Kingship, court and society at the dawn of the modern age: the chamber books of Henry VII and Henry VIII, 1485–1521

Much has been written on Henry VIII, though less on Henry VII, and the former is an established presence in the National Curriculum, on TV, film, and in novels. Many students are inspired to take up the study of history because of interest in the Tudor dynasty. Yet some of the key information about the early Tudor state, its first two kings, their style of kingship, their daily lives and their magnificent court, is little used, available only in fragile manuscripts which are accessible only under certain conditions onsite at the National Archives and the British Library in London. 

The expense and receipt books of the King’s chamber (known as the chamber books) covering 1485 to 1521 are unique. These are the earliest private records of the financial decisions of an English monarch, giving an unparalleled insight into royal personality, the purchase of luxury items, the interaction of private and public, and the politics and finances of kingship. The fact that these documents span the period traditionally seen as the transition from medieval to early modern England is also important, bridging a deep but artificial divide in historical writing.

Both myself and my collaborator, Dr Sean Cunningham at the National Archives, have long been interested in the politics and government of early Tudor England, and I have always been rather suspicious of some of the standard portrayals of both kings, particularly Henry VII as a ‘new monarch’, controlling all England through his infamous ‘bonds and recognisances’ (noted in the chamber books), and of Henry VIII sweeping away all his father’s loathed fiscal machinery. The chamber books have long been used by historians, but the fact that they have not been transcribed, published, or made digitally available, that collectively they are very bulky (over 4,000 pages), and are arranged primarily in a daily account of expenditure rather than thematically, has meant that they have never been used systematically. Opening up this resource as a freely accessible online edition will allow a major new reinterpretation of early Tudor kingship and society by the project team, a wider study of the material culture of the early Tudor court, and more generally allow academics and the public alike to investigate for themselves both the daily lives and the statecraft of these monarchs.

Dr James Ross
University of Winchester 
Research Project Grant