In the small, dark chapel of a 16th-century country house a priest is saying Mass, using the Latin Rite that in a few years’ time will be a capital offence. His footsteps echo as he purifies the altar. Thurible chains clank. And choirboys sing elaborate polyphony appropriate to a royal occasion – because high above them in a “closet” gallery sits a king, Henry VIII; and in a separate closet to his right, a queen (although she won’t be for much longer), Anne Boleyn.
The date is mid October, 1535. The mansion is The Vyne in Hampshire, seat of William Sandys, Henry’s Lord Chamberlain. And to be truthful, none of this is actually happening – except in sound and the imagination of the National Trust, which owns The Vyne and has created what it calls an “immersive experience”, designed to give some sense of how it might have been to witness pre-Reformation liturgy on the cusp of sweeping change.
Done with pre-recorded music, sound effects and speakers concealed around the chapel, it’s effectively a ghost performance: heard but not seen, and the result of research carried out by Professor John Harper, a musicologist specialising in liturgical reconstructions, and Dr Lucy Kaufman, a historian from Keble College, Oxford.
That they have pinned this project to October 1535 is because Henry and Anne would certainly have been here, in this chapel at that time, attending Mass. Henry was on a Royal Progress, conceived to cement his religious reforms in the south of England. It was a huge undertaking, as the king dragged with him a court of several hundred people, including the choir and clergy from the Chapel Royal.
According to contemporary accounts, Henry and Anne were “merry” on this Progress – though in reality the atmosphere between them would have been charged. Only a few weeks earlier Henry had been to Wolf Hall and met Jane Seymour. Three months later Anne would be a prisoner in the Tower – escorted there by the same William Sandys who was her host at The Vyne and whose relationship with the royal household was fascinatingly equivocal.
By 1535 Henry had broken from Rome, been excommunicated by the pope and was busily dispatching anyone who refused to recognise his supremacy as head of a national church. One of his last acts before leaving London on this Progress was to sign Thomas More’s death warrant. And in coming to stay with Sandys at The Vyne, he was ostensibly on retreat from all that, with a friend and supporter.
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