The raw materials of Henry VIII’s reign

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Plenty of historians and writers -- among them J.J. Scarisbrick, Alison Weir, Lucy Wooding, Antonia Fraser -- have constructed narratives about the life of Henry VIII. But there is another way of approaching so singular an English king: through his possessions. That is part of the thinking behind an exhibit curated by David Starkey (also a Henry biographer) at the British Library through Sept. 6.

If you can’t make it to London before the exhibit ends, and if you feel that faithfully watching Showtime’s ‘The Tudors’ isn’t the best way to observe the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne, there’s the British exhibit’s catalog, ‘Henry VIII: Man and Monarch’ from the University of Chicago Press.

Organized chronologically, the catalog begins with a drawing of Henry as ‘a strapping two- or three-year-old infant’ dating from the 1530s and ends, almost 300 pages later, with the engraving ‘The Family of Henry VIII’ -- a picture of harmony and peace in the house of Tudor that was entirely illusory.

Objects, this catalog suggests, allow us to draw our own conclusions without intermediaries. There’s a prayer roll (called a ‘bede’), for instance, that Henry used as a youth. Though there is debate that the king always had his doubts about Catholic practices, his use of this roll containing medieval devotions suggests something else.


One of the more interesting items is a prayer book, in which Henry and Anne Boleyn exchanged flirtatious notes during Mass. The page on which Anne scribbles an expression of her devotion is apt: It shows an obedient Mary listening as the angel Gabriel tells her she will be the mother of God. Henry, on the other hand, inscribes his note at the bottom of a page showing the bloodied body of Jesus. Perhaps he meant this to be poetic as well -- his lovesick mood made him feel like a Man of Sorrows? -- but linking romantic desire with a tortured body is, well, gross.

Other objects give us the feel of life as it was lived in Henry’s household: There are pewter dishes, schoolbooks, writing desks and livery chains (worn by the king’s followers), as well as the scientific instruments the king loved (among them astrolabes and compasses). (There is, however, no object suggesting the king was ‘a tree-hugger,’ as Prince Charles has called him.) There’s also a shaffron (a helmet/mask for horses) that was worn in battle and during tournaments -- Henry, you may recall, was nearly killed during a joust. Such objects are invaluable in bringing that period to life.

What lingers most, however, is the irony suffusing this catalog. There is Jane Seymour, proudly announcing the birth of Edward VI in a letter: ‘By the inestimable goodness and grace of Almighty God we be delivered and brought in child bed of a Prince.’ The king’s concerns about succession were eased even though Edward would die in his teens: Henry was spared that knowledge by dying first.

Or else there’s this early letter to Henry’s father-in-law, King Ferdinand, in which he declares his love for Katherine: ‘Even if we were still free, it is she, nevertheless, that we would choose for our wife before all others.’ Fifty pages later, of course, we find documents concerning his struggle for an annulment. How soon love fades.

-- Nick Owchar