London Henry VIII was a bastard. Not in the literal sense (even though there was a lot of that about in the sixteenth century) – his father was Henry VII, his mother Elizabeth of York. But after seeing the span of his reign at the exhibition in the British Library, the only way to express what I think of him, in the modern vernacular, is that he was a bastard. Apologists might suggest that the pressure of power, the weight of the Tudor legacy, the need to consolidate his family’s position on the thrown are what led him to work his way through six wives, to force his people to throw out their way of life, to gratuitously spend his wealth on a massive scale to create palaces that would generally sit empty and remove the head of anyone who happened to look at him sideways. But I’m not convinced. In recent times, I’ve been considering whether we wouldn’t simply be better off being rules by a monarchy and how at least you knew were you were with them. Henry VIII is a five hundred year old demonstration of this being a very bad idea.

Guest curated by television’s Dr. David Starkey, the main draw of the exhibition is that it collects together the real documentation related to that reign, a reminder that most of the events in everything from Shakespeare’s All Is True to The Tudors really happened. We see the notes scribbled between Henry and Anne Boleyn during services, the divorce papers from Katherine of Aragon, the material which led to the dissolution of the English church from Rome, innumerable peace treaties and, by the way, the chain Henry is seen wearing in the famous Holbein painting, a version of which is also included. The attention to detail stretches to the floor, where labels mark where each artifact fits in the king’s biography, we’re stepping through history. I gasped, I grinned, I knew I didn’t have long enough, I bought the catalogue.

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