Hosting Henry VIII at Exeter

Anthony Musson (author details)

Exeter will be hosting a weekend of Tudor festivities and living history in June 2024 as part of Historic Royal Palaces’ Henry VIII on Tour. Events will take place between 13-15 June - see the full programme of events.

Henry VIII came on progress to the West Country in 1510 and 1535. However, Henry never got as far south-west as Exeter during his reign, unlike his father, Henry VII, who stayed in the Close at Exeter Cathedral during his visit to the region in 1497. Asserting his authority in person in the aftermath of a major Cornish uprising, Henry VII acknowledged the city’s loyal support for the crown in helping to suppress it by presenting them with his own sword, which is now proudly displayed in the Guildhall.

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A view of Exeter Cathedral. A blue sky with white clouds is in the background.
Exeter Cathedral

Although he did not visit Exeter in person, Henry VIII recognised the city’s regional significance by confirming all previous charters and granting ‘county’ status in 1537, a highly desirable judicial and administrative autonomy that was retained until a countrywide reorganisation of local government in 1974. The leading aristocratic family in the south-west, the Courtenays, were of royal blood: Henry Courtenay, earl of Devon, who was raised by Henry VIII to the dignity of Marquess of Exeter in 1525, was the king’s first cousin and his longest-lasting royal favourite. Courtenay’s mother, Princess Katherine of York, underlined their royal ancestry in her will by styling herself ‘daughter, sister and aunt of kings’. Exeter also maintained close links with Henry VIII’s royal household during his reign through preferment of John Veysey, dean of the Chapel Royal and Richard Pace, Cardinal Wolsey’s secretary, to senior ecclesiastical appointments as bishop of Exeter (1519-51, 1553-55) and dean of the Cathedral (1519-27) respectively.

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The arched front facade of Exeter Guildhall in pale stone, flanks by high street shops.
Exeter Guildhall

Events will begin around midday on Thursday 13 June with a civic procession from the Guildhall to Exeter Cathedral where ‘Henry VIII’ will be greeted in spectacular ceremony. A procession of dignitaries including ‘Henry VIII’, the Lord Mayor and the Earl of Devon will leave from the Guildhall and walk to Exeter Cathedral, led by the civic mace and historic Henry VII Sword and Cap of Maintenance. The Earl will be wearing a heraldic cloak, newly fashioned in the Courtenay arms especially for the project by students at the Royal School of Needlework and Wimbledon College of Arts. 

In emulation of well-documented ‘civic entries’ the various dignitaries will be met by the bishop and clergy of Exeter Cathedral, who will be processing from the Bishop’s Palace. On arrival outside the Cathedral West Front, the party will be greeted by ceremonial Tudor music provided by His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts and Exeter University Chapel Choir, who are doubling as Henry VIII’s ‘riding chapel’ (members of the Chapel Royal who accompanied him on progress). A speech of welcome by the City Recorder (the city’s senior legal advisor) will be followed by the Lord Mayor’s pledge of loyalty to the crown and his presentation to the king of a gift on behalf of the city of Exeter. The party will then enter the Cathedral to the singing of the traditional Te Deum Laudamus (‘We praise thee, O God’) for veneration at the nave altar and for a blessing by the Dean of Exeter. The civic procession will then depart from the Cathedral to instrumental fanfares and return to the Guildhall.

In the evening we can look forward to a concert of early Tudor music by Exeter Cathedral Choir and His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts at 7.30 in the Cathedral. The programme will include vocal and instrumental music by leading composers of the first half of the sixteenth century, the majority of whom were members of the king’s own Chapel Royal (Fayrfax, Cornysh, Tallis and Sheppard) or Wolsey’s Cardinal College - later Christchurch - Oxford (Taverner). We will also be featuring pieces by King Henry VIII himself and composers particularly associated with Exeter Cathedral (or who are believed to have been employed in Devon), such as Thomas Packe, whose compositions were collected in (and probably performed from) the early sixteenth century volume containing both sacred and secular works known as the Ritson Manuscript (British Library Additional MS 5665).

Talks and demonstrations will be happening at other Tudor sites within the city for school parties and visitors: St Nicholas’ Priory (a small Benedictine monastic house dissolved on Henry VIII’s orders in 1536) is the venue for learning about royal feasts and Tuckers’ Hall (still home to the city’s ancient craft-guild of Weavers, Fullers and Shearmen) for Tudor clothing and textiles. The Exeter Guildhall will also be open for visitors to see inside the building that has been the centre of the city’s civic government for over 800 years.

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An illustration of a Tudor feast, with nobles seated at a table and singers in accompaniment.
College of Arms
An illustration of Henry VIII at a feast, accompanied by singers on the left.
(College of Arms, MS Vincent 152, 'Prince Arthur's Book', p.178)

You are encouraged to join us, too, for an unforgettable dining experience at the historic Guildhall, where we are celebrating the lavish feast given in the summer of 1533 in honour of King Henry VIII by the Marquess of Exeter, Henry Courtenay. It was in July of that year that the king visited the Courtenay's manor of West Horsley, near Guildford, a month after his new wife, Anne Boleyn's coronation as queen in Westminster Abbey, a time when she was also pregnant with the future Elizabeth I. Two years, later in 1535, the couple came on progress to the West Country, spending time together riding and hunting in the woods and parks around Gloucester and staying in the beautiful castles at Sudeley, Berkeley and Thornbury. They were expecting to be given a festive welcome in Bristol, but owing to an outbreak of plague were forced to cancel their visit to the city. 

In the spirit of historical re-imagining we have transposed the documented West Horsley banquet to the civic capital of the Courtenay's ancient Devonshire seat. Our banquet is meticulously themed, as each course, while not recreating Tudor food, is inspired by one of the sumptuous plates on the original menu that guests enjoyed on that occasion. This is an opportunity to immerse yourself in the ambience of Tudor opulence in the candlelit elegance of the iconic Guildhall.

The revelling continues at Powderham Castle (17-23 June), where Henry VIII will be notionally a guest of the Courtenay family, whose family seat is located there, before heading to West Horsley Place (their former Surrey residence) on 27 July where he will be hosted for a further week of events and activities for all the family.

About the author(s)

Portrait photograph of Anthony Musson

Anthony Musson

Project lead / Theme lead: logistics
Historic Royal Palaces

Professor Anthony Musson joined Historic Royal Palaces in 2018 to lead and foster a distinctive vision for the charity’s research into historic palaces, diverse communities, landscapes and collections. He read history and music at King’s College, Cambridge, where he was a choral scholar, having formerly been a chorister at Westminster Abbey.

He has published extensively on legal, political and visual culture and led funded projects on ‘Law and Image: Representations of Justice, 1200-1500’ (British Academy), ‘Lawyers in Society, 1258-1558’ (ESCR) and ‘The Medieval Court of Chivalry’ (Leverhulme). He is editor with JPD Cooper of Royal Journeys in Early Modern Europe (Routledge, 2022).