By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2010; E05
There's the unmistakable scent of celebrity coming off the Folger Shakespeare Library's new exhibition, "Vivat Rex!," which marks the 500th anniversary of the 1509 accession of Henry VIII. Forget the accidental 15 minutes of fame or infamy, or the manufactured celebrity of starlets. The second Tudor king has survived as an object of fascination and fantasy for half a millennium.
He had all the obligatory qualities. Good looks and charm in the early years; power and a mercurial temperament in his prime. He helped to transform court life in England from a glorified thugocracy to a system centered on the cult of the king. Under Henry, power radiated outward through favored ministers to an elaborate web of supplicants, supporters and suck-ups.
He also ruled during the first great age of the printing press, which arrived in England in the late 1470s, a generation before Henry came to power. Hence, the paper trail on Henry is excellent, and there is ample evidence to demonstrate that his fame was at least as vital when he was alive as it is now, even after Shakespeare's flattering portrayal in the uneven history play of the same name.
The Folger exhibition was first seen at New York's Grolier Club in 2009, and was organized by Arthur Schwarz, a retired bond trader, bibliophile and passionate amateur scholar of the Tudor age. The show draws not only on the Folger's extensive holdings, but on the collections of the Morgan Library and Museum and the Houghton Library at Harvard. Although the current show is a bit smaller than the one in New York, it is amply stocked with treasure.
If the usual show at the Folger is focused and erudite, this one is a bit broader and loaded with greatest hits. Which include one of Henry's first schoolbooks, a copy of Cicero, in which the boy has written: "Thys Boke is Myne Prynce Henry." That, and so much more, would be his by the time he had mastered his Cicero, and assumed the throne of a country emerging as a powerhouse in Europe.
There is also a letter from Katherine of Aragon, the king's first wife and the hapless victim of his understandable but cruel determination to leave a male heir to the throne. Writing to her nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Katherine audaciously (but privately) lambastes the pope for his delay in pronouncing upon the issue that would define Henry's reign: his divorce of Katherine, an older wife who was almost certain never to bear him a son. In her blunt condemnation of "the evil persons who surround him," one hears echoes of Shakespeare's Katherine who is, for one brilliant act of the play, one of the playwright's most passionate and articulate female creations.
Other characters, familiar from Shakespeare, are also represented. Fat old Cardinal Wolsey, the self-enriching arch-minister of Henry's early years, is present in the form of an unflattering portrait, with thick, sensuously repellent red lips. And the king's jester, Will Sommers -- very likely the "fellow in a long motley coat" mentioned in the play's prologue -- is seen in a 17th-century engraving, wearing . . . a long motley coat.
Most remarkable, though with perhaps the most tenuous connection to the king, are the Golden Gospels of Henry VIII. Legend says they were presented to Henry by Pope Leo X, when Henry was still in favor with the church and had earned (through his condemnation of the reformer Martin Luther) the sobriquet Defender of the Faith. Schwarz says there's significant doubt about whether they were indeed given to Henry by the pope, but little doubt they came from Henry's library.
The book, dating from around 980 and borrowed from the Morgan Library, is an extraordinary item. Its vellum pages were dyed with berries to various shades of purple, then hand-lettered with gold print. It is a thousand-year-old book, still in prime condition.
"My sense is that was pulled out of a monastery in the dissolution, that is my best guess," Schwarz says.
The "dissolution" was the closing down of the monasteries after Henry's breach with Katherine precipitated a larger breach with the Catholic Church. This radical break, so often attributed to Henry's lechery and self-interest, was in the end immensely valuable to England and the English-speaking peoples. And as the exhibition demonstrates, while Henry's motivations were amply mixed, he was also intellectually engaged in the formation of a new, more modern Christianity, a faith built upon actual knowledge of scripture rather than obedience to a distant, dogmatic and medieval church.
As in all things, Henry would be inconsistent even in that, becoming more religiously conservative in his later years, as he also became more cruel and imperious. Centuries later, his behavior could still inflame Charles Dickens, who called him "a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England" in a copy of his "A Child's History of England," on display. And Henry's break with the church would lead to bloodshed and misery for many in England, clearly seen in books on display that have been censored for religious purposes.
But Henry's impetuous decision freed his country from the culturally and intellectually enervating hegemony of the pope, with results that last to this day. American freedom of religion, often in peril but still holding despite aggressive attacks, is inconceivable without this first rupture. And last month, when Pope Benedict XVI visited England, it was only the second trip by a pope in 500 years -- and it took an exceptional summoning of English hospitality to overcome deep resistance to the idea.
If he had been merely larger than life -- and by the end of his days, he was as large as they come -- Henry would be an intriguing but not essential chapter in history. The mythologizing of the king, from Shakespeare to the beloved 1970 television miniseries ("The Six Wives of Henry VIII") to the Showtime drama "The Tudors," which ended its run this past June, underscores something beyond celebrity. Henry changed the world. The Folger exhibition, part of a series of public programs, lectures and seminars devoted to the Tudor monarch over the coming weeks, demonstrates how he did it.
at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE, is on display through Dec. 30. Admission is free. The Folger is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.