Witness From On High

New discoveries about Winchester Cathedral provide insights into the relationships between a prominent churchman and his Tudor kings.

Big boss: the arms of Henry, Prince of Wales and Catherine of Aragon flank the initials of Henricus Rex (Henry VII).The wooden high vault over the presbytery of Winchester Cathedral, about to be cleaned and conserved, has long fascinated Tudor historians. It was commissioned by Bishop Richard Fox (1448-1528) as part of his major building works on the east end of the cathedral. Its particular interest is the series of heraldic and ‘picture’ bosses, bolted to the intersections of the vaulting ribs. Some historians have suggested that these were later additions. Careful examination made possible by the recent erection of scaffolding has now shown conclusively that they are a primary feature. They are, indeed, designed to give the impression of being additions over the carved foliage that sprouts from the rib junctions. This is a design conceit that was used at Winchester a century earlier in the stone vault of William of Wykeham’s nave and appears to have inspired Fox’s design. Crucially, in some instances, the wooden foliage is attached, not precisely at the intersections of the ribs, but slightly further out, allowing the leaves to show beneath the larger bosses. There is no doubt that the bosses were intended to be seen from the outset.

The vault cannot be considered in isolation from the high roof above it, which was designed to accommodate this type of construction. The tie-beams of all the roof trusses are, unusually, raised well above the wall heads to provide space for the crown of the vault and the trusses alternate in design so that wall posts can be accommodated in the vault pockets in every other bay. This close integration of high roof and vault suggests that both were designed together, which is why recent dating of the roof has proved so important.

The tree-ring dating was undertaken by Dr Daniel Miles of the Oxford Dendrochronological Laboratory, with Heritage Lottery funding and financial assistance from the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society. The latest timbers used in the roof came from oaks felled during the winter of 1507-8; oak in the Middle Ages was used immediately after felling, so this provides the date of the roof itself. The timber used for the vault was too finely finished to be accurately dated, the sap-wood rings having been cut away, though sampling of one rib confirmed that the vault was of the same general period as the roof rather than, say, a Victorian pastiche.

If, as suggested above, the vault was being prepared at the same time as the roof, it might have been completed in the latter months of 1508. The subject matter of the carefully planned programme of bosses shows that they were being carved at the same time. 

The west end of the vault commemorates Bishop Fox. As well as his personal badge of a pelican pecking at its breast (‘The Pelican in her Piety’), we see the arms of his successive bishoprics: Exeter, Bath and Wells, Durham and Winchester. At the east end we find the symbols of the Passion of Christ, the Arma Christi. Yet it is the central section that has provoked most discussion. Here we find a display of royal heraldry commemorating the first two Tudor monarchs, Henry VII and Henry VIII. Bishop Fox had a particular reason for giving them such prominence. He was chief adviser to Henry VII, under whose patronage he rose to a position of considerable political influence, which would continue during the early years of Henry VIII’s reign, during which Fox remained keeper of the Privy Seal.

At the precise centre of the second bay of vaulting, where the bishop’s bosses give way to the royal ones, are the letters HR for Henricus Rex either side of the Bosworth thorn bush, which sprouts Tudor roses. The HR boss is flanked to the north by the royal arms with a three-pointed label for Henry, Prince of Wales followed further out by the Prince of Wales feathers and, to the south, by the arms of Aragon and Castile, the symbols for Catherine of Aragon, followed by the Beaufort portcullis. East of the HR boss are the royal arms, then the letters H and K linked by a rope, celebrating the betrothal of Henry, Prince of Wales (later Henry VIII) and Catherine.

The inclusion of the Prince of Wales feathers is crucial to the dating of the vault. It is inconceivable that they would have featured once Henry had become king, so this confirms that the vault, including its decoration, was completed by the death of Henry Tudor on April 21st, 1509. Henry, Prince of Wales had visited Winchester in January 1506, which may also have reinforced Fox’s decision to emphasise his royal loyalties in the vault, probably then being designed. The royal motifs find an interesting parallel in the contemporary vault bosses of St George’s Chapel Windsor, where Fox was Prelate of the Order of the Garter.

Most interesting of all is the prominence given to Catherine of Aragon, who had been widowed at the death of Henry’s elder brother, Prince Arthur, in April 1502. Within 14 months she was betrothed to Henry for diplomatic reasons, but he had increasing doubts about the validity of the future marriage and the wedding took place only on June 11th, 1509, seven weeks after the old king’s death. The consequences of this union were immense, leading ultimately to the break of the English church from Rome and all that ensued.

Fox was in favour of the wedding of Henry and Catherine during the years of uncertainty between 1505 and 1509. Fox’s attitude is amply demonstrated by the heraldic display we have described. With its allusions to Henry VII, shortly to die, to the future Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, it bears witness to a pivotal period of English history. It is a fascinating thought that at her marriage to Prince Philip of Spain in 1554, during the nuptial mass at the High Altar, Catherine’s daughter, Mary Tudor, may well have looked up at the vault with its heraldry commemorating her late mother and pondered on the turbulent times that had elapsed since the vault was constructed.

John Crook is archaeological consultant at Winchester Cathedral.