A special exhibition to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry VIIIs accession to the throne will be shown at Windsor Castle, the monarchs one-time home and final resting place. Henry VIII was proclaimed king on 23 April 1509, just before his 18th birthday, and reigned for almost 38 years, until his death in 1547. The exhibition explores the life of one of the most significant figures in the history of the English monarchy, bringing together treasures from the Royal Collection
and the archives of St Georges Chapel, Windsor Castle.
The story of Henry VIII continues to generate widespread interest today. In popular tradition, he is often cast as a tyrant, famous for marrying six times and executing two of his wives, and for his split with papal authority in Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries. When Henry ascended the throne in 1509 he was a striking, auburn-haired youth, much handsomer than any sovereign in Christendom, and known for his great physical energy. A miniature of the king by Lucas Horenbout shows a lithe figure of 35 years old. The king enjoyed hunting and hawking at Windsor, and his hunting sword is included in the exhibition.
Windsor Castle was the backdrop to a number of important events during Henrys reign. In 1522 it was the scene of negotiations with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and in 1536 Henry met representatives of the Northern Rebellion at the Castle. Windsor was also the sometime home of the kings illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond. A charmingly informal miniature captures the duke at the age of 15, around the time of his marriage, and is the only certain portrait of Fitzroy, who died a few years after it was painted. One of the main entrances to Windsor Castle now known as the Henry VIII Gate was re-constructed around 1511, soon after Henrys accession. The grant to make a gate in the Castles North Wall, signed by Henry, is included in the exhibition.
St Georges Chapel at Windsor Castle, one of the jewels of late-medieval English architecture, was completed during Henry VIIIs reign. Jane Seymour, Henrys third and favourite wife, was buried in the Chapel following her death in 1537, twelve days after the birth of the future Edward VI. Henry VIII himself was laid to rest there ten years later, requesting in his will that Jane be reburied with him.
St Georges Chapel remains the seat of the Order of the Garter, the oldest surviving order of chivalry, to which Henry was appointed as a young child in around 1495. A magnificent register of the Order, known as the Black Book, was commissioned during Henrys reign and is shown in the exhibition. Among the manuscripts sumptuous illuminations are contemporary scenes of Henry VIII with the Garter knights.
Henry VIIIs reign was characterised by religious debate and political struggle. The king was initially a staunch defender of Catholicism and attempted to suppress reform during the early years of his reign. He later engineered a complete split from Rome. In 1521 he published a scathing attack on Martin Luther in the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (The Defence of the Seven Sacraments) and, as a result, was awarded the title Defender of the Faith by Pope Leo X. A signed copy of the Assertio is included in the exhibition, alongside copies of other key religious texts of the period and books from the kings library. An exquisite miniature painting by Hans Holbein the Younger depicts Solomon receiving homage and gifts from the Queen of Sheba and is often interpreted as an allegory of Henry VIII accepting the submission of the Church. As such it is Holbeins first known depiction of the king. Other treasures on display include Thomas Wriothesleys Garter Book, which contains what is thought to be the earliest surviving view of the Opening of Parliament, with Henry VIII surrounded by his advisors.
The court of the young Henry VIII attracted some of the most important European artists and scholars of the period. Among the highlights of the exhibition are a number of works by the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger. Holbein arrived in England in 1526 and had soon become the kings painter, portraying many of the key personalities of Henrys reign. Among the works by Holbein in the exhibition are a preparatory study for a portrait of Jane Seymour and a miniature of a lady thought to be Katherine Howard, Henrys fifth wife, who was executed less than two years after her marriage to the king. Other figures depicted by Holbein include William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Sir Henry Guildford, Comptroller of the Household. Beautiful miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard, which originally formed part of the Bosworth Jewel, illustrate the Tudor line of succession from Henry VII to Edward VI. A poem written in the hand of Henrys daughter, the future Elizabeth I, is shown alongside her portrait.