Henry VIII and the fickle hand of fate

By jackie keily on 3 Feb 2015


Last week I wrote about a badge in the form of a combined Tudor rose and Aragon pomegranate, commemorating one of Katherine of Aragon’s marriages to a Tudor prince, either Arthur or Henry. In the same display case as this badge in the Medieval London gallery at the Museum of London, there is another little remembrance of Katherine’s involvement with the Tudors. This object is a silver-gilt belt chape – a curved metal strip or edging that protected the end of a leather belt.

The chape bears a small central figure of Saint Barbara, which is relief moulded, and at either end, an engraved rose and a pomegranate. Along the chape are the engraved letters: RAF+FEL+MIGAM. This is an abbreviation of the name Ralph Felmingham, who was one of the Sergeants-at-arms of Henry VIII. A Sergeant-at-arms was a royal appointment; the role was similar to that of a royal body guard. Felmingham was responsible for summoning a jury of peers for at least two famous trials of the time and he was also present at both: the trial of William, Lord Dacre in 1534, and that of the Queen, Anne Boleyn and her brother Lord Rocheford in 1536. The little that is known of Felmingham’s life can be found here, along with further information about the role of the Sergeant-at-arms.

The belt chape is a fabulous little reminder of a very uncertain time. Not only does it bear the motifs of Henry VIII and his first wife Katherine of Aragon, but also the figure of Saint Barbara, patron saint of artillerymen and engineers (amongst others). Barbara is shown with her symbols of a tower and a palm branch.

This little chape, therefore, shows the wearer’s loyalty both to their king and queen, and to their religion. But of course by the 1530s all of this was changing. In 1527 Henry petitioned the Pope for an annulment to his marriage to Katherine. By 1533 he was still waiting and finally gave up, marrying Anne Boleyn. The following year the Act of Supremacy made Henry supreme head of the Church of England and the years following this saw the dissolution of the monasteries. Such a period of uncertainty and change must have been both exciting and bewildering – depending on which side you found yourself. And this chape reflects those times. Here we have a man, Felmingham, present in court, obviously known to the king, owning or commissioning a chape with his name on it and the symbols of his religion and his then king and queen. Some years later this same man is organising the jury who will preside over Henry’s second queen’s trial and probably by this time, if indeed not some time before, the chape has been removed. It was found on the Thames foreshore in 1989, and whilst it may have ended up there through accidental loss, it is also tempting to see it being discarded – removed from the belt it was attached to and flung into the river.

It is a poignant reminder of how quickly things changed during the years of Henry’s rule and, in particular, with his marriages, how quickly people fell in and out of favour. It was interesting to see the scene in ‘Wolf Hall’ where the painter asks Cromwell if he should paint out Wolsey’s coat of arms on a wall. This happened many times over during Henry’s reign (and of course other monarchs) and courtiers must have to have been astute followers of the times to keep up with things. No one would want to be seen by Henry wearing a badge or emblem of Katherine when Anne was in the ascendance and once Anne had fallen out of favour a similar rush to obliterate her initials and emblems would have occurred. A few of Anne’s survive, most notably at Hampton Court Palace and decorating the fabulous rood screen in Kings College Cambridge.

Whilst Katherine’s ‘K’s remain intertwined with Henry’s ‘H’s on his armour, which can be seen at the Tower of London.

One thought on “Henry VIII and the fickle hand of fate

  1. Vala Gunnarsdóttir says:

    Hi there, I´m a museologist from Iceland. I recently came across a small church bell that hangs in an old church in Iceland, in medieval times there was a monastery at that place. Engraved on the bell is: DA PACEM DOMINE IN DIEBVS NOSTRIS MDXLVII – which means: Give peace, O Lord, in our time – 1547. The letters HG are on one side of the bell and an image of a seated woman on the other. On one side of the woman is the Tudor rose and the other the Pomegranate of Granada, the symbol for Catherines family.
    I could email some pictures if you´d like. Do you have any thougts on it? Seem to be made the year Henry died. Do you know if there are any other bells like this preserved today?

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