Sovereign 2023: The Royal Progress of 1541

John Cooper (author details)
Anthony Musson (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:

Henry VIII on tour

Portrayed by his contemporaries as the perfect blend of medieval chivalry and European humanism, Henry VIII was welcomed as a godly prince who would herald England into a new era of holiness and prosperity. Progresses played a vital role in presenting the King to his subjects, displaying him as the people's sovereign on a public stage. At the same time Henry's summer progresses were an opportunity to hear the grievances of local elites, to dispense justice, and (a particular favourite of the King) to go hunting. 

Henry VIII is pictured on horseback with a large retinue in an old painting.
© Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023
Henry VIII is pictured on horseback in this painted depiction of the meeting between Henry VIII and King Francis I of France in 1520 known as the 'Field of Cloth of Gold'.

To travel as far as York was unusual. Henry VII had visited twice, in 1486 and 1487, to secure the region following the Wars of the Roses. Henry VIII’s decision to progress north in 1541, after a gap of more than fifty years, raises acute questions about the timing, purpose and impact of bringing the royal court to York. Civil disturbance arising from the Pilgrimage of Grace and the dissolution of the monasteries were possible spurs to action, but the King’s assurances from 1537 that he would ‘go and see his country of the North’ came to nothing as the preparations were repeatedly postponed. In 1541, however, there was a new reason to come to York: Henry planned to meet his nephew King James V of Scotland, to calm the centuries-old hostility between the two nations and perhaps to negotiate an alliance between them.

The Northern progress of 1541

Henry arrived in the north with a massive display of royal power. One estimate put his retinue at between 4000-5000 horsemen, the size of a battlefield army. The King and Queen travelled in style, accompanied by courtiers, officials, musicians and a plethora of servants. Elaborate tents and ‘the richest tapestry, plate and dress’ were brought from London to the renovated King’s Manor to furnish it as a royal court.

A portrait of James V, who wears a black doublet and hat, on a green background.
Private collection
A portrait of James V of Scotland by Corneille de Lyon, c.1536.

The military show of strength was aimed at James V as much as the people of the north. Despite diplomats working overtime to ensure a successful summit between the two monarchs, however, James pulled out of the meeting; a closely-guarded secret at the time. The potential for war to break out between England and Scotland, and rumours of a new conspiracy at Wakefield, added to the uncertainty and tension.

The 1541 progress was an opportunity for ceremonial dialogue between ruler and ruled. At York (as at Lincoln) the corporation and local gentry welcomed the King outside the city and escorted him in a choreographed formal entry. But again the atmosphere was tense. As depicted in C.J. Sansom’s Sovereign, the people of Yorkshire were made to kneel in homage to Henry at Fulford cross (which still stands today). In political terms, the progress of 1541 promised a new and better relationship between the crown and the north of England: on the one side, an opportunity for local elites to be readmitted to royal service; on the other, for Henry to show he was receptive to the concerns of the people of the north. But did it work?

Henry’s declining health

Painted portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Henry VIII, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger around 1536/7.

The progress coincided with a peculiar time in Henry’s personal life. Having lost his beloved Jane Seymour in childbirth and annulled his marriage to Anne of Cleves, Henry married for a fifth time in July 1540, the teenage Catherine Howard. A strict regime of early rising, religious devotions and exercise injected some new vigour into Henry, as he tried to keep pace with his youthful bride. But the 600-mile round trip proved detrimental to his physical and mental health.

Even with stops planned at favoured locations along the way and a couple of weeks’ recuperation at Pontefract Castle before heading to Hull and finally York, Henry’s painful leg ulcers required constant treatment. Meanwhile the news of his wife’s adultery, which allegedly began on the progress, damaged his pride and undermined his trust. Planned as a display of royal magnificence, the 1541 progress was remembered in ways that Henry VIII would not have intended. Queen Catherine, meanwhile, paid the ultimate price for her alleged infidelity.

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).

Portrait photograph of John Cooper

John Cooper

Theme lead: kingship and queenship
University of York

My research focuses on royal propaganda, palaces and politics during the sixteenth century, so the progresses of Henry VIII are a natural next step for me. I began my career examining the relationship between the centre and the localities of the Tudor state, and how propaganda and prayer strengthened those ties. More recently I led the AHRC-funded ‘St Stephen’s Chapel’ project, which explored the medieval royal chapel in the Palace of Westminster which became the first House of Commons in 1548. For me, ‘Henry VIII on Tour’ is an opportunity to draw those strands together.

When not working on this project I teach Tudor history at York, supervise PhD students, publish books and articles, and give public lectures. Acting as a historical consultant to the BBC and Starz has given me the chance to translate my research for a mass audience. I am also actively involved with the Society of Antiquaries of London, which has sixteenth-century origins and is a partner in this project.