500 years on, England reconsiders Henry VIII


June 18, 2010 Updated Apr 26, 2009 at 1:10 PM EDT

England's King Henry VIII is known as a tyrant who killed two of his six wives, but a series of exhibitions marking 500 years since his coronation reveal he was also a romantic, a keen sportsman -- and the country's first eurosceptic.

Henry, who was proclaimed king in April 1509, was "the most important king of England... we're still at the tailend of the ruling of Henry," explained David Starkey, a historian specialising in the Tudor period.

Henry changed the course of history when he broke with Rome and founded the Church of England, following the refusal of pope Clement VII in 1530 to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could wed Anne Boleyn.

In doing so, Henry (1491-1547) became "the first eurosceptic -- he is the inventor of England," Starkey told AFP.

"When he came to the throne, Henry was the pious prince who ruled England at the heart of the Catholic Europe," the historian explained in publicity for one of the exhibitions.

"When he died, he was the great schismatic, who had created a national church and an insular, xenophobic politics that shaped the development of England for the next 500 years."

The change in Henry's beliefs is revealed in an exhibition at the British Library in London, where the first English Bible -- published at Henry's urging -- is on display alongside an illuminated prayer roll of Latin prayers that the young king always carried on him, a testament to his strong Catholic faith.

The exhibition also gives a glimpse of the king's softer side in a love letter he wrote in French to Anne Boleyn -- his second wife who he later had killed -- as well as the writing stand on which it was likely written.

Although condemned by history for his treatment of his six wives, Henry, who was raised by women, was a romantic. He "sees love as necessary for marriage -- this is most unusual," Starkey said.

A parallel exhibition at the Tower of London, meanwhile, reveals Henry's physical evolution in a display of the six-foot (1.85-metre) king's armour.

"We wanted to look at the man. You can see how he begins young and fit and ends up as a cylinder," said Bridget Clifford, a curator of "Dress to Kill" which includes four suits of armour made over the course of Henry's life.

"People usually remember the older Henry, obese, bearded," as depicted in the later portraits by Hans Holbein, Clifford said. But she added: "He liked to think that he could compete as a sportsman and as a monarch."

The first suit of armour, which Henry wore aged 23, shows him to be an athletic man with slim calves. The king was a passionate fan of jousting, which he practised until he was 44, was a keen hunter and also enjoyed tennis.

In sport as in his marriages, "he was a bit of a romantic -- when he threw himself into something he would do it with gusto," Clifford said.

But the last suit in the collection, made when he was 48 years old, shows Henry's waist has expanded from 88 centimetres to nearly 130 centimetres.

The king had by now become obese, with ulcers on his legs as a result of past injuries, and suffered from gout.

"Henry VIII: Man and Monarch" is at the British Library until September 6, while "Dress to Kill" at the Tower of London ends on January 17, 2010.

Portraits of the king and his contemporaries from the royal collection can be seen as part of "Henry VIII: A 500th Anniversary Exhibition" at Windsor Castle, west of London, until April 8, 2010.

Henry is buried at Saint George's Chapel at the castle, which is now Queen Elizabeth II's favourite home. His grave is alongside that of Jane Seymour, his third and favourite wife who died in childbirth.

And at Hampton Court, southwest London, one of Henry's palaces, the lives of his wives and daughters are examined in the exhibition "Henry's Women", until August 3.

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