everyone was accommodated. The king and queen may have slept in Henry’s private apartments and leading members of the household in other guest rooms. Others of lesser status were probably relegated to temporary lodgings, either constructed from timber or canvas, some of which tents may have seen action recently when pitched at the Field of Cloth of Gold.
As befitted his rank, Marney’s funeral procession was an elaborate performance reflecting his honour and piety. Choreographed by the royal heralds, one of whom recorded the event in a document retained in the College of Arms, it lasted three days and combined both chivalric elements and liturgical observances. The hearse, draped in black velvet, was drawn by six horses and conveyed an effigy of Marney together with his sword and military achievements; the penons, banners and shields with his own and his wives’ families’ coats of arms, thereby promoting his rank and bearing to passers-by.
Following a Requiem mass in St Swithin’s presided over by the bishop of St Asaph, his surviving son, John, led the group of mourners riding behind the hearse. The route from Marney’s London residence took the procession initially through the parishes of Walbrook and Cornhill, then out of Aldgate and towards Whitechapel. At Stepney Green the processional torches carried in advance of the hearse by 12 yeomen were extinguished and the four orders of friars and 24 poor men that Marney had requested in his will should accompany his coffin, returned to the city. The cortege then continued to the busy market town of Brentwood, a traditional venue for pilgrims heading to Canterbury from East Anglia, where his body rested the night (under close watch) in a small chapel, possibly the one dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr, the ruins of which survive in the High Street.
On the second day, after another Requiem mass, the mourners paraded in similar fashion to the next venue, probably Chelmsford (rather than the unlikely ‘Chingford’ as documented, which would have meant backtracking to London and a 40-mile gallop the next morning). On arrival, Marney’s body, met by local clergy, spent the night under the watchful eyes of the black friars of the town and the white friars of Maldon while the mourners and officers at arms settled into rooms in the Lion and the Bell respectively.
The final leg of the journey was to St Mary’s Church at Layer Marney, which Henry had rebuilt with a crenelated tower (mirroring the plans for his gatehouse) and where in his last will and testament Henry asked to be buried in a marble tomb set in the wall between the chancel and a new chapel, construction of which he had set in motion. The abbot of St Osyth conducted the funeral ceremonies, comprising masses and prayers and the final commendation at the graveside. Since neither the chapel nor its windows, which he wished to be ‘glased with imagery’, were finished at the time of Henry’s death, it was probably completed either by the time of (or shortly after) the untimely death, two years later, of his son, John, who inherited the barony but on whose decease without heirs it became extinct.
Both of Henry’s wives, Thomasine (John’s mother) and Elizabeth, unfortunately predeceased him, but they are commemorated with him on the black marble tomb (on which he lies in effigy) that endures in St Mary’s Church.
Marney’s philanthropic wishes extended to setting up an almshouse (with sufficient ground for a garden) in the lane going down to Howfield Bridge intended to benefit poor folks. The five chosen at the discretion of Marney’s executors had to be no longer in employment or able to make a living by manual labour, but also of good name and reputation and of ‘honest conversation’. It was anticipated the inmates would be male, but a couple could be considered for accommodation provided both husband and wife fulfilled the requisite criteria. Henry, though, had introduced a further hurdle for a would-be pensioner: the ability to say ‘at the least their Pater Noster, Ave, and Creed in Latin’! There were also stringent rules to ensure their twice-daily attendance at church, where they were bound to recite prayers in remembrance of the souls of Lord Marney, his two wives, his predeceased son, Thomas, and the souls of various ancestors. The religious obligations did not end there, as special intercessory duties were intended for Wednesdays and Fridays.
Marney’s achievements are very much celebrated this summer with a restaging of his funeral procession from the city of London to Layer Marney over the course of three days in July (14-16). Changes in the landscape and the hazards of modern roads mean that the full route is impracticable, but some parts will be undertaken and on the final day volunteers (who will be provided with the Marney livery) are encouraged to adopt a character and walk in pre-1525 Tudor costume from Tiptree to St Mary’s church. Other 500th anniversary events at Layer Marney Tower include a History Festival on the weekend of 23-24 September 2023.
In addition to his military prowess, Henry Marney is remembered for his architectural ambitions and cultural tastes. Henry’s great chamber at Layer Marney boasted a portable organ, a great lute and various pairs of virginals and the north wall of the nave of St Mary’s church is adorned by a large painting of St Christopher in contemporary dress of hose, tunic and cloak, which he presumably commissioned. His patronage of innovative design and materials, notably in the fashioning of Layer Marney Tower and his own tomb – both well worth a visit - stand as a fitting memorial to a Renaissance man.