Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments

Plates XXI-XXVI: The Tournament of King Henry VIII, February 12, 1510: Ingraved from an ancient roll in the Heralds Office, London in six plates. A-S

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Transcription/Translation of the early modern English text (verse and prose) on plate xxi


xxixxiixxiiixxivxxv and xxvi

All six engravings are unsigned, but the Minute Books confirm that they are by Vertue from copies of the manuscripts made either by himself or by another draftsman for this purpose (SAL Minutes I.146). Plate XXI is dated 1726, but the manuscripts came to the official attention of the Society from the hands of Peter Le Neve on on 15 April, 1719 (SAL Minutes I.23). The original drawings were sold at auction in 1775 (Sweet 2004: 368n79).


Two early sixteenth-century manuscripts, including an excerpt from the “Westminster Tournament Challenge” (Harley 83 H1, now in the British Library) and a complete copy of the “Westminster Tournament Roll” (College of Arms, London). A partial transcription from the “Westminster Tournament Challenge” occupies the right two thirds of Plate xxi. The rest of the plates represent the “Westminster Tournament Roll:” a sixty-foot vellum manuscript commemorating a tournament held by Henry VIII on February 12th and 13th in 1511 [New Style] to celebrate the birth of his son, Prince Arthur, with Katharine of Aragon.

Provenance and Location:  

Robert Harley, 1st Lord Oxford and founder of the vast manuscript collection that included the “Westminster Tournament Challenge,” was the patron of Vertue as well as Humfrey Wanley.  Wanley was the librarian in charge of the Harleian Library and was also the founder and first secretary of the eighteenth-century Society of Antiquaries. He organized several publications of Harleian materials by the Society of Antiquaries, and although he died in 1726, he may have had a hand in instigating this series of prints.  The strong interest in heraldry among early eighteenth-century Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries is memorably expressed in Joan Evans’s witticism that the College of Arms (here styled “Heralds Office”) was their “natural habitat” during this time (Evans 1956: 73).  The main influence behind this engraving project may have been Peter Le Neve, who was both a herald in the College (1704-29) and President of the Society of Antiquaries (1717-24).

Commentary [CL]

The manuscript that comprises the bulk of Plates xxi-xxvi is known today by the title of “The Great Tournament Roll of Westminster,” or sometimes less audaciously, as the “Westminster Tournament Roll:” it is a sixty-foot long manuscript on vellum, originally brightly colored but now faded, depicting a jousting tournament hosted by Henry VIII on February 12th and 13th in 1511 to celebrate the birth of his first son with Catherine of Aragon; the manuscript gives the Old Style date of 1510. The manuscript, which appears to have resided continuously in the Herald’s Office at the College of Arms in London, depicts three scenes across thirty-six painted membranes from the extravagant two-day affair; it remains perhaps the most important primary source documenting the practice of a Burgundian tournament in late medieval England.

As noted in on the bottom right of Plate xxi, the tournament itself is described in Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families (1550), commonly called “Hall’s chronicle” and, briefly, in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (2nd edition, 1587). Additionally, the Revels Account of Richard Gibson (Public Record Office, E. 36/27, ff 41r-55r) provides a list of the items commissioned and ordered for the Westminster Tournament, and a copy of the jousting cheques for the tournament, the earliest of its type still to exist, is preserved in the Bodleian Library (Ashmolean MS 1116, fols. 109-110b ). This tournament is an unusually thoroughly documented event in early sixteenth-century England.

The chronicles describe the two days of festivities using many of the same details. A jousting tournament held in Queen Catherine’s honor at Westminster featured four main champions: the King, William Courtenay, Thomas Knyvet[t], and Edward Neville, who adopted the four allegorical personae of the Noble Cueur Loyal, Bon Vouloir, Vaillant Desyr, and Joyeulx Penser, respectively. Before the tournament, a challenge in writing was prepared and the names of the challengers were hung from a tree in a curious table-like device on the first day. Most accounts of the tournament emphasized the pageantry more than the actual jousting. According to Hall’s Chronicle, the palace at Westminster was lavishly decorated for the event, which began with the entry of a “pageant of a great quantity, made like a forest with rocks, hills and dales, with diverse sundry trees, flowers, hawthorns, fern and grass” all made from green Velvet, green [Damask], and silk of diverse colors, Satyn and Serenet.” The pageant was large enough to accommodate “six foresters” “by whom lay a great number of spears”  (Hall 1809: 517). In the middle of the pageant forest, there was a castle, “made of gold” paper, attended by a gentleman weaving a “garland of Roses for the prince.”

This contraption was drug into the palace by “two great beasts” tied to its front with thick, gold chains: a mechanical lion and an antelope, the former wrapped in gold cloth, the latter “wrought all over with silver” except for its horns which were also in gold (Hall 1809: 517). These were led by men “appareled like wilde men or woodhouses” and accompanied by two ladies, one on each beast’s side. When the pageant stopped in front of the queen, the “devise” “opened on all sides,” and out burst the four champions on horseback, clad in their shiny armor, their plumes flouncing; their names were “embroidered” on their horses’s “basses and trappers,” which were also decorated with images of pomegranates and posies. “And so the Justes began,” Hall writes.

Henry and his Challengers performed well in the first rounds of jousting. On the second day, the one clearly depicted on the Westminster Tournament Roll, the four knights entered the field accompanied by various courtiers in their pavilions and with their attendants. The Challengers and Answerers all performed well, the king, though, especially. Henry VIII was also a crowd-pleaser and had his horse bang his hooves like drums at the tilt.  That evening, the event concluded with another elaborate banquet and a new pageant. This time, the pageant depicted a garden of pleasure, a contraption so heavy that it crashed through the floor during its construction (Anglo 1968: 56). Once assembled, however, the pageant could fit six ladies with six lords inside, costumed in satin robes of white and green, richly decorated by prominent gold letters, H and K. Henry’s costume was reportedly “decorate with 887 pieces of gold” affixed in the shape of the letters H and K (Anglo 1968: 56). There was dancing and feasting.

The pageant of the garden of pleasure was driven to the end of the palace, where it was to wait for its inhabitants to finish dancing and then it would drive them out the way that they came in. The event quickly escalated, however, into a frenzy of activity as “the rude people ran to the pageant, and rent, tore, and spoiled the pageant” (Hall 1809: 519). Perhaps sensing that the crowd needed appeasing, Henry and his retinue began stripping their lavishly decorated clothes so as to distribute the “letters of the garments, in token of liberalitie,” but again the crowd seems to have been more enthusiastic than they anticipated, for “Sir Thomas Kneut stood on a stage, and for all his defense, he lost his apparel. The ladies likewise were spoiled.” The king and his court removed themselves to a private chamber where they resumed their festivities.  In the end, Hall reports, “this triumph ended with mirth and gladness.” One man, a “shipman of London,” sold the letters he retrieved for a significant sum thereafter.

Believed to be a product of the workshop of Thomas Wriothesley, if not necessarily in his hand, the Westminster Tournament Roll documents the following elements of the tournament: 1) the entry of the four challengers (King Henry VIII, William Courtenay, Thomas Knyvet[t], and Edward Neville,) to the field on the second day February 13th, 2) a scene representing the King at tilt, watched by a gallery of onlookers, including the Queen, and 3) the procession of the challengers exiting the field. The manuscript also contains two heraldic devices and five verses celebrating Henry VIII.

The Society of Antiquaries engraving, for the most part, reproduces the Tournament Roll in the manner of a facsimile, although with some notable differences, especially with regards to Plate 21. Plate 21 actually represents not the beginning, but the end of the Tournament Roll: the five verses celebrating Henry VIII that conclude the depiction of the tournament on membrane 36 of the MS. Additionally, Plate 21 splices in an engraving of an excerpt from the “Westminster Tournament Challenge” (Harley 83 H1). The engraving from the “Westminster Tournament Challenge” takes more liberality with representing the manuscript than the rest of the plates by eschewing a facsimile of the paleography on Harley 83 H1 in favor of a more readable and modernized script form to depict the text.

Plates 22-26, however, appear to represent the Tournament Roll with a fairly high degree of accuracy, with the exception of added text on Plate 22 that provides a running title for the plates underneath the depiction of the Tournament Roll. Plate 22 commences with a reproduction of the heraldic device that appeared on membrane 1 of the roll, featuring a rose and pomegranate. These were traditional emblems of Henry’s reign, and they are yoked together by vines entwining the letters H and K and topped with a crown. The rest of Plate 22, and then the entirety of Plates 23 and 24, reproduce membranes 2 through 23 of the roll; these depict the entry of the challengers onto the field on the second day of tilting.

Beginning on Plate 23, it becomes easy to confirm the Chronicles’ description of the four knights’ method of entry onto the field: in crimson and purple pavilions, bearing the letters “H. and K” in “fine gold,” and on top of each “a great K. of goldsmith’s work” (Hall 1809: 518). These decorated pavilions are depicted on the roll, although the ceremonial procession onto the field apparently included more pavilions, one especially for “xii children of honor, sitting every of them on a great courser, richly trapped and embroidered in several devices and fashions, where lacked neither broidery or goldsmith’s worke, so that every child on horse…was contrary to other, which was goodly to behold,” Hall’s Chronicle records.

The top half of Plate 25 reproduces Membranes 24-27, the scene of the King at the tilt, shattering his lance on his opponent’s helm. Here, the author of the Westminster Tournament Roll took a notable liberty. The jousting check in the Bodleian reveals that although the King performed admirably in the tournament, he did not—as the manuscript suggests—shatter his lance on his opponent’s helm. The manuscript does, however, appear accurately to capture the lavishness of the tilting gallery from which the Queen and others could watch the tilt, and it seems likely from the Revels Account that this was repurposed from the gallery used in Henry VIII’s coronation.
The bottom half of Plate 25 and the rest of Plate 26 represent membranes 27-35, the ceremonial exit from the field on the 13th prior to the evening’s banquet.

Anglo characterizes the discrepancies between chronicle and manuscript, text and image, as one best understood by recognizing two things. Firstly, that tournaments in the reign of Henry VIII operated only nominally as military exercises; they were political maneuvers designed to promote Henry’s prowess, and entertainments designed to highlight his court’s technological innovation and aesthetic taste. Secondly, the manuscript documenting the event worked similarly to the tournament itself. On the one hand, it served as a historical record of the event by depicting the categories of attendees, images of their costumes, and the general order of their activities; on the other hand, it functioned as a testimony to the Henry VIII’s attempts to conceive of his reign as one that should be auspiciously and lavishly documented for history.

The manuscript, therefore, by no means appears to be a perfect record of the tournament. Rather, the roll provides a series of narrative snapshots of the tournament and performs a propagandistic puff in the service of Henry VIII, a point borne out not only by the appearance of the lance that did not really shatter, but also by the five verses celebrating Henry. As Anglo suggests, the tournament itself and the manuscript roll that depicted it, therefore, reflect Henry VIII’s concerted effort to craft his image as a virile, wealthy king, well-prepared to meet the courts of Europe on their own footing.

In the 1720s, when the engraving was made, the Society’s activities were largely devoted to finding a permanent home for its meetings, which its members felt would help stabilize its membership and its research activities. Joan Evans notes the “want of spirit” in the Society during this time (Evans 1956: 79), and identifies the plates for “The Tournament of King Henry VIII” to have been one of the remarkably few products generated by the Society in the 1720s, alongside a two plates of medals (produced in 1726 and 1729), a plate of Furness Abbey (1727), and “some prints of letters from the Barons of England to Pope Boniface VIII that were not even facsimiles” in 1729. Evans finds that there were some “squabbles” in 1737 over the titling of all these plates, including those depicting the Tournament (792).

The inclusion of the Westminster Tournament Roll in Vetusta Monumenta likely reflects the early allegiances between the Society of Antiquaries and the College of Arms as the Society maneuvered to establish itself on surer footing and solidify collaborations. The first president of the Society, who served from 1717-1724, was Peter Le Neve, who also served as the Norroy King at Arms from 1704-1729. Part of Le Neve’s collection, according to Rosemary Sweet, was inherited by Thomas Martin, which may explain how the original drawing that constituted the plate ended up in the auction of Martin’s estate in 1775 (Sweet 2004: 368n79). Additionally, Richard Rawlinson acquired a volume of fragments from Le Neve’s collections, which were famously given by Rawlinson to the Bodleian, where the second MS depicted in Vetusta Monumenta now resides, rather than to the Society of Antiquaries (Sweet 2004: 202). 

On 24 February, 1725, the minute book reports that the Society agreed by ballot to “engrave the tournament of Henry VIII” at the same time that they were preparing the engraving of Henry Hoare’s Armada Medal. On 3 March, 1725, the minute book notes that Vertue “is to have a sum not exceeding £20 for Engraving the Tournament” (SAL Minutes I.146). One week later, the Society had permission from the College of Arms to proceed with the work and Le Neve brought in another manuscript with “the articles of the tilts of the tournaments,” now known to be the “Westminster Tournament Challenge” (SAL Minutes I.185). The plates featuring the entire “Westminster Tournament Roll” and an excerpt from the “Westminster Tournament Challenge” were completed by 9 June, 1726. These plates highlight the Society’s interest in royal antiquities at a time when patronage and support were notably lackluster (Sweet 2004: 86-87).  (Plates XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX and XX also belong in this category, and XVII-XIX specifically document architectural improvements made by Henry that incorporated the tiltyard where these jousts were held into the Westminster Palace grounds.)

The plates depicting the Westminster Tournament Roll appear to aspire to facsimile, with the exception of some added explanatory text on Plate 22. Plate 23-26, notably, include the running titles that identified the various groups appearing in the tournament’s procession, many of which are now obliterated from the roll, according to Anglo (1968: 84).  It seems likely that these running heads were still legible in 1726, since the engravings do not seek to impose any other supplemental identifying information on the plates., Such information would have been available to the Society from both the published version of Robert Fabyan’s Great Chronicle and the manuscript of that work in the Cottonian Library. The Society’s commitment to creating a facsimile must have posed a significant challenge, however, given the fragility and form of the original manuscript. The Society solved this challenge, in part, by reproducing sections of the roll, one on top of the other, and by truncating some characters in half, to be continued on the bottom reproduction of the roll or on the top reproduction on the next page.

This series of plates heralds increasing antiquarian interest in the subject matter of chivalry and arms. Horace Walpole, for example, makes note of these plates in his Anecdotes of Painting (Walpole 1762: 1.53), and it’s tempting to imagine that the images played some part in the Castle of Otranto’s (1764) description of the elaborate procession of Frederick into Manfred’s castle (97-98).  Joseph Strutt and Samuel Meyrick both devoted their scholarly labors to the history of arms, medieval tournaments, and related subjects (Meyrick 1824: 125-37).  Strutt in particular used a similar graphic technique for juxtaposing sections of different manuscript rolls to create the impression of a continuous visual narrative (e.g., Strutt 1801: plate 1). 

The antiquarian illustrations of Strutt and Jacob Schnebbelie, among others, suggest that these Vetusta Monumenta plates also provided antiquaries with an influential example of how to remediate three-dimensional objects in two-dimensional forms. Schnebbelie uses a splicing technique similar to that on Plates 21-26 to depict manuscript rolls, in particular, a MS “Life of St. Guthlac” given in six successive numbers of his Antiquaries' Museum (Schnebbelie 1791: No. 4-9). As Anglo observes, the original roll depicts the figures in the tournament’s procession as “a succession of static figures,” or a “long line of stuffed bodies each differentiated from the other primarily by apparel denoting a certain class of functionary, official, dignitary or noble. The heads are masks, not portraits. The posts are stiff and formalized” (Anglo 1968: 80). This is in keeping, Anglo finds, with the kind of “portraiture” found in rolls of arms, a genre to which the Tournament Roll owes a significant degree of aesthetic debt. Consequently, the Westminster Tournament Roll offered a model for reproducing early modern portraiture as well as an opportunity to consider the development of style over time.  As Schnebbelie commented in the Antiquaries’ Museum, such “paintings in the round” are “expressive of the skill of our Saxon ancestors in history painting” (Schnebbelie 1791: 4.4).

Both the form and the subject matter of documents such as the Westminster Tournament Roll achieved even wider circulation by the 1790s.  Joseph Jekyll, MP, presented the Society of Antiquaries with an original jousting cheque from the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1796 (Gaimster et al. 2007: 77). In popular culture, the form of the manuscript roll circulated as a small but elaborate souvenir depicting the coronation of George IV as a chivalric event, and the production of David Garrick’s Cymon in 1791 featured a “grand procession of the hundred knights of ancient chivalry, and ancient tournament,” each costumed in historically-appropriate attire. It would seem, therefore, that in devoting so many plates to the depiction of a manuscript roll that represented a lavish procession of knights into the tournament field, that the Society of Antiquaries anticipated, perhaps even cultivated, a taste for such historical spectacles.


Works Cited

Anglo, Sydney.  1968.  The Great Tournament Roll of Westminster: A Collotype Reproduction of the Manuscript, 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Evans, Joan.  1956.  A History of the Society of Antiquaries. Oxford: Society of Antiquaries London.

Fabyan, Robert.  1811.  The New Chronicles of England and France. Ed. Henry Ellis. London.

Gaimster, David and David Starkey, eds.  2007.  Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007. London: Royal Academy.

Garrick, David.  1792.  Cymon: A Dramatic Romance. London.

Hall, Edward.  1809.  Hall’s Chronicle: Containing the History of England, During the Reign of Henry the Fourth…to
the End of the Reign of Henry the Eighth
.  London.

Meyrick, Samuel Rush.  1824.  A Critical Inquiry Into Antient Armour.  London.

Schnebbelie, Jacob.  1791.  The Antiquaries Museum, Illustrating the Antient Architecture, Painting, and Sculpture, of Great Britain, from the Time of the Saxons to the Introduction of the Grecian and Roman Architecture by Inigo Jones in the Reign of King James I. London. 

Society of Antiquaries of London.  1718-.  Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

Strutt, Joseph.  1796-99.  A Complete View of the Dress and Habits of the People of England, from the Establishment of the Saxons in Britain to the Present Time. 2 vols. London.

---.  1801.  The Sports and Pastimes of the English People.  London.

Sweet, Rosemary.  2004.  Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Hambledon and London.

Walpole, Horace.  1726.  Anecdotes of Painting in England, 4 vols. Twickenham.

---.  1764.  The Castle of Otranto.  London.

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