Henry VIII was a corpulent and despotic monarch who went to any lengths to get rid of his numerous wives. This is how he appears in Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which show Henry as a vital young man who becomes increasingly bloodthirsty in his desperation for a son.
However, a new exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum reveals another side to Henry. In between hunting and waging war, he was a keen collector of art and tapestries, and used displays of precious objects to transmit messages about his country’s power.
One aspect of the exhibition, Treasures of the Royal Courts, which opens on March 9, focuses on the majesty of the Tudor court and includes displays of armour, textiles, portraits and silverware. One of the items on display is a geometrically inlaid chest, which was kept at Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and is believed to have been inspired by European print designs.
At the time of Henry’s accession to the throne in 1509, England was a marginal nation on the edge of Europe and the new king wanted to take centre stage. So he set out on a campaign of self-aggrandisement, building palaces to house his collections of furnishings that, along with the royal jewels, numbered some 17,000 items at his death in 1547. He employed the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger to create a full-length portrait of himself for Whitehall Palace in London, which was designed to “abash and annihilate” all who saw it.
“Henry used his palaces as part of a campaign to make greater claims for the power of England than could really be justified at the time,” says Suzannah Lipscomb, historian and author of A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England. “The idea was that international visitors would see his lavish court full of wonderful tapestries and think, ‘If he can afford to spend that much on a wall-hanging imagine what he could spend on a battleship.’”
By the time of his death, the king had around 55 palaces, including Nonsuch, now gone, St James’s and Whitehall. But the most spectacular was Hampton Court Palace, a gift from Cardinal Wolsey, which he spent some £62,000 (equivalent to about £18m today) rebuilding and extending.
When completed, Hampton Court was the most modern and magnificent palace in England. There were tennis courts, bowling alleys and 60 acres of formal gardens. The kitchens alone covered 36,000 sq feet. But it was the Great Hall that was the most impressive. It took five years to complete and Henry was so impatient for it to be finished that he ordered masons to work through the night by candlelight.
Walls were hung with tapestries stitched with real gold and silver thread, the floors tiled in green and white (the colours of the Tudor livery) and the ceiling painted in golds, reds and blues. Persian rugs and portraits added to the opulence, along with crystal clocks and ornate carved furniture. There were canopies and cushions and wax candles imported from Venice.
Such lavish displays of wealth were designed to show Henry as a true Renaissance king; a skilled jouster, diplomat, lawmaker, patron of the arts, builder and musician. Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, says: “It was all about conspicuous consumption. Wax candles were very expensive – it was [like] burning money and only the richest could afford to do that. The poor had to make do with tallow candles, which were made from animal fat and they smelled terrible.
“Henry even had running water for his bath,” she adds. “Water was channelled from a hill about two miles away. As it travelled down it built up pressure, which meant it could then be forced up a lead pipe and out of a tap into the bath, which was round, wooden and lined with a cloth to prevent splinters.”
At the time of his death, Henry had amassed one of the largest ever collections of tapestries, nearly 2,500, a number that underscores the importance of this work as both art and propaganda.
Clare Browne, the V&A’s curator of European textiles, says: “It can be difficult to appreciate how opulent the palace interiors would have appeared because the fragments that survive are mostly worn and faded from their original brilliance … [The tapestries] were not the only textiles on display. Henry had rugs imported from Persia and Turkey, although only he was allowed to walk on them.”
One of his most famous tapestries, an eight-piece work, telling the story of Abraham, cost as much as one of his battleships (he spent £700 on the Mary Rose and the Peter Pomegranate, the first two purpose-built warships. In 1534, 90 per cent of the population lived on an income of less than £20 a year). Abraham was a significant choice as he conceived a son aged 99 and the implication was that Henry, too, would eventually give birth to a male heir.
Patrick Baty, a historical paint consultant and heraldry expert, says it was all clever PR: “Henry ordered heraldic carvings and motifs to be added wherever possible to remind people not only that his favourite wife was Jane Seymour but also that she belonged to one of the most important families in England.
“By emphasising this, he was also trying to make people forget about his own slightly shaky royal lineage. It was the Tudor equivalent of putting a corporate logo everywhere.”
Indeed, Henry, who did not come from a long line of kings, made constant efforts to remind his subjects and foreign nations of his power. “Henry VIII was fully aware of the importance of magnificently furnished settings to assert his majesty,” says Browne.
‘Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars’, at the V&A, runs from March 9 to July 14, www.vam.ac.uk/treasures
Design: The Roberts radio
By the 1980s, Britain’s Roberts Radio company was struggling. Its traditional, boxy transistor sets were no longer fashionable in a world that desired high-tech, sleek appliances.
But in 1989, an advertisement for Martini featured a red Roberts radio in the background. Suddenly the phone started ringing – never mind the Martini, people wanted to know where they could buy the radio.
Dick Roberts, son of the company’s founder, Harry, made a limited run of 500 radios to see if they would sell. They sold out. He ordered another 1,000 units, and these too sold out. The “Roberts Revival” edition indeed revived the company’s fortunes.
Harry Roberts went into partnership with Leslie Bidmead in 1932 and they founded the Roberts Radio Company, selling Bidmead’s motorbike for the down payment on a small factory. The two men cemented their partnership when they married sisters Doris and Elsie Hayward. According to the current chief executive, Leslie Burrage, the trademark style of the original radio, later reissued as the Revival, was inspired by Elsie’s handbag.
Dick Roberts died in 1991, two years after commissioning the first Revivals. “There was such momentum by that stage that we carried on,” says Burrage. “We did 10,000 and introduced new colours – Windsor green and royal blue. Then Jaguar, Mulberry and Paul Smith all contacted us about making limited editions in their signature colours and fabrics. We made the digital Revival DAB, and so it went on.”
The Revival now comes in 12 colours and last year, to mark the company’s 80th anniversary, it was issued in a glossy new casing. It’s all come as a surprise to Burrage: “If you had asked me back in 1994 how long the Revival would last, I would have said it was good for a couple of years at most.”