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:
- Sovereign 2023: Sovereign and the King’s Manor
- Sovereign 2023: The King's Manor - a short history
- Sovereign 2023: Entertaining Royalty in 1541 - Ceremony and Spectacle
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.
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.
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
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.