Symbols and emblems

The Plantagenet literary legacy and the early Tudor use of visual propaganda

When Henry Tudor married Elizabeth of York in January 1486, it was not only the unifying of two warring noble house, but the birth of a new artistic age.

Queen Elizabeth was the daughter Edward IV whose collection of books formed the first Royal Library now housed in the British Library. Edward was an avid collector of illuminated manuscripts as well as the king who encouraged new technology. In 1476, possibly at the behest of the king, William Caxton set up the first printing press in England at Westminster and the first book produced was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Caxton had learnt the art of printing in Cologne and as well as being a printer of books, he was also a translator and editor. During his time in Bruges he had been encouraged to translate and print The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye from French to English by none other than King Edward’s sister, Margaret of York who was the third wife of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.   This book was the first book ever to be printed in English. We do not know the precise date of Caxton’s death, but it is believed to be circa 1491. The introduction of the printing press sounded the death knell of the illuminated manuscript.

Until the invention of the printing press all books and legal documents were scribed by hand. Many were illuminated and these manuscripts remained a luxury item until the middle of the 16th century. However, Henry VII was particularly interested in the printed books being produced by the Paris printing houses, but also appreciated the skill of the illuminators and scribes of the traditional book industry.

In 1492 Henry VII appointed Quentin Poulet, a Frenchman from Lille, to be the keeper of the Royal Library. Poulet’s name is found in a 1472 – 1473 list of apprentice illuminators in Bruges, but we have no idea why he came to England. In 1496 he presented a manuscript to Henry VII known today as Royal Ms 19 C VIII, which contains instructions on how to be a good king.

Poulet presenting his book to H7
Royal Ms 19 C VIII f1r. Quentin Poulet kneels as he presents this book to Henry VII.

[i] There are many examples of this type of book dating from the 8th century during the time of Emperor Charlemagne and these texts became very popular in France during the time of Louis IX (1214-1270).

During 13th century English texts called Secretum Secretorum performed a similar function. These texts were allegedly letters written by Aristotle to his pupil, Alexander the Great. The British Library manuscript Additional 47680 is an example of the genre that was presented to Edward III (1312 – 1377) at the beginning of his reign.[ii] The Secretum Secretorum derives from the translation of a 9th century Arabic script and may not have been written by Aristotle at all since no evidence of any Greek letters of this nature has survived. Judging the number of this type of books of instruction on how to be a good king that are still contained in the Royal Library we have to conclude that it was necessary for a prince to have a comprehensive knowledge of ancient history in order to learn the lessons “of wisdom, virtue and knightly conduct”.

Returning to Quentin Poulet’s manuscript of 1496, today he might be accused of plagiarism because there is little difference between this and an earlier manuscript attributed to Sir Hugh de Lannoy (a knight of the Golden Fleece) and known as L’Enseignement de la vraye Noblesse. Poulet appears to have copied Lannoy’s text and merely changed the title to L’Imaginacion de la vraye noblesse, while claiming original authorship. It would be a staggering impudence by Poulet to suggest that Henry VII required this type of advice, which is why it is generally agreed that this manuscript was more probably meant for Prince Arthur. What is puzzling is why Poulet chose to hand scribe the text in cursive Gothic script knowing that the king was a collector of fine printed books. Poulet paid just over £23 to have the manuscript illuminated, which equates to a modern equivalent of £138,900.00.[iii]

f11r Royal 19 C VIII
Royal Ms 19 C VIII f11r Lady Imagination & the three Virtues meets the knight on the road to Halle.

The text relates the tale of the strange encounters of a knight on his way to the sanctuary of Our Virgin in the city of Halle (situated in central Germany). On the road he encounters Lady Imagination who instructs him on how to lead a virtuous and noble life. There are six full-page illuminations highlighting the main points of Lady Imagination’s lessons.

We do not know much about Quentin Poulet, but his appearance in the Bruges register of apprentices of illuminators suggests why he chose to have a Flemish master illustrate this book, which is attributed to “The Master of the Prayerbooks of around 1500”. What we do not know is how the commission was conducted? Was there collaboration between scribe and illuminator? Whose idea was it to include the visual pun of Poulet’s name of a cockerel and a chicken hatching from an egg in the bas-de-page of this particular page?

Royal 19 C VIII f 32r chickens
Royal MS 19 C VIII f32r bas de page with the visual pun on Poulet’s name.

At first glance we might conclude that Poulet has misjudged his intended recipient’s preferences, but Henry VII was keen to establish the Tudors as a dynasty and show that he was more than an upstart throne grabber. The best way of doing this was to promote learning and the arts, so it is not so unreasonable that the keeper of the Royal Library should present a magnificent illuminated manuscript to his master.

When it came to making an architectural statement we only have to look at the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey to see how the first Tudor king lavished money on this most expensive of art forms.

Screen Shot 2018-01-20 at 22.33.44This serene space with its soaring pillars supporting the most beautiful late medieval van vaulted ceilings is one the last buildings in England constructed in the decorated perpendicular gothic style.   Construction started in 1503 and was completed in 1516 when it was described as ‘miraculus orbis universalis’ This would have been music to Henry Tudor’s ears had he lived to see the chapel completed. Today it houses the tombs and monuments of various Tudor royals, the most spectacular of which is the tomb of the Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York commissioned by Henry VIII from the Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano. (iv)

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Tomb of Henry VII & Elizabeth of York

Pietro Torrigiano was in England by 1507 and it is thought that he may have come at the invitation of Lady Margaret Beaufort.(v) Torrigiano had studied sculpture at Lorenzo de Medici’s Academia in Florence and is probably better known for having broken Michelangelo’s nose during an argument when they were students together. The original designer of a tomb to house the bodies of the first Tudor king and his queen was Guido Mazzoni who drew up several designs during the Henry’s lifetime one and was agreed upon before Henry VII’s death. However, after Henry VII died, Henry VIII chose to ignore his father’s wishes and employed Torrigiano to create what he considered a more suitable tomb. Whether Henry VIII’s change of designer was a deliberate slight to his father’s wishes is not known. Perhaps Lady Margaret Beaufort instigated the change because Torrigiano had the greater reputation? Lady Margaret outlived her son by some weeks so this is not an unreasonable supposition.

Architecture was and remains the most expensive of art forms and Henry VII spent ‘lavish sums’ on many building works.[viii] He built Richmond Palace and changed the face of the old Greenwich Palace to make its façade a suitable statement of Tudor power for anyone sailing up the Thames and seeing the palace for the first time, but he was not the only early Tudor to leave their artistic mark on the canvas of history.

Henry VII was fortunate to have his indomitable mother, Margaret Beaufort, by his side throughout his reign. She was a devout woman, endowing colleges and chapels and she too was a patron of William Caxton. In 1489 she commissioned an edition of the 13th century romance, Blandardyn et Eglantine from his press because she considered the story was not dissimilar to her own.[vi]

Through examination of the various early illuminated manuscripts dedicated to the new royal family it is possible to track the development of what we now know as the Tudor rose. The unknown artists have taken the red and white roses of the Houses of Lancaster and York and they appear as separate flowers, quartered red and white until finally around 1500 the combined flowers emerge as the amalgam of the red and white roses which we now recognise as a Tudor rose, but there is one emblem that has remained the same since its inception. It is the Beaufort Portcullis.

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St John’s College Cambridge gate.

It appears in the margins of manuscripts, but more overtly we see it carved into the space above the gatehouse of St John’s College Cambridge. St John’s College was founded by charter in 1511 as a charitable corporation. The college was to be on the site of the 13th century Hospital of St John at Cambridge and in order for this to be turned from a religious Hospital into a college required approval from the king, the Pope and the Bishop of Ely. Unfortunately Lady Margaret had not left a bequest for the foundation of the college and there were a series of complex legal issues culminating in December 1512 when the Court of Chancery permitted the executors of Lady Margaret’s last will and testament to release funds for the foundation of this new college. Only the Chapel of the original buildings was incorporated into the new buildings and a magnificent brick gatehouse was constructed incorporating the Beaufort coat of arms. In this photo (© we see how both the Tudor rose and the Beaufort portcullis dominate the entrance.

Within the college is a portrait by the artist Rowland Lockey. Lockey had been apprenticed to Nicholas Hilliard in 1581 as a goldsmith and was painting at the end of the 16th century. His portrait of Lady Margaret at her devotions is on panel and contains all the Tudor emblems: the rose, the royal coat of arms and the portcullis.

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Lady Margaret Beaufort: c1598 Rowland Lockey. St John’s College Cambridge

The college was named after St John the Evangelist who was one of the original Apostles and the author of the Book of Revelations. We see the Tudor rose in the roof of the cloth of estate immediately above Lady Margaret’s head. The royal coat of arms appears twice: once the cloth of estate above the Beaufort portcullis and again in stained glass in the window to the left of the stained glass portcullis.

Visual references to Lady Margaret continued to be made in illuminated margins later in the 16th century in various patents and charters with the continued use of the Beaufort portcullis.

In his funerary sermon her chaplain, John Fisher, described Margaret Beaufort as follows: She was bounteous and lyberal to every Person of her Knowledge or acquaintance. Avarice and Covetyse she most hated, and sorowed it full moche in all persons, but specially in ony that belong’d unto her. She was of syngular Easyness to be spoken unto, and full curtayse answere she would make to all that came unto her. Of marvayllous gentyleness she was unto all folks, but specially unto her owne, whom she trustede, and loved ryghte tenderly. Unkynde she woulde not be unto no creature, ne forgetful of ony kyndeness or servyce done to her before, which is no lytel part of veray nobleness. She was not vengeable ne cruell, but redy anone to forgete and to forgyve injuryes done unto her, at the least desyre or mocyon made unto her for the same. Mercyfull also and pyteous she was unto such as was grevyed and wrongfully troubled, and to them that were in Poverty and sekeness, or any other mysery.

This description suggests a woman who lived a Christian life in the way Lady Imagination instructed our young knight in Poulet’s manuscript.

After the violent establishment of the new dynasty in 1485, by 1509 England was attracting artists and artisans from all over Europe. In addition to Torrigiano & Mazzoni, names of other Italian artisans such as Bartolomeo Penni, Antonio de Annuziata de Toto (known in England as Antony Toto) and Guido da Maiano appear in various accounts. After the accession of the eighteen-year-old Henry VIII, England continued to draw craftsmen and artists to her shores like a magnet. One might conclude that this magnetic attraction was due to the youthfulness of the king and it is generally taught that these men came with their families, seeking royal patronage.

One of the conditions of Henry VII’s will (died 1509) was that King’s College Chapel founded in 1441 during the reign of Henry VI, was to be completed and he left a substantial sum of coin in a metal-banded coffer for this. The very best Flemish stained glass makers were appointed. Barnard Flower had been working for the first Tudor king since 1490 creating stained glass for the palaces at Woodstock, Shene, the Tower of London, the chapel of our Lady of Walsingham began work. A memo from the end of November, 1515 survives and from it we learn that Barnard Flower was “paid £100 towards the glasing of the grete Church”.  It is clearly the chapel at Cambridge we know as King’s, but more properly known as The College Royal of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas of Cambridge. By 1517 Flowers had completed twenty four of the windows, but died before he could complete the full commission of twenty six. It would be a further nine years before another Fleming, Gaylon Hone, was appointed to complete the last three windows, which included the great East window.[vii]

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The East Window, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

Hone had been working on various royal projects since 1517 when we know he was working on the glass in Eton college and was brought in to complete the chapel windows for the Chapel Royal of Hampton Court.

Illuminated books were a less expensive way of promoting yourself than commissioning buildings and Magdalen College and Christ’s College Oxford both have manuscripts commissioned by the Cardinal. These are Christ Church College Ms 101 and Magdalen College Ms 223. The illumination is of the very highest standard, but the artist(s) remain unidentified. The quality of the artwork suggests they are Flemish and are attributed to The Master of Cardinal Wolsey. We know the scribe of both these manuscripts was Pieter Meghren, a one eyed Dutchman.  This is the link to the Wolsey Manuscript project where you can see both documents in detail.

Wolsey’s most famous surviving architectural contribution is Hampton Court Palace started in 1515. The freehold of Hampton Court was owned by The Knights of the Order of John of Jerusalem and in 1514 Wolsey took over the lease inherited by the heir of Henry VII’s Lord Chamberlain Giles Daubeny, Lord Daubeny. The Knights Hospitallers retained the freehold until Henry VIII acquired ownership in 1528.[viii]

The book, De Cardinalatu written in 1510 by Paolo Cortese, included advice on building a suitable palace for a cardinal and the architectural historian Jonathan Foyle believes it was this book that influenced Wolsey’s design. Peter Parker has identified two further influential Italian authorities on architectural design for consultation by cardinals and the aristocratic elite when designing palaces, these being Francesco Priscianese and Cola de Benvento.[ix] Whoever it was that Wolsey studied, from the surviving elements of his private apartments we can see for ourselves that the Cardinal was well versed in the decorative elements of the Italian Renaissance.

Wolsey famously rose from being a commoner to being a Prince of the Church and, like Margaret Beaufort and certain of his fellow bishops, founded schools, colleges and commissioned some beautiful buildings that were renamed, or today are only referred to in documents or as lumps in the ground. Hampton Court was the first English example of Renaissance architecture and decoration, but incorporates elements of the perpendicular gothic style. The eight moulded terracotta busts of various Roman emperors set into the brickwork are considered to be the work of the Italian sculptor Guido da Maiano. The use of brick was re-introduced into building during the 16th century and was expensive. Its use gave the unknown bricklayers working on the palace, an opportunity to demonstrate their decorative skills when building the chimneys.

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Anne Boleyn’s gate house, Hampton Court Palace.

In this photograph we see two of the terracotta busts by da Maiano set above the polychromatic brickwork laid in a diamond pattern in the lower part of the walls and three chimneys with various ornamental designs worked in brick.

The Wolsey’s restored coat of arms are immediately above the opening. This was broken up into bits and found centuries later when it was restored to its current position.

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The restored coat of arms of Cardinal Wolsey.














The famous zodiac clock, designed by the German horologist Nicholas Kratzner was added in 1540 by Henry VIII. Kratzner was a friend of the court artist Hans Holbein the Younger. The clock face on the front of the gatehouse is a later addition. It replaced an earlier clock contemporary to the Kratzner.  The reason was that the internal engineering was more efficient. The stone carving decoration surrounding the zodiac clock has a portcullis, a Tudor rose, a fleur de lys and the initials HR.  It would be another three years before the Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, published his theory that the planets rotated around the sun. One of his famous quotes is as follows: 

Perhaps there will be babblers who, although completely ignorant of mathematics, nevertheless take it upon themselves to pass judgment on mathematical questions and, badly distorting some passages of Scripture to their purpose, will dare find fault with my undertaking and censure it. I disregard them even to the extent as despising their criticism as unfounded.” 

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Zodiac Clock Hampton Court Palace. Designed by Nicholas Kratzner.

For a modern audience, Copernican theory is accepted fact, but in an age when this type of statement would lead to charges of heresy and very probably being burnt at the stake, no wonder Copernicus did not publish his heliocentric theory until he knew he was dying. Despite this advance in astronomy in the 1540s, the clock at Hampton Court is a beautifully decorative piece of engineering and a rare example of late medieval horology based on pre-Copernican theory of the movements of the planets. (x)

Wolsey’s apartments have been restored and give us a glimpse into the great man’s taste for the opulent. Unfortunately the various decorative elements that had any reference to either previous queens or the Cardinal were removed during Henry VIII’s reign. This included the stained glass windows at the east end of the Chapel Royal which is now hidden behind an 18th century reredos carved by Grinling Gibbons during the reign of Queen Anne. Hilary Wayment discovered sketches by Erhard Schön, a former pupil of Albrecht Dürer, for the private chapel in the Musée des Beaux Art, Brussels.[xi] These are clearly for the east window behind the altar. The central figure would have been the crucified Christ, with Mary Magdalen at the foot of the Cross. To the left was a kneeling Henry VIII, with Catharine of Aragon behind him, the princess behind her, then saints Henry and George. To the right is the Cardinal and then St Thomas Becket, then Sts Peter and Paul.

Wolsey gifted the palace to the king and the changes made to the palace by Henry VIII were concerning his interests and comfort: the tiltyard (subject of a Time Team dig some years ago), the archery butts, the real tennis court, the kitchens and corridors. Whoever suggested these added greatly to the privacy of those within the royal apartments.

Any interior decorative statements referring to the king’s wives were removed as each one fell from grace. Queen Catharine and her patron St Catherine of Alexandria had been replaced by two windows, one apparently containing what was a portrait of Queen Anne presumably identified by the French hood as opposed to Katherine’s gable hood, and St Catharine of Alexandria with her wheel was replaced by Saint Anne. Unfortunately we have evidence from the royal accounts from September 1536 that the glass was destroyed together with all other visual evidence of Wolsey and Anne Boleyn in any of the royal residences. They were to be removed from the king’s vision and we do not know what replaced it.

In addition to the addition and removal of visual references to Henry’s various wives, later monarchs have made their mark by demolishing much of Wolsey’s original buildings and replacing it with architecture of an ancient classical style. We are lucky that the Abraham tapestries have survived and are today hung in the Great Hall under the wonderful hammerbeam roof affording us the opportunity to experience the king’s concept of interior design. It is a huge statement of power and wealth. If you look up at the roof using binoculars or a zoom lens, you can make out the faces of ‘eavesdroppers’ carved into the wood. If only they could speak!

Wolsey commissioned gold and silver plate from London goldsmiths as well as manuscripts and illuminated charters when he founded the Oxford college now known as Christ Church College, but all of his wealth was confiscated when the Cardinal was indicted on a charge of praemunire in 1527.

For any serious student of art history of the English early modern period, it becomes apparent that it was Wolsey who guided the young Henry VIII in the early years of his reign to employ the best craftsmen for building the many hunting lodges and other building projects the king undertook. We only have to consider how Wolsey organised the English meeting of Henry VIII & Francis I at Guisnes in 1520 to see just how this man was very aware of the power of the visual. An examination of the painting of the Field of the Cloth of Gold in the Royal Collection depicts the arrival of the Engish king and his entourage, plus the temporary banqueting house, which is similar in style and Italianate decoration to Hampton Court.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold. Anon. Royal Collection.

In the distance we see the tiltyard where the jousts took place, and the famous wrestling match between the two kings and the golden tents that gave the event its name can also be seen. It is a painting recording all the pomp and ceremony of those days in June 1520, but is also full of humour showing the effects of over indulgence from the fountains that flowed with wine and beer. Take a closer look for these little visual stories. Nothing changes! No doubt there will be many a sore head on 19th May this year by those celebrating the wedding of our Prince Henry of Wales to his chosen bride, Rachel Meghan Markle. Apart from mentions in various Letters & Papers of Wolsey’s luxurious display of plate and furniture, and the entry in the accounts of the removal of any reference by way of emblem or picture (stained glass?) relating to the Cardinal, this painting is the only visual evidence that remains of Wolsey’s appreciation of theatre and display which he used to promote the splendour and glory of his king.

After the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 it would have been natural for the visual tropes of Beaufort portcullises and Tudor roses to be consigned to the dustbin of history, but the use of the both the Beaufort portcullis and the Tudor rose have survived the centuries. Both emblems proliferate all over the Victorian Palace of Westminster designed by Sir Charles Barry with interior design by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Today the portcullis is displayed as a logo for various government departments such as Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. Nowhere is it more prominent than as on the letter head of both Houses of Westminster, demonstrating that of all the Tudors, it was Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of the first Tudor king, who exerted the most influence and  has provided an emblem that has lasted five hundred and nine years.

[i] Royal Ms 19 C VIII digitised entry in the British Library

[ii] Digitised entry for Add. MS 47680

[iii] accessed 7th July 2016.


[v] I am extremely grateful to Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch Kt, FSA, FRHistS, FBA for his patience in answering my emails. It was in one of these exchanges that I learnt that Torrigiano was in England several years earlier than is usually discussed, which suggests that perhaps Torrigiano came at the invitation of Lady Margaret Beaufort to design her last resting place. I understand that research to establish this for certain is ongoing.

[vi] Caxton’s Blanchardyn and Eglantine this site has the full text of this romance for those interested in reading it.

[vii] 20th January 2018.

[viii] Chapel Royal Hampton Court

[ix] Renaissance Rome, 1500 – 1559: A Portrait of Society: Peter Parker: University of California Press: 1992. p121.

[x] Copernicus and his heliocentric theory.

[xi] Cardinal Wolsey: Church, state and art; eds Gunn, Steven & P G Lindley; Cambridge University Press; England; 1991.

© MVT 20th January 2018.

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