The G2 Summit

I’m betting that by the end of this year we’re all going to wish Henry VIII had never been born. I’ve lost count of the number of exhibitions, events and attractions that are shoehorning in some kind of Henry angle this year.

Some of them have more claim to him than others – I’ll buy Hampton Court and the Tower; I’m less sure about a public school in Croydon – though top marks to them snaring a Mary Rose exhibition. Someone there clearly has some important parents…

In Greenwich there are a few token efforts – there’s a leaflet with some stuff coming up at the Old Royal Naval College including a weekend of jousting and dressing up but (probably sensibly, given the sheer quantity of events elsewhere) no one’s going overboard here.

That’s probably due to our hardly having anything left of Greenwich Palace (the undercroft and a cistern head that’s now part of the vicarage is the sum total) and because of that we tend to forget that Henry actually spent loads of time here.

This year, other palaces are going to be banging on about the marvellous things Henry did whilst visiting them. But as far as I can tell, the best party he ever threw was right here in Greenwich, and just because we’ve lost the building doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

I can’t find a specific date for the shindig he held for the French Ambassadors in 1527, but John Stow (the same guy who wrote the Survey of London), not normally a man short of adjectives, admitted he “lacked head of fine wit and also cunning in the bowels” to describe it with the correct level of munificence. Nevertheless he had a stab at it – and it’s his account we’re left with.

England and France were both trying to look the most important. The French Embassy made up quite a party. Eight hundred French VIPs bowled up, though since there were only six hundred horses, presumably some had to share.

Henry needed a nice, secure place to entertain his guests, away from the hoi-poloy, so he created himself a conference centre at Greenwich by covering the entire tiltyard with canvas and turning it into a giant marquee. Cardinal Wolsey had hosted quite a kneesup at Hampton Court earlier on, but that was nothing to the banquet Henry had in mind – John Stowe reckons this one “excelled it as much as gold excels silver.”

Right in the middle of the banquet, “lusty gentlemen in complete harness” jousted on horseback, followed by what seems to have amounted to a fancy dress parade in Latin with “the players in the richest costumes, ornamented with the most strange and grotesque devices.” Then there was music and masking, followed by more food.

Henry wasn’t beneath using a spot of sex too. He arranged for “the fairest ladies and gentlewomen that had any renown throughout the realm in the most rich apparel that could be devised” for the French ambassador and his aforesaid lusty gentlemen to dance with. Henry made sure that the ladies all spoke French so that the ambassadors would be “delighted to hear their mother tongue…”

The boars’ heads and sugar castles, boiled peacocks and hearty ale, masking and dancing went on until three. Nobody seems to have been very bothered with actually talking about much in the way of state affairs – or at least John Stow, still dazzled by the evening’s splendour, doesn’t care to record it. Presumably it was the usual stuff that 16th Century known-world leaders talked about – joining together to whoop the Spanish…

And anarchists seem to have been thin on the ground in Tudor times, though perhaps the heads-on-pikes decoration of London Bridge had something to do with it…

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