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2 August 2009

Henry at 500

As it was such a warm and sunny afternoon, I thought it would be best spent freezing to death in the Arctic aircon of the British Library. I've been meaning to visit the Henry VIII: Man and Monarch exhibition there since it opened at the end of April (on the 500th anniversary of Henry's accession to the throne) but I thought it best to avoid the inevitable throngs in the first few weeks, and then a combination of me not having free weekends and fear of half-term and summer-holiday enfants has meant that I didn't get round to it before.

The French guy sitting on the ticket desk obviously fancied himself as a bit of a wise guy. Once I had paid, he handed me the receipt and I started to walk towards the exhibition but he just snickered. "Er, zis may be helpful," he said sarcastically. "Ze ticket might be useful for you." I just gave him a measured stare given that I wasn't really to know that the piece of paper he had already handed me wasn't the ticket.

In any case, out of the frigidarium and into the freezer. As befits a monarch of his size (both physical size and the size of his reputation and legacy), the exhibition was fairly big and it took me about two hours to wander through it, using the free audio guide, which was narrated by the exhibition's curator, David Starkey. A lot of it was very familiar to me--not just because I am a bit of a Tudor buff and read a lot about the period but also because I have read Starkey's book, Henry VIII Part I and watched his TV series, also called Man and Monarch. There are certain quotations which I'm fairly sure appeared in all three, such as, "[after the death of his elder brother, Arthur,] Henry went from spare...to heir." This grated a little but I suppose it's fair enough that Starkey should draw on the same material for all three projects and if you like a sentence, why not get some decent mileage out of it?

The exhibition moved in chronological order, from Henry's birth and childhood (as the "spare," he was raised in an all-female household with his mother and sisters; this, I think, explains a lot about him), through la morte d'Arthur, his accession to the throne and marriage to Katherine of Aragon, his love for Anne Boleyn and divorce from Katherine, and then the quick succession of further wives, through to his death. Starkey's latest book on Henry is written in two parts; the first part focuses on the handsome, athletic, romantic young prince and king--Good King Hal, whom everyone loved--and the second will look at the darker later years--the emergence of the obese, tyrannical and paranoid old man. The exhibition also follows this structure.

[As a fellow "B," I dig your necklace, Anne! Indeed, some of her last words were concerning the fact she had such a little neck.]

I really enjoyed seeing a number of portraits and paintings of the pertinent characters up close (and was pleased to see that the portrait of Henry's grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, foundress of St Jocks' (and namesake of the college boat club), which usually sits in the hall of my college was present). They also display a huge number of documents: personal letters, prayer books and plans, many of which were beautifully illustrated, even if the text of most of them was mostly illegible (and not just the ones written in Latin).

["O, hai, A. UR hot. Pls marry me so I can has boy kidz. Thx, luv H."]

I didn't learn a great deal but it was nice to see a picture of the gorgeous, richly coloured series of tents that made up the Field of the Cloth of Gold conference between Henry and Francis I (given that the tents were all adorned with the Tudor coat of arms now also seen on the coat of arms of St Jocks', it could almost be as though the Field of the Cloth of Gold could have been an early rehearsal for my college's famous May Ball) and a love letter from Henry to Anne (he was pretty happy as after years of flirting and her holding out on him, she had finally agreed to marry him and therefore to consummate their relationship). You can also see the intricately decorated writing desk Henry would have used when writing sweet nothings to Ms Boleyn--ironically, the desk was covered with intertwined Hs and Ks, given that he was still married to Katherine at this point.

["Among the Fields (of the Cloth) of Gold"]

I would therefore highly recommend this exhibition both for Tudor buffs who want to cast their eyes over a huge hoard of Henry memorabilia and for those who are interested in the period and want to learn more about it. I had to walk very quickly out of the gift shop--firstly, because my hands felt like ice and I needed to run them under a hot tap for five minutes, and secondly, because there were far too many tempting Tudor tomes for sale and I already have too many of them (and they would, in any case, be cheaper online).


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