He's gone to Jericho
A courtier at the court of Henry VIII

This post is for my friend, BB. A Blackmore who once lived in Blackmore.

So where does the phrase “he’s gone to Jericho”, come from?  You still hear the phrase now and again. And of course, it is also the name of a track by LA group The Peculiar Pretzlemen, from their album Uncanny Eyes. Who? I’ll forgive you for your ignorance.

Quite surprisingly, the phrase emanates from my adopted county of Essex.

A spot of romance

It’s a romantic, but nevertheless true story. Back in Tudor times, Essex was covered by vast expanses of woodland – hunting forests, where the monarchs, including the eighth Henry, loved to pursue the multitude of deer that ran wild.

It so happened that Henry’s eye fancy was taken by a certain Elizabeth Blount. She was a lady-in-waiting to his Spanish queen, Catherine of Aragon. Eventually Bessie, as she was known, gracefully succumbed to the king’s advances. And in the fullness of time, in 1519, Bessie was blessed with the birth of a son.

Henry was apparently delighted with the birth of  a healthy son, even one born outside wedlock. He granted the boy, Henry – or Harry Fitzroy (Fitzroy, meaning king’s son), the title of Duke of Richmond and Somerset.

A secret household

In order to have discrete access to his mistress and their baby boy, Henry set up a household for Bessie Blount and her son. This was within the forest environs of his usual hunting territory, in the village of Blackmore, in Essex. He could then sneak off to visit Bessie and the boy, whilst officially taking part in hunting expeditions.

Blackmore sign, with crown symbol.

Bessie’s  household was based in the old priory in the village, which had recently been “requisitioned” by Thomas Cromwell on behalf of the Crown. This was during the land-grab that followed the dissolution of the monasteries. And its name was Jericho Priory.

“He’s gone to Jericho”

So, during hunting parties – when Henry disappeared and could not be found, a courtier would say with a smirk and a wink, “he’s gone to Jericho”.

Eventually the love affair between Henry and Bessie ran its course, and his visits to Jericho became less frequent. But Henry valued Bessie’s continued discretion and always favoured his eldest son Harry.  He bestowed wealth and privileges on him throughout the boy’s youth.

A young life cut short

There was even talk about Harry taking over the monarchy upon Henry’s death, since illegitimacy was no bar to succession (William the Conqueror being a case in point). But unexpectedly, at the age of around 18, the healthy young Duke of Richmond fell ill and died.

There is no conclusive evidence about the cause of death. Some conspiracists suspect poison, other historians suggest a plague or fever. But there is no doubt that the course of English history would have looked very different, had young Harry lived and succeeded his father. No Bloody Mary, no Elizabeth, and perhaps no Stuart succession. History is full of such fascinating “what ifs”.

Life goes on

As for Bessie, she received a comfortable pension from Henry, and eventually twice married well – having the favour of the monarch went a long way in Tudor society.

Hiding in plain sight

So, you might still hear that old  phrase, “he’s gone to Jericho”, today. You too can smile and wink and enjoy the thought of royal romps in the middle of rural Essex.

But there are other reminders around: Blackmore village boasts a Jericho Place. There is a Jericho farm, and the site of Jericho priory is still on the map, although it is now a private residence.

Yet the loudest echo of that long-lost romance are the forests. The great forest of Essex is now fragmented, but wonderful remnants still remain in the county. Epping, Hatfield and Hainault forests still stand. At High Beach in Epping forest, you can enjoy a post-hike drink at the Kings Oak pub. There are great views westwards towards the City of London. It is the same spot where, almost 500 years ago Henry, who was out hunting with his gentlemen, waited to hear confirmation that his second wife Anne Boleyn had been beheaded at the Tower of London, about 12 miles away.

And just outside Blackmore, Writtle forest still runs with deer, the very descendants of those hunted by Henry almost five centuries ago.  The deer banks built there to contain the herds to make hunting easier are still easily seen.

Deer bank, Writtle Forest, Essex

On a quiet day walking in Writtle forest, with a glimpse of deer through the trees and no other distractions from the modern world, you can almost feel the time slip back five hundred years. A flash of hunting green, the twang of an arrow would not be a surprise. Better than any Tudor experience at a theme park.







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