David Starkey, Susan Doran, eds. Henry VIII: Man and Monarch. London: British Library, 2009. 288 pp. $29.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7123-5026-6; $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7123-5025-9.
Reviewed by Jessica Sharkey (Wolfson College)
Published on H-Albion (December, 2009)
Commissioned by Margaret McGlynn
A Celebration of Henry’s Literary World
Henry VIII took no pleasure in putting pen to paper, declaring “wryttyng to me is sumwhat tedius and paynfull” (p. 8). Yet the king’s world was a deeply literary one and amongst the documents written in his reign were those that would change England forever. This sumptuous catalogue, which accompanies the British Library’s Henry VIII: Man and Monarch exhibition, marks the 500 years since the king’s accession. Using the British Library’s own distinguished collection, combined with lesser spotted items visiting from elsewhere, the catalogue features manuscripts, books, and maps starring alongside the more familiar portraits of the king and his wives. This book encourages the reader to take a closer look at Henry’s world and to consider at first hand the very documents that shaped the reign of the most famous English king.
The book is jointly edited by David Starkey, who was guest curator for the exhibition, and Susan Doran, research fellow at Oxford University. Doran and Starkey previously collaborated on the catalogue for the Elizabeth I exhibition at the Royal Maritime Museum in 2003, and this second offering easily matches their last success. The editors have divided Henry’s reign into six sections, following a broadly chronological course from “The Young Henry, 1491–1509” to “Death, Will and Succession, 1546 – 1547.” Leading Tudor historians, such as Steven Gunn, Glenn Richardson and Diarmaid MacCulloch, have contributed a contextualizing overview to each section. These summaries provide a solid introduction to complex themes, including the development of the royal supremacy and the birth of the Church of England, written by scholars at the forefront of current research. Though the brevity of these sections precludes a deep analysis of the state of the field, they do ensure that the reader is given a flavor of modern academic opinion. Moreover, these essays fulfill their purpose to introduce the objects of the exhibition themselves, each of which is accompanied by a detailed caption. The captions have been written by a number of expert contributors, drawn from both the museum world and various universities, and many provide valuable information on the provenance and history of the items. For example, Tarnya Cooper’s entries on portraits of Thomas Cromwell, Richard Southwell, Thomas Wyatt, and Henry Howard all reconsider the items’ dates in light of recent dendrochronological work. Helpful side panels appear throughout the book offering the non-specialist reader further information on crucial topics such as the problem with the succession and the translation of the Bible into English.
This book recreates Henry’s world by centering on the written word, following the exhibition’s fresh approach. We not only see Hans Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry’s fourth wife but also the letter from Nicholas Wotton, English ambassador to the Duke of Cleves, confirming to Henry VIII that the painter had captured “verye lyvelye” the likeness of this ill-fated woman (pp. 222–223). Here is Henry’s very own copy of the biblical Book of Solomon, dating from 1545, with annotations in his hand next to the section calling for men to be "glad wyth the wyfe of thy youth" (p. 230). “For wyves,” Henry notes judiciously. Most extraordinary of all, we see Henry’s own writing desk, lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a rare sighting of surely the most famous missive to have been written at it--a love letter to Anne Boleyn. Despite his dislike for writing, here in beautifully composed French the king reveals the depth of his passion for Anne "escripte de la main de secretere qui en cour corps et volente est votre ... plus assure serviteure" (p. 115). This letter and its sixteen counterparts mysteriously found their way to the Vatican: Starkey suggests that they were probably spirited away from England, intended to provide the pope with evidence against Henry’s divorce. The Vatican Library lent the letter to the British Library and allowed its reproduction in the catalogue. It was the undoubted star of the exhibition, on display for the first time since its composition five hundred years ago and having returned to a country where the monarch remains head of the Church of England as a direct result of the great love affair to which its content attests.
It is not just the insightful written contributions that make this catalogue such a success. The reproduction of manuscripts and documents alongside is outstanding and absolutely justifies the book’s emphasis on contemporary documents and the written word. Several foldout illustrations, including a contemporary design for tents at the Field of Cloth of Gold and a stunning map of the Devon and Cornwall coast both demonstrate how colorful and rich in detail these documents could be. Often the written sources were works of art in themselves, such as Thomas More’s "Coronation Suite" illustrated with entwined Tudor roses and Aragonese pomegranates and Anthony Anthony’s pictorial record of the Henrician navy. Occasionally, the image of an unornamented official document belies its historical importance, as is the case with the small reproduction of the 1535 Oath of Supremacy. However, the excellent commentary, in this case by Richard Rex, alerts the reader to the historical context and a book with so many images hardly intends to provide workable facsimiles.
As might be expected of a catalogue produced by the British Library, documents make up the majority of the exhibits. Yet, other objects are included to great effect. The Loddon Reliquary, lent by the British Museum, and fragments from the Shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral hint at the erstwhile splendor of Catholic England. Henry VIII’s own astrolabe and a gun-shield from the Mary Rose suggest the beginnings of England’s maritime aspirations. Ultimately this book is about the importance of written sources and James Carley’s longer essay on “Henry VIII as Bibliophile” serves as its fitting conclusion, detailing the pride which the king took in his book collection and his assiduity in studying from it. Henry VIII: Man and Monarch is an excellent testament to a magisterial exhibition. Its emphasis on documents, many of which relate to the divorce campaign and the subsequent break from Rome, provide the reader a glimpse into Henry’s world. Using the English parliament to enact the Act of Supremacy under English law and forcing his subjects to sign written oaths of loyalty, Henry was able to usher in the Church of England without a descent into civil war. This exhibition and its beautiful catalogue demonstrate that the pen was at least as mighty as the sword.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Jessica Sharkey. Review of Starkey, David; Doran, Susan, eds., Henry VIII: Man and Monarch.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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