Portable Palaces: Royal Tents and Timber Lodgings 1509-1603

Lead Research Organisation: Historic Royal Palaces
Department Name: Historic Buildings


Tents represent a critical part of the architectural canon spanning both centuries and civilizations but are often overlooked in favour of those buildings that have left a longer-lasting mark on their surroundings. 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 feting of the late Pritzker Prize winning architect Frei Otto, whose 1972 tensile canopy for the Munich Olympic Stadium is still considered one of the landmarks of world architecture and an apogee of tent construction, demonstrates that tents can be some of the most futuristic and sophisticated building types. However, most tents fulfil a much more basic function for, as Faegre's Tents (1979) reminds us, they also have the capacity to serve a primal need for shelter and flexibility of situation. For many casual observers tents are simply resonant of camping holidays but the stereotype that this conjures distracts from the significance of the tent as a structure that is able to embody messages of both libertarianism and authoritarianism in a single object. Accordingly the architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff, summed up his thoughts on the importance of tents in his 2014 BBC documentary Tents: The Beginnings of Architecture by saying, 'stitched into the fabric of all tents is a defiant streak; they are a rebellious force in both architecture and society at large' ('Tents - The Beginning of Architecture', The Culture Show. BBC2. 24 July 2014).
This project considers the tent as an important expression of architecture at an earlier point of apogee through a study of the design of the royal tents and associated temporary structures that were built for the sixteenth-century English court by the Office of Tents and Revels. In doing so it responds to all three of the themes cited above - those of sophistication, itinerancy and symbolism - and pushes the boundaries of our current understanding of early modern architecture and, by association, politics. The project is timed to underpin 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 spreads its net wider 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. Supporting the project is 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 this project will both highlight the important role played by tents in European diplomacy and will demonstrate 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 project will culminate in the construction of a recreated royal tent that will act as a piece of experimental archaeology or practice-based research and a high-impact way of engaging broad audiences with the themes of architecture, power and magnificence at the Tudor courts.

Planned Impact

The project is designed to be high impact in both the professional and public spheres. The principal impact will be delivered by the historically-informed recreation of a Tudor royal tent. This will provide a focus for public engagement and learning activities in summer 2018 and will also provide a catalyst for engagement with a wide audience. The tent will be a stand-out and innovative output from the project and as such is likely to attract considerable attention in media and other public forums which will be capitalised upon to share the research outputs from the project with the widest possible audience. Historic Royal Palaces has an experienced and well-connected Press and Public Relations department who will work with the Leadership Fellow to publicise the outputs of the research in national and international media and thus create wider public engagement with the work of the project.
The project will establish webpages within the HRP website and will blog monthly about the progress of the project. This will act as a key plank of engagement activity and will provide the platform from which to share regular updates about the progress of research and development. It will pioneer a new use for the HRP website as a research hub and will therefore attract a mixed audience of specialist and casual visitors.
The tent will be the focus for engagement activities at Hampton Court Palace during the summer of 2018. This will include displaying and interpreting the tent to visitors to the palace and using it as the backdrop for live interpretation and learning activities. In the long-term it is likely to become a resource for school parties and other education groups and will continue to engage with audiences beyond the length of the project.
For non-academic audiences the research will provide a fresh insight into the magnificence of the Tudor court. The research outputs will extend public knowledge of the Tudors beyond the stereotypes and will increase wider awareness of the methods of royal power and of the sophistication of 16th century craftsmanship. Furthermore it will also help to develop an awareness of major historical events like the Field of Cloth of Gold. The recreated tent itself will present a familiar object in an unfamiliar way and will provide the opportunity to engage with public audiences on a number of levels.
The project outputs, including the tent, will also attract broad professional interest. The recreation of the tent will employ traditional craftspeople and specialist producers and will therefore stimulate some immediate economic benefit to the sector and highlight their work to a broader audience. The use of experimental archaeology and research-led recreation of an historic structure will also engage with museum and heritage professionals nationally and internationally. HRP is already known for leading the field in heritage interpretation and this project will enable us to develop new ways of telling the stories of historic sites through research and public engagement that will be of use to the wider sector.


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Description Paper at 'New Insights into 16th and 17th Century British Architecture' Conference - Jan 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The PI, Dr Alden Gregory, presented a paper titled 'Portable Palaces: The Architecture of the Royal Tents and Timber Lodgings in the Sixteenth Century' at the New Insights into 16th- and 17th-century British Architecture conference in London on 20 January 2018. The conference is the leading annual forum for scholars of architectural history in this period, and attracts an international audience of academics, students, researchers in the heritage and museums sector, and researchers in private practice. The paper received positive feedback from the audience and elicited questions both on the day and by follow-up emails subsequently. The general response was that the audience had not previously considered tents and timber lodgings as important expressions of royal architectural patronage in the past but that it was an important and interesting field of study. Several members of the audience highlighted ways in which the subject overlapped with their own areas of study.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.sahgb.org.uk/new-insights-conference.html