Who Knew

Who knew you can retrace Henry VIII’s steps to a messy divorce hearing?

Today as you walk up Farringdon St from Blackfriars Bridge it is hard to believe that it used to be a river: the Fleet river was an important waterway which ran along this route until it was covered over in 1766 (it is still used as a sewer). One clue is in some street names off to the East: Old Seacole Lane and Newcastle St show where cargoes of coal from Newcastle were discharged.

Street names on the other side of the street also give us some clues:

Running North from the Thames was Bridewell Palace, built between 1515 and 1520 by Henry VIIIth as an impressive London residence: right next to the City, on the route in from Westminster but much more convenient and visibly impressive to citizens than Whitehall or Greenwich. The grand building had two big courtyards (see image below) and was used to house the Emperor Charles Vth in 1522 as well as numerous ambassadors. Holbein’s famous painting of “The Ambassadors” was set there.

The only signs left today (in addition to the streetnames) are a small bust of Edward VIth and a plaque.

Just across the Fleet from Bridewell stood Blackfriars, a huge Dominican establishment stretching East from the Fleet to where the City of London school now stands, and North from the Thames to Ludgate. And it was here that Henry decided to hold vital hearings in his campaign to get a papally-agreed divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The Apothecaries Hall now stands on the site within Blackfriars where the meetings were held.

Cardinal Wolsey, charged with sorting out the divorce, managed to get agreement that the Pope would send a legate, Cardinal Campeggio, to hold hearings in London to decide the matter. So on Monday June 21st 1529 Henry made his way across the Fleet from Bridewell using the bridge which stood at that spot (lower of two bridges on map below)

From Agas map of 1561 (Source: Layers of London)

By chance there is a new bridge roughly in the same spot, crossing the Citylink tracks rather than the Fleet.

Sadly for Henry what he experienced on the other side of the bridge was a bit of a let down. Catherine played a blinder, kneeling before Henry and explaining why the court was inherently biased towards him (what with everyone being completely beholden to him, for example): then walking out, ignoring calls to stay, and being well-received by the public waiting in the lower gallery. And even worse, Campeggio decided to adjourn the proceedings and head back to Rome.

Henry heard all this on Friday 23rd July when we walked across the bridge and eavesdropped on the end of the proceedings from a gallery near the door. This was a key moment in setting his course to break with Rome and take charge of the divorce (and the Church, obvs) himself. This terrible experience doomed Bridewell as a royal residence, although we know Henry has dinner there with Catherine on November 30th (possibly their last meeting). Under his son Edward VIth it became a hospital/house for vagrants, the homeless and petty offenders: it did not close as a prison until 1855.

So today, you can (kind of) recreate the walk of a bad-tempered and anxious Henry, going over the bridge to hear the outcome…here is a painstaking and largely historically accurate re-creation of that walk…

Click to be transported back to 1529…sort of
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