Henxmen Duties
Key Roles of the Henxmen


This page summarises the 4 main elements the mediaeval Henxmen's work:  Ceremonial Duties
, Bodyguards, Messengers, and Special Missions.

Ceremonial Duties
The primary, ceremonial duty of the Henxmen (from which they gained their name) was to help control the monarch’s stallion during state processions.  They walked alongside the monarch’s horse, sometimes holding additional reins, to ensure the monarch's safety.  To fulfil this intermittent but high profile duty, the Henxmen had to be fit, strong and trustworthy, as well as good horsemen.  As part of the monarch's retinue, they were provided with rich clothes to add to the pageantry of such occasions. 

Example:  The Wardrobe Accounts of King Henry V in 1420 include these expenses:

'For the Henxmen, gowns and doublets of red damask silk cloth for the Queen’s coronation.'

Their ceremonial role was not just reserved for coronation processions (although these were at the heart of their role); the Henxmen were part of the panoply of royal display on all great public occasions.

Example:  The Wardrobe Accounts of King Edward IV
for 29 May 1480, include payment for large quantities of rich and expensive cloth, to make 8 purple gowns, 8 black gowns, and 16 black and tawny doublets for:

'John Cheyne, Squire for the Body of our said Soveriegn Lord the King, and Master of his Henxmen,
for the apparel of the said Master and 7 of the King’s Henxmen against the Feast of Midsummer in the 20th year of our said Sovereign Lord the King.
'


Bodyguards

The occasional ceremonial duties of the Henxmen were soon - perhaps immediately - supplemented with other duties, that utilised their core skills.  Working close to the monarch, and selected for their fitness, strength, reliability and trustworthiness, the Henxmen also became a de facto inner ring of personal bodyguards.


To enhance their effectiveness in this role, it seems royal permission was consistently granted to the Henxmen to carry swords in the monarch’s presence, and to take independent action on the monarch’s behalf when judged necessary.  Both of these powers were a sign of great trust, and were privileges rarely granted to others – which emphasised the status of the Henxmen, and added to their popular mystique.

Example:  Henxmen acting as bodyguards can be seen in a painting of King Henry VIII (of which a detail is illustrated here).  In this painting, the King is arriving for his meeting with King Francis I of France, at the Field of Cloth of Gold near Calais, France, on 07 June 1520.

Henry VIII brought 5,000 soldiers, 3,000 horses and 6,000 artisans to this meeting - so the Henxmen could easily have been positioned elsewhere in this vast throng.  That they are shown so close around the King, in the position of greatest trust, is therefore not by chance.  This positioning confirms that they acted as a unique, inner bodyguard to the monarch - including when he was mounted on his stallion in public processions.

A total of 7 Henxmen are visible close around the King, wearing rich, coordinated clothes which differ from those of the outer troops.  4 Henxmen are walking behind, and 3 in front, and all are close to the King’s white stallion.  They are alert and on guard, looking around warily for threats against the King. 
The Henxmen are all wearing beards except for one, who also wears a gold cap.  This one, walking at the rear of the group (where he has an overview of the team), is almost certainly their leader: known as the Master, or Yeoman, of Henxmen.

The Henxmen form the innermost defensive ring around the King (and Cardinal WOLSEY who is riding beside him). 
The Henxmen are in turn embedded within a much larger troop of English soldiers, carrying halberds and swords.  A halberd was a weapon combining the heads of a pike, axe and hammer or spike, all on one long handle - designed for despatching any opponents protected by plate armour. 

As was normal for the Henxmen, each is wearing a sword - and each has his hand on the hilt ready for action.  The Henxmen do not carry halberds, probably because these were heavy, slow weapons.  Being so close to the King, the Henxmen needed to be able to move fast and respond rapidly to any threat, buying time for those further away to come to their assistance.

The details of this picture, painted about 25 years after the event, may not be totally correct.  But it dates from the period of serving Henxmen, agrees with the records on many detailed aspects, and overall it appears to be a reliable illustration of this aspect of the Henxmen's work.

Illustration:  Detail from The Field of the Cloth of Gold, 1520.  Painted circa 1545.
The 7 Henxmen around the King are identifiable by their distinctive dress, swords, and (except for one) their beards and bare heads.  For picture details, see footnotes.

Messengers
The Henxmen’s position of trust, and their closeness to the monarch, must have made them privy on occasion to some significant and secret matters.  Combined with their horsemanship, and their readiness to operate independently, this made them well suited to the role of royal messengers, and they were utilised for this too.

It is almost certain that trusted Henxmen were utilised not only to carry state communications, but private and personal royal messages too.  This is particularly likely, as mediaeval monarchs normally saw little distinction between themselves and the state.  However, no proof of such private use has yet been discovered – perhaps because of the personal and confidential nature of such work – so at present this remains informed guesswork.

Example:  In 1368, one of the royal Henxmen undertook a truly impressive solo journey, carrying messages to his master.  Having been sent as part of a diplomatic mission to Milan in Italy, he returned homeward alone with his horse across the Alps and through Europe on a journey lasting 45 days, averaging about 20 miles per day overall, bearing messages from Pavia (near Milan) to King Edward III in England.

Special Missions
On occasion, the confidentiality and reliability of the Henxmen may have led to employment upon secret royal missions – sometimes of a controversial nature.  As one would expect, there are no contemporary pictures of such occasions, and only occasional written evidence.  Nevertheless, there are documented cases of a variety of unusual missions carried out by Henxmen, and some records hint at other missions which would clearly have been secret.

Example:  Sir James TYRRELL (c.1455-1502) was made Master of the Henxmen for the coronation of King Richard III in 1483.  The King had usurped the throne from his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, who conveniently vanished – probably murdered – that same summer.  However, two years later in 1485, Richard III lost his throne to Henry VII, at the Battle of Bosworth.

In 1502 Sir James TYRRELL was beheaded for treason against King Henry VII, and was afterwards reported to have confessed while in prison to the murder of the Princes in the Tower.  William Shakespeare subsequently used this story in his play Richard III.  If correct, this is a rare documentation of a Henxman carrying out secret and illicit work for his master.  However, the truth of the matter remains far from clear, and a separate webpage about Sir James is proposed to explore the issues in more detail.

References
  • Unknown author.  1420 (8-9 Henry V).  Wardrobe Accounts.  46/14.  Q.R.  Public Record Office.  London, England.
  • Sir Nicholas Harris NICOLAS (1799-1848).  1830.  Wardrobe Accounts of Edward the Fourth.  London.  Page 167.
  • Exchequer.  1368 (42 Edward III).  Particulars of the account of Edmund Rose of the expenses of taking certain horses and hounds from Calais to Milan.  King's Remembrancer: Accounts Various: Equitium Regis.  3 Manuscripts.  Reference E 101/105/38.  Public Record; Open Document.  The National Archives.  Kew, London.
This page also draws on content from a range of other original sources, which for the sake of simplicity are not listed here.  However, all of them are in the process of being published in detail on a companion website, Henxmen Sources.

Next . . .
  • Click on The Riding from the Tower to learn about the key ceremonial duty of the Henxmen - and to see an engraving of them at work in 1547.
  • Click on Henxman Names to discover all known names of the mediaeval Henxmen.
Webpage version 2017.1.  First version 2015.
Webpage c
opyright © Richard HINXMAN, 2015.
Illustration
Detail from The Field of the Cloth of Gold, 1520

Unknown artist.  British School.  Oil on canvas.  The Field of the Cloth of Gold.  Circa 1545.  Wolsey Room, Hampton Court Palace.  The Royal Collection Trust.  RCIN 405794.
Source:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABritish_-_Field_of_the_Cloth_of_Gold_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.  Licence:  Pubic domain.