Reviewed by Brett Foster


The continuing fascination of King Henry VIII.

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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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