New research reveals the importance of West Horsley Place in the time of Henry VIII

This summer, West Horsley Place will be the place to step back in time and experience Tudor life. A new festival, Hosting Henry VIII, will set the scene with activities including jousting, falconry displays, dancing and food tastings.

We are a small and relatively new charity, so this year we joined forces with researchers at Exeter University, Historic Royal Palaces and Powderham Castle to undertake an investigation into the historic manor house in the time of Henry VIII and bring the new research to life. 

West Horsley Place was owned twice by the monarch himself and records indicate that he spent some time here over his reign, even adapting the building to his needs and creating a garden at ‘the King’s Manor of Horsley’. In between the periods of his ownership, the King gave the manor as a gift to a favourite courtier: his first cousin, Henry Courtenay, Marquis of Exeter. Henry Courtenay and his wife Gertrude owned the property from 1533-38 when the King had Henry executed for treason. It was at West Horsley Place that the dramatic story of the couple’s downfall played out, as featured in Hilary Mantel’s novel ‘The Mirror and the Light’ (to be adapted for the BBC this year). New research reveals that Henry VIII visited West Horsley multiple times over his lifetime and was often accompanied by prominent couriers and counsellors. 

A new illustration, based on research by Martin Higgins from Surrey Domestic Building Recording Group, shows West Horsley Place in the time of Henry VIII. Wings of the building, now lost, would have created a courtyard. The Manor House was built on a vast scale and we now believe was a more significant royal residence than initially thought. 

During July 1533, in a particularly well documented visit, the Courtenays entertained Henry VIII at the Manor House. The menu for the banquet survives and includes stork, stuffed rabbit, sturgeon and partridge. Academics have recently been tracing the movements of the King and have concluded that Thomas Cromwell was likely to have been with him at the time of his visit. It would have been a merry party focused on hunting and having fun. The house was recorded as being filled with musical instruments: 2 virginals, 4 regals (portable organs), and 9 viols. The larders would have been fully stocked, a later inventory describes 77 oxen, 60 mutton, 4 score ling, 143 haberdens (salt cod). Henry Courtenay was the longest-lasting court favourite of Henry VIII and in 1533 they were great friends. It has been recorded that as well as hunting and jousting together they sometimes wore matching outfits including bonnets decorated with ostrich feathers and gave each other lavish gifts such as gilt goblets.

Food from Henry's menu will be available to taste at the festival 

It is not yet confirmed whether Anne Boleyn was at West Horsley Place in July 1533, however recent research puts her at Greenwich just before and Windsor the week after, so she might have been part of the touring party. She was heavily pregnant with Elizabeth I at the time and the whole court would have been eagerly awaiting the birth, many hoping that it would be a son and heir. In love with Anne, expecting their child and in the company of the Courtenays, Henry VIII was described as extremely happy when he was at West Horsley Place.

An ambassador wrote of Henry ‘I never saw him merrier in a great while than he is now and the best pastime in hunting the red deer as I have seen. And for cheer what at my lord Marques of Exeter…I never saw delicates nor better cheer in my life.’

It has also been discovered that in the last year of his reign the king held a privy council meeting at West Horsley Place, chaired by his sixth wife’s brother, William Parr, putting the Manor at the centre of his government.

All these new insights will feed into the exciting festival this summer, when West Horsley Place will be recreating Henry VIII’s 1533 visit to the house. Visitors will be able to reach-out-and-touch living history with specialists on site to conjure up Tudor food, clothing, jewellery and weaponry. There will be entertainments including music, jousting, dancing and hawking as well as fun for children such as shield making and face painting.

Jousting and falconry displays this July

Hosting Henry VIII will be a Tudor festival like no other, full of history and fun for the whole family. All proceeds from ticket sales support the mission to repair and conserve West Horsley Place, which is currently on Historic England's Heritage At Risk register, and keep researching the incredible history of the site.