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Henry VIII: Man & Monarch

Doran Cover

British Library 23rd April – 6th September 2009

British Library Curator: Andrea Clarke; Guest Curator: David Starkey

Susan Doran ed., Henry VIII: Man & Monarch

(British Library, London, 2009).

A review by Mark Jenner

Librarians generally don’t like blots. The British Library forbids note-taking in ink for fear that readers might permanently mark and damage the collections in its custody. But not all blots are equal: the Library is currently hosting a large and prestigious exhibition on the man that Charles Dickens described as ‘a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England’.

Henry VIII: Man and Monarch is an extremely impressive show on which a great deal of effort has been lavished by its curatorial team. Stressing that Henry was much more complex and multi-faceted than the Dickensian stereotype, the exhibition charts the king’s biography from cradle to grave, from ‘youthful idealist’ to ‘aging tyrant’.(1) The linear layout and the comparatively confined gallery space make it hard for the visitor to devise any alternative itinerary and so you progress from the cabinet containing the book of hours in which Lady Margaret Beaufort noted the birth of her new grandson, Henry, to the one displaying the inventory of the king’s possessions compiled after his death. There is a lot to see and you need at least two hours to do it justice (though, if you have the mobility of the older Henry, be warned that there are few places to sit and pause).

The curators tell the story using tapestries and artefacts as well as numerous pictures and drawings. Some of the latter, such as the exquisite Michael Sittow portrait of the young Katherine of Aragon loaned from Vienna, Holbein’s miniature of Anne of Cleves, his painting of Henry and the Barber Surgeons’ Company, and his drawings of Sir Thomas More and Sir Thomas Eliot from the Royal Collection, are alone worth the price of admission. But many of the portraits on display are later sixteenth- or even seventeenth-century copies,(2) and the exhibition is much more interested in the figures depicted than in the skill, iconography or aesthetic quality of the depictions.(3)

This is because books and manuscripts are at its core. Geese by the thousand sacrificed their feathers in the service of Henry’s government. Much ink as well as blood was spilt during the religious and political turmoil of his reign. In Man and Monarch the British Library makes excellent use of its own holdings (which are as central to the study of the political history of this period as the State Papers in the National Archives) and of notable loans such as a love letter from Henry to Anne Boleyn held by the Vatican Archives in Rome.(4) I was able to look at many key documents of the English Reformation and of Henrician court life, manuscripts which I had read about when studying the Tudors at A level and as an undergraduate, and on which I’ve led seminars, but had never glimpsed. You can see where Henry wrote on many of them, altering the coronation oath, redrafting the Act of Six Articles, and rephrasing the Act in Restraint of Appeals. (Unfortunately they do not exhibit the page on which he proposed changing the Ten Commandments).(5) The monarch was also a bibliophile who assembled an impressive library; the exhibition brings together surviving volumes from it, some beautifully decorated and others in splendid bindings.(6) Moreover, Henry wrote in his books (in ink).

The curators can thus show us some of his marginalia, not as examples of an active engagement with texts to be emulated in the reading rooms above the gallery, but in order to provide insights into his intellectual development and even his erotic life. For example, he and Anne Boleyn wrote declarations of love and of desire for each other in a book of hours, a small work of devotion illuminated with scenes of Christ’s life, and passed it from hand to hand. It is singled out as a highlight of the exhibition.(7) The dead king’s charisma still seemed to be working when I went round, for there was a steady succession of visitors, looking attentively at the objects in the cabinets, apparently obeying the injunction at the start of the exhibition to ‘follow Henry’s unmistakeable handwriting as it wrote a revolution and changed England for ever.’(8)

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The volume that accompanies it has been even more successful. I have seen it displayed prominently in branches of one national chain of bookshops.(9) Within six weeks of the opening it was on its second print run.(10)

One reason for this must be that the book has clearly been conceived not only as a catalogue and souvenir of this particular exhibition but also as a ‘visual guide’ to the ‘revolutionary changes of Henry VIII’s reign’.(11) Its organization and layout mean that people who cannot get to London in order to listen to David Starkey on the headset and view the objects on display can still read it as a work of clear and accessible illustrated narrative history.

The volume divides Henry’s biography into nine sections running from ‘The Young Henry’ through ‘The Crisis of 1536’ to ‘Death, Will and Succession’. Each section begins with a three page essay outlining the crucial points; as you turn the pages, sidebars give additional information, augmenting and elucidating what you have already been told. If you read more assiduously, perusing more slowly and reading the captions and catalogue entries to each photo, you will gain a fuller and more detailed narrative of the reign, for the catalogue entries are generally mini-essays on the figure depicted in a portrait or on the events to which the document refers. They are thus more inclined to relate each item to a narrative rather than elucidate the object itself.

The volume has been skilfully edited. Henrician historians are a fractious bunch, prone to pugnaciously argued controversies, but the volume has no distracting signs of intra-professional dispute between the nine distinguished authors and there is no jarring variation in the prose styles of these contributions. As a result, it’s easy to move through the text, reading the history of the reign at the level of detail that you wish, and looking at the pictures.

A second reason for its evident success must be that it’s a really lovely book. Whereas the catalogues of comparable exhibitions in the 1970s and 1980s largely contained black and white photographs,(12) in Man & Monarch all 250 exhibits are reproduced in high definition full colour; it is printed on the high quality, glossy, heavy paper used for the catalogues of art exhibitions; the layout is superb, much less crowded that the catalogue of the 1991 exhibition, Henry VIII: A European Court in England,(13) with a different colour background for the sidebars of text and foldout illustrations for particularly large reproductions. I’m delighted to own a copy.

But having read it, and having gone round the show, I found myself asking how I was supposed to use the book and what kinds of looking were encouraged in and by the exhibition. Moreover, what kinds of understanding of the past result from these experiences?

In the last few decades scholars have expended much energy on the history of the book and the history of reading. (The exhibition clearly builds upon the result of their labours). This literature has shown that people have read and otherwise used books in a wide variety of ways – starting at the beginning and reading through to the end is apparently anything but a natural way to consume a book. It has also demonstrated that the physical character of a book tells us a great deal about its cultural status and meaning and may actually shape the ways in which it is read. Man & Monarch, the exhibition, is full of examples which bear this out. Visitors see examples of hand-coloured copies of printed books, of manuscripts which had been customized so that they were suitable objects for Henry, Anne Boleyn and other powerful patrons, and others in which the quality of the calligraphy clearly mattered a great deal. Such works were designed to be gazed upon, to be apprehended as courtly objects at least as much as to be read as texts.

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The sensuous appeal of the catalogue gives it a comparable quality. I don’t think that this in itself is a bad thing – I’m all in favour of attractive books and colour illustrations. But the form of the publication, its glossiness and weight of paper, inclines the reader to view the historical documents at the heart of the exhibition as aestheticized objects. Open it at random and there is a fair chance that you will be looking at a page containing photographs of letters or draft policy documents. The eye registers the surface sheen of the paper and perceives rectangles in attractive shades of fawn or grey strikingly set off by the bright white margins.

Going to the exhibition only increased my admiration for Andrew Shoolbred’s design work in the book. Exhibits can look very different in the flesh, particularly when a catalogue prints the photographs to no consistent scale and when the entries do not give the dimensions of each one.(14) Some items that I found both fascinating and attractive when I was standing in front of them – views of Scarborough and of planned fortifications in Calais, some spectacular maps produced during the invasion scare of 1539-40 – were less successfully captured in the catalogue.(15) But in general, despite the tasteful green and brown backgrounds on which they were laid, the manuscripts looked duller in the gallery and in the reduced lighting under which they were very properly displayed. Arranged across two pages of the catalogue, the damaged draft licence for the marriage of Henry and Katherine of Aragon resembles a modern art work with intriguingly irregular edges; in the cabinet it just looked mouse-eaten. Sixteenth-century letters are fascinating documents; I was excited to discover that there is a large volume containing the myriad medical recipes which Henry VIII collected. But they don’t have the alluring surface sheen which the catalogue’s paper quality lends to them.

I emphasize this aestheticization because most people can only gaze in admiring incomprehension at the documents. Not because the photographs of them in the catalogue are obscure – far from it. (If only the microfilms I work from were as clear.) And not because they are poorly displayed in the exhibition – though some are hard to see. And not even primarily because a number are in a foreign language - though some are in Latin, French and Spanish.

Most of us gaze without comprehending because sixteenth-century handwriting is well nigh indecipherable until you have had some lessons in palaeography. Most visitors to the exhibition and most readers of the catalogue therefore find the documents they are viewing as opaque as the beautiful Islamic calligraphy displayed in the Shah ‘Abbas exhibition in the British Museum.(16) As one visitor said in exasperation to her companion – ‘I’d rather have hieroglyphs!’(17) She wanted to be able to read rather than merely to look.

The curators clearly gave some thought to this problem. Unadorned correspondence, plain printed pages and visually uninteresting bureaucratic warrants are juxtaposed with decorated manuscripts and paintings in order to try and ensure that the visitor does not become bored. The designers have devised an ingenious way by which to explicate Henry’s annotations on key documents. Photographs of the relevant page are presented nearby. When you press the adjacent button (wittily labelled with a manicule, the pointing finger sign which early modern readers used to write in the margin),(18) first the royal annotation and then a transcription of it are lit up. Seven weeks into the run the website finally introduced a version of this interactive feature.(19)

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Interactive technology is also used to evoke the way which Henry and his intellectual servants tried to build up the case for an annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and for his claim that the case ought to be heard in England, not Rome. Many manuscripts from monasteries across the land were searched; relevant (supportive) passages in histories and commentaries were identified, excerpted, and brought together into an anthology of research. The exhibition displays the Collecteana and some of the manuscripts which were used to put it together.(20) When you press a button next to a photograph of the text, a line of light running from it to the relevant original manuscript in a cabinet nearby is illuminated. It elegantly allows visitors who are quicker on the uptake than I am to retrace the steps of the Henrician research team.(21)

But the intelligibility of the show and of the catalogue largely rests upon the labels and the descriptive entries (which overlap substantially). And although, as I have already indicated, Man & Monarch, the book, gives a clear account of the monarch and his reign, it really isn’t terribly helpful in explicating the documents. A few pieces, such Eric Ives’s account of item 149, a sketch seating plan for the feast in celebration of the coronation of Anne Boleyn, transcribe every word written on the manuscript; many refer to and transcribe key passages but there is no indication of where they are to be found on the photographed page (and even with training in reading this handwriting it often took me a while to find them); one or two refer to bits of the manuscript that aren’t actually illustrated. There was a similar dynamic in the exhibition itself, where, to be fair, space was very limited. Perusal seemed generally to start with the label, which is on a white background and often better lit, and only after that, to move up to the manuscript and then not to linger after registering that it was old and in execrable handwriting.

The documents thus function as inscrutable but ineffably potent relics of the Henrician past. Laying examples of the handwriting of an anointed monarch next to one reconstruction of his life buttresses the legitimacy of that particular reconstruction of royal biography; their physical presence lends an authenticating power to the story that we are told.(22) I found that the exhibition reminded me of going round a cathedral in certain areas of Roman Catholic Europe, looking at the splendid reliquaries of ancient saints. This is not, I hasten to add, to suggest that the manuscripts displayed have the historical status of chicken bones – though David Starkey does confess on the headset commentary that the first sketch of the infant king showed what ‘he ought to have looked like’. Man and Monarch popularizes history in that it tells its story well with objects, pictures and, to use Starkey and Doran’s phrase in their (self-reflexively self-regarding?) catalogue entry on a Henrician edition of Chaucer, ‘good, clear English’.(23) But it is less interested in democratizing the interpretation or enabling the active study of Tudor history. Nowhere does the website or exhibition mention places where one can learn how to read the documents on display, such as the free website hosted by the National Archives. The interactives never allow you to look at the original handwriting and the transcription side by side. Neither website, catalogue nor exit room of the exhibition mention how in the Reading Rooms of the Library upstairs one can consult State Papers Online and look at digital photographs of thousands of pages of Tudor documents alongside the printed calendars of them. During Henry’s reign the Bible in English was printed, but the King, we learn in the catalogue, wanted it to be read with meekness.(24) There’s a hint of a similar sentiment with regard to modern works of history in these presentations of the past.(25)

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  1. Quotations from the first text panel of the exhibition.Back to (1).
  2. To see other iconic images of the King, notably the famous Holbein cartoon, one should go to the National Portrait Gallery, where there is also an interesting and well displayed one room exhibition of changing representations of the King, Henry VIII Remembered, 20 December 2008-12 July 2009. Back to (2).
  3. Revealingly the catalogue entries written by Tanya Cooper of the National Portrait Gallery provide additional information about paintings, such as what recent dendrochronological tests reveal about their date of composition, while many historians’ entries just give biographies of the subject: compare the entries for items 161, 172, 176 and 263 with those for items 26, 27, 74, 105, 119-20, 137 & 183. Back to (3).
  4. Doubtless with the assistance of the British Library Press Office, this loan was picked up and reported as a historical human interest news story in the build up to the exhibition, A. Akbar, ‘Why Anne Boleyn lost her head for Henry VIII’, The Independent, 14 Feb. 2009, p. 20; On the audio-guide the letters are rather chauvinistically described as having ‘been spirited away to Rome’, when they were probably sent to the Pope by supporters of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. See Doran, Henry VIII, 9 for similar language. Back to (4).
  5. On this, see Doran, Henry VIII, 194. Back to (5).
  6. For this see, J. P. Carley ed., The Libraries of Henry VIII (Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues 7, London, 2000); idem., The Books of Henry VIII and his Wives (London, 2004). Carley contributes a short essay on Henry and his books to the exhibition catalogue.Back to (6).
  7. to (7).
  8. Quotation from the first text panel of the exhibition. Back to (8).
  9. Presenting the loyalty card of the same chain of bookshops gets you a discount on the price of admission. Back to (9).
  10. Personal communication from Giles Mandelbrote of the British Library, June 5 2009. Back to (10).
  11. British Library publicity leaflet for the exhibition. Back to (11).
  12. Eg., J. B. Trapp & H. B. Herbrüggen ed., ‘The King’s Good Servant’: Sir Thomas More, 1477/8-1535 (National Portrait Gallery, London, 1977); Holbein and the Court of Henry VIII: Drawings from the Royal Library at Windsor (Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, 1978).Back to (12).
  13. David Starkey was also the historical consultant of this exhibition, which was held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to mark the five hundredth anniversary of Henry’s birth, D. Starkey ed., Henry VIII: A European Court in England (London, 1991). This catalogue is more thematic and much less linearly biographical in its account of the reign than Man & Monarch. Back to (13).
  14. The variation in the scale of reproduction is very large. At least one miniature is printed twice as large as it is in actuality, making it larger in the catalogue than the image of a four-foot high portrait, Doran, Henry VIII, items 216 and 8. The omission of measurements, which were, for instance, included in Starkey ed., Henry VIII: A European Court, Holbein and the Court of Henry VIII, and the catalogue of the 2006-2007 Tate exhibition, S. Foister, Holbein in England (London, 2006), is a real scholarly lapse which cannot be justified by reasons of space or cost. Back to (14).
  15. One is extremely well presented at Back to (15).
  16. Shah ‘Abbas: the Remaking of Iran, British Museum, 19 February- 14 June 2009. Back to (16).
  17. This couple’s frustration was compounded by the fact that one of them knew Latin, and so would otherwise have been able to read more exhibits than other visitors. Back to (17).
  18. For this device, see W. H. Sherman, Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia, 2007), ch. 2; Back to (18).
  19. Back to (19).
  20. Back to (20).
  21. I was mystified by this and had to wait for a school party to push the buttons and follow the lines before I understood what was going on. Back to (21).
  22. On techniques of authentification in popular history, see Justin Champion, ‘Seeing the Past: Simon Schama's ‘A History of Britain’ and Public History’, History Workshop Journal, 56 (2003), 155-165. Back to (22).
  23. Doran, Henry VIII, 265. Back to (23).
  24. Doran, Henry VIII, 204. Back to (24).
  25. A very different sentiment from that of the previous British Library exhibition, the award-winning Taking Liberties: The Struggle for Britain’s Rights and Freedoms, [see also the report on IPUP's pages]. Back to (25).

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