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The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover 1520

Image of engraving - The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover 1520

One of the most celebrated and spectacular events of the reign of Henry VIII was his meeting with the French king Francis I within the pale of Calais in 1520. The meeting had been arranged ostensibly to increase the bond of friendship between the two kings following the Anglo-French treaty of 1518. In reality, the festivities and pageantry produced nothing of substance: understanding did not improve, and two years later the countries were at war.

However the spectacle made a considerable impression on contemporaries and was depicted in two famous paintings each about 12 ft long and now in the Queen's collection at Hampton Court. The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover shows the king leaving England on 31 May 1520 with his Queen and a vast retinue of nobles, servants and horses. The view is taken from the south-west of Dover harbour near the foot of Shakespeare's Cliff. The two forts with their cannons giving the royal salute, are the Archcliff - and the Black Bulwark; Dover Castle is on the top left and the coast of France is in the distance. The King, surrounded by courtiers, trumpeters and Yeomen of the Guard is seen standing* on the deck of the four-masted ship leaving the harbour behind the right-hand castle. This vessel is said to be the Henri Grace‑de‑Dieu, the largest in the Royal Navy, and the others depicted also appear to be the largest in the fleet, possibly including the Mary Rose. However the portrayal here of the crack ships of the time was artistic licence; in reality the King's squadron consisted of comparatively small vessels. One naval historian claimed that the painting ' does not represent the vessels which actually convoyed Henry, but rather those vessels which would have convoyed him, had the harbour's where the king embarked and disembarked been deep enough to admit them.'*1

The companion piece The Field of the Cloth of Gold records some of the festivities which took place the following month from 7 - 24 June. They include the processions of the two kings and their meeting on the 7 June, an episode from the tournaments which took place between 11 and 19 June and a probable allusion to the flying dragon firework display of the 23 June. These events are set in a rearranged landscape. The English party are shown coming out of the town of Guisnes and going back into the castle. In the distance beyond the lists, the French procession emerges from the French town of Ardres. The castle of Hammes is seen rising out of the water to the north of Guisnes and the town of Calais is on the horizon to the left.

Henry VIII is the focal point of the English procession, but some of the other persons can also be identified. In front of the King is Thomas Wriothesley, Garter King of Arms, and Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, carries the sword of state. Cardinal Wolsey rides beside the King and on the extreme left behind him is Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. The large building in the foreground to the right of the procession is the remarkable temporary palace which the English erected outside the castle gates of Guisnes. The palace was in four blocks with a central courtyard, each side about 300 ft long. The only solid part was the brick base about 8 ft high. Above the brickwork, the 30 ft walls were made of cloth or canvas on timber frames, painted to look like stone or brick; the slanting roof was made of oiled cloth painted the colour of lead to give the illusion of slates. Contemporaries commented especially on the huge expanse of glass, which made visitors feel they were in the open air. Red wine flowed from the two fountains outside.

The tents and the costumes displayed so much cloth of gold, an expensive fabric woven with silk and gold thread, that the site of the meeting was named after it.

Despite inaccuracies in both paintings, considerable care was taken in their composition. Professor Sydney Anglo has analysed in detail the discrepancies between the picture of The Field of the Cloth of Gold and the documentary evidence. His conclusion is that 'the representation of the temporary English palace is, in the main, very accurate .... the English procession is fairly accurate as a general summary .... the lists are inaccurate, and have only one or two features remotely resembling actuality. ' *2

One explanation could be that both paintings were executed several years after the event. Neither is recorded in the inventory of the King's possessions in 1547; the earliest known reference to their existence is a possible allusion to their cleaning in 1588-9. Both portraits of Henry VIII appear to derive from Holbein's full‑length of 1537, although the King's head has been removed and put back in The Field of the Cloth of Gold. Sir Oliver Millar suggests a date, therefore not earlier than 1550, which he says is confirmed by the costumes in The Embarkation of Dover; he has also distinguished the work of several artists in both pictures. *3 The paintings have been attributed at various times to Hans Holbein the younger, Vincent Volpe, Cornelis Anthonisz or to the Netherlandish school in general. A more recent suggestion is that they are Elizabethan copies of wall paintings executed for Henry VIII in about 1530 by John Raff [Johannes Corvus ?] and others for the Orchard Gallery of Whitehall Palace. *4  However, the attribution to any particular artist has not been established with certainty.

These Tudor historical paintings, then at Windsor Castle, as well as others of Henry VII's last war with France then at Cowdray House, were of great interest in the eighteenth century to Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries. In 1770, Sir Joseph Ayloffe, Vice-president, read a lengthy paper to the Society on the painting of The Field of the Cloth of Gold, which, he said, had Ďa particular claim to our attention as well on account of the importance and singularity of its subject, as of the immense number of figures which it contains, the variety of the matter which it exhibits, and the manner in which the whole is executed.' *5

The historical painter Edward Edwards was commissioned in 1771 to make a reduced watercolour copy of the original; it took him 160 days work for which he asked 160 guineas but was paid £110.

The Society had been issuing individual prints to Fellows since its formal establishment in 1717, and in a series known as Vetusta Monumenta since 1743. The Field of the Cloth of Gold was the first in a new series of large historical prints, but the shape and size of the original painting was such that it was impossible to reduce it to an engraving of any ordinary format. After discovering that no paper was made of a suitable size in Europe, the Society ordered some paper 31 x 53in to be made by paper manufacturer, James Whatman. This was the largest sheet of paper made for more than a century, and is still called Antiquarian.* 6 Meanwhile, James Basire, the Society's engraver to whom William, Blake was apprenticed at the time, was engraving the copperplate from Edwards' watercolour. He was paid £200 for the work, which took two years to complete and measured 4ft 1in by 2ft 3in.

Four hundred copies were printed, of which about 230 were distributed together with a copy of Ayloffe's description to Fellows in February 1775. The rest were made available to the public for two guineas each. The watercolour by Edwards and two copies of the print were presented to George Ill: a coloured print was kept by the Society [no longer available] and other coloured versions were presented to Lord Hardwicke who had financially supported the publication and Sir Joseph Ayloffe. * 7

Great care was taken of the copper plate. The Society ordered a box or drawer lined with Baize, and a lock and key be provided for safely depositing and preserving from damp the copper plate'. In the nineteenth century Fellows were able to order copies from any of the Society's plates even if prints were no longer available. Small quantities were run off by the printers on request. In 1887, for example, twelve further copies were printed, *8 and two years later, the printer, Macqueen's, was asked to 'properly restore' the copper plate * 9 As far as can be ascertained, no more impressions have been made until the present printing.

The rest of the series was also engraved by James Basire but all except the second were from copies by a different artist, Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, who made the drawings for Gilbert White's Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Apart from The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover, they were all copied from original paintings at Cowdray House, a timely commission as the paintings at Cowdray were destroyed by fire in 1793. The second in the series was Francis I's Attempt to invade England 1545, which shows the sinking of the Mary Rose. This was drawn by Charles Sherwin and engraved on two copperplates neither of which has survived. The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover was the third in the series. It was copied by Grimm in 1779 for 80 guineas, at the reduced size of 22 x 45 1/2in, his coloured drawing [since touched up] is still in the Society's possession. James Basire engraved it on one copperplate and the usual 400 copies were printed; Fellows received the engraving in November 1781, with a copy of a description by John Topharn which had been read to the Society in June. The remaining copies could be purchased for 11/2 guineas each. The copperplate was faced with steel and a further 100 copies were printed in 1903 for the Whitechapel Art Gallery's exhibition on the shipping industry. Copies from this impression could still be obtained from the Society until a few years ago.

The fourth in the series, The Coronation Procession of Edward VI was the last to be copied and engraved in detail. The Society still possesses Grimm's watercolour and Basire's large copperplate. Three more from Cowdray, relating to the war with France in 1544, were copied and engraved in outline only: The Encampment of Henry VIII at Marquison, The Departure of Henry VIII from Calais and The Siege of Boulogne. Of the seven large historical prints engraved by Basire and published by the Society between 1775 and 1788, the copperplates of three remain. The Field of the Cloth of Gold and The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover are in a remarkably good condition. The Council of The Society of Antiquaries has therefore authorised a further reprint limited to no more than 400 copies of each, and no further printing will be permitted for fifty years. The prints are of historical interest in themselves especially as the painting of The Field of the Cloth of Gold is considered to have deteriorated since Sir Joseph Ayloffe described it in 1770, even before the recent fire at Hampton Court caused so much unfortunate damage.

Bernard Nurse, Librarian,

Society of Antiquaries of London


*1            Clowes 1899,406

*2            Anglo 1966,302

*3            Millar 1963, 55

*4            Strong 1967, 24‑26

*5            Ayloffe 1773, 191

*6            Evans 1956, 160

*7            Society of Antiquaries Council Minutes 17 January 1775

*8            Society of Antiquaries. Correspondence 19 July 1887 ‑ Macqueen

*9            Society of Antiquaries Council Minutes 25 January 1889; and Letter Book 25 January 1889


ANGLO, Sydney. 1966. 'The Hampton Court painting of The Field of the Cloth of Gold considered

as an historical document', Antiquaries Journal, XLVI, 287-307.

AYLOFFE, Joseph. 1773. An historical description of an ancient picture [Field of the Cloth of Gold] . . London, reprinted in Archaeologia Ill, 1776, 185-229.

CLOWES, William, 1899. The Royal Navy, vol 1. London. EVANS, Joan. 1956. A History of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Oxford.

MILLAR, Oliver. 1963. The Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian pictures in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen. nos. 24 and 25, London.

RUSSELL, Joycelyne. 1969. The Field of the Cloth of Gold. London.

STRONG, Roy. 1967. Holbein and Henry VIII. London.

TOPHAM, John. 1781. Description of an ancient picture in Windsor Castle representing the Embarkation of King Henry VIII at Dover, May 31, 1520. London; and Archaeologia volume VI 1782, 179-220.

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