Acton Court, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – The Royal Progress of 1535

Posted By on March 14, 2011

Today we have a guest article from Nasim Tadghighi who attended historian David Starkey’s talk entitled “Acton Court and the Tudors” at the University of Bristol.

Acton Court, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – The Royal Progress of 1535

by Nasim Tadghighi

Last night I attended a talk by David Starkey on Acton Court and the royal progress of 1535. For those unfamiliar with the place – Acton Court was a grand house in South Gloucestershire. In the 16th century it was home to the Poyntz family, a well established and connected Gloucestershire family. Only one wing of the magnificent house still survives and, wonderfully enough, it is the same wing built for the visit of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in 1535. It later fell into disrepair but in recent years it was conserved and is now open to the public in summers. David Starkey is a great fan of the building and uses it frequently in his Tudor documentaries.

Tudor Manor Houses

Most of Starkey’s talk was on context. In order to understand why Acton Court and why Henry and Anne’s stay there was so important, we have to understand the role manor houses played in Tudor England. Starkey drew the audience’s attention to the fact that the English call these buildings ‘houses’ (so ‘country houses’), whereas elsewhere in Europe, including in France, they are castles. They are ‘power houses’ – for they are occupied by those who wielded national or local power.

He also pointed out that in England very few people were classified as members of the nobility. The gentry were a larger group and it was a class that anyone who was wealthy, connected and educated enough could aspire to. He pointed out that during Henry VIII’s reign there was an astonishing few amount of dukes – and Henry having the duke of Buckingham’s head chopped off makes them fewer! – but, provided you were wealthy enough, you could become a figure of local importance. The governance of England was not simply based on power in Westminster. Areas were governed by regional bodies. So to be a figure of local importance – to hold power over your area – was really to be someone in Tudor England.

He then said that we must not confuse our ideas about households with the 16th century concept. Households, the ‘family’, did not just include the mother, father, children, etc, but everyone within, including servants. Grand 16th century houses were mini towns – and he even looked at places like Hampton Court and identified them as similar in structure to mini medieval settlements.

The Tudor gentleman had many servants; the more attendants he had, the more powerful he became. Starkey stressed the importance of household badges, household colours and other emblems, all to emphasise that servants frequently displayed their allegiance to their master and were willing to aid them in anything. And this also meant to fight if their master told them to. England had no standing army in the Tudor period. If the king wanted to go to war he relied upon his noblemen and gentlemen to raise arms and aid him.

Finally, Starkey talked about royal iconography in Tudor houses. It was all well for a gentleman to ensure his servants wore his colours, his badge and showed him loyalty, but courtiers relied upon the King’s favour. They owned all to their King, and they did not fail to recognise this. Starkey referred to numerous examples of the Tudor rose, the Aragonese pomegranate, and other royal insignia adorning the finest pre-Reformation Tudor houses. In effect, the master of these households had also become a servant in the same establishment. By pointing out they themselves had a greater master – the King – they were indicating that authority does not stop at them.

And it is not just shown in houses. This can be seen in Tudor portraits. Starkey showed us a portrait of Sir Nicholas Poyntz by Hans Holbein (you can see it here: Sir Nicholas is clearing wearing the gold chain indicating his knighthood – a knighthood obviously conferred on him by Henry (and Starkey forgot to mention that Henry probably knighted Nicholas around the time he and Anne visited Acton).

So finally onto the royal progress and Henry and Anne’s visit to Acton!

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s Visit to Acton

Starkey briefly discussed why Henry and Anne visited when they did. He reminded us that London was pretty much unbearable to be in from around May to Oct – plague was rife, the heat not doing wonders when we imagine the open sewage, etc. There were also less religious festivals in the summer which gave the King opportunity to get away from the capital. In short, Henry liked to travel throughout the summer – it was the traditional ‘break’ time. He often stayed with courtiers, though he owned numerous palaces (Starkey pointed out that Henry did not visit the majority of them and treated some as grand ‘B&B’s’ like Leeds Castle!)

By 1535, Henry was now Head of the Church, married to Anne Boleyn, and their issue were declared the lawful heirs in an Act of Succession passed the year before. So this trip was not just about getting a ‘break’. The Reformation was the main consideration. Anne would be displayed to the public as queen, and she needed all the publicity she could due to her poor reputation particularly amongst women. The Reformation is such an important part of the story of Acton Court.

Starkey showed us that one of the most remarkable things about Acton Court was the lack of royal iconography. In fact he went further by saying that Acton was the first house to show the political impact of the Reformation. In this case, loyalty to the monarch and his wife was not displayed by having their badges adorning the place. It was through constructing a whole new wing purely for them, and to ensure it was decked out with the latest continental designs and full of sumptuous luxury items.

Starkey told the audience that despite all the things he was taught at Cambridge regarding the Reformation – about the social movements allegedly inspired it, the impact of the printing press, etc – he believes that, fundamentally, the break from Rome only happened because Henry fell out of ‘luuvv’ (as he said it!) with Katherine of Aragon and in ‘luuvv’ with Anne Boleyn.

So for Starkey, and he was very frank about this, Anne was a most remarkable figure. She was, he argued, an ‘amazing effective mistress’ – the most important royal mistress in history. Additionally she was remarkable because she became Queen due to love. She was tenacious and he denies that she was a mere floozy (though he still thought she could be called a floozy!) She was a dedicated religious reformer, greatly inspired by the French evangelical movement.

1535, Starkey reminded us, was the first time Henry went outside of London to promote the reformation. Anne, the committed reformer, visited the households of a number of pro-Reformers during this trip alongside her husband.

Starkey once again showed the portrait of Sir Nicholas Poyntz and asked the audience what they thought of his dress. A few immediately replied that he looked French, and Starkey agreed. Sir Nicholas has modelled himself on a French gentleman, and who else was rather French in their ways? Anne Boleyn, of course. Starkey emphasised the role Anne played in promoting all things French. The implication here was that courtier Sir Nicholas, who certainly wanted to better himself, was very keen on emphasising his fidelity to both his king and queen. Anne may have been disliked by many, but Sir Nicholas was very keen to gain her approval.

In fact, Poyntz understood that there was the need to win the hearts and minds of the people to Anne. So he supports the royal progress by remodelling his house to accommodate both her and the King. And this remodelling is remarkable. In such a short space of time he has a complete wing built. Its build so rapidly that it lacks foundations. The rooms are built in the fashion of Hampton Court. In short, Henry and Anne were made to feel at home.

Why did Henry and Anne go to Acton though? Why, on their tour, did they also stay with the Walshs at Little Sodbury (situated close by). The simple answer, Starkey says, is that these people were reformers. The Walshs had once hired William Tyndale as a tutor to their children. Sir Nicholas was also interested in religious reform. And the area had a well established history of being connected to dissenting views (like Lollardy). Hugh Latimer, who Anne offered patronage to, became bishop of Gloucester.

Finally, Starkey remarked that Acton Court was a snap shot in time. It was, in essence the 1535 Royal Progress and it is remarkable that it survived. He sees it is the equivalent of the palace built for the Field of Cloth of Gold, except unlike the palace it was a temporary structure never demolished once used.

After the talk he was asked a few questions:
Someone asked about Sir Nicholas Poyntz’s connection to Anne Boleyn. Starkey replied that Poyntz came from a court family. In fact his grandfather had once been vice-chamberlain to Katherine of Aragon. So did Anne wish to win Poyntz over? He was also well connected to other reformers, like the Walshs and as explained he came from an area with a history of being pro-reform in variable degrees.

He was also asked what happened to the wing of the house after Henry and Anne visited. Starkey replied that we simply don’t know. He speculated that it was never used by the family – so became a kind of state room to commemorate the King’s stay.

One woman asked why there is so much recent interest in the Reformation. Starkey said this was a good point, and said it perhaps has to do with the religious tensions of our age. He then discussed the current state of Islam, speculating whether it is approaching its own reformation. He also implied there was a fear of religion at the moment.

Another person asked about the wall paintings in Acton Court. Are they significant? Starkey replied they absolutely were and showed the impact of the Renaissance namely ideas in art from France and Italy. He noted that Anne Boleyn was very familiar with French art and would have found the designs familiar. Overall Starkey talked about the Renaissance in a national context.

Finally(!), someone asked whether Anne Boleyn’s downfall was connected to the Poyntz’s own demise. Starkey answered that this was not the case; the family declined years afterwards (as did many gentry families). He did end by saying that Henry never revisited Acton though this was due to many factors like the King getting older and having numerous affairs to deal with elsewhere. Anne’s death though did not mean her supporters also suffered.

Overall an interesting talk. I enjoyed Starkey’s emphasis on Acton Court representing a moment frozen in time and we are fortunate, as Anne enthusiasts, that she shared in that moment.

Oh, and I think we can guess about Starkey’s views regarding the recent attempts to dig up Henry VIII. He noted that the royal loo used by Henry still survives at Acton and wry noted that scientists can probably dig around in there and get his DNA if they like. Meow!

Some images of Acton Court can be seen at:-

Thanks for sharing your notes, Nasim, and how wonderful to hear David Starkey speak!

Acton Court at Risk

Nasim told me how there are currently fears that Acton Court will fall into ruin because of the heavy traffic on the road outside it. At the David Starkey talk people were signing a petition to reduce the number of lorries allowed on the narrow country lane outside Acton, to try and prevent further damage to this wonderful Tudor building. Nasim is from the area and says that many of the lorries do not need to use the road and are just using it as a shortcut, not realising that their actions are causing damage to the building which stands just three feet away from the road.

Although Acton Court has been upgraded to Grade 1 building status to help protect it, no measures have been taken so far to reduce the amount of traffic passing the building. A report by English Heritage said: “There are fears there may be physical damage, particularly to the gateway and walls, from vibration or collision.”

This is an awful situation and something needs to be done to protect this Tudor building. It would be awful to lose such an historic building, a building which was visited by Henry VII, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and Sir Walter Raleigh. Nasim has set up a special Facebook page Save Acton Court to spread the message, so please do show your support by pressing “Like” on that page. As Nasim says, “It is such a remarkable building but because of the nature of his construction – built so rapidly for Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn that it even lacks foundations! – it is liable to suffer further disrepair.”