23 Apr 2009

Henry VIII: not just a fat philanderer

Henry VIII (detail), by Hans HolbeinYou tend to think he was just very fat and went through a monstrous quantity of wives. But Henry VIII was a much bigger man than all that.

I’ve just emerged from the utterly fantastic Henry VIII exhibition at the British Library – a place far too many people have never been.

I would never dare borrow a book from there – I wouldn’t know how to. But it has some fantastic shows, a great café, and it’s a good place to meet people who are coming in on the train from the north.

Henry VIII (detail), by Hans Holbein

But right now this show, much inspired by David Starkey and his Channel 4 Henry VIII series, is not to be missed.

Henry was an exceptionally bright man, spoke four languages, wrote beautifully, and was almost entirely brought up by women. As any man would put it, this is what explains his huge neediness for women, expressed in his six marriages.

And it is all played out through these extraordinary exhibits. You discover that the single thing that changed the development of European history, and British history in particular, that contributed so profoundly to the reformation, was Henry’s love affair with Anne Boleyn.

It wasn’t so much the need to have a son but his headlong affair with this English woman who was, in every other sense, a Frenchified courtesan living in Paris.

The highlight is the letter from Henry in French, setting out why he needed an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It was the Pope’s refusal that set in train the whole business of the Anglican church and the monarch as head of state.

I am not a historian. I don’t buy books about history. But two great figures have lit my imagination in this past year: here, Henry, and in the United States, Lincoln.

Go see Henry. And as far as Lincoln is concerned, read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of rivals: the political genius of Abraham Lincoln” (the book Obama took with him into the White House). And I’m going to be interviewing her at the Hay festival at the end of next month.


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