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The Art of Monarchy

A collaboration with BBC Radio 4 to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

British School, 16th century

The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover c. 1520-40

RCIN 405793

Wolsey Room 2, Hampton Court Palace

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The Embarkation of Henry VIII from Dover shows Henry VIII setting out from Dover on 31 May 1520 for his meeting with Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  However, it is much more than simply a commemoration of a single event.  It is a celebration of what was to be one of Henry’s most outstanding legacies – a standing royal navy - showing fifteen large warships, including five in some detail in the foreground.  It must have been commissioned by Henry VIII and stands as a record of his pride in the advanced new vessels at his command.

Henry VIII inherited 6 warships (Henry VII had started cautiously to create a fleet).  On his death, Henry left 18 warships and 39 other vessels in a total fleet of 57.  His reign saw a constant outfitting and re-fitting of 109 vessels at Portsmouth and Deptford.  Prior to Henry’s shipbuilding programme, merchant ships had been used to transport troops and improvised adjustments were made to accommodate troops on board.
Henry’s warships were designed in the style of Portuguese ‘carracks’ with high ‘castles’ fore and aft as part of the structure of the ship to accommodate troops and give them a fighting platform and with a low middle section (waist) to allow fighting and boarding alongside other ships.  They were no longer ‘clinker built’ with overlapping planks, but had smooth hulls so that gunports could be cut into the sides to allow broadside firing.  This meant that ships could be much more heavily armoured than when weaponry was only on the upper decks, high above the water-line. The guns could be fired one by one down the side of the ship in a ‘ripple delivery’ that was to be the main form of maritime engagement from then until well after Trafalgar.  The new designs of ship could also be built much larger allowing much greater tonnage.  

Henry also invested heavily in armouries and had his own foundry to supply cannon and weaponry; previously this had been imported from the Low Countries.