In brief – Tudor London
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.
The royal palace at Westminster, which had grown since the reign of King Cnut in the 11th century, was largely destroyed by fire in 1512 and Henry VIII looked for a suitable alternative. In 1530 Cardinal Wolsey was charged with treason and the King was able to seize his palace at York Place, on the Thames between Westminster and Charing Cross. Henry set about creating the vast and magnificent Whitehall Palace that was to remain as the main royal residence in London of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs for the next hundred and seventy years.
The Tudor monarchs also kept several other palaces in and around London, of which the most important was Placentia at Greenwich where Henry VIII, Queen Mary and Elizabeth I were all born. In 1528 Cardinal Wolsey offered his palace at Hampton Court as a gift to Henry in an attempt to save his career. The royal family could travel between each of these by boat along the Thames.
The river was the most convenient and pleasurable way to travel for all Londoners and became increasingly busy during the 16th century. Aristocrats and leading clergy built their palaces facing on to the river in order to embark directly on to their boats. The mayor and all the main Livery Companies kept barges for ceremonial occasions. Long-ferries operated down-river to Greenwich and beyond or upriver to Hampton Court. London Bridge was so congested that it was easier to cross the river by wherry to Southwark.
When the royal court moved to Whitehall their chapel of St. Stephen at Westminster was left without a purpose. It was given a new use as the home to the House of Commons, which since its foundation had met at various locations around Westminster, primarily in the Chapter House of the Abbey. The Lords met in the Parliament Chamber at the southern end of the Old Palace. Parliament had evolved as an institution since its beginnings in the reign of Henry III during the 12th century. Although by Tudor times it played an important role it was still far from the governing body of modern times and sat infrequently. Power was still largely in the hands of the monarchs, their Chancellors and – from the latter part of the reign of Henry VIII – the Privy Council who effectively dealt with the detail of governing the country.