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The Tudors' incredible 'Portable Palaces'


The Tudor rulers of Britain must be one of the most well-known, and well-studied, royal dynasties we have had.

But a new Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project being carried out by the Independent Research Organisation (IRO) Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) is revealing a previously little-known aspect of their rule: their incredible tents.

The Portable Palaces project grew out of an HRP programme called Tudors on Tour. “This was a way of taking a family learning festival on tour around the country, from Tatton Park to Camp Bestival,” says Alden Gregory, curator of historic buildings at HRP.

“As we were doing this we began to think about creating a centrepiece for the project: a Tudor royal tent. As we did our research we got more and more interested in this form of architecture and its place as an important functioning part of an itinerant monarchy that regularly went on progress around the kingdom.”

Interestingly, despite royal tents being quite ubiquitous - there are many, many representations of tents in art from the period - still relatively little is known about these incredible constructions.

“The biggest tents really were portable palaces complete with many of the features that you would expect to find in a palace like Hampton Court, including a great hall, bed chambers, withdrawing chambers and toilets,” says Alden.

“They come across in the sources as having been very important for both the progress of the court around the country both in peace and during times of war.

“Also, from HRP's perspective, finding out more about these tents was particularly interesting as we explore the ways that we will be able to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Field of Cloth of Gold in 2020. Visitors to Hampton Court Palace can see a painting of the Field of Cloth of Gold and we’re really keen to bring that incredible event to life in new ways.”

It’s recorded that one of the tents put up for the French King Francis I for the occasion was 120 feet high - that's the same height as the White Tower at the Tower of London - and it would have been covered in cloth of gold. Henry VIII, with whom Francis I met at the Field of Cloth of Gold, rivalled this with a vast temporary palace 100 metre square made of a timber frame covered in canvases that were painted to look like masonry.

As well as the incredible royal tents the project is also investigating the portable timber palaces of the period. These were often used in conjunction with tents but were pieces of sophisticated architecture in their own right.

“They could be large, grand structures,” says Alden. “The one that was built for Henry VIII’s military campaign in France in 1544 had square towers at each corner, battlements around the top of the walls and a pitched roofs that was covered in tin or steel tiles- which would probably have been polished – on top of that were statues of the heraldic beasts that represented the Tudor dynasty, including unicorns, greyhounds and lions.

“Inside there were great wooden columns to hold the roof up that were painted to make them look like they were made of marble.”

So far, much of the information about both Tudor tents and timber palaces has come from desktop research. But alongside archival sources, the Portable Palaces project will also be making use of experimental archaeology.

“This is incredibly important because tents don't survive well and so there's a lot that we don't understand and can't recreate through documentary sources alone,” says Charles Farris, the project's PDRA.

“We don't even know what materials they were made of - was it flax? Or hemp? And what were their internal structures like? Of the hundreds of images that we have access to there are very few depicting the inside of the tent.

“Also, we know that the different tent poles were made of different wood. For example, the pegs were made of ash and the king poles were made of alder. Why was this? They obviously knew a lot about the functional qualities of different woods and it will be interesting to see if we can work out why they made those choices. And how easy is it to create the structure of these tents using just poles and tension?

“Plus, we will need to make our tents to modern health and safety standards! Will it be possible for them to be authentic and safe?”

With many fascinating details already uncovered - and many more exciting discoveries yet to come -the Portable Palaces project promises to take us all just a bit closer to the lives of some of Britain's most iconic rulers.

Read the HRP blog post at: blog.hrp.org.uk/curators/portable-palaces-royal-tents-timber-lodgings

Header image copyright: Steve Parker on Flickr by CC 2.0

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