I’ve been to several exhibitions recently and keeping up my posting about them is proving difficult, so here’s a start with my visit to the British Library a couple of weeks ago. I went to have a look at their exhibition on Henry VIII. The exhibition isn’t free, but you do get an audio guide recorded by guest curator Dr David Starkey. If you’ve seen his documentary, you’ll already know most of the key facts presented, but what makes this exhibition particularly good is that it brings together many key original documents and portraits that would normally be difficult to see without traipsing all over the world.

For example, the highlights include the earliest known portrait of Henry VIII by an unknown artist and the Holbein portrait of Edward VI as a baby, both of which are usually held at the Berger Collection at the Denver Art Museum. This collection also holds a portrait of Elizabeth I by Hans Eworth and portraits of several other key figures from British history. Also on show is a 1527 love letter from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn on loan from the Vatican Library, a portrait of Katherine of Aragon by Michael Sittow normally kept in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the 1534 Act of Supremacy and Henry VIII’s will both from the National Archives in Kew. The exhibition also includes the Beaufort Book of Hours, a portrait of Anne Boleyn from the Dean and Chapter of Ripon, the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I from the private collection of Mark Pigott OBE and the famous document announcing the birth of Elizabeth I, where you can see the word ‘prince’ is corrected to ‘princes’.

I was so glad to be able to see these original documents all together and for that reason alone, this exhibition is definitely worth visiting. Apart from this however, there are several other interesting aspects of Henry VIII’s reign that are brought to light in the exhibition.

Firstly, you can see many documents edited personally in Henry VIII’s own handwriting and the exhibition draws attention to these alterations with interactive exhibits and transcriptions of what Henry wrote. It is certainly interesting to see how far Henry was personally involved in the break with Rome and how confident of his own religious authority he became, even attempting to alter the ten commandments himself!

In addition, the exhibition contains many original maps, plans of coastal defences and designs for tents for the Field of Cloth of Gold. I generally find historical maps fascinating, so there are plenty of opportunities to see the development of the English view of the rest of the world, as it was during Henry’s reign that cartography really began to thrive. The tent designs also give a vivid insight into what the Field of Cloth of Gold must have been like as they are surprisingly detailed and colourful.

Design for a tent for the Field of Cloth of Gold

The exhibition ends on the 6th September, so get down there and see it if you haven’t already. Even if you can’t, there are several great podcasts available in conjunction with the exhibition, including three recorded lectures by David Starkey, which supply most of the information presented in the exhibition in an interesting and engaging way.