The reign of Henry VIII began with a Gothic masterpiece in the chapel of Henry VII, and closed with the Renaissance architecture of royal palaces; the change of style aptly reflected the conquest of the Church by the state. The attack of the government on the bishops, the monasteries, and ecclesiastical revenues put an end to English ecclesiastical architecture for almost a hundred years.
Henry VII, anticipating death, had allotted £140,000 ($14,000,000?) to build in Westminster Abbey a Lady Chapel to contain his tomb. It is a masterpiece not of construction but of decoration, from the cenotaph itself to the intricate stone skein of the fan vault, which has been called “the most wonderful work of masonry ever put together by the hand of man.” 20 As the chapel is Gothic in plan and Renaissance in adornment, we have here the beginning of the Tudor or Florid Style. Henry VIII, as a young humanist, was readily won to classical architectural forms. He and Wolsey brought several Italian artists into England. One of them, Pietro Torrigiano, was commissioned to design the paternal tomb. Upon the sarcophagus of white marble and black stone the Florentine sculptor laid lavish decoration in carvings or gilt bronze: plump putti, floral wreaths of airy grace, reliefs of the Virgin and divers saints, angels sitting atop the tomb and extending pretty feet into space, and, over the whole, the recumbent figures of Henry VII and his Queen Elizabeth. This was such sculpture as England had never seen before, and in England it has never been surpassed. Here, said Francis Bacon, the parsimonious King, who had pinched pennies to spend pounds, ‘dwelleth more richly dead than he did alive in any of his palaces.”21
Henry VIII was not the man to allow anyone to be more sumptuously buried than himself. In 1518 he contracted to pay Torrigiano £2,000 for a tomb “more greater by the fourth part” than his father’s.22 This was never finished, for the artist as well as the King had a royal temper; Torrigiano left England in a huff (1519), and when he returned he did no more work on the second tomb. Instead he designed for Henry VII’s chapel a high altar, reredos, and baldachin, which Cromwell’s men destroyed in 1643. In 1521 Torrigiano departed for Spain.
The mortal comedy was resumed in 1524 when Wolsey commissioned another Florentine, Benedetto da Rovezzano, to build him a tomb in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, “the design whereof,” wrote Lord Herbert of Cherbury, “was so glorious that it exceeded far that of Henry VII.” 23 When the Cardinal fell he begged the King to let him keep at least the effigy for a humbler tomb in York; Henry refused, and confiscated the whole as a receptacle for himself; he bade the artists replace Wolsey’s figure with his own; but religion and marriage distracted him, and the funereal monument was never completed. Charles I wished to be buried in it, but a hostile Parliament sold the decoration piece by piece, until only the black marble sarcophagus remained, to serve at last (1810) as part of Nelson’s shrine in St. Paul’s.
Aside from these labors, and the glorious wood screen and stalls and stained glass and vault of King’s College Chapel at Cambridge, the memorable architecture of this age was dedicated to glorifying the country houses of the aristocracy into fairy palaces rising amid the fields and woods of England. The architects were English, but a dozen Italians were enlisted for the decoration. An imposingly wide façade in mixed Gothic and Renaissance, a turreted gateway leading into a court, a spacious hall for crowded festivities, a massive staircase, usually in carved wood, rooms adorned with murals or tapestry and lighted with lattice windows or oriels, and, around the buildings, a garden, a deer park, and, beyond, a hunting ground—this was the English nobleman’s skeptical forestalling of paradise.
The most famous of these Tudor manor houses was Hampton Court, built by Wolsey (1515) for himself, and bequeathed in terror to his King (1525). Not one architect but a coalition of English master builders created it, basically in Perpendicular Gothic and on a medieval plan, with moat and towers and crenellated walls; Giovanni da Maiano added a Renaissance touch in terra-cotta roundels on the façade. The Duke of Württemberg, visiting England in 1592, called Hampton Court the most magnificent palace in the world.24Only less sumptuous were Sutton Place in Surrey, built (1521–27) for Sir Richard Weston, and Nonesuch Palace, begun for Henry VIII in 1538 on an imperial scale. “He invited thither,” says an old description, “the most excellent artificers, architects, sculptors, and statuaries of different nations, Italians, Frenchmen, Hollanders, and native Englishmen; and these presented a marvelous example of their art in the decoration of the palace and both within and without adorned it with statues which here recall in literal reproduction the ancient works of Rome, and elsewhere surpass them in excellence.” 25 Two hundred and thirty men were constantly employed on this palace, which was intended to outshine the Chambord and Fontainebleau of Francis I. Seldom had English kings been so rich, or the English people so poor. Henry died before Nonesuch could be finished. Elizabeth made it her favorite residence; Charles II gave it to his mistress Lady Castlemaine (1670), who had it pulled down, and sold the parts, as the only way to transform a liability into an asset.