Possibly England’s most recognisable monarch, King Henry VIII has connections to almost all of London’s eight Royal Parks and he is largely responsible for the creation of several of them.
Henry VIII was born in 1491 at the Palace of Placentia, or Greenwich Palace, a sprawling royal residence in what is now known as Greenwich Park and was extended and modernised by his father Henry Tudor. All that remains of the palace is the building we now call the Queen’s House but the surrounding historical buildings such as the Royal Naval Museum and Old Naval College and all the land down to the River Thames were part of the palace complex when Henry VIII was a child.
He spent much of his childhood in Greenwich with his three surviving siblings, an older brother Arthur and two sisters Margaret and Mary. The family travelled to other royal residences and they celebrated the Christmas of 1497 at Shene Palace. A great fire broke out in the king’s private chambers and the family were lucky to escape. Contemporary accounts describe Henry and his sisters, all under 10, being rushed from the blaze in the arms of nursemaids.
Henry VII rebuilt the palace and renamed it Richmond Palace. It was near to the site of what is now Richmond Park. It was a favourite residence of Henry VIII who loved its sports facilities and in 1510 he was again there for Christmas, this time aged 19, newly wed to Catherine of Aragon and less than two years into his reign. They continued to visit regularly, and the enclosed deer park was a big draw for Henry and his passion for hunting. Richmond Palace fell out of favour in 1528 when he was gifted the nearby Hampton Court, but he probably still hunted in the deer park.
But Greenwich remained the main royal residence and it was here he married two of his wives, Catherine of Aragon in 1509 and Anne of Cleves in 1540. His three children Mary, Elizabeth and Edward were all born at Greenwich and all would become monarchs.
Famous for his six wives, it is often overlooked that Henry VIII’s first marriage lasted 23 years. Much of that time was spent at Greenwich, the first Royal Park to be enclosed. In his youth Henry was charming and charismatic and his 6’ 1” frame cut a dashing figure. He was much admired for his sporting prowess and his contemporaries considered him educated and accomplished. He threw lavish parties, hosted banquets and held jousting tournaments for the aristocracy and visiting dignitaries.
In 1527 Catherine’s failure to provide him with a male heir caused him to seek an annulment of the marriage from the church in Rome. Five years older than Henry and nearing 40, Catherine’s child-bearing years were numbered. But the annulment was refused and Henry had to find another way to secure a new and younger wife. The process took several years and was known at court as the King’s “great matter”. Henry declared his independence from Rome and the Catholic church through a series of Parliamentary Acts between 1532 and 1534, ultimately leading to the creation of the Church of England, but also allowing him to marry Anne Boleyn. The wedding took place in 1533 at a private ceremony in Whitehall, Anne already pregnant with Elizabeth, future queen of England.
During this time Henry VIII took control of much of the land and buildings once belonging to the church of Rome. He dissolved the monasteries, home for centuries to Catholic monks - their abbeys, farms, livestock and extensive tracts of land. One such abbey was Westminster. The number of monks at Westminster varied through the centuries from between 30 and 60. By the time Henry dissolved the monastery there were only 24 left.
The abbey’s land stretched to the west and Henry VIII took control of the area. Some was sold but the rest was fenced and turned into a private hunting park that stretched from Kensington to Westminster, the area we now know as Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. The royal hunts were grand and extravagant occasions attended by the glitterati of the day. Visitors watched from grandstands and enjoyed great feasts in temporary banqueting houses. By 1536 the two parks had been enclosed.
Other developments on the abbey’s lands included building the Palace of Whitehall and in 1530 this became Henry’s main central London residence and seat of government. It was a vast complex and the king continued to add to it during his lifetime spending what is estimated in today’s money to be tens of millions. Inspired by Richmond Palace he added sports facilities; a bowling green, indoor real tennis court, a pit for cockfighting and a tiltyard for jousting. The tiltyard was located on what is now Horse Guards Parade, across the road from the eastern edge of St James’s Park.
This area was low lying, marshy and unsuitable for hunting but deer were bred here and then transported to the hunting grounds of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens and later even further afield. Nearby Green Park was also acquired, the land previously belonging to St James’s Hospital, a home for women with leprosy since the thirteenth century. St James’s Park takes its name from this hospital.
Henry VIII’s passion for hunting meant he kept looking for more land. The next area was further north towards the then less fashionable area of Marylebone Park and in 1538 he seized the park from the Abbess of Barking, turning 554 acres into a hunting chase. A ditch and rampart kept the deer in and poachers out. For the next 50 years it was one of the several Royal Parks in London where the king or queen entertained visitors.
The Tudor king is now most often remembered as an irascible and obese older man. His declining health and prodigious weight gain in later life have to some extent been attributed to two accidents while taking part in jousting tournaments, both at Royal Parks.
In 1524 at Whitehall on the edge of St James’s Park he was struck in the face by a lance after forgetting to lower his visor. He suffered from severe headaches for the rest of his life. The second in Greenwich Park in 1536 was more serious. Henry was testing a new suit of armour but fell from his steed and the horse, also in full armour, fell on top of him. The king was unconscious for two hours and a previous leg wound was reopened. The news was conveyed to Anne Boleyn, pregnant at the time, and she was told he may die. The shock is said to have caused her to miscarry a male child.
Henry’s personality changed following the accident. His outgoing charm was replaced by paranoia and bad temper. The leg wound never healed and he suffered from painful and ulcerated legs for the rest of his life. The fall also put an end to his sporting life and his weight gain became extreme as banquets and feasts continued. He died at Whitehall on January 28 1547 aged 55.
But the Royal Parks are still here today. At the time of their creation Henry VIII’s intention was almost certainly not to provide open space to be enjoyed by generations of people from across the world for centuries - but that is what has happened. We have him largely to thank for the generous size of central London’s green spaces, its lungs and sanctuary not only for people but thousands of plants, animals, birds and other wildlife too.
Nowadays the Royal Parks are run by a registered charity and receive no Royal funding and a limited amount from the state purse. Instead the Parks largely rely on revenue from events and of course the public’s generous donations.