The Writing on The Wall

Be careful what you carve into wood. it might just come back to haunt you.

Some time ago, we visited Hampton Court, and cackled uncharitably at Henry VIII’s failure to supervise his stonemasons’ work with sufficient punctiliousness. For when he ordered the initials of his no-longer-beloved-but-beheaded, Anne Boleyn, to be removed from the stonework of their former love nest at Hampton Court, the masons forgot one set of the entwined initials of Anne and Henry. It remains there to this day.

But further from the madding crowd, signs of Henry’s uncompromising attitude to friends, loved ones and hangers on have not been so carefully vanished.

Take The Vyne, the Hampton-Court-Alike which was created by the monarch’s Lord Chamberlain, Lord Sandys. It was laid out in the same courtyard system, has a gorgeous chapel with balcony just like the chapel at Hampton Court but a little bit smaller, and a long gallery with the most sumptuous Tudor carving all dedicated to making the king feel at home on his many state visits there.

This last is incredibly impressive: the craftsmanship is entrancing. But it is like taking a step back in time to an era when Catherine of Aragon still wore the trousers.

Signs of her are everywhere, including the pomegranate and the castle which denote her Spanish heritage.

But take a closer look at the initials on the wall. All important men, but at least one had a chequered history indeed.


Meet Walter Hungerford.

His initials are up there on the wall because his second wife was the Lord Chamberlain’s daughter. He had three wives all together, each of whom brought him closer to the centre of power and the man who would eventually take his life. The wife who survived him had some interesting things to say about how he treated the women closest to him.

Born in Somerset at the dawn of a new century, Hungerford was already Squire of the Body to Henry VIII by 1522. He helped him on with his armour, must rescue him if captured and carry him if wounded. Interesting, then, that we hear little about the first wife and her demise, and the next we hear he is dating the daughter of the Lord Chancellor.

They married in 1527. By 1532, he was onto wife three: Elizabeth Hussey, daughter of insanely influential Lord Hussey. One letter to Thomas Cromwell from Hussey would draw Hungerford right to the very heart of things.

But Hungerford chose the wrong coat-tails. We all know poor Cromwell’s story. And the grounds for his sudden change in fortunes seem to have come from that third wife of his.

The strangest letter arrived on Cromwell’s desk one morning in 1536. It was a desperate one, pleading for protection. For four years, Elizabeth told Cromwell, she had been kept a prisoner at Farleigh in Somerset. During that time, her husband had made numerous attempts to poison her.

The tide was turning. Now strange accusations flew in, thick and fast, from different quarters: he was involved in witchcraft, and sexual deviancy. When the formal charge of treason came, it was rather shocking, and on three counts.

Firstly, that he retained local clergyman William Bird, in his house as chaplain despite knowing him to have spoken against Henry’s supremacy as king; second of having ordered another chaplain, Hugh Wood, and a flamboyantly named Dr Maudlin to practise conjuring and magic to determine whether the King would defeat the rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace; and third: buggery.

If Henry believes that about you, you don’t survive for long. On the same day as Cromwell, July 28, 1540, at Tower Hill, Hungerford was beheaded. Far from being staid and dignified, it seems he could not quite believe what was happening to him, and was in a frenzy.

Almost 500 years later, his initials still adorn the gallery at the Vyne.

Perhaps removing them would have just spoiled the look of the thing.



27 thoughts on “The Writing on The Wall

  1. Maybe Shakespeare should have rewritten: “The evil men do lives on, the good is oft interred with their bones” to “Not only does evil live on, but the writing they put on the wall tends to stick around too.” Not as poetic, and of course it doesn’t account for the whims of Police Chiefs in London in 1888 – but still 🙂

    1. I agree, MTAC. Evil has far-reaching consequences and it doesn’t always stop at the death of its perpetrator. I always think of that when I visit Hampton Court, the palace bullied away from Wolsey. A veritable village attained by thuggery.

    1. Rob, I wrote this and promptly had a migraine which precluded me looking at screens, or indeed, thinking, for days. To come back to this comment afterwards was a tonic 🙂 Thank you.

  2. Good one, Kate. Even way-back-then, a women scorned, or otherwise poisoned, writes a “tell all” note about the errand chap. Hmm? Can you imagine what Elizabeth Hussey would have done in this age of the internet?

  3. OMG, Kate, I wonder how much scandal and intrigue has been resolved over the centuries by a swift off-with-the-head . . . boggles the mind 🙂

    1. Hi Naomi! Hope you, Dave and the dogs are all thriving. Cover-ups seem to pepper the history of every civilisation I can think of…I’d love to find one from each, and put them all together in a book. Now there’s an idea 🙂

  4. Every time I read one of your enchanting pieces – I imagine you voice and think it is the backdrop to the documentary to the history channel. It would be wonderful if you could walk us through one of the majestic places you visit on film with your narrative.

    1. Hi Belle! Hope all is well with you and yours! Strange you should say that: I have been moving towards making short films for a little while now. Just a few more jigsaw pieces in place, thenI’ll have a go 🙂

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