If it’s not perfect, heads will roll
Charles Smith-jones imagines a day with the Tudor dynasty’s most notorious monarch in his favourite hunting ground
The sun rose a long time ago and has climbed well into the sky, covering the landscape with unseasonal warmth for late October. Dressed in the finery of a verderer, your heavy wools and leathers are becoming uncomfortably hot. Before you, the great Forest of Essex stretches for many miles in all directions. Here, you and your fellow verderers hold the special responsibility for administering Forest Law and protecting the royal hunting preserves on behalf of the king. You are, at 40, considerably younger than King Henry VIII but already an old man by the standards of the 16th century when the average life expectancy might be a low as 35. But your lifestyle is privileged and your health good.
You are waiting at the foot of the Great Standing, a massive open-sided hunting platform built of oak beams at the command of the king just last year, 1543. There are others available for the monarch to use but this is his favourite location. Under his rule the royal hunting parks have flourished. Your son left home to work on Hyde Park, one of the newest, when Henry took it over for his personal use a few years ago.
As you wait for the arrival of the royal hunting party you reflect on the King. When you were first presented to him he was an impressive figure. Towering over most other men at 6ft 1in — you are considered tall among your fellows at 5ft 7in — he was powerfully built and an accomplished athlete in many fields at a time when sport was all about training for war. He had a passion for jousting and made light work of unhorsing opponents with a 12ft lance while wearing armour that could weigh as much as 120lb.
Henry’s superb horsemanship extended to hunting and, though he was an expert archer, he always preferred the physical pursuit of game. Working obligations were always organised so that he could spend long days in the saddle. After 5am start he might be out until as late as 9pm with only short breaks for refreshment in between. Later, historians will estimate that he spent about third of his life on horseback.
The quarry is the red and fallow deer, though you often wonder what it would be like to have wild boar in the forest as well. The wild swine of the forest are neither as fierce nor fast moving as the true wild boar, which has long since disappeared from England, and considered not worth hunting.
It is now late morning and at last you glimpse the royal hunting party approaching. The King is in a carriage rather than mounted but his latest queen, Catherine Parr, is not with him. The pair have not been married long and she has only recently succeeded the adulterous Catherine Howard, who was executed at the king’s command last year. Palace gossip suggests