Henry VIII's 500th anniversary

04:47, Apr 24 2009
HENRY VIII: With the 500th anniversary of his accession to the throne coming up in April, England is preparing to pay tribute to its most famous king.

A notorious lover, fighter and king. Henry VIII certainly left his mark on England.

Famous for his six marriages, a penchant for cutting off the heads of his wives, dismantling 1000 years of religion to create a national church for his country as well as having a taste for war, Henry revolutionised England during his 38-year reign.

And now with the 500th anniversary of his accession to the throne coming up in April, England is preparing to pay tribute to its most famous king.

The British Library, Hampton Court Palace, Windsor Castle and the Tower of London are teaming up to celebrate Henry's life with an array of exhibitions providing an insight into his life and loves.

Renowned British historian David Starkey believes Henry quite simply "invented England" and has been its most important ruler to date.

"Henry is great box office. Henry is beyond history. He is myth," Starkey says.


"England before Henry is one thing, the most Catholic country in Europe. England after Henry is something completely different.

"Henry's a real king. What we have now (with today's royal family) are mere images, mere shifting waxworks. Our constitutional monarchy is a faint shadow."

However, it took a while for Henry to develop his own unique commanding style as King of England.

"Henry came to the throne in 1509 at the age of 17 years and 10 months and he had no more ideas in his head than the average boy aged 17 years and 10 months," Starkey says.

"He wanted to do two things. He wanted to screw and he wanted to fight. He had both in abundance in the next 20 years.

"The reason he matters is because he divorces his first wife and marries his second wife. In order to do that he had to break 1000 years of history and the idea that the church had taken over from the Roman empire."

Starkey has helped put together an impressive collection of Henry's books, personal documents, letters and a list of all those he executed for the British Library's Henry VIII: Man and Monarch exhibition, which runs from April 23 to September 6 in London.

Among the items are Henry's personal prayer book – complete with his handwritten notes – as well as the announcement of the birth of his daughter Elizabeth I and a love letter to her mother, Anne Boleyn.

Anne was Henry's second wife after he took the unprecedented decision to defy the Catholic church and annul his 24-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1533.

Before they married, Henry was desperate to woo Anne in the hope she might produce him an heir after his son with Catherine, Henry, died after just 52 days.

In one letter, he wrote about his "unchangeable intention" to marry Anne, who he assured "my heart will be dedicated to you alone".

The letter has been kept in the Vatican for almost five centuries but will be on loan to the British Library for its exhibition.

Starkey says the letter shows that despite all appearances, Henry took marriage very seriously.

"Henry was brought up by his mother and sister because he was the second son and believed that marriage was about love and when you cease to be in love you shouldn't be married," Starkey says.

"Henry believed passionately in the right to happiness and being `in lurve'."

Anne fell pregnant with a girl, Elizabeth, in 1533, the year she married Henry.

However, he had her executed just three years later after accusing her of infidelity.

His third wife, Jane Seymour, died a few weeks after giving birth to a son Edward in 1537 while he divorced his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, after just a few months of marriage in 1540.

Next on the list was Catherine Howard, who he married in 1540 but had executed for infidelity two years later.

Catherine Parr became Henry's last wife in 1543. She survived Henry, who died in 1547, and went on to marry again.

As well as executing two wives, Henry had a cardinal killed as well as 20 lords, four public servants, six attendants, three abbots and various heads of monastic houses.

"Henry really is the English Stalin," says Starkey.

"Of course he was (brutal). Everyone who matters was.

"When Henry was king, he was in charge of the country and his ministers were like tissues. You blow your nose on them when you have a problem. But the monarch took the credit and directed policy.

"If you want to understand the power of Henry, it is that he was a US president but for life."

One place Henry enjoyed expressing his power was on the battlefield.

He had several stunning suits of armour handcrafted by the finest artisans so he could go to battle on foot and horseback.

The Tower of London will display a large collection of his personal armour and weapons as part of its tribute to the king – Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill – which runs from April 3 to January 17 2010.

Among the 200 items on display will be Henry's custom-made suits of armour, several featuring intricate engraved designs and fully articulated joints which allowed him to move with relative ease in battle.

One suit of foot combat armour he wore in 1520 weighs a massive 42.7kg and highlights just how big the king was – a 111.5cm chest with a 96cm waist.

Peter Armstrong, director of the royal armouries at the Tower of London, said Henry's armour was made to fit his generous proportions and carefully designed so there were no gaps for an enemy's knife or sword to wound him.

"Nasa looked at one (of Henry's suits of armour) in the 1960s to work out how to make space suits because they had no space for a knife or sword to get in, just like how air can't get into a space suit," Armstrong said.

The two other main exhibitions dedicated to Henry will be hosted by Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle, two of Henry's favourite homes on the outskirts of London, from April.

Visitors to Hampton Court will see a display of portraits of his six wives and be treated as guests to Henry's wedding to Catherine Parr, with actors dressed in Tudor costumes re-enacting their lavish marriage ceremony and banquet.

A series of portraits of Henry will also be on display at Windsor Castle, where he is buried next to Jane Seymour, from April 8 to April 2010.


For more information – visit: www.royalcollection.org.uk;



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