Portable Palaces: Royal Tents and Timber Lodgings 1509-1603

In the introduction to his 1979 book Tents: Architecture of the Nomads, Torvald Faegre wrote that, ‘in a sense, tents are the truest architecture: our word architect comes from the Greek archi, “one who directs” and tectos, the “weaving”. 

The ‘Portable Palaces’ project explored the tent as an important and ubiquitous expression of architecture through a study of the design of the royal tents and associated temporary buildings that were created for the sixteenth-century English court by the Office of Tents and Revels. The project outputs address themes of craftsmanship, itinerancy, magnificence, and politics through the lens of a lost aspect of the architectural and artistic culture of the Tudor court.

About the Project

The project was timed to underpin Historic Royal Palaces’ preparations for the 500th anniversary of the Field of Cloth of Gold in 2020, an event that arguably defined the importance of tents and temporary structures as a tool of European monarchy in the period and as an outlet for creativity in architecture and design. However, the project looked beyond than that single event to review the role of the royal tent across the whole period from the accession of Henry VIII to the death of Elizabeth I.

The project drew upon a rich vein of evidence that includes paintings and drawings, account books, inventories, chronicles, furniture and surviving fragments said to be from royal tents that has never before been collated and reviewed as a whole. By doing so the project has highlighted the important role played by tents in European diplomacy and demonstrated that the Office of Tents and Revels employed renowned craftsmen whose work on temporary structures playfully and experimentally pushed the boundaries of architectural and decorative design at a time widely acknowledged as a great period of development in English architectural history.  The experimental archaeology undertaken revealed new insights not only into the tents and temporary buildings themselves but also in to the construction, appearance, and use of the great Tudor palaces including Hampton Court and the Tower of London.

Research questions

This project asks the following key research questions:

The project asked the following key research questions:

Making – How were the royal tents and timber lodgings constructed, transported, decorated and furnished and how did this change during the period?

Meaning – How were tents and timber lodgings used to convey messages of royal authority?

Influence – To what extent did the patronage of the Office of Tents and Revels act as a catalyst for the development of architectural and decorative style during the 16th century?

Outputs and Findings

The Portable Palaces project team explored the research questions with a combination of traditional archival, art historical, and object based research and an innovative process of experimental archaeology or practice-based research methodologies. This process culminated in the creation of a historically-informed royal tentmade in collaboration with specialist tentmakers LPM Bohemia Ltd. that was erected at Hampton Court Palace in 2018. By constructing a full-size tent the project tested hypotheses about construction methods and about the scales and dimensions of royal tents.

The research process uncovered significant new information about the materiality of Tudor tents including about the supply and production of tent-making fabrics and the processes of commissioning and design. It also drew attention to the otherwise little-known type of building known in the 16thcentury as timber lodgings. These were innovative relocatable wooden buildings made for the king’s use on military campaign that combined extravagant architectural styles with sophisticated technology to create spaces that were both comfortable and protective.

Initial results of the project team’s research were presented at the project’s study day at Hampton Court Palace in October 2018. The day, themed around the idea of ephemerality at early modern courts, brought together a diverse group of speakers on subjects including the Field of Cloth of Gold, masques and theatricality, and the tents and temporary structures of Egypt and the Mughal and Qing worlds.

Research team & funding

Dr Alden Gregory, Curator of Historic Buildings, Historic Royal Palaces

Dr Charles Farris Post-Doctoral Research Associate.

Advisory panel: Professor Thomas Betteridge, Brunel University London; Professor Maria Hayward, University of Southampton; Professor Maurice Howard, University of Sussex and Professor Glenn Richardson, St Mary’s University.

UKRI Gateway to Research

April 2017 – January 2019

AHRC Leadership Fellows

This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Leadership Fellows scheme.