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How Watford remembers King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII, about 1520

When Henry VIII ascended England’s throne in 1509, aged just under 18, there can be little doubt he had no idea of the impact he would have on the Kingdom - let alone the parish of Watford. His elder brother, the Prince of Wales, had died when Henry was 10. The new Prince was kept away from public and kingly duties, so that he was "untrained in the exacting art of kingship". Only days after becoming King, Henry decided to marry Catherine of Aragon, his elder brother's widow - already creating some consternation in Catholic Rome.

Shortly after his coronation, Henry executed two unpopular ministers, one being Sir Richard Empson, known as "one of the great oppressors in the reign of Henry VII". In 1504 Sir Richard had bought lands from the Comberfords, who through marriage to Joan Parles had inherited the Parles manors. His purchase included lands in several parishes, but not the Watford manor.

Another possibly shady action by Sir Richard Empson was to present a second Inquisition into the land holdings in Northamptonshire of William Catesby, attainted (beheaded) in the first days of the reign of King Henry VII. Sir Richard's son-in-law was George, the son of William Catesby. According to Sir Richard's "inquisition" William held 790 acres in Silsworth, the northern township of Watford parish. Which then conveniently fell to George Catesby. There seems sincere doubt that William Catesby held these lands in fee as reported - rather, they appear to be some of the lands of the manors of Burneby and Parles, by then the Comberford manor.

About a decade before the Reformation, Daventry Priory was dissolved and its lands taken by the Pope. Later, King Henry took the lands for his new College at Oxford University. These lands included Sanford Mede in Murcott town of Watford parish, whose rents then graced the College. After the Reformation, Sanford Mede was given to a fortunate citizen and eventually acquired by the Spencer family.

Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon was easily the longest. Only in 1533 did the King marry Ann Boleyn. That was only two years before the young Richard Burneby inherited the Watford manor aged only 11 years, so the lands were held for him by six men until he came of age. Eventually, Richard inherited the manor by force of an Act pushed through parliament by the King in the same decade, called the "Statute of Uses". Henry passed this law to counter the practice of landholders of avoiding taxes upon inheritance by not passing property directly to a chosen heir, but instead to the "use" of an intermediary.

Henry’s years with Ann Boleyn saw the beginning of the Dissolution when the King split England’s churches away from Rome to form the Church of England. Like a very many churches around the country, Watford’s church suffered physical damage by vandalism as a consequence. And the possession of St Peter’s church in Watford was taken from St James Abbey and given to citizens in the King’s favour.

Jane Seymour became Henry's queen in 1536. Much later, Richard Burneby recorded his evident respect for the queen of four years by naming the bedchamber next to the great chamber in his Watford Manor house, "Mistress Seymours chamber". He gave the manor house together with beddings and hangings in the chamber and the glass in the windows to his eldest son, Thomas.

Ann of Cleves came and went and Catherine Howard took her place as queen, all within the year of 1540. After Catherine Howard was beheaded in 1543, Catherine Parr became Henry's sixth and last wife. One of Catherine's first cousins was Elizabeth Parr. Elizabeth married Nicholas Woodhull and their daughter, Anne Woodhull, became the wife of Richard Burneby, lord of Watford manor.

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