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Henry VIII: Man and Monarch

British Library 23/04/2009 - 06/09/2009
A report by IPUP Research Associate Nadine Lewycky

Holbein portrait detail

Format and content
Starkey's Argument


Assembled by television personality/eminent historian, David Starkey, this exhibit is housed in the PACCAR Gallery in the basement of the British Library. It displays a collection of written materials from the life of Henry VIII: manuscript letters, illuminated manuscript and printed books, treaties, certificates and contracts alongside visual images, particularly portraits, sketches and maps, and most strikingly (and ironically) the Flemish tapestry of ‘The Triumph of Chastity over Love’. The large gallery is divided into 9 separate rooms by makeshift dividers, cabinets and stands, and each room contains documents and items relating to a ‘phase’ in Henry’s life. Wooden floor boards with important dates and events also help to distinguish these periods. The documents are largely from the British Library’s own collection of Tudor manuscripts (primarily Cotton MS), augmented by letters and official documents from The National Archives; portraits from the Royal Collection and the National Portrait Gallery; and further images and documents from various private and foreign collections. A student admission ticket cost £5 and includes a free audio guide narrated by Starkey.

As the guest curator, Starkey proposes that the exhibit will look ‘beyond the stereotypes surrounding Henry VIII to re-examine the great Tudor monarch’ and ‘offer an unprecedented insight into the mind of the King, revealing the driving forces behind his actions’ (introduction, exhibition guide). The exhibit focuses on Henry the ‘scholar, poet, musician, friend and lover’, which will be illuminated by ‘using the things he owned and touched, the books and papers he read, wrote and annotated’. It also aims to show how he turned from a ‘youthful idealist’ into an aged tyrant. These important documents are identifiable by Henry’s ‘unmistakeable handwriting’, which demonstrates that he ‘wrote a revolution and changed England forever’. I will evaluate this argument a little later on in the review and discuss whether I think that the exhibit achieves its objectives.

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Format and Content:

Henry’s life is divided chronologically, starting from his birth as recorded in a devotional book of hours which belonged to his grandmother, Margaret Beaufort. Section 1 covers his life from birth until his betrothal to his deceased older brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon, and coronation as King Henry VIII in 1509. Immediately to the right upon entering the exhibit is a family history describing the competing dynastic houses of Lancaster and York which were united by the marriage of Henry’s father, Henry VII to Elizabeth of York. This section emphasises the formative processes, such as education, of Henry’s early life which were to influence the decisions he made during his reign.

The chronological divisions of Henry’s life and reign are not uniform but are made based on what the curators determined were important years and key events. Thus, the first 5 years of Henry’s reign and marriage to Katherine of Aragon is covered in one section (Section 2), but a single year, 1536, in which the monasteries were dissolved and a rebellion rose in the north (the Pilgrimage of Grace) also gets a section to itself.

There are two other sections which deserve mention at this point. Section 4 which covers only the years 1527 to 1529 is labelled ‘the Turning Point’. During this time, Henry and Wolsey had attempted to secure from the pope an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Because of the political situation in Italy, the pope refused to grant Henry his annulment and a court which was held in England under the authority of a papal legate ended without a resolution.

While the choice for the title of this section may appear intended to indicate the nature of these years, the phrase ‘The Turning Point’ is loaded with meaning and is a subject of debate amongst historians. It is significant that ‘the turning point’, according to the exhibition, did not begin until 1527, because the seeds for these years had been laid well before then. In the early 1520s, Henry was becoming increasingly disillusioned with his marriage to Katherine of Aragon because she continually failed to give him a son and thus secure the future of the Tudor dynasty on the throne. Also, the king had already become infatuated with Anne Boleyn around the year 1525. Also, by 1529, there was no indication of the radical religious and political policy that would emerge in the 1530s. At this stage, it is safe to say that applying the idea of imperial headship to the king’s governance of the church had not yet entered the minds of Henry or his councillors. Thus, there is little to see in these years as being a distinct ‘turning point’ and  labelling them such can be seen as controversial.

The last room upstairs, Section 9, considers Henry’s will and legacy, including a printed edition of the inventory of Henry’s possessions at his death (edited by Starkey) and a rather large portrait of his daughter, Elizabeth, as queen. This room is separate from the rest of the gallery, likely as a result of lack of space, but having it set apart makes it feel like an appendix to the rest of the exhibit. Also, it is a smaller space than most of the other ‘rooms’ and thus its importance seems diminished. By this stage, the majority of visitors are also fatigued, and must pass through Henry’s legacy quickly. Given that the exhibition guide proclaimed at the beginning to re-evaluate Henry’s legacy, the last section, limited in size and contents, does not fulfil this previous declaration.

Through the choice of documents and their arrangement, the exhibition accomplishes several goals. First, it informs visitors about the life of Henry VIII. It is a (mostly) complete biography, spanning his entire life, and not just the years in which he was king. Secondly, it provides what we could term a ‘social’ history of Henry’s reign. By emphasising Henry’s lineage, his education, household and births, deaths and marriages, the exhibit instructs visitors in an interpretation of Henrician politics which is very much influenced by what is traditionally regarded as social history, a trend which had a large impact on the way in which historians of Tudor politics studied their subject beginning in the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, there is also much about warfare and diplomacy which were central features of Henry’s reign. What it lacks ultimately is context but that is a harsh criticism given the constraints which an exhibition places on the delivery of information (and there was, without a doubt, far too much information).

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An exhibition jointly produced by a historian and the British Library is an ideal blend of leisure and information for most historians and academics visiting the Library. It must have been a challenge, though, to make the library’s large collection of texts stimulating enough to attract a broader segment of the general population (see below). The exhibit successfully combines text documents with visual images and different media. There were several ‘interactive’ documents which, when the visitor pushed a button, would light up and then be illuminated in black lighting to show where Henry had made annotations. These were barely interactive as the role of the visitor is obviously very limited. While making this exhibit interactive must have been one of the challenges facing the curators, it would have benefited from including more of them. The interactive Smartboard is interesting, although having a narrative on each page of Henry’s psalter is overwhelming. It also needs to be questioned why the curators chose to use the psalter as the document for the interactive board. Including more Smartboards would also have broken up the monotony of too many textual documents.

The space of the gallery in which the exhibit was displayed can also be considered. It was put on in a gallery which was a large open space. This was divided by erecting temporary walls, stands and display cabinets. Visitors were guided through in zigzag fashion, although there were times when it was difficult to follow the chronology exactly. Part of the far end of the gallery was adorned with large wooden archways which served no obvious purpose other than being decorative, but rather than adding to the exhibit, only made it seem darker.

On the whole, I found the lighting and the colour scheme unsuccessful. In the necessarily dim light, the colour scheme of neutrals – black, beige and white – tended to blend in with the colour of the documents making it all feel the same and very bland. The standing cabinets are adorned with the Tudor rose, a modern example of the importance of royal iconographic propaganda.

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Generally speaking, this is not a child-friendly exhibit, although there are a few attempts to engage with them. In Section 2 on Henry’s wars there is a knight’s mask through which you can view a television screen to give you the idea of what its like to be in a joust. There is an interactive Smartboard on which you can turn the pages of Henry’s psalter. Otherwise, children may find the nautical instruments in Section 8 on the navy interesting, but this is largely an adult exhibition and a very intellectually oriented one at that. The families I did see, and there were a few since it was Sunday, tended to go through the exhibit quite quickly. The audience may be described as an older, more bookish crowd. One would have to enjoy reading a lot of text to enjoy this exhibit.

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Holbein portrait detail

Starkey’s Argument:

Starkey’s argument, as outlined in the introduction (see above), is that Henry VIII was solely responsible for the course of revolutionary events which occurred during his reign in religion, politics and administration. He claims that this argument is supported by the fact that Henry’s handwriting is visible on important documents. This demonstrates that Henry took a personal and active interest in guiding the development of religious policies in his reign, thereby deliberately determining the nature of the English Church. Having evaluated Starkey’s argument on its validity and how effectively it was conveyed through the exhibit, I am not entirely convinced by it.

There is some force behind Starkey’s argument in the sense that royal government was very personal in the Tudor period (and before and after it as well). Historians use the phrase ‘personal monarchy’ to describe monarchical rule, but the reality is that all monarchy is personal. The character and personality of the monarch naturally defined and dictated the way in which the country was governed, as it did under Henry’s father, Henry VII, and as it would under his son and daughters. This would be the case in any type of government in which there was one person in a position of power, such as a dictator.

But there were restraints on what the monarch was able to achieve – he may have been a ‘personal’ monarch but he was not an isolated monarch. Influences in the form of councillors, nobles, parliament, foreign rulers and even wives, would have effected the decisions that Henry made and the actions he took. Further, that Henry personally annotated some of the books he read does not mean that he was personally, solely or primarily responsible for implementing domestic policies. The link between these two is tenuous and cannot be made as directly as the exhibit does.

It is likely that the average visitor to the exhibit would not pick up on Starkey’s argument because it does not come across very strongly throughout the exhibit. The actual documents that Henry annotated are few in number compared with other impersonal or government documents and papers. All the documents are interspersed together and can get overlooked. It is a difficult argument to justify in terms of historical research, but the failure of this argument in the exhibit is not down solely to an overstretch of the historical imagination, but also a product of the nature of the medium – that is, an exhibit – in which it is difficult to convey the argument’s complexity and subtlety, which requires more than short descriptions of the items on display.

I did not leave the exhibit feeling like I knew and understood either Henry the man or Henry the monarch afterwards. Despite Starkey’s assertion that the exhibit demonstrates Henry’s conversion from a young man of great promise into a ruthless tyrant, there is little in the way of character development. Because there are many political papers on display, it sometimes feels as though Henry in whatever incarnation you would like to imagine him (man, monarch, tyrant, lover, scholar, friend) disappears from the exhibit.

The exhibition is, more than anything, an insight into the mind of the historian, rather than into Henry. Having spent the early part of his career refuting the revolutionary nature of the administrative changes undertaken during Henry’s reign, particularly those orchestrated by Thomas Cromwell (and as argued by his former supervisor, and later arch-nemesis, G.R. Elton), Starkey no longer denies that there was a revolution under Henry, but asserts that it was the king who was the architect responsible for revolutionising England. He shares this somewhat controversial argument with historians Lucy Wooding (see my review of her book here), and G.W. Bernard, who has argued most recently in The King’s Reformation, that based on the available sources, the Reformation as it unfolded under Henry was directed by him and him alone. Bernard’s argument has been controversial for the fact that it uncritically accepts the sources at face value, such as diplomatic and ambassadorial reports, and judging from the exhibit that Starkey has helped to assemble, it appears that he too has accepted his sources as they are. The dangers in such an approach, particularly at a time when diplomatic relations were constantly in flux, and alliances constructed and collapsed depending on whether royal children had the good fortune to survive until adulthood, is obvious.

This is not to say that the writers of these sources were untrustworthy; what is necessary, however, is to realise that all writers had an agenda; that Sir Thomas More’s ‘coronation suite’ in which he praised Henry was partly based in truth – Henry was well-learned. But More’s writing was ultimately propagandistic – it sought to create distance between the reign of the new king and that of the old by heralding in a new dawn. This type of rhetoric was not new. Or to argue that Henry was a great scholar (he had an interest in theology, but was not an ‘intellectual’) because Erasmus wrote a verse in his praise, fails to appreciate the nature of patronage relations in which scholars ingratiated themselves to anyone with a bit of cash (and who better than the king and his court) in order to secure a living. This is not to criticise Starkey the historian, because I believe that he is fully aware of the cautious manner in which historians must treat their sources. It is only to sound a warning to those unsuspecting souls out there who visit the exhibition expecting to find out what ‘really happened’. It is history according to Starkey and it is a narrative, uncritical history which ultimately places the responsibility for employing caution, criticism, and scepticism with the visitor.

Overall, the average visitor, who may be only moderately familiar with the Tudor period by watching historical dramas on television, will likely come away feeling that they learned a lot about Henry VIII and his reign. It is a very detailed and thorough narrative account – it feels like walking through a biography on Henry. However, that is not Starkey’s goal – it is to use the documents to make an argument. In this regard, the exhibition is unsuccessful and ends up largely retelling a familiar story – one as old as the reign itself.

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