First, if you are anywhere near the British Library, go see this exhibit.
Give yourself a lot of time, no less than 2 horus – better 3 – because it is big.
Get the audio headset for commentary.
Don’t imagine for a moment that this is some glorious panegyric to a long dead King.
The audio presentation by David Starkey from the onset describes him as a "youthful idealist turned into an aging, sickly tyrant… a bloated wife-murdering monster". Someone who shouldn’t have been king at all.
You have a much deeper sense of the sort of person Henry was to become because the exhibit starts with a look at Henry’s youth.
He is presented as a rather pious fellow, zealous for his Catholic faith in many ways, though self-absorbed, raised in the company mostly of women, as the second son. By the end of the exhibit, you have seen a twisted soul compromise something he held dear.
Some of the objects on display are remarkable. I was deeply moved, as I sometimes am – I confess – at the sight of documents which in effect were involved with changing the world. If you are as well, this is the show for you.
Great attention was given to the marriage of the first son Arthur to Catherine of Aragon, his death and the subsequent arrangements for Henry and Catherine. The first part of their marriage is presented, which makes his pursuit of Anne Boleyn more bitter and strange.
For example, and in no special order, …
- Henry’s letter to Anne in gushy French reacting to her finally agreeing to marry him – set next to his writing desk decorated with his and Catherine’s arms
- a letter of Henry to Wolsey describing the king’s hopes for the birth of Anne’s baby. It turned out to be a still-born daughter.
- the last letter of Thomas More to Henry… "‘I shold onys mete with your Grace agayn in hevyn, and there be mery with you.’ … along with the famous sketch by Holbein
- a letter of John Fisher with a Holbein
- The act of Supremacy of 1534
- handwritten draft of the King’s oath
- Henry’s will
- an autographed copy of Henry’s Assertio sent to Pope Leo X
- the document of marriage of Henry to Catherine of Aragon
- a "to do" checklist of Thomas Cromwell including the execution of Thomas More and John Fisher "Item. what shalbe done father touching maister More … Item. when Maister Fissher shall go to execucion with also the other". Both "x"d.
- a prayerbook with love note in the margins which Henry and Anne passed back and forth during chapel services
- docs relating to the annulment/divorce and trial of Anne
- the Valor Ecclesiasticus, or assessment of value of Catholic Church holdings which Henry raped
There are many books and manuscripts in which Henry wrote notes, often with a little "manicule", or small hand drawn by him to mark something. For example, there are many tomes he used when researching how to get around the whole wife thing so that he could have Anne. You can see how he focused on Leviticus, for example.
There is an amazing section in the exhibit on Henry’s victims and what he did to the Catholic Church.
In effect, you get a remarkable sense of the people and of the tensions and terrors of his time.
I was stirred at many of the items, given their context and significance for the history of the world. It was almost like reading a anguished pathology report.