London had grown throughout the Middle Ages, from being a busy port to become the country’s most important city; the nation’s greatest trading centre; and location of the vast St.Paul’s Cathedral. A short distance to the west lay Westminster, where stood the country’s most important royal palace; the monastic church where every English king since 1066 had been crowned; and the centre of government and law.
In 1485 Henry Tudor, descended from the widow of Henry V and with a tenuous claim, seized the throne after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Henry VII, the first of a new dynasty, was an insecure man, trusting few. He formed his own personal bodyguard, the Yeomen of the Guard, a ceremonial body that continues to this day. Henry created a magnificent new chapel with an ornate fan-vaulted ceiling at the east end of Westminster Abbey as a shrine to Henry VI, which was consecrated in 1509. His plan was to have a tomb built within the chapel but he died before it could be completed and it was he who was finally buried there instead of his defeated predecessor.
In the latter 1520s Henry VIII was seeking an annulment for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which had failed to produce a son. Refusal from the Pope prompted Henry to break from Rome and take control of the Church in England and that took effect in 1534. It was an issue on which the King’s advisor, Thomas More, could not agree and he was replaced by Thomas Cromwell. Major reforms took place, led by those who were influenced by the evangelical Protestant teachings arriving from Germany and Switzerland. All monasteries were closed, the veneration of saints prohibited, and the use of the Bible in English made mandatory. The religious changes that took place during Tudor times, from the old type of Catholic worship to the new Anglican Protestant style and known as the ‘Reformation’, were a gradual process that evolved over several decades throughout the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth.
Closures of London’s religious establishments began as early as 1531 but the first of significance was Holy Trinity, Aldgate the following year. Large amounts of treasure were confiscated by the Crown. Buildings and land-holdings were taken over by Henry and kept for his own use or dispersed to members of his court. From these land seizures Henry was able to create hunting grounds to the north and west of London that later became Hyde Park, St.James’s Park, Green Park, Regent’s Park and Kensington Gardens.
Like all other churches St.Paul’s Cathedral suffered during the Reformation, with many of its splendid internal medieval features destroyed. Thereafter it descended into little more than an indoor market and meeting-place. The mighty steeple, which for several centuries had dominated the skyline was struck by lightning and destroyed by the subsequent fire during a violent storm in 1561. The square steeple-less tower was re-roofed and used by Londoners as a point from which to enjoy the views across the city and beyond.