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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6 reader comments

  1. Simon Gardner says:

    No I certainly can miss yet another of the seemingly interminable David Starkey programmes on the Tudors and Henry VIII in particular.

    Have we no other history apart from the Tudors and World War II? To look at TV programming, it would be hard to believe so.

    1. Clio says:

      I’m inclined to express general agrement; as helpful and encoraging it is to any widespread interest in aspects of history, its true importance and indeed its greatest interest is not the drama embeded in romantic notions that are so often outlined in coutless television programmes but its significance, to society, to progress to the making of the modern world.

      Nevertheless in the name of balance should the viewer actively seek it there are the occasional programmes on Gladstone and alike and really good history in engaging and entertaining television format from the likes of Lawerence Rees for example (maker of warning from history and behind closed doors). There is also of course a wealth of excellent and varied history to be found on radio 4. Although for ‘the really quite clever’ channel more 4 seems to be distictly lacking substance in the area of history.

  2. Britt_W says:

    The British Library is a fantastic place. However, I agree, Jon – I have never figured out how to actually borrow a book. I prefer to own mine.

    But… it’s an amazing building. And you can see everything from the Magna Carta to the Beatles’ ORIGINAL manuscripts there. AND listen to the music. Just that would be enough.

    But there’s so much more to it. Ignore the historic aspect (for now). Just look at, and take in, the workmanship of the manuscripts.

    That, plus a break in their brilliant cafe is enough to keep you going for a while.

    Just do it. Go there. Free of charge, as well – if I remember it right.

  3. Susan says:

    What I am concerned about is why these letters are on loan to us from the vatican. Surely they belong to us are part of the rich history of this country. Or is this an ‘Elgin Marble’ like problem?

  4. Ruth says:

    And when you’re at the British Library, do go downstairs to the cloakrooms – not for the cloakrooms but for the fabulous piece of art on the wall opposite where you deposit/collect coats and bags

  5. Daz Anderson says:

    Just got back from this incredible exhibition. It’s rather overwhelming in the size of its content; I think I’ll have to go again to take it all in.

    I’m rather bemused by Jon’s comment. You’ve never been able to ‘borrow’ books from the British Library!

    Anyone can get a ‘readers card’ if they need to use the library. Just take two items of ID (check their website for what is acceptable) and let the reading begin.

    Become a ‘Friend’ of the BL and admission to the Henry exhibit is free and you also get the use of the members room.

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