One of the most iconic images at Hampton Court is that of the heraldic beasts adorning the bridge across the moat.
Before encountering them the modern visitor passes under the Western gates built in the 1730s by William Kent, who also designed the Queen’s Staircase within the palace. The lion and the unicorn represent England and Scotland respectively following the union of the two countries earlier in the 18th century. Although Henry coveted Scotland his plans to annex it came to naught. Alongside the heraldic beasts of Great Britain are the trophies of arms which have become such a familiar sight on my jaunts to various stately homes.
By the early 20th century efforts were begun to restore the bridge to some semblance of how it would have looked in Henry’s time. First, the moat was cleared out in 1909 and then work was begun on repairing the stone bridge and reinstating the heraldic beasts that had once lined it. The Edwardians were greatly helped in their endeavours by the survival of the meticulous Tudor accounts for the original building work.
The stone bridge had been built by Henry VIII in 1536. It was the same year and indeed very week that the incurable romantic beheaded one wife, Anne Boleyn, and became betrothed to her former lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, the next day.
The beasts are helpfully paired with brass name plates at the base identifying what they represent. Of all the beasts the only one I could not identify without its nameplate was the mythical yale, which is apparently an antelope like creature with a lion’s tail and horns that can swivel in any direction. I wonder if Henry’s horns could likewise swivel in any direction when Katherine Howard later made a cuckold of him. The Yale of Beaufort harks back to the King’s grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. The latter was something of a mythical creature herself. The formidable Margaret had her first and only child at the age of 13, who, through force of arms, later became king of England as Henry VII. Margaret went on to have another three marriages before dying in her late sixties having seen her only son crowned and confident that the Tudor dynasty was secure in the shape of her strapping young grandson, the future Henry VIII.
Ellie, a rescued greyhound, from time to time.
A panther holds aloft a shield with the wings of the Seymour family emblazoned upon it. According to Patrick Baty in his work “The King’s beasts” the panther has flames emerging from its mouth to indicate its fragrant breath. It could also be seen as a metaphor for the fate of Jane’s two brothers and what happened to those who, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun. Thanks to their sister’s marriage and the birth of a Tudor son and heir, the Seymour brothers enjoyed an unprecedented rise at court with Thomas becoming Lord High Admiral and Edward Lord Protector. It was Edward who built the splendid Tudor mansion at Syon. But like Icarus before them, their hubris led to their early deaths, both on charges of high treason and both during the reign of their nephew. Jane Seymour’s son showed little hesitation in signing the death warrants of his mother’s brothers.
The dragon symbolises Wales and the Tudor’s claim to be descended from an ancient line of Welsh kings.
Jane Seymour’s unicorn bears her coat of arms. Like her family’s heraldic beast, Jane’s panther has flames emerging from its mouth indicating a fragrant breath. Whether Jane had sweet breath herself something surely stank to the high heaven about a woman who would coolly step into the shoes of her dead predecessor, the day after the latter’s execution.
The Bull of Clarence holds the Tudor Rose the emblem symbolising the union of the Houses of York and Lancaster following the end of the War of the Roses.
Patrick Baty was commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces to envision the heraldic beasts on the stone bridge in colour. The heraldic beasts on display in the newly created Tudor privy gardens within the Chapel Court show what a riot of colour the Tudors indulged in. As part of the recent celebrations for the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s coronation the painted and gilded oak heraldic creatures perched on chevron coloured posts and bound by golden chains were commissioned for Chapel courtyard overlooked by Henry’s former privy council chambers. The so-called ‘Kyngs beestes’ were inspired by the painting in the Haunted Gallery of the King’s Family. Alongside the Greyhound of Richmond, the Beaufort Yale, the Bull of Clarence, the Lion of England and the Tudor Dragon are other emblems of Henry’s family including a stag and falcon.
Above the doors in the Great Hall leading to the Great watching Chamber stand the Lion of England and the Tudor Red Dragon as well as greyhounds.