King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger (detail) • By kind permission of The Worshipful Company of Barbers (full image)

Henry VIII… Scholar, Poet, Musician, Friend & Lover

8th May 2009

The British Library is marking the 500th anniversary of the accession of King Henry VIII with an exhibition dedicated to uncovering the man behind the myth. Jill Glenn reviews this comprehensive survey of his life, loves and laws…

“Everybody thinks they know Henry VIII. Described by Charles Dickens as ‘a spot of blood and grease on the history of England’, he’s the most infamous monarch of them all. He’s the only king whose shape you remember. And he’s the only king who had six wives, divorced four – and then beheaded two of them as well, just to make sure.

This is the Henry VIII of myth and legend. But Henry the monstrous bloated tyrant with a face like a Humpty Dumpty of nightmare is only one of many Henrys. There’s also Henry the handsome, idealistic prince, the devoted son and husband, the scholar, poet, musician, friend and lover.

Here, using the things that he owned and touched, the books and papers that he read, wrote and annotated, we show how the youthful idealist turned into the ageing sickly tyrant.

Above all, we follow Henry’s unmistakeable handwriting as it wrote a revolution and changed England for ever.”

The words above, by guest curator David Starkey, greet you as you enter the semi-darkness of the Henry VIII: Man & Monarch exhibition at the British Library. Around you are portraits of the man himself, plus his antecedents, siblings, wives and children; beyond, in necessary protective gloom, are the documents and artefacts chosen by Starkey to chronicle and illuminate the life and personality of this king we think we know.

Starkey is right, of course: what we imagine is the Holbein Henry… big in stature, big in personality. Hindsight confers upon us the knowledge that his reign was massively important in the history of England. It’s curious then, to recall that he was born a second son, and considered unimportant, and to read the brief entry of his birth (28 June 1491) in the Book of Hours owned by his grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. It fleshes out the facts, though, to peruse the copy of the invoice pertaining to some of the young prince’s christening accoutrements: ‘pieces of sipres whereof ii were for the edge of the fonte and ii for the seling of the windowes where my lord henry was channged.’ Suddenly there’s a sense of this larger-than-life individual as a small baby – a real baby – whose modesty needed to be preserved, but who had a secondary place in his family. He was brought up, unusually, with his sisters; his elder brother Arthur, first husband of the unfortunate Katherine of Aragon, had grown up in a royal household of his own, in Ludlow, and the two brothers barely knew each other. Henry was surrounded by women. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the future philanderer grew out of an over-inflated sense of his own importance… the only boy in the nursery. Second in line to the throne, certainly, but king of the castle in every other respect. The exhibition includes a picture of him with his older siblings, in which the future Holbein Henry can be seen in the shape of the face, and the demeanour. Pride and self-confidence are evident.

He was taught to write, in all probability, by his mother. The few examples of her handwriting that survive show the same weight and letter formation as the future king, and, indeed, as his sisters. He began formal learning young, and there are several documents that illuminate the life of the schoolboy prince: including schoolbooks written specially for him, and a list of his household servants, including his ‘scolmaister’ and 13 ‘gentilwomen’.

The greatest part of the exhibition, however, is devoted to the divorce from Katherine of Aragon, the rise of Anne Boleyn, and the messy break with the Church of Rome. (His succession of wives receive progressively less attention; Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr – numbers five and six – merit barely a single display case each.) The focus is firmly on the legalities and technicalities of those decisions that changed the landscape of our lives for ever.

The exhibition’s bias is inevitable, but not entirely rewarding. One part of the problem, of course, is that the documents are often almost illegible. Many are in medieval Latin or French, and even those in English frequently need considerable deciphering; you have to rely on the interpretation panels provided, which, while designed to bring you closer to the content, can easily have the opposite effect. The information is interesting, and thorough, but it alienates you. You could just as well be reading a book. “It’s all in Old English,” I overheard one visitor say with evident disappointment, “and I haven’t got my glasses…”. Much deduction is needed to understand and appreciate the documents’ importance. Many are clearly fascinating but they remain remote.

The Psalter of Henry VIII • British Library

The digital version of Henry’s Psalter is very pleasing, though: you can ‘turn’ the pages by hand on the screen, magnifying smaller sections if you choose – the beautiful illustrations, the margin notes that Henry himself made (such as ‘note what happens to the ungodly’, a warning to himself that, on the whole, you could say that he ignored) – and read modern scholarly commentary. It’s utterly absorbing, and one of the few points in the entire exhibition when you really feel close to the essence of the king, who apparently read his psalms diligently. Man & Monarch could do with a few more interactive exhibits like this one, to counteract the sterility and sameness of the endless untouchable artefacts… although the opportunity to see what jousting is like– by sticking your head in a helmet, looking through the slit, and lifting a lance which starts a video of an approaching opponent – seems oddly out of place in such a cerebral atmosphere.

At the end there is a stray section of ephemera, and plenty of quirky, entertaining facts that emerge here: extracts from the inventory of Henry’s goods (which took some 18 months to complete) show that he owned 49 pairs of spectacles, for example, plus 418 musical instruments; he was, as David Starkey puts it, ‘an insatiable collector of beautiful and costly things’. Opening the transcription at random, you find other insights into the king’s possessions, such as ‘Item a Girdell conteyning ix faire Dyamounts and viij rubies and xxxvj perles by throes.’

Henry’s Prescription Book • British Library

In the same section of the exhibition you can also see Henry’s ‘recipe’ book – a list of the prescriptions he valued, often devised by himself, including examples such as an ointment ‘to take awaye inflamations and to cease payne’ with ingredients such as violet, honeysuckle leaves, suet of capons or hens, rosewater and white wine.’ Henry, old and ill, looks over our shoulders here, human for once.

Man & Monarch is a serious, rigorous, demanding exhibition – intellectually engaging rather than emotionally fulfilling. There’s a phenomenal amount of information to absorb, and you need to devote at least half a day. Go in the morning, wear comfortable shoes, and if you see a seat, take the opportunity to sit on it; there aren’t many.

The lavishly illustrated catalogue would probably have pleased the King : the reproduction is excellent and it’s beautifully put together, with several fold out sections that show some of the wider documents – such as the Parliamentary Procession Roll of 1512 and the Design for Tents for the Field of Cloth of Gold – in wonderful detail. At £15.95 in paperback (£25 hardback) it’s worth buying… but on the way out. Like the exhibition, it’s rather heavy.

So… do we know KIng Henry VIII any better when we leave? Sadly, I’m inclined to think not. It is an extraordinarily thorough collection of artefacts and documents and portraits, but the King, for me, remains elusive. Perhaps, after five hundred years, it’s inevitable; perhaps he always will.

Henry VIII: Man & Monarch continues in the PACCAR Gallery at the British Library until Sunday 6 September.
Tickets: £9 (concessions £7 / £5).
Book online at www.bl.uk or call the Box Office on +01937 546 546

Find Your Local