Houses of Power

by Simon Thurley, Bantam Press, £30

It requires a great deal of archival work and a lively historical imagination to recreate the world of Tudor royal palaces. These buildings were centres of governance, worship, intrigue and domestic life, but all too often surviving physical traces are frustratingly limited.

Archaeology helps, as do financial records, but drawing everything together is a daunting undertaking. Simon Thurley makes it look easy, and his latest book is one of the finest works of historical reconstruction I have ever encountered.

For the Tudor kings and queens, palace life was about power and prestige. “Theatre,” as Thurley puts it, was “a fundamental ingredient of monarchy,” so it made sense for Henry VIII to commission a set of tapestries depicting the life of David that cost as much as a warship. When it came to consumption, the more conspicuous the better, which is why Elizabeth I’s royal kitchens could go through 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep and 2,330 deer in a single year.

Big buildings impressed, so when Henry set about creating Whitehall Palace (which would stretch all the way from the site of present-day Trafalgar Square to Downing Street) he gobbled up existing properties to clear the way without always bothering with the legal niceties.

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