Originally published June 28, 2023
In the late 15th century, Greenwich Palace, formerly the Palace of Placentia, stood as one of the most splendid and impressive royal residences in England. In 1498, Henry VII began renovations of the old Palace of Placentia, gutting its interior and virtually rebuilding the former palace into one befitting of a European ruler’s handsome abode. He renamed this magnificent, red-bricked dwelling ‘Greenwich’. (Placentia, however, would have been a far more apt name, considering it was here that three Tudor monarchs would be born – Henry VIII, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.)
The royal apartments at Greenwich Palace, to which Elizabeth of York would have retired in 1491, were recently refurbished. The Queen’s rooms, part of an ensemble of apartments stacked in a five-story tower, may have overlooked the Thames, as did her husband’s closet. Or they may have instead offered views of Greenwich’s beautiful gardens, dotted with fountains, orchards, and lawns, encompassed by a two-hundred-acre park, blinked down upon by the late-June sky. Whatever glorious vista sprawled beyond her apartments, however, the Queen’s chambers were deliberately impervious to its beauty.
During Elizabeth’s ‘lying-in’ (a period of confinement imposed on royal mothers awaiting the birth of a child), the windows of her chamber would have been hung with heavy tapestries, blocking out natural light – thought to have been dangerous for expectant mothers and their newborns – and the eyes of curious courtiers.
Only the Queen’s most trusted female servants would have been summoned to attend to her during this precious time, when not only her health lay at stake, but indeed the welfare of the entire royal family.
The Royal Household Ordinances of 1493 – often referred to as the Ryalle Booke – tells us that rich arras, tapestries and textiles were fashioned ‘against the deliverance of a Queen’. Confinement protocol dictated that all the windows must be covered, except for one, ‘which must be hanged so as [Elizabeth] may have light when it pleasethe her’.*
In this dim, womb-like environment, muffled against the bustle of court, the Queen and her ladies passed the weeks immured in religious imagery, drunk on the rich aroma of perfume and herbs swirling about the chamber, a precious sense of royal duty and anticipation bonding them as they waited out the birth of Elizabeth’s third child.
It was at Greenwich Palace, on the 28th of June 1491, that Henry Tudor was born. He was named, unsurprisingly, for his father. No one knew it yet, but this second-born prince, for whom little official notice was to be accorded, would later succeed his father as King Henry VIII.
At the time of his birth, Henry was second in line to the throne, trailing behind his brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. The Tudor dynasty, so newly established on the throne, now had two potential heirs, presenting a solid foundation for the future of the monarchy. Five-year-old Arthur was rapidly growing into a tall, athletic child, whose portraiture suggests fine, delicate features, and a head of light auburn hair. Henry, as robust and hearty as his Yorkist ancestors, provided an alternative should Arthur die young, or be otherwise disinclined to kingship. (The rule of Henry VI – a feeble, mentally-ill king – remained a vivid memory for many both within and without the country).
Although Henry was not to be his father’s first-born heir, his birth was ‘welcomed and feted’ by his parents. According to custom, soon after the birth, Henry’s umbilical cord would have been snipped and dusted with frankincense, ground into a powder, and left to dry.
The royal baby would then be carefully sponged in a medley of ‘wine, herbs, sweet butter or barley water and rubbed with butter or oil of almond, rose or acorns’. This was thought to have plugged his pores, protecting against the evil vapours attempting to seep through his skin.
Henry’s mother would have also undergone lavish, conscientious treatment from her ladies, cleansed with fresh linens and salved with ointments, though it would be a matter of several more weeks until the Queen could undergo an official ‘churching’ ceremony and rejoin the court.
Elizabeth’s pregnancies were by no means easy. After delivering Prince Arthur in 1486, the Queen had suffered a bout of ague, apparently so debilitating that the court delayed its move from Winchester Castle, where she had given birth, to Greenwich, waiting for the Queen to sufficiently improve. Her ladies would have taken all precaution to ensure that Elizabeth did not fall victim to illness or infection after Henry’s delivery, diligently tending to her every need.
Fortunately, Elizabeth was well enough to conceive and give birth to another royal baby – also named Elizabeth – barely a year after the birth of Prince Henry, adding to the jubilant family atmosphere that existed at Greenwich Palace for years to come.
When Henry VIII died, fifty-five years later – having spent much of his adult life at the palace of his birth – the King had shaped his kingdom into a nation state, extensively expanded England’s Royal Navy, broken away from the Papacy, plundered the monasteries and, of course, married six times. Of those marriages, two ended in the execution of his wives. He had produced just three heirs to the throne – Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth – whose religious differences would splinter the loyalties of his insolvent, deeply divided court, and indeed of the entire country.
But for the brief period that was his early childhood, Henry was a mere second son, living in the shadow of his elder brother. His birth was most likely a delight to his parents, both gratified to have another heir sleeping soundly in the royal nursery, and a boon to the court, though little public fanfare accompanied either his birth or christening.
In time, this red-cheeked, newborn prince – so fleetingly consigned to the footnotes of history before emerging one of its greatest and most notorious figures – would transform the Tudor dynasty into the stuff of legends.
*It has been proposed that many of the austere traditions carried out in the Queen’s confinement chamber were established by her mother-in-law, the savvy and indomitable Margaret Beaufort. The tapestries hung in the Queen’s room, specifically chosen for their symbolic representations, usually of mythological or biblical significance, were thought to have been selected by Margaret herself, who was not only apt at cultivating uniquely Tudor visuals, but ‘highly attuned’ to the aesthetics of royal spectacle.
Although there is no direct evidence linking Margaret Beaufort to confinement protocol, she would later take an active role in the upbringing, education, and marriages of Henry and Elizabeth’s children, suggesting that Margaret cared deeply not only for the future of the dynasty, but of the spiritual and bodily health of her four surviving grandchildren.
Sources & Suggested Reading
Borman, Tracy. The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty. Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2016.
Okerlund, A. Elizabeth of York. Springer, 2009.
Olson, Rebecca E. “Margaret Beaufort, Royal Tapestries, and Confinement at the Tudor Court.” Textile History 48, no. 2 (July 3, 2017): 233–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/00404969.2016.1254362.
Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: King and Court. Ballantine Books, April 18 2011.