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Reviewed by Brett Foster


The continuing fascination of King Henry VIII.

Henry VII, that dull Tudor king who saves the day (as Richmond) at the end of Richard III, didn't, in fact, live forever, despite the triumphalist impression that concludes Shakespeare's play. The real king died at 11:00 on the night of April 21, 1509. Two days later, after some jostling for power by counselors and courtiers, his 17-year-old son was proclaimed Henry VIII. This new king of England would be many things, as this splendid catalogue to the exhibition Vivat Rex! makes clear. This much has always been clear: Henry VIII was never dull.

The exhibition, which commemorates the 500th anniversary of Henry's accession, includes rare books, iconic portraits, engravings and aquatints, and sundry other items and curios borrowed from the Grolier Club (which hosted the exhibition in New York City this spring), the Folger Shakespeare Library, Harvard's Houghton Library, the Morgan Library, and elsewhere. The show will return stateside, to the Folger Library in Washington, D. C., in the fall of 2010. In the meantime, the catalogue handsomely reproduces the many objects on display, along with ample commentary: detailed captions accompanying each item; short chapter summaries that distinguish and contextualize the many phases of Henry VIII's life; and, most substantively, three opening essays by leading scholars on, respectively, this king's personification of power, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and its seismic consequences, and the reformation he initiated within the English Church. This last essay, by Susan Wabuda, is the longest of the three, and nicely surveys the complexities of religious change under Henry, from his break with the Roman Catholic Church and the Dissolution of the monasteries to his reactionary anti-Lutheranism late in life.

The exhibition's curator, Arthur L. Schwartz, acknowledges that some information is occasionally repeated throughout the volume. He defends himself by saying the overlap will help readers who may not know the period well, or who may prefer to read around amid the entries. Such readers will be well served, but as a Tudor devotee who has lately read this volume from start to finish, I can report that this or that repetition was hardly off-putting; in fact, the unfamiliar and informed alike will find much to enjoy in this visually rich collection, which presents the memorable tumults that marked Henry VIII's long reign. (Tudor Englishmen would have used the word "hurlyburly.") Less defensible is Schwartz's rather simplistic view of the experiences of the faithful before and after the Reformation: one's entire existence in early Christendom, he declares, was dominated by fear, followed by a Protestant liberation from the "threat of the terrors of hell." Really? A brief encounter with either St. Bernard or Marlowe's Doctor Faustus would confirm this historical summary as overgeneralizing at best. Fortunately Schwartz is far more sound as a collector and bibliographer.

Henry VIII is never a historical figure to get lost in a crowd, but a large part of what made him and his era so memorable were the many people around him—serving him, loved by him, challenging him, destroyed by him—from the good and great to the terribly abused. The sixteen thumbnail portraits that constitute the catalogue's frontispiece announce this fact from the outset. Here, for instance, is the older brother, Arthur, whose early death ensured Henry's monarchy as well as the first of many marriage fiascoes that would unsettle it. Here is Henry's main rival in Renaissance splendor, the French king Francis I, and the fashionably frenchified second wife of Henry, Anne Boleyn, whom he eventually beheaded (Dale Hoak in his essay speaks of "five long and sexually frustrating years" before Henry married Anne). Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell are here as well, who so hugely influenced English worship and policy during this period, and royal victims such as the humanist martyr Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey, as represented by John Gielgud in a 1957 production of Henry VIII.

Wolsey made the fatal mistake of overgoing his own king when it came to displays of riches; he eventually gave to Henry his opulent residence of Hampton Court, but his destruction proved to be inescapable. A preoccupation with splendor marks Henry VIII as England's first great Renaissance king, and he was sensitive to outdazzling his rivals on the Continent. His and Francis I's ostentatiously chivalric meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold was, according to Schwartz, a "display of wealth rarely seen in human history." Henry would come to own sixty residences and two thousand tapestries, and a roll of the New Year's gifts he received in 1539 spanned eight and a half feet. Finally, there are among these first portraits various images of the king himself, including an engraving from old age where he most resembles (forgive me) a Mr. Potato Head whose pinched look brings to mind the medieval cruelties of a Finno-Ural tyrant.

The volume also contains a Tudor genealogy, a thorough chronology of the Henrician era, and appendices reprinting interesting documents, including an embattled letter from Henry's first wife and a list of censored passages in an early folio text of Shakespeare's Henry VIII. Yet all of these aids are clearly secondary compared with the catalogue entries themselves. They are why some readers will be perusing this volume attentively, returning to it again and again. The several portraits by Hans Holbein are unsurprisingly ravishing. John Guy in his essay on royal power claims that Henry "struck gold" when he found Holbein, whose inimitable style created a kind of "brand" for the king and his court.

Texts represent the majority of the exhibition's objects, and Schwartz points to the coinciding "advent of printed books" to explain Henry's popularity and historical durability. Several remarkable editions are represented. For example, Henry's schoolboy copy of Cicero's De officis features the inscription, "Thys Boke Is Myne," an early sign perhaps of the possessive streak that England's displaced monks would come to rue. Several religious treasures appear here: a Book of Hours belonging to Henry's mother, Elizabeth of York, and the Golden Gospels of Henry VIII, a 10th-century manuscript thought to be a gift from pope Leo X, following Henry's Assertio against Martin Luther. This modest effort earned Henry the title "Defender of the Faith," but it also made him embarrassingly vulnerable to the stout replies of Luther, who called him "dear Junker" and "King Harry" by "God's ungrace." The most important of these books are the early English Bibles. Contrasting title pages reflect the massive shift in Henry's sense of himself as a sacred ruler. On the 1535 Coverdale Bible, Henry appears at the bottom clearly receiving the scriptures from his clergy, while the more fully approved Byble in Englysche (1539) features the king appearing rather godlike at top center, handing the Good Book to his ministers Cranmer and Cromwell on each side. The speech balloons surrounding this image proclaim, "God save the Kinge" and "Vivat Rex!"

Other texts shed light on Henry's rather complicated love life. One document intriguingly suggests that his obsessive quest for the perfect queen may have begun with his father. As a widower, Henry VII commanded his ambassador to "check out" (my term, not his) the young Queen of Naples: "marke whether hir nekke be longe or shorte[,] smale or grete." The ambassador cautiously describes this prospective royal neck as "fully & comely & not mysschapen." We also catch revealing glimpses through the books of Henry's queens. Boleyn shrewdly gave the king her copy of William Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man, which sought to reassure Henry that reformers need not be political radicals. The strongly Protestant Catherine Parr, his sixth and final wife, could both speak of "papal riffraff" and write moving prayers: "O Lorde God, which art sweetnesse unspeakable." The king's third wife, Jane Seymour, may have been his favorite; she did bear him his desired son, after all (the future Edward VI), and he chose to be buried next to her in Windsor. (For more on this particular textual emphasis, see also James P. Carley's Books of King Henry VIII and His Wives.)

A final group of objects contribute to a long, conflicted record regarding King Henry's posthumous reputation. One Englishman in 1769 speaks of "an honest open-hearted man" and "Patriot King," while Arthur Sullivan in an 1877 arrangement points to Henry's purported authorship of the lyrics, "Youth Will Needs Have Dalliance." An image arises here of a jolly, ballad-singing ruler. Other assessments, however, shimmer in revulsion. For Walter Ralegh, who knew something about royal caprice as a prisoner in the Tower, Henry VIII was a "mercilesse Prince" who cut off and cast off those closest to him. In his Child's History of England, Charles Dickens describes the king as "one of the most detestable villains that ever drew breath" and "a blot of blood and grease." Other dismissals have more levity, such as a cartoon from Punch that portrays Henry as a weeble-wobble buffo hunting on horseback a fleeing monk.

With that chase scene in mind, allow me to mention a curious phenomenon during my writing of this review, done near the medieval mountain town of Todi, in Italy. As it turns out, Todi's ancient Latin name is Tuder, and one still encounters it in shop windows, road signs, and business names (Tudernum Vini, for example). As I've been writing, and offering my own comments on Henry VIII rather recklessly, it has felt as if the royal name of "Tudor" is finding me out at every corner. Perhaps this impression, and association, is merely odd, or perhaps it speaks somehow to the ongoing force of Henry, the Tudor line, and its legacy.

Today, we are no more likely to find a neutral opinion of Henry than we would have centuries ago, although those who currently study him tend to hold an understandable ambivalence. John Guy calls him a "supreme egoist," a "dictatorial bully," and "one of the strongest and most remarkable rulers to sit on the English throne"— all in the same essay. Guy describes Henry in his younger years as a "companionable, ebullient, statuesque athlete," and this is in fact the pop cultural version of the king today, the one lately beamed through our televisions in Showtime's cable series The Tudors, due to begin its fourth (and concluding) season in 2010. Henry is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, whose version of the young king was described by Charles McGrath in The New York Times as a "moody, gym-buffed horndog." I doubt the many scholars visiting L.A. this spring for the Renaissance Society of America conference were the intended audience for the countless posters on billboards and bus stops announcing season 3's premiere. Still, the fitting advertising was appreciated. The show may best be described as a soap opera in ermine, and the poster, too, was pure Hollywood: we see the backs of two nude figures, in front of whom imposingly sits Rhys Meyers, clad in black leather and satin. Upon closer look, he sits and has his boots upon further muscular, contorted nudes. Over the top, to be sure, but there is also a wild historical accuracy within the potent configuration: one of the most copied images of Henry VIII during the 16th century appeared in John Foxe's Acts and Monuments, or "Book of Martyrs," where a woodcut features our formidable king enacting a biblical echo—he makes a footstool of the stumbling Clement VII, the pope who defied the king's divorce wishes.

Guy's description and Rhys Meyers' Showtime performance help us to appreciate Erasmus of Rotterdam's positively exultant reaction at the news of Henry VIII's accession. It was enough to prompt the already renowned humanist scholar to leave Renaissance Rome and make his way to England. Erasmus was fed up with the militant behavior of Julius II, the warrior pope, whereas he had two years before received from the young English prince a letter, atop which was written "Jesus is my hope." Erasmus also saw in the new English king someone around whom the promise of a learned, elegant court, friendly to scholars and artists alike, might arise. And it did, sort of. Henry VIII oversaw a court the likes of which had never before existed in England, but he also carried out royal prerogatives, and did so with a certain audacity and ruthlessness, which Erasmus was barely able to fathom. As for the age's two major poets, Henry imprisoned one and executed the other. (So much for being "arts-friendly.") This king was far from the politically enlightened ruler that Erasmus and his friend Thomas More deliberated upon in their humanist works, as More eventually discovered firsthand, at the chopping block.

Vivat Rex! ultimately applauds Henry, foregrounding his many royal accomplishments and his perceived modernity. Some will welcome this view, while others, following Ralegh and Dickens, will remain skeptical. Fortunately, this is only one of many debates and developments marking the present anniversary year. A major international conference took place at Hampton Court in mid-July, and nearby, the British Library hosted another ravishing exhibition, "Henry VIII: Man and Monarch." Recently the Vatican's Secret Archives revealed a long hidden 1530 letter from Henry to Pope Clement VII, requesting an annulment from his first Catherine. The archive's prefect, Monsignor Sergio Pagano, insisted that the timing of the news was merely coincidental with the accession anniversary: "We do not celebrate kings, only popes," he said, especially a king whose troublesome desires brought Clement VII to tears, according to a report from Peter Vannes, one of Henry's many diplomats dispatched to Rome during this time.

Finally, to complement the success of Showtime's series, it seems that Henry VIII remains a draw in high-art circles as well. The curators of the Los Angeles County Museum decided to acquire, for $420,000, the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto's hauntingly lifelike series of photos entitled "Henry VIII and His Six Wives," taken of wax figures modeled on Renaissance portraits. "The story of Henry VIII is sexy," said one of the curators, explaining the acquisition. "It's something you could market. I don't go to a museum to see a chair." In the end, all of these efforts at appreciation have their limitations: they must rely on interpretations of Henry's eventful rule and the substantial reception history that followed. These efforts, in other words, all resemble those wax figures, made from other models. It may be best to settle for the judgment of the king's 17th-century biographer Edward Herbert, who called him simply "the most glorious Prince of his times."

Brett Foster is assistant professor of English at Wheaton College. His Renaissance writings have recently appeared in The Common Review, Modern Philology, and the essay collection The Sacred and Profane in English Renaissance Literature, edited by Mary A. Papazian (Univ. of Delaware Press).

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