Henry VIIIToday I’m being true to my promise and blogging about last night’s episode of “The Seven Ages of Britain”, entitled “The Age of Power”, which was about the impact that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I had on England. Here goes…

The Age of Power: Introduction

In David Dimbleby’s introduction, he stated that few periods of history capture our imagination like the Tudor period and that it was a time of adventure, exploration, valour and glory, a time of real change. Also, in Henry VIII’s reign, and in Elizabeth’s reign, there was an alliance between monarch and artist and this brought a golden age, an age where there was power and glory not only in Heaven but also on Earth.

David Dimbleby then went on to look at the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth through the art and treasure that has survived.

Westminster Abbey – The Tomb of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York

Dimbleby pointed out that we tend to have this image of Henry VIII as an obese tyrant and wife-killer and that we forget the “virtuous prince” (as David Starkey call him) who came to the throne in 1509 at the age of just 17. This young, handsome King had inherited a fortune from his father, Henry VII, and was intent on spending in ways that showed the rest of Europe just how powerful England was. Henry VIII was going to use art to make a bold statement about his royal power.

One of the first things that Henry VIII did was to commission a lavish tomb to commemorate his parents. Italian sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano, was brought over from Rome to work on the tomb which consists of gilt bronze effigies of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York on an Italian marble base, along with cherubs and scenes from the Bible. It took four years to make and is the most sumptuous tomb in the abbey. Dimbleby spoke of how this tomb pointed the way to the future and that Henry was heralding on a new era of extravagance.

Hampton Court Palace

Henry VIII was known for his palace building and spent more on his palaces than any other monarch before or after him. Although Hampton Court, with its beautiful terracotta chimneys and Roman style medallions, was built by Cardinal Wolsey, Henry spent lots of money rebuilding it and making it into an even more lavish palace which was a display palace, rather than a fortress.

One of Henry’s additions to the palace was the  astronomical clock which is displayed on the tower overlooking Clock Court. This clock not only tells the time, it also gives the date, the signs of the zodiac, the phases of the moon and the time of high tide at London Bridge!

The Field of the Cloth of Gold

We all know that Henry VIII was rather vain and also very competitive. He was always conscious of how he compared with his rivals abroad, particularly Francis I of France. So, when he had the opportunity to show off to the French king at a meeting in June 1520 he went completely over the top, as did Francis.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold

David Dimbleby looked at the painting of the Field of the Cloth of Gold and pointed out Henry on horseback with his followers, who numbered 6,000, the marquees, the varous events depicted in the painting: wrestling, jousting etc., the magnificent palace which was made of canvas and wood and featured real stained glass windows, the fountain of wine (with people vomiting because they had enjoyed it a little too much!) and the dragon firework flying through the sky – a symbol of the English exuberance. What a publicity stunt!

The Royal Navy

One of Henry VIII’s greatest achievements was the foundation of the Royal Navy and Dimbleby visited the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, which houses The Anthony Roll, a record of the ships of Henry’s navy . This record of Henry VIII’s navy showed the scale of the King’s ambition and was drawn up by Anthony Anthony in the 1540s. It depicted all 58 ships, along with the number of guns, bows and arrows, and crew. Included in the Anthony Roll is a painting of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s famous flagship which had 91 guns and a crew of 400 men. This ship was a statement to Henry’s enemies, it showed that England was determined to be master of the seas.

Dimbleby then explained how the Mary Rose sank in the Solent after 35 years of service, resisting a French invasion. Its wreck was spotted in the 1960s and it was finally raised on the 11th October 1982 and restoration work has been taking place ever since. Dimbleby watched as a man was treating the ship with wax to help preserve the wood. He also had a look at some of the 19,000 artefacts which were found with the wreck, including a pair of wonderfully preserved leather shoes, a nit comb, a bosun’s whistle and an urethral syringe, which was used to inject mercury into the male member if a man caught a sexual disease – cringe!

The Break with Rome

By breaking with Rome, in order to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn, Henry was risking everything to have greater power, to call the shots. Henry VIII denounced the Pope and the power of the Catholic Church, destroyed Catholic art, plundered monasteries and abbeys, and anything which stood for the Pope’s power. Dimbleby then showed a picture which Henry had commissioned by Girolamo da Treviso, depicting the Pope being stoned by Christ’s disciples.

Dimbleby then visited the church at Tivetshall St Margaret and spoke of how once it would have been filled with incense, paintings and statues, but how this was all removed during the Reformation. The church’s internal walls were white-washed and instead of the worshippers facing Christ on the cross they faced the royal coat of arms (this one was Elizabeth I’s coat of arms). This huge coat of arms showed the power and authority of the Tudor dynasty over the church.

Title page of The Great Bible
Title page of The Great Bible

The Great Bible

Obviously, Henry VIII also had to win over the people and break the spell of the Catholic Church, the hold it had over Henry’s subjects, and he did this with the printing press. Henry VIII had 8,000 copies of The Great Bible (Henry’s Bible) sent out – one for each parish. This Bible was printed in English and heralded a revolutionary breakthrough in knowledge. Henry was allowing the people to see and read the Bible in their own language and he was also controlling what his people saw. On the title page of the Bible, we see Henry giving the Bible to the bishops, who give it to the priests, who give it to the people who say “Vivat Rex” or “Long Live the King”. With Henry VIII in a central position above the title text, you may ask “Where’s God?”, and Dimbleby pointed out that God is crammed into a corner – interesting!

Hans Holbein

Davud Dimbleby explained how Henry VIII’s break with Rome changed art in England. Art went from being religious to being depictions of material things and this is what drew the German artist, Hans Holbein, to England and to Henry’s court. Holbein enjoyed painting power and Henry gave him the opportunity to do this.

Holbein painted the main power brokers of the English court, Henry’s wives and Henry himself. In Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”, we can see not only the ambassadors in beautifully detailed clothes, but also many symbols. The pieces on the table are to do with the world of science, discovery and change, and the only religious symbol is a crucifix in the top left corner, which is partially obscured by the green curtain.

Holbein's The Ambassadors

What I had never noticed about this painting before is the cream/grey streak at the bottom which makes no sense until you look on the painting from the side and then it becomes a skull which symbolises that death awaits us all.

The skull hidden in the painting
The skull hidden in the painting

Dimbleby spoke of how Holbein’s worldly style grabbed Henry VIII’s attention and it is Holbein who is responsible for the image of Henry that we all know today – the majestic, powerful King with his muscled calves, severe face, jewelled clothes and his oversized codpiece. It was the genius of Hans Holbein which decided Henry VIII’s image for the rest of his reign and this was how Henry presented himself even as he started his decline.

Henry’s Suit of Armour, the Tower of London

David Dimbleby looked at one of Henry VIII’s last suit of armours, a beautiful suit made from burnished steel and etched with gold, and with a rather impressive codpiece! This suit of armour is evidence of just how huge the King became and Dimbleby pointed out that Henry would have been unable to wear this suit without a special support corset and padding in the leg to stop it aggravating his leg ulcer. Dimbleby spoke of how it was the shell of a man and that actually Henry was a shell of a man, a shadow of his former self, and that he was decaying rapidly.


Henry VIII died in 1547 at the age of 55 and Dimbleby concluded this part of the programme by saying that it was to be another 11 years before there was another ruler who could build on Henry’s vision, and that was Elizabeth I, Henry’s second daughter. Read what David Dimbleby had to say about Elizabeth in “Elizabeth I’s Image”.

On This Day in History

Happy Birthday Galileo Galilei who was born on this day (15th February) 1564. Galileo is known as “The Father of Science”, “The Father of Modern Science”, “The Father of Physics” and “The Father of Modern Observational Astronomy” and was an Italian philosopher, mathematician, physicist and astronomer.

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