Henry VIII is possibly England’s most recognisable monarch. Did you know that he has connections to almost all of London’s eight Royal Parks? He was largely responsible for creating several of them.
Childhood at Greenwich
Henry VIII was born in 1491 at the Palace of Placentia, or Greenwich Palace. This sprawling royal residence, located next to the area now known as Greenwich Park, was extended and modernised by Henry’s father, Henry VII. All that remains of the palace today is the building we now call the Queen’s House, but all of the surrounding land stretching down to the River Thames was part of the royal complex when Henry VIII was a child.
Disaster and deer hunting at Richmond
Henry VIII spent much of his childhood in Greenwich with his three surviving siblings, an older brother called Arthur and two sisters named Margaret and Mary. However, the family sometimes travelled to other royal residences too. In Christmas of 1497, disaster struck as they celebrated 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’s father rebuilt Shene Palace and renamed it Richmond Palace. It was near to the site of what is now Richmond Park. This became a favourite residence of the young Henry VIII, who loved its sports facilities. In 1510 he was there again for Christmas, this time aged 19. Newly wed to Catherine of Aragon, he was less than two years into his reign. The royal couple continued to visit regularly, as the enclosed deer park was a big draw for the King who had a huge passion for hunting. Richmond Palace fell out of favour in 1528 when Henry was gifted nearby Hampton Court, but he probably still hunted in the deer park.
The King at Greenwich
Greenwich remained Henry’s main royal residence, and it was here he married two of his six wives: Catherine of Aragon in 1509 and Anne of Cleves in 1540. His three children Mary, Elizabeth and Edward were also born at Greenwich. Eventually, they would all become monarchs.
Because he is infamous for his six wives, it is sometimes forgotten that Henry VIII’s first marriage lasted 23 years. Much of that time was spent at Greenwich, which was the first Royal Park to be enclosed. In his youth, Henry was charming and charismatic. He cut a dashing figure with his 6’ 1” frame and was much admired for his sporting prowess. Henry’s 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 Henry 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. However, 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 eventually 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. This allowed him to marry Anne Boleyn. The wedding took place in 1533 at a private ceremony in Whitehall. Anne was already pregnant with Elizabeth, the future queen of England.
Henry, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens
During this time, Henry VIII took control of the land and buildings once belonging to the church of Rome. He dissolved the monasteries – home for centuries to Catholic monks – as well as 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 to 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. This is the area we now know as Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Henry’s 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.
Sports at St. James’s and Green Park
Other developments on the abbey’s lands included the building of the Palace of Whitehall. 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 of pounds. Inspired by Richmond Palace, he added sports facilities; a bowling green, indoor 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. Nearby Green Park was also acquired, the land previously belonging to St James’s Hospital. Since the thirteenth century this had been a home for women with leprosy. 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 too, 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.
Henry in later life
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 he suffered while taking part in jousting tournaments, both at Royal Parks.
In 1524 at Whitehall, on the edge of St James’s Park, Henry 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 accident occurred at Greenwich Park in 1536. This was more serious. Henry was testing a new suit of armour when he fell from his steed. 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, who was 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 28th 1547. He was 55 years old.
Henry’s beloved Royal Parks are still here today. He never would have imagined that the open spaces he established for his personal pleasure would be enjoyed by generations of people from across the world. Nevertheless, we have him largely to thank for the generous size of central London’s green spaces – a 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. They 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.