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Henry VIII
This year sees the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the accession to the throne of one of the most famous Kings of England; Henry VIII. In association with English Heritage’s programme of events to commemorate this historical landmark, the National Monuments Record has undertaken a project to highlight a number of the most important sites and monuments associated with Henry VIII.

Henry VIII had a significant impact on the historic environment as we know it today. The ruins of monastic buildings, coastal artillery castles and royal residences as well as the maritime remains of shipwrecks still bear witness to his political and personal legacy during a reign, many have labelled “The Age of Plunder”.

Henry carried out a large building programme during his reign and actively took part in the design of coastal defences and royal residences. The opulence of his palaces is in stark contrast to the ruins of the monastic buildings he dissolved. However, probably the most significant series of building works he carried out was his chain of coastal defences. These were built at a time of great political turbulence as a result of Henry’s break from the Roman Catholic Church. In addition Henry also created a powerful fleet to protect England’s shores. A number of Tudor shipwrecks have been located, including probably the most famous English shipwreck of all, the Mary Rose.

Henry VIII’s legacy – both physical and personal - still captivates us today, and we maintain a love-hate relationship with this very enigmatic king. A number of the sites highlighted (please click on the links above) in this project can be visited and some are the venues for the programme of special English Heritage events to commemorate the life of Henry VIII.

Festival of History

The Henry VIII commemoration continues at this year’s Festival of History staged at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire on the 25-26th July. There will also be a number of other re-enactments and attractions including chariot racing, battles, aerial displays and activities for all the family. Kelmarsh Hall is an interesting historic building in its own right. It is an 18th century country house set in beautiful parkland and gardens and surrounded by the earthwork remains of a medieval village.

Henry VIII
1: Henry VIII by Biagio Rebecca. © English Heritage. EH Digital Image Archive.
2: Deal Castle. © English Heritage Photo Library Reference Number: K970992.
3: Netley Abbey Reproduced by permission of English Heritage.NMR, Reference Number: CC56/00876.
Deal Castle
Netley Abbey


Dissolved Monastic Buildings

Probably Henry’s most important political legacy and the one which has had the largest impact on today’s historic environment was the dissolution of the monasteries. Suppression Acts were passed in 1536 and 1539 and between 1536 and 1541 hundreds of monasteries, abbeys, priories and other religious houses were dissolved and their lands, properties and wealth were taken by the crown or sold off to supporters of the king.

Monastic ruins can be found all over England and as well as being a stark reminder of Henry’s role in the Reformation, they also make up an important part of the public’s experience of the historic environment.
Palaces and Royal Residences

Henry VIII was probably the most prolific palace builder in English history and played an active role in the planning and designing of a number of his royal residences. His reign is often described as the “Age of Plunder” as he amassed more than 50 royal palaces or residences, most of which were acquired through dissolving monastic estates, taken from “treasonous courtiers” or “exchanged” with local landowners.

However, Henry created a fine architectural legacy and a number of his palaces, such as Whitehall, Hampton Court and Greenwich, were some of the finest palaces in Europe at the time. Whitehall Palace, although little remains today, became the most important royal palace in London and the centre of English royal power for more than 150 years.

Henry was often involved in the design of his royal residences, and often incorporated elements reflecting his personal taste for such pastimes as hunting or sports such as tennis, bowling, cockfighting and jousting.


Chain of Coastal Defences

Henry VIII built a chain of artillery castles and forts at a time of great political turbulence resulting from Henry’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. These fortifications were constructed in response to the threat of French and Spanish invasion and protected some of the most important stretches of coastline such as the “Downs” in Kent, Falmouth harbour, the Solent and the Thames Estuary.

They incorporated the latest designs in military fortifications. Initially, they were designed with a concentric plan such as at Deal Castle. Later, new Italianate designs were introduced with angle or arrow-head shaped bastions, such as at Sandown Castle, on the Isle of Wight.

These fortifications represent a large scale home defence network of coastal defences. Many of them were re-fortified and used again during the Napoleonic wars and the 1st and 2nd World Wars. A number of the castles and forts have survived today and are open to visitors.


Henrician Shipwrecks

Shipwrecks dominate maritime heritage, reflecting the political, economic and military situation of a given period. 73 shipwrecks from the time of Henry VIII have been recorded by the National Monuments Record in English territorial waters. 3 of these are known wreck sites (including the Mary Rose); the remainder have been identified from documentary evidence.

The turbulent times of Henry’s reign, especially following his break with Rome, led to the rapid development of ship design, along with the concept of a permanent fleet. This fleet was to see action various times during his reign, the most famous being when the English and French fleets clashed at the Battle of the Solent in 1545. During the battle, Henry was to personally witness the sinking of his flagship, the Mary Rose.

A number of documented wrecks illustrate the important trade routes and political relationships of the time. In 1524 a ship belonging to the Hanseatic trading League was wrecked on its way to London and in 1545-6 two French fishing vessels en route from Newfoundland were wrecked in St. Ives Bay. In 1543 three ships carrying a Spanish diplomat’s entourage were lost on the Goodwin Sands.