Henry VIII: Man and Monarch at the British Library

By Ed Sexton | 30 April 2009
an ornate writing desk

Henry VIII's writing desk © V&A Museum

Henry VIII: Man and Monarch, guest curated by David Starkey, British Library until September 6, 2009.

This impressive exhibition at the British Library has brought together a huge range of important and rarely displayed items from their unrivalled collections and includes correspondence, key official documents, maps and books from the King's own library.

There is a real Tudor atmosphere in the exhibition with Tudor rose embossed wooden panelling and huge wooden arches towering above the enormous portraits and tapestries that sit alongside the impressive wealth of artefacts from the British Library.

Man and Monarch has been guest curated by top Tudor scholar Dr David Starkey, who provides the headset commentary, and it follows the chronological journey of Henry’s life from his family background, childhood and adolescence, through his rule and many marriages to his death.

It begins by offering a fascinating insight into the young Henry and his upbringing with his two sisters at Eltham Palace in Kent, where he was surrounded by women – a factor that would later influence his attitudes to women and relationships.

a detailed landscape painting

The Field of the Cloth of Gold © The Royal Collection

He certainly appears to have inherited some of his hardy nature from his grandmother Lady Margaret Beaufort. She was already a 13-year-old widow when she gave birth to his father Henry VII and she went on to hold a prominent position in court arranging both the funeral of her son and the coronation of her grandson Henry VIII.

Henry’s childhood as second in line to the throne seems to have been quite idyllic, with his parents putting pressure on his brother Arthur who lived, and was educated, away from his siblings.

The family appears to have been a close unit and exhibits show the similarity between Henry’s writing and his sisters. The children were all taught to write by their mother and the young prince was also encouraged to read traditional tales of chivalry by his parents and tutor in the hope that Henry would become a chivalrous and true knight.

Plunged into the spotlight when he was made the Duke of York aged three, the survival of the Tudor dynasty was hung upon the shoulders of the 13-year-old Henry, Prince of Wales, following the death of his father and brother.

a page from the bible

The Great Bible © British Library

One of the exhibits from Henry’s coronation was by his first tutor, John Skelton, who wrote a moral treatise packed with suggestions for the future King - don’t be mean, hear the other side, do not deflower virgins, do not violate widows - some of which clearly fell on deaf ears.

The epic journey through Henry’s infamous marriages starts with Katherine of Aragon who was initially betrothed to his brother Arthur. Letters show that she went through a rough period when her husband died and was reduced to begging her father for money to pay her servants - she also told her father that she had gone to Henry VII with tears in her eyes to ask for support but was not helped.

Her financial woes ended when she when she married the young Henry VIII - a decision she may have lived to regret following an incredibly messy divorce which is explored through letters and court papers from then period.

a letter written by Henry VIII

Love letter from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn © Vatican Museum

One highlight for visitors allows you to step into Henry’s shoes or more accurately mount his steed and have a go at jousting. Looking through the narrow slit of an armoured helmet you thunder towards your opponent wielding a gigantic jousting pole, which has been carefully anchored to prevent any damage to the surrounding artefacts.

Further highlights from the exhibition include the Tapestry of Triumph Over Love which dominates the first half of the exhibition. The detailing and quality are breathtaking with the gilded threads adding an almost three-dimensional quality to the piece.

A landscape of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, The meeting of Henry VIII, King of England and the French King Francis I between Guines and Andres in the month of June 1520, is a watercolour by Edward Edwards in 1771 and is packed with detail that shows the magnificent temporary palace erected and Henry. The two monarchs can be seen tussling in a golden tent in the centre of the piece.

a piece of paper with a written announcement

Announcement of the birth of Elizabeth I © British Library

The content rich exhibition is packed with small snippets of information and unexpected facts – the material surrounding the coronation of Anne Boleyn shows that two noble women stood either side of her to hold up a cloth in case she needed to ‘spit or otherwise’.

Despite Anne’s apparent tendency for spitting in public, Henry was determined to have a son with her and they were both gravely disappointed when they had a daughter Elizabeth. The announcement of the birth of Elizabeth shows that Henry was so sure he was going to have a son that a statement was prepared declaring the birth of a prince and it appears that an S was hurriedly added.

Henry’s delight when he did finally have a son can be seen in the portrait of Prince Edward which depicts the infant as a miniature version of his father, dressed in similar clothing and holding a rattle in the shape of an orb. The portrait of the young prince is a moment of light relief following the range of documents describing a series of executions, divorces and the dissolution of the monasteries.

a list of people

List of people executed during Henry's reign © British Library

One of the final pieces is a list of all of the people Henry had executed during his reign and it acts as a haunting reminder of the absolute power with which he ruled his people. Henry was responsible for ordering more deaths than any other monarch before or since and the number killed in the second half of his reign is far greater then the first.

You see Henry grow from a delicate prince whose silver baptismal font was lined with linen to ensure that the royal child was not rubbed to a tyrant who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted.

The sheer volume of artefacts is somewhat daunting and I would recommend setting aside half a day if you want to see everything on show in this comprehensive exhibition that explores both Man and Monarch.

A comprehensive range of events accompanies the exhibition – go to www.bl.uk/henry for more information.

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