Not that we will ever be entirely sure, but another early history from our archives details Henry VIII’s early connections with St Katharine’s by the Tower. It is written by Severne Majende in 1924, one of the former three brothers of St Katharine’s, when he was also Warden of the Royal Chapel and Acting Master.

It was a fascinating time, one explored a great deal recently through programs such as The Tudors and both Hillary Mantel’s novels and the recently aired series based on them, Wolf Hall. Indeed, many of the key people featured in these recent histories were also connected to St Katharine’s, which perhaps can explain its survival when so many other medieval institutions were destroyed.

It is curious in such a way to enter our own history, our imaginations given something of a boost through Mantel’s characterisations.

In St Katharine’s church, King Henry VIII and his then wife Katharine of Aragon (as spelt by Maitland in his History of London written in 1756 describing these events) founded a ‘guild and brotherhood’ to the Honour of St Barbara. For a sum of x.s iiii.d (ten shillings and 4 pence), paid either up front or in quarterly installments, would entitle the fraternity member to a letter with the Seal of the Warden Collector. The holder of this letter would be prayed for daily by name in the church.

The fraternity, however, also functioned as a kind of early insurance policy. Maitland copies directly from an older print in laying out the purpose of the guild:

yf ever the seyd Brother or Syster fall in Decay of worldly Goods, as by Sekenes or Hurt by the Warrys, or upon the Land or See, or by any other Casualte or Means fallen in Poverte, then if he bring the seyd letter sealyd with the seyd common Seal, the Master and al the Company shall receve him favourably, and there he shal have every Weke xiiii.d. House rome and Beddinge, and a woman to wash his Clothys, and to dress his Mete; and so to continue Yere by Yere, and Weke by Weke, durynge his lyfe…

In other words, if a brother or sister of the guild were to lose their money, become poor or sick, then they would be cared for by the guild, and given room and board for the rest of their life.

The other members are something of a who’s who of this circle of Tudor society (a portion of the short summaries are borrowed from this lovely site with a glossary of Wolf Hall’s cast):

  • Cardinal Thomas Wolsey – (c.1473-1530)  – Cardinal Wolsey rose from humble beginnings as the son of a butcher of cloth merchant in Ipswich, Suffolk, to become Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and a cardinal in 1515. He lost his position after failing to secure an annulment for Henry VIII.
  • Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham (1478-1521) Also a privy councillor and both powerful and well-connected, later executed by Henry VIII on fairly flimsy grounds of treason.
  • Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk (1473-1554) – Norfolk, brother-in-law to Thomas Boleyn, he was one of Henry VIII’s leading councillors after the fall of Cardinal Wolsey and made Earl Marshal of England in 1533. He was uncle to both Anne Boleyn and Catharine Howard.
  • Charles Brandon, The Duke of Suffolk (c.1484-1545) – Charles Brandon was one of Henry VIII’s best friends. His father died carrying Henry VII’s standard at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. He was forgiven for marrying the King’s favourite sister, Mary Tudor, Queen of France, in 1515, without the King’s permission and they remained friends through his life, unlike many.
  • Henry (or Harry) Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland (c.1502-1537) — the man Anne Boleyn wasn’t allowed to marry, and who married Mary Talbot, the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury instead.
  • George Talbot, 4th Earl of Shrewsbury (1468-1538) — At one time steward of the household and privy councillor, he supported Henry in the question of divorce and testified against Queen Catharine of Aragon.

A number of other lords and knights are listed in the original documents. Majende makes his opinion clear:

Here, then, in recollection of the Guild of St. Barbara, was perhaps a reason why the King spared St Katharine’s. For myself I could believe that, notwithstanding his evil life, the King held at the back of his heart an attachment to the wife he had so cruelly wronged.

Curiously enough, the story does not quite end there. Henry’s widow, Queen Katharine Parr became patron of St Katharine’s and as Majende writes, ‘

She ruined the great hospital, by destroying for a time its ecclesiastical position, for she gave the Mastership to a layman, Sir Thomas Seymour [brother of Jane Seymour and played by Iain Batchelor], thus breaking through the Charter of Queen Eleanor; and then she married Seymour. He led her a miserable life, and was finally executed on Tower Hill for high treason. But first he had despoiled St Katharine’s, stealing the splendid church plate, and destroying documents proving his guilt.

Thus began the tradition of laymen as Masters lamented in the pamphlet detailing the abuses arising through the 1600s. Interestingly, a letter from Queen Elizabeth on whether a layperson could be appointed Master notes that Thomas Seymour appears to have in fact burned almost everything in writing, but recent precedent had been set that the master did not need to be a priest.

It was not until Queen Victoria’s time, and the appointment of Rev. J.H.S. St John Blunt in 1878 that the old ecclesiastical position was revived.