A King’s Collection: Tapestries at Hampton Court Palace

Henry VIII, king of England from 1509 to 1547, is famous for many things. But not everyone knows he was a great collector. For one thing, he collected wives. He married six different women in an age where divorce was basically forbidden and wives didn’t cooperate by dropping dead on their own very often. The king also collected houses. He laid claim to numerous great homes and palaces, including Westminster, Berkhamsted, Fotheringhay, Warwick, Kenilworth, and some of his favorites: Greenwich, Whitehall, and Hampton Court. He even had Royal Residences in the Tower of London. One of King Henry’s biggest collections was tapestries. He eventually collected more than 2,000 of these woven pictures to spruce up Hampton Court Palace and his other royal residences.

But why would the King spend a lot of money and energy to collect woven pictures to decorate his walls? What was behind these expensive wall hangings?

Tapestry making was huge industry in northern France and southern Netherlands during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Tapestry is a form of textile art created by skilled craftsmen. The pieces were woven by hand on a weaving-loom. Weaving a tapestry required that each thread be carefully placed on the loom by hand. This painstaking process allowed workers to create complex designs that included intricate features for people, animals, and plants. Usually the chain threads were made out of linen or Picardy wool. The striking threads were made of Italian silk or gold and silver threads imported from Cyprus. Textile workers and guilds flourished in Belgium and France, ad tapestries created there were exported all over Europe.

Tapestries were sometimes woven in sets. A set of tapestries often told a biblical or mythical story through a series of pictures. This art in woven tapestry was intended to produce illusions of what reality should be-a more intellectual, more scientific, more grand world. This world could follow the owner wherever he went, as tapestries were portable and could be transported from one residence to another.

Wealthy and powerful men collected tapestries because they could really impress visitors. Before he had to give Hampton Court to King Henry, Cardinal Wolsey sent London merchant Richard Gresham to Brussels with 1,000 marks to purchase the finest tapestries he could find. The Venetian ambassador told this story of his visit to Wolsey: “One has to traverse eight rooms before one reaches his audience chamber, and they are all hung with tapestry, which is changed once a week” (1).

In September 1528, King Henry became displeased with Wolsey’s work and took over Hampton Court Palace. King Henry embarked on an enormous rebuilding project, creating new kitchens, a Council Chamber, and a series of private rooms for himself. In addition, Henry rebuilt the Great Hall, which featured great walls for displaying tapestries. To decorate Hampton Court and other royal residences, Henry collected tapestries to communicate his wealth and power. The tapestries adorned such important public rooms as the Great Hall and the Great Watching Chamber.

One of the most famous series in Henry’s collection is the History of Abraham series, which he commissioned specifically for Hampton Court. This series was woven in Brussels about 1540 by Wilhelm Pannemaker to the designs of Bernard van Orley. The History of Abraham tapestries include ten separate pieces, each of which is approximately sixteen feet high and twenty-six feet wide. These tapestries are of amazing quality, featuring highly skilled weaving and a high metal thread count, with many gold and silver threads. In fact, the amount of gold makes them one of the most opulent products of the Brussels industry.

Because of the amount of gold and silver and the high quality of the workmanship, each tapestry is estimated to have cost Henry as much money as a fully fitted and staffed battleship. This means the entire set cost as much as a fleet of battleships. The Abraham tapestries are a good example of King Henry’s primary purpose in collecting tapestries: demonstrating his vast wealth to visitors from around the world. King Henry believed these tapestries would create a positive impression and convince all who came to Hampton Court and other palaces of his kingship.

King Henry was right about the Abraham tapestries being a symbol of wealth and power. Their influence lasted much longer than Henry did. About 100 years after Henry’s death, during the English Revolution, revolutionaries seized control of the country and executed King Charles I, and Oliver Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector. Much of the royal property was sold to the highest bidder. But the Abraham tapestries were worth so much money, he was unable to sell them. They remained in the possession of Oliver Cromwell at Hampton Court. Like the rest of his possessions, they returned to ownership of the crown when the monarchy was restored. These tapestries were selected to adorn the walls of Westminster Abbey at the coronation of King James II in 1685.

The choice of the Abraham tapestries, commissioned by Henry VIII in 1540, to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy more than 100 years later demonstrates their significance as a symbol of royalty and power. Although Henry VIII could not have understood their full historic significance, he did understand the impact of tapestries on his perception as king. Hampton Court Palace was a favorite residence of King Henry. He made it a great symbol of his royalty and the strength of the Tudor dynasty. The magnificent tapestries that adorned the palace walls during his reign were a fitting symbol of the wealth, wisdom, and royalty of King Henry VIII. For him, tapestries were much more than decorations or insulation. They were literally the embodiment of his royal image.

1. Hedley, O. (1971) Hampton Court Palace. London: Pitkin Pictorials.

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