Notorious Henry VIII Reassessed Historians Appraise Monarch's Place on the 500th Anniversary of His Birth

By Linda Joffee, | The Christian Science Monitor, August 13, 1991 | Go to article overview

Notorious Henry VIII Reassessed Historians Appraise Monarch's Place on the 500th Anniversary of His Birth


Linda Joffee,, The Christian Science Monitor


STOUT, splayed legs. Full, broad figure festooned in finery. Replumed head balanced on a stubby tree-trunk of a neck. Face valanced by thick beard, with small, shrewd eyes fixed in a withering gaze.

The description can only be that of one historical character: King Henry VIII. Few individuals from the past conjure up such a vivid image, not just in England, the country where he reigned, but around the globe. For sheer notoriety alone, it's not surprising that this year, the 500th anniversary of the monarch's birth, is being celebrated.

Britain is, however, commemorating the man for another reason. This 500th anniversary coincides with a significant reappraisal of Henry that is shaking up the hallowed halls of academia. Until now it has been held that the Tudor king's claim to fame - or infamy - largely rests on a particularly fickle propensity for wives, coupled with the much ballyhooed break with Rome.

No longer. It's currently being put forward that there was a great deal more to the monarch. If viewed according to the values of his own age, so the revisionist thinking goes, Henry's overriding concern to produce an heir at whatever the cost, for example, would certainly have been seen by the majority of his contemporaries as a highly appropriate preoccupation for someone in his position. As for destroying the monasteries and establishing the Anglican faith with himself as its head, this, too, contains no contradiction with 16th-century ideas about the divine origin and primacy of kingship, and indeed a widespread distaste for the corruption that was rife in the medieval church.

Such arguments, in short, are part of a growing movement among British historians, led by one of the country's top Tudor scholars, David Starkey, to cut through the hype and folly to see Henry for what he was: a complex personality combining vice and virtue, but, most vitally, displaying all the characteristics of a Renaissance man of the first order.

Meeting Dr. Starkey at Greenwich's Maritime Museum, amid the many artifacts that have been gathered together especially for this year's Henry VIII celebration, it becomes clear just how true this statement is. Starkey was recently asked to devise an exhibition that would provide the focal point of Britain's commemorative activities. The approach he has taken, incorporating this marked shift from the traditionally bluff and boorish picture of Henry, has sparked criticism, as well as some strong support, within the academic world.

Fittingly, this richly evocative display, on exhibit until the end of September, is to be found in a corner of London that played a particularly prominent part in the Tudor king's life. It was a mere stone's throw away at Greenwich Palace (the foundations of which are under the present-day Royal Naval College) that Henry VIII was born, on June 28, 1491, and spent much of his youth. Moreover, after his coronation at age 17, the palace retained the distinction of being his favorite.

"The most important idea I hope people come away with from this exhibition," says Starkey, professor of history at the London School of Economics and author of a recently published biography, "The Reign of Henry VIII,is that our present Charles Laughton view of Henry is wrong. He doesn't throw chicken bones around. He is a man of refined eating habits: He eats off gold and drinks out of Venetian glass. 'Renaissance court' is a corny phrase, but it's true that the English court, under Henry and through his patronage, became one of the greatest courts in Europe."

Apart from conjuring up a strong sense of the period, what the exhibition does best is to convey the breathtaking array of activities and achievements that made up the monarch. It quickly becomes evident that there are many often overshadowed facts about Henry VIII. A superlative sportsman as a young man, he was also a highly skilled musician, mathematician, architect, fortification strategist, and ship designer - not to mention a cartographer, who was personally responsible for the beginnings of English mapmaking. …

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