In Burford there is a monument to Edmund Harman, a landowner and member of Henry VIII's court, writes CHRIS KOENIG

Back in the early 16th century, when Henry VIII was still considered to be such a good Catholic that the Pope bestowed upon him the title of Most Holy Monarch, a Portugese Bishop of Brazil was appointed. Unfortunately, when he arrived in his diocese, he was eaten by his flock.

Not long after that infamous meal, the English King's barber, Edmund Harman, had a monument put up to himself in Burford church displaying carvings of native Brazilians.

The carvings are the very first representation in this country of native Americans, and one of the earliest in Europe. The earlier ones are, in fact, two-dimensional whereas the Burford effigies are in light relief.

The memorial is dated 1569 and is carved in a strange style, quite unlike most Tudor stonemasonry. Prof Virginia Rau, of Lisbon University, has identified the Americans as being members of the Tupinamba cannibal tribe, who lived in the early 1500s at the mouth of the Amazon.

But why should they appear on a tomb in Oxfordshire?

Michael Balfour, in his excellent pamphlet Edmund Harman: Barber and Gentleman (available from the Tolsey Museum, Burford, at £2.50), suggests that either Harman was engaged in American trade between 1530 and 1544, or the stone carver, almost certainly a Dutchman called Cornelis Bos, had seen a similar design in the Spanish Netherlands and decided to use it.

Talk about networking. A look at the life of Edmund Harman (1509-1588) shows that the modern business of exploiting contacts is as nothing compared to the kind of very personal sycophancy that comparatively humble people had to employ at Henry's court in order to better themselves.

As the King's barber, a trusted position which, after all, entailed approaching the royal neck with a razor, he was sought out by many of the great and the good of the land, all hoping that he would whisper a word in the royal ear about them and their little business schemes.

He was a member of the Privy Chamber, a group of about 15 servants whose job it was to attend to the King's comfort.

In 1538, he was in such high favour as to be included in a list of persons at court who were "to be had in the King's most benign remembrance" — and this benignity translated itself into material reward in the shape of Burford Priory, which he was granted along with other Oxfordshire lands in Taynton, after the Reformation.

He even stood as second witness at the signing of the King's last will and testament in 1546, though Harman wrote his own signature in capital letters, almost childishly, as though he were practically illiterate and not at all used to putting pen to paper.

He also appears with the King in Holbein's last painting, now in the Barber's Hall in London, which, incidentally, the diarist Samuel Pepys acquired more than 100 years later.

Whether Harman actually lived much at Burford Priory is uncertain, but Fisher's 19th Century History of Burford maintains that two statues on either side of the front door represent Hercules, presumably a nickname, and a man covered with hair — a reference to both his name, Hairman, and his job.

But he is mentioned seldom in surviving contemporary Burford records; for example those about Burford School, founded in 1571 by Simon Wisdom.

In fact, Harman's name seems to be derived from Hermann. He apparently had German antecedents who had moved to London to oversee trade from the Hanseatic states.

In any case, he did well to remain in favour. Powerful enemies gunned for him, including Dr John London, Warden of New College, Oxford, from 1526-1542, who wanted him burned as a heretic! In the end London himself was convicted of perjury and thrown into jail, where he died.

Members of the Privy Chamber looked after the King's personal well-being: his toilet. Literally, in the modern, euphemistic meaning of the word! Sir Henry Norris, for instance, besides being Constable of Wallingford Castle, was The Keeper of the King's Stool. He was executed for becoming over-familiar with Queen Anne Boleyn.

As for those native Americans. Perhaps they appealed to Harman simply because they needed a haircut.