June 5, 2009 / 6:16 PM / 10 years ago

Henry VIII's armor shows he dressed to impress

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The armor made for England’s King Henry VIII to inspire fear, awe and make room for his expanding girth has been gathered for a show at the Tower of London marking the 500th anniversary of his coronation.

The “Dressed to Kill” exhibition displays the largest collection of Henry’s surviving armors just a stone’s throw away from where he had his second wife Anne Boleyn beheaded.

“Henry is one of the most famous Kings in British history,” curator Bridget Clifford told Reuters. “His image has been burned into so many people’s psyches. That’s why this exhibition is exceptional.”

As well as a ruthless ruler famed for executing two of his six wives, the second monarch of the Tudor dynasty was also an avid sportsman, warrior and a political operator who knew the importance of dressing to impress.

The exhibition was stuffed with knives, swords, guns, shields, lances, riding gear and hunting equipment, in display cabinets affixed to the Tower’s ancient stone walls and cradled by some of the free-standing suits of armor.

“Henry liked experimenting with firearms and was rather innovative,” said Clifford, adding that the weapons and technology he used during his reign from 1509 until his death in 1547 were considered “cutting edge at the time.”

Designed by some of the finest craftsmen in Europe, Henry’s personal armor was made to protect him in war — he led three campaigns against France — and for sports such as jousting and foot combat.

One “tonlet” or suit of foot combat armor on display, was worn by Henry at one of the greatest tournaments of his reign, “The Field of the Cloth of Gold.”

The armor on show also illustrates Henry’s physical progression from suits for a svelte young prince to more portly pieces designed to fit the much larger king, whose search for a wife who could produce a male heir came to define his rule for many students of history.

Visitors to the exhibit will find free-standing suits, some on white mannequin horses, some decorated with Tudor symbols such as the rose and portcullis as well as one fearsome helmet with enormous ram-like horns and brass-colored spectacles.

“The exhibition aims to convey Henry’s power, majesty and psychology,” Clifford said, “and give him a human face.”

Museums from around the world, such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum, have loaned items to the show, which runs until January 10 next year.

A video gives a succinct overview of how the monarch has recently been portrayed on stage and screen — in renditions of Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” and in Hollywood films — with his power and influence, even over life and death, being an underlying theme.

“The story of Henry — the Merry Monarch — is romantic, dramatic, mysterious and powerful. And that’s why an exhibition like this appeals to so many people” Clifford said.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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