Documents Offer Authentic Portrait of English King, for Better or Worse
By now, whether it’s through a history book, a saucy Showtime television series, or a Google search engine, pretty much everyone thinks they know everything there is to know about Henry VIII. But the folks at the Folger Shakespeare Library who put out the new exhibition “Vivat Rex!” — along with a host of related activities, including a production of Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” — hope there’s still enough curiosity about this curious historical figure to drive visitors to their splendidly detailed show commemorating the 500th anniversary of the accession of Henry VIII to the English throne. Perhaps no British monarch has commanded such attention, not only among historians, playwrights and serious intellectuals, but among pop-culture aficionados. Only Queen Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter with the wife he had executed who rose to the throne to enthrall her people, and perhaps the fabled King Arthur and his round table have engaged the public’s imagination inside and outside of England as much as Henry did. And if the real Henry looked like the Henry portrayed by thin, lean and peevish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers on the popular, ultra-sexy, ultra-violent cable TV series “The Tudors,” he would’ve had yet another reason to strut across the world’s imagination and add that exclamation point to “Vivat Rex!” That weight-watchers portrait of Henry isn’t the one we usually associate with the great king — great in the sense that his life decisions, and personal desires, changed England entirely. And let’s face it, he was also great in girth, although that’s not the characteristic most of us remember in our imaginations. “Vivat Rex!” does not necessarily feed on Henry’s many reincarnations in the pop culture realm — the Folger, after all, remains a library, no matter how digitized some of its offerings have become. The exhibition gives us Henry writ large, but also writ in very small and difficult-to-read letters on various parchment, paper, books and missives, from cardinals, popes and kings, including Henry himself — much of it more than five centuries old. This is not to suggest that the material, along two rows in the great hall off the Elizabethan theater where the Folger production of “Henry VIII” is playing, is musty and dull. Far from it. Here after all was a king whose personal life mixed so strongly with affairs of the state (and of the other kind) that it went down in history — born of equal parts testosterone, faith, and Henry’s willful penchant for confronting fellow rulers from France, the Holy Roman Emperor to the pope himself. A handwritten note in one of his early schoolbooks says, “Thys Boke is Myne Prynce Henry,” sounding emphatically like a ruler-to-be in its pride of ownership. Henry, it becomes clear during the course of this exhibition, was both complicated and brutish, and not shy with the power to which he felt entitled. The death of his older brother Arthur may have something to do with a chip on his shoulder. He married Catherine of Aragon, the woman who was Arthur’s bride, and while the union appeared happy, it failed to produce a son, a matter of great urgency to Henry. That obsession with producing a male heir would haunt Henry — and more than a few of the women he married. That includes of course Anne Boleyn, for whom his desire to marry — which entailed getting a divorce first — would drive his country into the whirlwind of the English Reformation that made it a Protestant nation. He also proceeded to disinherit two of his daughters (Bloody Mary and Elizabeth), married five more times, and had two of his wives executed, as well as any number of traitors to his realm, real or imagined, including Sir Thomas More. It may be good to be king — and Henry made the most of it — but it certainly wasn’t drama-free. The exhibit features a number of letters — from Henry, from his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves — along with quite a few surprises. For instance, we always think of the King James Bible as the written, English, vernacular bible, but here we have a version that predates it — thick, heavy and in English, but also with dark lines to portions that might have offended budding Protestants. Here we also have a declaration from the pope, officially lauding Henry as “Defender of the Realm,” after which Henry appears to have written a detailed theological defense of Catholics and the Church. Much later, the learned Henry would argue that the pope had no right to decide on issues of marriage, a first salvo in many battles with the pope. There are also drawings of huge tents in France in which the French king and Henry staged a great tournament and competition, as well as a family tree depicting familiar royals like apples. On the one hand, you feel you already know Henry’s life story — you’ve seen it in the flesh, so to speak — but what you also see here is a great story, authenticated, made real by the weight and age of paper, books, portraits, drawings and letters. And every word here mattered, leading to blood and carnage and separation and disintegration, making England what it is today. It may not be a sexy screen heartthrob, but this show gets to the real heart of Henry VIII, for better or worse. Vivat Rex! through Dec. 30 Folger Shakespeare Library 201 East Capitol St., SE For more information, please call (202) 544-4600 or visit www.folger.edu.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.