Miniature of Henry VIII. By Lucas Horenbout, c.1526 © HRP/Newsteam.co.uk
Kristen Bailey checks out the moves of a King, a Queen and a Bishop in a new permanent exhibition at Hampton Court Palace.
The Young Henry VIII exhibition opened at Hampton Court Palace on June 28 2007, Henry VIII's 516th birthday. It explores the first 20 years of his reign by examining the balance of power between the athletic young Henry, his beloved wife, Katherine of Aragon, and Henry's righthand man, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.
Three throne-like chairs, each engraved with a chess symbol, represent these three influential players. They appear in each room in different configurations - side by side, back to back, on opposite sides of the room - a simple and effective way of visually demonstrating first Katherine's fall from Henry's favour, then Wolsey's.
Portrait of Katherine of Aragon (late 1500s), artist unknown. © The Royal Collection 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
It's refreshing to hear more about Katherine, who is often dismissed in retellings of Henry's story as the plain first wife who was cast aside for a younger model.
Katherine was a powerful and ambitious Spanish princess. While Henry was away warmongering in France, she proved a highly capable regent, leading England to victory against the Scottish at the Battle of Flodden.
Knowing this makes all the more poignant the story of Katherine's fate, which is illustrated by a single throne in a small, silent room, next to a list of the six children she bore Henry, only one of whom - Mary - survived. A carpet on the floor bears the quotation, "The Queen, like a natural woman, made much lamentation."
The beginning of the end for Katherine of Aragon © HRP/Newsteam.co.uk
Several huge and detailed narrative paintings are on display. Breathtaking as these are, they can be a lot to take in at once, but help is at hand - literally - in the form of interactive touch screens which enable visitors to explore the fine details of these magnificent works, explaining their stories in depth.
The earliest of these paintings is The Family of Henry VII with St George, a fantasy portrait of Henry VII with his then dead wife, and his dead and living children. It was painted to emphasise the fruitfulness of the new Tudor dynasty, making more secure Henry VII's questionable claim to the English throne.
The Family of Henry VII with St George. By an unknown artist, c.1505-9 © The Royal Collection 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Living children - male children - equalled security, a fact of which his daughter-in-law Katherine would have been painfully aware. Her first husband, Arthur, who died young, can be seen in this painting; as can her future second husband, Arthur's younger brother Henry.
There are also paintings telling the stories of great English victories, commissioned by Henry VIII as propaganda to be displayed at meetings with other European monarchs to remind all present of England’s military prowess.
The Field of Cloth of Gold (detail). By an unknown artist, c.1545. © The Royal Collection 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Hampton Court Palace was originally built by Thomas Wolsey, while he was still in Henry's good books - the Cardinal would later have to surrender his palace to the King and only escaped execution by dying before his death warrant could be carried out. So it's fitting that the exhibition has been set up in the rooms Wolsey would have used to schmooze foreign dignitaries to Henry's order.
A stylish, uncluttered design makes the exhibition simple to understand but still tells the story of this Tudor triumverate in fascinating detail, in the place where many of the twists and turns of the tale took place.
Portrait of Henry VIII (1491-1547) c1535 by Joos van Cleve © The Royal Collection 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The exhibition ends with Wolsey dead, Katherine abandoned, and Henry on the brink of infamy (and obesity) as he breaks with the Catholic Church, divorces his queen and seeks wedded bliss and a legitimate male heir with Anne Boleyn...
2009 is the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's accession to the throne, and further exhibitions at Hampton Court Palace in 2008 and 2009 will explore the later years of his reign, and the stories of his other five wives.