Henry VIII: Renaissance Man & Tyrant


King Henry VIII has maintained a remarkable hold on the public imagination and the five hundredth anniversary of his accession to the throne saw the opening of exhibitions at Windsor Castle and the Tower of London (that notorious fortress-prison where Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn was imprisoned) which bring us a step closer to a renaissance ruler, who was both an attractive and monstrous figure during his lifetime. Indeed, were it not for the fact that the Tudors were on the throne, William Shakespeare might well have chosen to portray the fearsome monarch in one of his plays. Henry would certainly have made a great subject for the writer’s muse. The continuation of Henry’s power, through his daughters, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, ensured that the bard never turned his critical eye toward the family, but the force of Henry’s character still speaks to us down the centuries. To mark the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession to the throne, there is a special exhibition at Windsor Castle, the monarch’s one-time home and final resting place. Bringing together paintings, drawings, miniatures, prints, books and manuscripts from the Royal Collection and the archives of St. George’s Chapel, the exhibition explores the life of one of the English monarchy’s most significant figures. Proclaimed King on 23 April, 1509, just before his 18th birthday, Henry reigned for almost 38 years, until his death in 1547. During that time Windsor Castle was the backdrop to a number of important events, including negotiations with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1522. It was also the sometime home of the King’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond. Henry was also buried in St. George’s Chapel, alongside his third and favourite wife, Jane Seymour.

Among the highlights of the exhibition are a number of works by Hans Holbein the Younger, the German who became court painter to Henry VIII soon after his arrival in England in 1526. The artist captured many of the key personalities of the King’s reign, including two of his wives, Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard. The Tudor line of succession from Henry VII to Edward VI is illustrated through beautiful miniatures by the goldsmith and limner Nicholas Hilliard. Books from the King’s Library will also be on display, including Thomas Wriothesley’s Garter Book, which contains what is thought to be the earliest surviving view of the opening of Parliament. In addition to the historical materials already known the anniversary year of Henry’s accession has also been marked by a flurry of offerings bringing new insights into the monarch’s mercurial personality.

A particularly interesting item is a recently discovered letter, on exhibition at the British Library, which shows Henry’s romantic side. Concealed for centuries in the Vatican the love letter from Henry to his second wife, Anne Boleyn, shows a besotted ruler pouring out his feelings. The letter, most likely written in January 1528, has Henry assuring Anne that “henceforth my heart will be dedicated to you alone,” whilst he apologises for having suggested she could be a mere mistress. Anne had resisted Henry’s advances – aware of his womanising reputation – and had refused any pre-marital sexual relations. By the time of Henry’s letter Anne seems to have yielded with a “too humble submission” to his advances. Henry was clearly lovestruck: “The demonstrations of your affection are such, and the beautiful words of your letter are so cordially phrased, that they really oblige me to honour, love, and serve you for ever . . . For my part, I will out-do you, if this be possible, rather than reciprocate, in loyalty of heart and my desire to please you. Beseeching you also that if I have in any way offended you, you will give me the same absolution for which you ask, assuring you that henceforth my heart will be dedicated to you alone, and wishing greatly that my body was so too.”

Infamously Henry’s romantic feelings for Anne did not last and eight years later she was executed on the charges of adultery, incest and treason. Henry’s only mercy was to allow Anne to be beheaded rather than burned. Her brother George was also executed along with Anne’s alleged lover Mark Smeaton, a Flemish musician. Historian Dr. David Starkey sees a further insight into Henry’s personality through the letter. Henry had an unusual upbringing for the time in a mainly female household headed by his mother, Elizabeth of York, whilst his elder brother Arthur was brought up at the royal household. Dr. Starkey believes that Henry was tutored by his mother and this is illustrated by the similarity of their handwriting. Starkey does not see the influence as very positive: “Henry’s handwriting shows how very close he was to females in his youth. He was the only boy and became emotionally dependent on women. Or, to put it more bluntly, he was emotionally incontinent.” Dr. Starkey is updating his biography of Henry VIII with these and other new insights.

Another exhibition – at the Tower of London – gives an insight into rather more material, even fleshy, aspects of the renaissance monarch. It is perhaps not the most academic of questions but the exact proportions of Henry’s obesity in his later years has always been a source of curiousity. Through comparing Henry’s suits of armor a precise estimate can now be made – bluntly, how fat did Henry get! The exhibition has been five years in the planning and includes field armour made for the 6ft 1inches tall Henry when he was 23, with his 34.7inch waist and his 41.7inch chest. Then there is armour made for the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ five years later, for Henry’s famous meeting with King Francois I of France. By then Henry was up to a 36.1inch waist and 41.8in chest. Foot combat armour also made for that year shows some particularly rapid weight gain – a 37.9inch waist and 44 inch chest. Twenty years later, when Henry was in his forties, his armour for a tournament to celebrate May Day has him ballooned up to a 51 inch waist and 54.5 inch chest. Royal Armouries Academic Director, Graeme Rimer notes: “You get an impression of what he was like in the flesh that you just can’t from a painting. Armour has to fit quite closely.”

Just as remarkable is the sheer weight of the armour the monarch was wearing. The foot combat armour made for 28-year-old Henry weighed 94lb or 42.7kg. And then there are the codpieces, which can best be described as roomy, the monarch had to be seen to excel in all departments! They certainly had a certain mystic and in later centuries Henry’s codpieces found a new life with barren women pricking pins into the lining in the hope it would bring them babies. Sadly the sets of armour are not in their original black and gold because of over-aggressive polishing in the 19th century when they were polished with brick dust and rangoon oil to fit what was considered to be the aesthetic for armour – shiny and silvery. Muddle headed romantic notions were to blame, not least the classic novels of Sir Walter Scott. But much of the armour’s splendour remains and Henry’s specially-made ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ suit is particularly impressive with its many overlapping parts using up to the minute designs. Indeed, it was so remarkable that NASA studied its contruction when they were designing the first space suits in the 1960s. Henry, however, never got the opportunity to outdo his French rival as the French changed the tournament rules late on so the armour was never completed. The exhibition shows how modern a monarch Henry was and his desire for his soldiers to have the best, most technologically advanced battle gear. One of the exhibits is a long spiked mace with three gun barrels at the end of it. Another quirky addition to the exhibition is the display of what is thought to be the oldest football in the world. It was discovered in the 1980s in the roof above Mary Queen of Scots’ bedroom at Stirling castle and it is thought Mary – a keen football fan and possible player – may have put it there to ward away demons. (Royalty Magazine Vol. 21/06)

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