Sovereign 2023: Entertaining Royalty in 1541 - Ceremony and Spectacle

Magnus Williamson (author details)
Keely Hayes-Davies (author details)

In July 2023, the King’s Manor provided the stage for a community performance of C.J. Sansom's Sovereign, by York Theatre Royal. Set against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s visit to York in the Autumn of 1541, Sovereign is a Tudor detective story which explores themes of Royal power, religious rebellion and divided loyalties - both political and personal. The King’s Manor is a key site in the novel.

This piece is one of a series of four examining various aspects of Sovereign 2023. See also:


Royal progresses were an opportunity for ceremony, music and performance. How successful was Henry VIII’s visit to York as a piece of theatre and royal propaganda?

Preparing the royal entry

The royal party was normally met outside the walls by civic dignitaries before formally entering a city, greeted by instrumental music and singing (often by children dressed as angels) as well as elaborate allegorical pageants. York’s preparations began in earnest in July 1541 when the city council ordered joiners and painters to construct a stage at Micklegate Bar. This would be made with ‘towers, turrets, battlements of timber and canvas’, and feature the arms of the city and the visiting king.

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Micklegate Bar, a large stone gateway, is a main entrance into the City of York.
 Bar was a key processional entranceway into the City of York.

A former Franciscan friar, Ralph Clayton, was tasked with writing the welcome speech. Harry Smith, parish clerk of St William’s Chapel on Ouse Bridge, organised ‘a show of singing and other melody after the best fashion that he could devise’ to be performed in front of the chapel. Two more shows were planned for Coney Street, ‘with singing and melody most meet and convenient’.  

Henry enters York: ‘great joy and angelical harmony’?

Henry VIII’s arrival on 16 September 1541 was greeted by York’s singers and instrumentalists: trumpeters, minstrels and waits. However, the well-choreographed theatre envisaged by the city did not go according to plan. The workmen at Micklegate hadn’t finished their preparations for the royal visit. Worse, the King deliberately took an unconventional route into the city, approaching from Fulford cross rather than Tadcaster Bridge. The pageants and plays prepared along the route had to be hastily reconfigured.

Letters from the mayor of York to Lincoln suggest there was considerable anxiety surrounding the King’s visit. The apologetic statement delivered by the Recorder of York, with the entire company kneeling in homage, acknowledged Henry’s sovereignty and the city’s complicity in the Pilgrimage of Grace. The city’s contrition was also signalled in its gifts to Henry: twenty oxen, one hundred sheep, and a golden cup full of gold coins.

At the Minster

Henry’s reception at York Minster was probably modelled on his father’s in 1486, but with some telling differences whose doctrinal importance would not have been lost on observers. Henry VII had been welcomed at the west door by the archbishop and entire Minster clergy numbering well over a hundred people: dean and chapter, vicars choral, chantry priests, choristers and members of affiliated foundations such as the college of St Michael and the Holy Angels. Henry had then processed to the choir stalls at which point the choir sang the traditional hymn of thanksgiving and welcome, Te deum laudamus (‘We praise thee, O God’), accompanied by the organ.

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People walk around the west entrance to York Minster on a sunny day.
Both Henry VII andd Henry VIII visited York Minster on their progresses to the North.

This almost certainly happened again in 1541, perhaps with the 22-year-old Minster organist John Thorne, newly arrived from London, playing alternate verses of the Te deum. Unlike his father, however, Henry VIII made no offering at the famous shrine of St William of York. This relic of the cult of saints had survived Thomas Cromwell’s purges and was still in place when Henry arrived on 16 September; less than a week later the privy council ordered its demolition.

At the King’s Manor

While at the King’s Manor, Henry is likely to have relied more upon his own household musicians than those from the city. The Chapel Royal attended the king as he moved from one residence to another. In Henry’s reign the Chapel consisted of a dean, subdean and eight other chaplains, twenty gentlemen (expert singers, often recruited mid-career from other institutions), ten children or boy choristers, and five or six ancillary staff. Their primary role was to maintain the daily cycle of masses and offices for the royal household.

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A sketch depicting 16th century musicians on a gallery playing wind instruments.
An extract from a sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger depicting 16th century musicians, possibly similar to those who may have played for Henry VIII.

We can also assume that Henry was attended by royal musicians selected from his burgeoning portfolio of instrumental ensembles. In 1541 he employed fifteen trumpeters, one of whom was paid 20 shillings (£685 at 2023 values) by York city council, as well as lutenists, rebec players, William More the blind harpist and composer, viol players, minstrels and waits, drummers, pipers and sackbut players. The opportunity to hear these royal singers and players, some of them from Italy or Flanders or even further afield, was a key factor in transmitting musical tastes from London to the north and other regions of England.

About the author(s)

Portrait photograph of Magnus Williamson

Magnus Williamson

Theme lead: performance
Newcastle University

Magnus Williamson’s research focuses upon music 1350-1650, particularly upon institutions, sources (manuscript and printed), keyboard playing, improvisation, and editing. He has also published on the use of performance, improvisation and composition to bridge the gap between historical evidence (usually documents) and historic events.

He has been Principal Investigator on various UKRI-funded projects, including Tudor Partbooks (AHRC, 2014-17). He is currently co-investigator of several research collaborations: Bee-ing Human (Leverhulme Trust, 2022-25), Aural Histories (AHRC, 2022-25), and Henry VIII on Tour (AHRC, 2022-25). He is Chairman of the British Academy series, Early English Church Music.

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Keely Hayes-Davies

Impact and Outreach Co-ordinator
University of York