Monday, 26 December 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Hampton Court: The Kyngs beestes

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.
Henry’s stone bridge across the moat was hidden for several hundred years after the moat itself was filled in the 1690s when William III was embarking on his extensive programme to remodel the Tudor palace. To add insult to injury the Georgians rebuilt Henry’s gatehouse much to its detriment according to William Page, who edited A History of the County of Middlesex in 1911. He complained: The gateway to which it leads was largely rebuilt in 1773, losing greatly in dignity and interest thereby. The old gatehouse, of which several drawings exist, the most accurate being some measured drawings by Kent made about forty years before its rebuilding, was of five stories, and much taller than the present building. Instead of a single arch in the middle it had two arches, a large one for carriages and a small one for foot passengers, opening into the gate hall, and the large arch was in consequence not on the centre line of the gatehouse. This affected the oriel window over it, which, being set over the arch, was likewise not in the middle of the elevation.”

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.
Henry had marked the coronation of Anne as Queen by having lead cupolas and ornate weather vanes placed on the turrets of the White Tower at the Tower of London. For Jane he added her heraldic beasts to his own along the stone bridge at Hampton Court.
 Of the original heraldic beasts that lined the bridge only one is known to have survived and very battered it looks too. It turned up in an unnamed pub garden and was for a while on display earlier this year outside the buttery by the Great Hall.
The current royal beasts on the bridge look far too spic and span for stone ornaments that have braved a century of inclement English weather which suggests they have been restored in recent years.
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.
The crowned lion of England displays Henry’s arms impaled with those of Jane Seymour. In reality Jane was never crowned queen as she died shortly after giving birth to Henry’s son and heir, Edward. Of all Henry’s queens only his first two, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, were crowned.  All Henry’s brides knew there was the distinct possibility that, crowned or not, they might end up taking a central role at that other state ceremony unique to Henry’s queens, namely a public execution.
In the Middle Ages, greyhounds were the prized hunting dogs of royalty. Consequently they are often depicted in the tapestries of the period. In the heraldic tradition greyhounds represented courage, vigilance and loyalty. I have always had a fondness for greyhounds ever since I found myself looking after the late 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 other crowned lion displays Jane’s personal device featuring a castle and portcullis.

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.
Another greyhound can be on the rooftop bearing aloft a weathervane.
A Lion of England features as a finial to an oak staircase close by the Great Hall. But for all these mythical creatures decorating Hampton Court, Tudor courtiers were all too aware of the real monster lurking within their midst, whose very look could signal sudden death and whose proclivity for cruelty was not tempered by filial or marital ties. That blood thristy monster in human form was of course Henry VIII.