Contemporary Acount of Henry, His Court and Queen in 1515


The best way to get a glimpse into what it was like at Tudor court is through contemporary letters. Here we have a letter on behalf of the Venetian Ambassador, Sebastian Giustinian. In 1515, Henry VIII was still happy with his wife, Katherine of Aragon and their daughter Mary was not yet born.

This letter was quite long so I took pieces of it to share with you – enjoy!

Written on behalf of Sebastian Giustinian, who was  Venetian ambassador to England from 1515-1519, to Alvise Foscaki.

Introduction to the King

“…they entered a room where the King was leaning against a chair covered with cloth of gold brocade, with a cushion of the same material and a large gilt sword, under a canopy of cloth of gold with a raised pile. The King was dressed as a Knight of the Garter, of which order he is the superior, and wore a very costly doublet, over which was a mantle of violet velvet, with a very long train lined with white satin. On his head was a richly jeweled cap of crimson velvet of immense value, and round his neck he wore a collar studded with many precious stones, of which he (Sagudino) never saw the like.”

“Immediately on perceiving the ambassadors the King approached them, and after allowing his hand to be kissed, embraced them with the greatest possible demonstration of good will to the Signory. Then silence was proclaimed, and Ciustinian pronounced an elegant Latin oration, which was listened to with attention by all, especially by the King, who understands Latin very well…The Queen was present.”

King Henry VIII circa 1520
King Henry VIII circa 1520

“The personal beauty of the King is very great, as Foscari doubtless has been informed by his brother, the Lord Frederick. He is also courageous, an excellent musician, plays well on the harpsichord, is learned for his age and station, and has many other endowments and good parts. Two such courts and two such Kings as those of France and England have not been witnessed by any Venetian ambassador for these 50 years..”

Queen Katherine of Aragon

They “accompanied the Queen into the country, to meet the King. She was very richly attired, and had with her 25 damsels mounted on white palfreys, with housings all of one fashion, most beautifully embroidered with gold; and all these damsels wore dresses slashed with gold lama in very costly trim, and were attended by a number of footmen in excellent order.”

18th Century Engraving of Katherine of Aragon circa 1515
18th Century Engraving of Katherine of Aragon circa 1515

Musical Talents

On arriving at Greenwich the King went to mass, after which the ambassadors had private audience. Then the King went to dinner. They dined in his palace with the chief nobility. After dinner they were taken into rooms containing a number of organs, harpsichords (clavicimbani), flutes, and other musical instruments, where the prelates and nobles were assembled to see the joust, which was then in preparation. The ambassadors told some of these grandees that he (Sagudino) was a proficient in some of these instruments. Was asked to play, and did so for a long while, being listened to with great attention. Among the listeners was a Brescian, to whom the King gives 300 ducats a year for playing the lute, and who took up his instruments, and played a few things with him (Sagudino). Afterwards two musicians, also in the King’s service, played the organ, but very badly; they kept bad time, their touch was feeble, and their execution not very good. The prelates who were present said the King would certainly desire to hear him, as his Majesty practises on these instruments day and night. Therefore desires Foscari to send him some compositions of Zuane Maria’s, whom he praises to every one, and some of whose music has been requested, in return for which they will give some of their own. Wishes also to receive a few new ballads.

16th century—Venice, Italy: An oil painting from the Venetian School depicts a pastoral concert that includes trombone, cornett, cittern, clavichord, violin, and viol (see detail and full image below; public domain). Special thanks to David Van Edwards
16th century—Venice; Depicts a pastoral concert that includes trombone, cornett, cittern, clavichord, violin, and viol; Public Domain


The preparations for the joust being at length finished, the King made his appearance in very great pomp. On his side were ten noblemen on capital horses, all with housings of one sort, namely, of cloth of gold with a raised pile. The King’s warhorse was caparisoned in the same manner, and in truth he looked like St. George in person on its back. The opposing party consisted of ten other noblemen, also in rich array and well mounted. Never saw such a sight. They jousted for three hours, to the constant sound of trumpets and drums. The King excelled all others, shivering many lances, and unhorsing one of his opponents. Did not expect to find such pomp. The King exerted himself to the utmost for the ambassadors’ sake, and more particularly on account of Pasqualigo, who returns to France today, that he may be able to tell King Francis what he has seen in England, and especially of his Majesty‘s own prowess. After the joust the ambassadors visited the Queen, whom Pasqualigo addressed in Spanish, in which tongue her Majesty replied. She is rather ugly than otherwise, and supposed to be pregnant; but the damsels of her court are handsome, and make a sumptuous appearance.



‘Venice: June 1515’, in Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 2, 1509-1519, ed. Rawdon Brown (London, 1867), pp. 246-251. British History Online [accessed 13 October 2016].

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2 Comments Leave a comment

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