A little later than scheduled, on 8 or 9 July 1535, Henry VIII set out from Windsor Castle in Berkshire on what would become one of the longest and most politically significant progresses of his reign: the 1535 progress. Anne, still the king’s ‘most dere and entierly beloved lawfull wiff’, was at his side, as was Cromwell, the King’s wily secretary.
Letters and Papers setting out the king’s geists, or itinerary, show that the king and queen had planned to travel through the West Country to Bristol, before circling back to arrive at Windsor on 1 October. In the end, the royal couple did not make it to Bristol, due to an outbreak of plague in the city. Furthermore, they were to delay their return by almost one month, enjoying the hunting and hawking in Hampshire so much that they did not arrive back at Windsor Castle until Monday 25 October.
The Beginning of a New Tudor Adventure!
When I set out to research the 1535 progress for In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, which I co-wrote with Natalie Grueninger, it felt as if I was packing my bags and heading off with the royal couple themselves. It was only time and not space that separated us as we followed them, visiting location after location, along the route of this historic fourteen-week tour.
Some of the places I had visited before. Yet now, armed with details of the events that unfolded at each location around 480 years earlier, I began to see them with fresh eyes. Other locations I had never even heard of, let alone visited, such as The King’s Manor at Langley; the Royal Palace at Clarendon and Bramshill. It was to be another fabulous adventure in time!
What makes this progress so significant to any lover of Tudor history – and particularly to Anne Boleyn fans – is that not only was this to be one of the longest and most politically significant progresses of the king’s reign, with the consecration of three reformist bishops as the centre-piece of the progress (a big political statement on the part of the king) but that it was to be Anne’s last summer on Earth.
The Purpose of a Tudor Progress
Before we dive into some of the locations visited during the 1535 progress, let’s consider why progresses happened at all. There were four main reasons. Firstly, there was the need to move out of the monarch’s principal residences, which were sited along the Thames (such as Greenwich, Whitehall, Richmond and Hampton Court Palaces). These were the buildings most intensively inhabited by the court through the rest of the year. Sanitation was limited and time was required during the year for the palaces to be thoroughly cleaned and repaired; a summer progress, away from London, provided the perfect opportunity.
Secondly, it was a crucial chance for the monarch to be seen by his or her people. Normally, only the most privileged in society had access to the king or queen. By leaving the capital and wending their way through the countryside, the peasant population would have the chance to see the monarch – and no doubt be completely awed by the wealth and power on display, as was the intention.
Thirdly, it allowed the court to escape the ‘press’ of the city at a time when pestilence was likely to be most rife and exacerbated by the density of the population in England’s most crowded city: London. Henry was notoriously paranoid about the plague and contagious illness, once even fleeing London for the relative safety of Waltham Abbey at the outbreak of the sweat in 1528, apparently leaving Anne Boleyn behind to fend for herself! The air in the country was considered fresh, clean and wholesome, no doubt largely on account of the relative sparsity of the population.
In fact, during 1535, there was an outbreak of plague in England. Other cities outside of London were also affected and we see the progress being diverted on at least two occasions; once when the royal couple lodged at Thornbury, rather than travelling into city of Bristol, as originally planned. The second time, when the geists were rejigged at the last minute to avoid the plague around Alton and Farnham in Surrey.
Finally, royal progresses were about pleasure; a chance to unwind from the pressure cooker of court, to be entertained by some of Henry’s aristocratic subjects and to purely delight in a change of scenery.
However, this progress was intended to be much more than merely ‘pastime with goodecompanie’. It was, as I have already noted, to have huge political significance. Were Henry and Anne making a point when they departed from Windsor just days after the execution of Sir Thomas More? Bishop Fisher was already dead, and the new Pope, Paul III, left outraged at Henry’s conduct; the king having executed Fisher only days after he had been created a cardinal by the Holy See.
Certainly, their itinerary sought to honour those landed gentry and courtiers who were known reformists and had shown strong support for the king’s second marriage.
To underline the way in which the Henry’s will was clearly bent, a ceremonial centrepiece of the trip had been masterminded. This was no doubt heavily influenced by a determined collaboration between Anne and the king’s principal minister, Thomas Cromwell; it was to be the consecration of three hand-picked reformist bishops, Foxe, Hilsey and Latimer, at Winchester Cathedral on 19 September 1535. All were staunch supporters of Anne.
A Leisurely Journey Through Gloucestershire
But before reaching Winchester, Henry and Anne progressed first through Berkshire. They kept moving north, heading first to Oxfordshire and Henry VIII’s most northerly ‘great house’ at Woodstock and its satellite hunting lodge at Langley. From there, the progress turned westwards, crossing the border into Gloucestershire.
Even today, Gloucestershire is one of the prettiest counties in England. It is covered by a regional area called, the Cotswolds, named after the range of rolling hills and characterised by pretty verdant valleys and buildings hewn from honey-coloured Cotswold stone, making for picture-postcard villages.
Taking their time as they passed through the county, and often spending a week at each of the major locations they visited along the way, the royal couple lodged at some of the most charming and magnificent historic buildings, now steeped in Tudor history. The first of these was Sudeley Castle.
The 1535 Progress Comes to Sudeley Castle
At the outset of my research, I already knew Sudeley Castle well, the first stop on the Gloucestershire leg of the 1535 progress. Of course, Sudeley is famous with lovers of Tudor history for being the final home and resting place of Queen Katherine Parr. Her reconstructed marble tomb lies peacefully beside the high altar of Sudeley’s medieval chapel. However, I was delighted to be able to roam again the gardens and admire the crumbling ruins of the once magnificent east range, built by the future Richard III. As I did so, I imagined Henry and Anne enjoying the beauty and tranquillity of a summer’s evening within the palatial, privy apartments.
Of course, the 1535 progress wasn’t all about pleasure; at least not for everyone in the royal party. Sudeley was from where Cromwell began sending his men out to nearby abbeys and monasteries at the start of the ominous ‘visitations’. Consequently, Hailes Abbey, just three miles from Sudeley, was one of the first abbeys to be ‘audited’ by Cromwell and his officers.
There is nothing more poignant than the ruins of the many dissolved abbeys that litter the English countryside, the scars and reminders of this brief moment in time when religious life in England was being turned upside down in the most seismic way possible – and Hailes Abbey is no exception. It is certainly worthwhile combining a visit there, alongside an exploration of Sudeley Castle.
Tewkesbury and Gloucester Abbeys
The towns of Tewkesbury and Gloucester followed. These settlements were dominated by two great abbeys. This was particularly true at Gloucester, which had four major religious houses, and was an important medieval centre in the sixteenth-century. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries was complete, like many similar towns and cities whose abbeys were subsequently dissolved, the abbey church was left standing and handed over to the people of the town as their cathedral or parish church. As a consequence, in both these cities, we are left with utterly breath-taking monuments to the glory of God, built by our medieval forefathers.
While only fragments of the lodgings used by Henry and Anne survive at both of these locations, the cathedrals into which they were received upon arriving in each of the aforementioned cities, survive. Visiting Gloucester is particularly exciting, as during our research we came across a little known document recording the details of the visit in 1535. It shed wonderful detail on how the royal couple were welcomed to Gloucester. Most thrilling for me was to uncover the fact that the porch in which Henry and Anne knelt to kiss the cross at the entrance to the cathedral still survives (see the picture above). It was moving to stand there for myself, while people came and went around me, unaware of the scene that was unfolding in my imagination. I know as a Tudor lover you will understand!
From Gloucester, I travelled alongside the ghostly court until I was at Berkeley Castle, the next major stop on the progress. Berkeley is an austere building with a dark history; for it is believed that within his cell, the deposed King Edward II was murdered so brutally that his cries could be heard ringing out through the night (you can see his tomb at Gloucester Cathedral).
However, we digress. With regard to the 1535 progress, imagine my delight to find not only that Berkeley has one of the most magnificent great halls in the country, but that the suite of rooms that would have been occupied by Henry and Anne also remains largely intact. This surviving arrangement, I found, was rare in the locations we researched for the book. Although the early interiors at Berkeley Castle have been lost to later re-modelling, the castle is a great place to get a sense of how the chambers of a high-status house flowed from the public to the private. Once again, I was left thrilled with my experience and have returned many times since, including in costume over the summer months, when my re-enactment group recreates a little of the magic of the 1535 summer progress.
Just a short distance further south lies Thornbury Castle. In Anne’s day, as now, a grand, Tudor house still stands, although it remains incomplete on account of the execution of the man who once owned it, the Duke of Buckingham. Nevertheless, the Duke did manage to create a fine country house that was used by Henry And Anne during a week-long stay. Here they received delegations from the nearby city of Bristol.
Today Thornbury is a hotel; unique in that you can stay in the octagonal room in one of the towers where Henry himself once lay his head at night. The gardens in summer are delightful and I have happy memories of enjoying a thoroughly delightful cream tea and a glass of champagne with my co-author, Natalie Grueninger, as we mused on what we might have witnessed, had we been there around 500 years earlier.
Acton Court Hosts the 1535 Progress
The next place on the 1535 itinerary was Acton Court, home of Sir Nicolas Poyntz and his family. You can read and listen to me talking about Acton Court here. It is one of those places that relatively few Tudor lovers get to see. Opening times are severely restricted and, for many, it is well off the tourist trail. Imagine my delight at having a personal tour with Natalie of this incredible building: one of the most authentic early, Tudor manor houses in England! Because of its raw state, it is easy to recreate in your mind’s eye the chambers as they once were and to see the royal party enjoying the newly constructed lodgings, decorated in the height of renaissance style. It is very special indeed!
After leaving Acton Court, the progress continued through Wiltshire, Hampshire and Surrey before returning to Windsor Castle in early October. The royal couple dallied in Hampshire amongst some of the best hunting ground in the country. And take pleasure they seemed to do; three separate letters note that ‘the King and Queen are merry’. And indeed, if we calculate backwards from Anne’s fateful miscarriage on 29 January 1536, we find ourselves somewhere between Salisbury and Easthampstead, in the latter part of the 1535 progress. Of course, four months after that miscarriage, Anne Boleyn was dead at the hands of the Swordsman of Calais.
Not every place in which Henry and Anne lodged during the 1535 progress remains standing. In some instances, like Thruxton or Woodstock, only grassy earthworks remain where the manor house once stood. At others, crumbling ruins still cling to the landscape, like at Clarendon, just outside Salisbury. Yet, visiting all the known locations was like opening a Tudor treasure trove. There was something extraordinarily special about completing a journey, linking one place to the next, which brought me as close to Anne Boleyn as I had ever felt before.
Join me on the 1535 Progress…
You are invited to join me on your own adventure in time! In September 2020, I will be guiding a group of Tudor history lovers from the north of Gloucestershire to the south, as we retrace the footsteps of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, visiting six of the locations mentioned above: Sudeley Castle, Tewkesbury Cathedral, Gloucester Cathedral, Berkeley Castle, Thornbury Castle and Acton Court. I’d love to meet you there! If you’d like more information or to book on to the tour, follow this link to the British History Tours website.