ART REVIEW Henry VIII: Man and Monarch
BRITISH LIBRARY, UNTIL SEPTEMBER 6
here is a great deal of interest in Henry VIII at this time since it is exactly 500 years from his coronation. This exhibition is undoubtedly the most complete and well-managed display of Henry VIII memorabilia. Not only are all the extant letters displayed (including the crucial letter about Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn which has been lent by the Vatican) but there are many illuminated manuscripts which were in daily use in the Tudor court.
And there are some 20 portraits, all originals, of the English royal family, male and female, from the early 15th to the late 16th century. The monarchs of France and Spain are there too, with a bizarre portrait of Emperor Charles V which looks as though it had been painted by Gerald Scarfe. It is possible to get as close as two feet from them; then you can calculate character. The last portrait of Henry, by Cornelis Matsys, an engraving of 1544, shows the horrible extension of his facial landscape far from the innocence of his portrait of 1514, five years after his marriage to his brother’s widow. The first ministers of Henry VII, his father, were held in the Tower of London for a bit and then summarily executed. Poor Edmund Dudley and Sir Richard Empson; they did their best, but it wasn’t good enough. So much for your father’s servants. The marriage of Henry VIII had to have a papal dispensation. It was international diplomacy; England and Spain and the empire against France. The pope understood and gave a bit of help.
It should be pointed out that this incomparable exhibition is entirely descriptive and not in the least interpretative. There is no summing up of virtues or vices. What happened next, and why, we are told with acute attention to detail. The reign is gone through slowly, year by year, season by season, and the change from the authority of Rome to that of the king’s person “in” – and then “of” – the Church of England is demonstrated with absolute accuracy. We are introduced to the intellectuals of the period, particularly Erasmus; and the “servants of the crown” from St Thomas More to Thomas Cromwell. The disgusting qualities of Cromwell are not sufficiently recognised in this exhibition – but then interpretation is not part of the show.
We are taken through the implosive decisions of the king, and the effects they had on internal and external relations. There is enough about the dissolution of the monasteries to turn one’s guts. The extraordinary determination of the king to destroy 1,000 years of civilisation is almost impossible to believe. The Pilgrimage of Grace, a Catholic movement from the north, is given space despite a scarcity of documents. Its failure was followed by mass executions of its supporters. Gradually we see the effect in England – and on European international relations – of the irrepressible selfcentredness and self-approving conceit of the king as he got older. The last Matsys portrait indicates not only the king’s character, but the pressure and ghastly unrelenting grasp he had over the whole of his realm – and every inhabitant in it. One wonders if he ever got a glimpse of this facial horror.
It seems, on the evidence presented, that the extraordinarily wonderful teenage prince – who was athletic, marvellous at hunting and jousting, could play several musical instruments with skill, dance with grace, and talk French, Italian, Spanish and German, read the classics and was instructed in Christian doctrine by some of the best brains of the time – this extraordinarily brilliant boy in fact never grew up. Psychologically he remained the selfcentred, self-admiring and selfdeluded character he was when he was 17 – precisely the time of his marriage. The violence of temper, the unforgiving condemnation of everything that did not suit his confident personal vision, are an indication of his deep psychological inability to develop. His ability to have instant executions, even with no trial, all these symptoms are of a 17-year-old boy who was determined to be first in everything. His insistence on wearing a codpiece even in late middle age was derived from the swanky “I’m as good as you are; no, better” of 15th-century teenagers of class. Men were expected to have adjusted themselves with modesty at 23 or 24, but not Henry. He was determined to engender an heir; it wasn’t his fault if the nation was disappointed – it was something to do with all those lousy wives. But that’s Henry VIII for you.
Go to this superb exhibition. There will never be anything like it in two or three lifetimes.