April 23, 2009 / 1:31 PM / 10 years ago

Henry VIII letter that "changed history" on show

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A handwritten love letter from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, which curators say changed the course of history, is the star exhibit of a new show on the English king who came to power 500 years ago this week.

An undated handout image of a letter sent by King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn in 1527. It is part of a new exhibition on the monarch at the British Library which runs from April 23 to September 6. The letter was one of 17 Henry wrote to Boleyn and marks the beginning of his quest to divorce Catherine of Aragon, which eventually led to his rift with the Catholic Church in Rome. REUTERS/Vatican Library/Handout

“Henry VIII: Man and Monarch” at London’s British Library examines how a conventional medieval prince became a revolutionary monarch who broke with Rome and resorted to brutal means to push through his agenda.

The 1527 letter is one of 17 Henry wrote to Boleyn, testament to his passion for her since he confessed he found writing them “tedious and painful.”

It is displayed alongside the king’s ornately decorated portable desk on which the letter was probably written.

In the letter, in French and on loan from the Vatican, he said: “The proofs of your affection are such ... that they constrain me ever truly to honor, love and serve you.”

Historians interpret the words as the moment Henry committed his future to Boleyn, encouraging him to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon and set himself and England on a collision course with the Pope in Rome.

“We see the hand (Henry’s handwriting) really for the first time with the love letter to Anne Boleyn,” said historian David Starkey who curated the exhibition which runs until September 6.

“There is this extraordinary paradox — this is a passionate love letter and yet this is the basis of all the revolutionary changes of the reign,” Starkey told Reuters.

He added that the impact of Henry’s radical decision, which led to a rupture with continental Europe, is still felt today.

“If you think of the perpetual debates we have about England’s relations with Europe, Henry is the original Eurosceptic,” he said.

“It’s Henry, as a result of the break from Rome, who starts this process of making the Continent alien, dangerous.”


Through books, manuscripts, pamphlets, maps and letters — many annotated or written by Henry — the exhibition depicts him as a prince who began life as a practicing Catholic.

Catherine, whom he married in 1509 seven years after the death of her first husband, Henry’s brother Arthur, felt rejected not only when Henry sought to divorce her but also as a widow living in the English court.

One letter to her father complains how Henry VII refused to pay for anything, forcing her to sell things to buy clothes.

“I am in debt in London and this not for extravagant things ... but only for food,” she wrote in 1506.

Much of the exhibition focuses on the long and elaborate struggle to annul the marriage, including statements attesting that Catherine consummated her marriage to Arthur, thereby invalidating her relationship with Henry.

Initially confident of Rome’s backing for his case, Henry became increasingly frustrated by moves to block him, but by 1534 the break with Rome and his headship of the Church of England were formally recognized.

Resistance to the changes at home led to executions and the brutal suppression of his enemies, completing Henry’s transformation from “a youthful idealist” into an “aging, sickly tyrant.”

The exhibition includes a list of names of English notables killed under Henry, starting in 1510 with two of his father’s advisers and ending with his last victim, Henry Howard, in 1547.

An inventory of Henry’s possessions after his death ran to 20,000 objects, including 70 ships and 49 pairs of spectacles.

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