Tudor sports and Henry VIII
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In the Tudor period, much like today, sport fulfilled many functions. Sport was used to develop athletic and strategic skills, enforce the bonds of friendship, and accustom the practitioner to the thrill of victory and the sting of defeat: all useful experiences for the battlefield and kingship. Yet sport was also used for recreation and even provided spectator events.
This article will explore some of the many sports that were practised at the Tudor court. It will begin by looking at the role of sport in childhood, then identify the sports that were theoretically the preserve of the Tudor elite, and finally discuss the importance of sport in the life and reputation of Henry VIII.
Childhood and play
Tudor conceptions of sport and play stemmed ultimately from the ancient world. The ancients dictated that life consisted of a series of stages: infancy (up to the age of 7) was a time of growth, while childhood (from 7 to 14) was a time of play. After 14, life was supposed to get more serious. There is very little evidence for play having a serious role in Tudor schools, and it was usually discouraged, or at least adapted so that it might aid more serious learning. For example, a set of exercises issued in 1525 for Manchester Grammar School stipulated play was only allowed by special permission, and that the boys were:
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‘…to play honest games and convenient for youth, and all together in one place, to use the Latin tongue.’
A ball used for real tennis discovered in the rafters of Westminster Hall. There’s no evidence that real tennis was played at Westminster after c1520, so this ball almost certainly dates to the late 15th or very early 16th century. It is made from leather and stuffed with compacted dog’s hair. © Museum of London
Tudor elite sport
Mounted knight in tournament armour (detail), possibly Henry VIII. © British Library Board
Henry VIII and sport
He is very accomplished; a good musician; composes well; is a most capital horseman; a fine jouster; speaks good French, Latin and Spanish; is very religious; hears three masses daily when he hunts and sometimes five on other days…He is very fond indeed of hunting, and never takes this diversion without tiring eight or ten horses…he is extremely fond of tennis. -Sebastian Giustinian, October 1519
This description shows Henry to be a well-rounded individual with all the hallmarks of a fine Renaissance prince, including his sporting ability. This was a monarch who was both pious and cultured but also, at heart, a warrior too – not a king to be trifled with.
King Henry VIII by an unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist (detail), c1520. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sport was also considered an excellent way of escaping the stresses of court politics, and Henry seems to have taken frequent advantage of this release. However, while sport provided a form of stress-relief it also had an important political role. Sport was used to forge close bonds of friendship and camaraderie, which could prove vital in times of warfare. This was most obvious in the world of the tournament, which we will explore more fully later. It’s a great example of how the skills needed for warfare were perfected in relatively ‘safe’, controlled surroundings.
The medieval notion of chivalry – the knightly system of religious, moral, and social values – was central to the elite world of sport. Chivalric literature often set stories in the context of sports like jousts and hunts. Henry used sport, especially hunting and jousting, to inspire loyalty among his elite subjects and build a sense of brotherhood. He could then draw on this bond in the world of politics and even, if required, on the battlefield. Sport also provided the opportunity to impress upon foreign ambassadors the wealth, physical prowess, and unity of the Tudor court – a clear message for them to convey to their masters overseas.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Henry VIII’s palaces were often equipped with the spaces and equipment necessary for practising a range of sports including hunting, jousting, shooting and archery. We learn about these from a variety of sources. For example, Henry was particularly skilled at archery and the chronicler Edward Hall described in May 1510 that the young King ‘shotte as strong and as greate a length as any of his guarde’. Henry’s privy purse accounts are full of references to acquisitions of archery equipment, some of which was gifted to those closest to him. In May 1530 he spent 23s 4d on archery equipment for Lady Anne (Boleyn) including bows, arrows, and a shooting glove. Inventories of Henry’s goods record sporting equipment such as shooting gloves for archery and vast numbers of bows and bow strings. These inventories also a mention a small number of angling rods, which suggests the King may have enjoyed fishing.
Practising so many sports, especially those on horseback, brought its dangers. Throughout Henry’s life he would have had dozens of near misses while careering around forests in pursuit of deer and charging down the tilt-rail in the joust. However, the odds of escaping injury forever were very slim. In 1527, Henry hurt his foot playing tennis, which led to him having to wear a single loose velvet slipper. This same year he also sought treatment for a sore leg, probably an ulcer for which he needed surgical attention. A more serious incident followed on 24 January 1536, when Henry had a serious fall while jousting at Greenwich which, according to one ambassador, left him unable to speak for two hours – suggestive of a serious concussion. It was likely also during this fall that his ulcer was aggravated, and he was afflicted by painful and distressing flare-ups for the rest of his life.
Some historians have asserted that Henry’s bad temper and irrational behaviour might be linked to the head injuries he suffered during his sporting endeavours. It is impossible to gauge the truth in this. It is, however, certainly possible to suggest that a king who had prided himself on his reputation for sporting prowess, and whose image was intrinsically linked to his physical abilities, would not have responded well to his physical decline in later life.
- What would you describe as an elite sport today?
- Do we still admire sporting prowess in modern celebrities?
- Do you play sports? What is your sport of choice?
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A History of Tudor Entertainment
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