Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Henry VIII: The Prince in Mourning

When you think of Henry VIII, you think of a rather large ginger man who ate too much and always got his way.  The church disagreed with him, so he left and created his own damn church; he went through wives at a rate of knots; he was absolute ruler and commanded obedience in court.  He pulled no punches and seemed pretty heartless, but he also came across as a strong, charismatic leader, showing anger rather than sadness or vulnerability.

 Henry VIII.  Ladies... check out my cod.  WOOF!
Portrait from 1540 by Hans Holbein.

People forget that the man was once a child whose mother died when he was 11.  It had been a hard time for the family; his brother, Arthur, died of some kind of fever-based illness in April 1502.  Elizabeth, his mother, fell pregnant and gave birth to a girl called Catherine on the 2nd February, 1503, but the child died a few days later.  Elizabeth then died to a post partum infection a week after the child died.  You cannot help but empathise with the small child shown in this manuscript:

 Prince Henry weeping at his mother's empty death bed.  The two girls are his sisters shown in mourning attire, Princess Margaret (aged 13) and Princess Mary (aged 7).  Poor kids.

Henry was known to be very close to his mother so it's no surprise that the young prince was devastated.  It's possible that his distanced relationship with his father was compounded by his mother's death, as according to one account, his father "privily departed to a solitary place and would no man should resort unto him".  Harsh.  Sometimes a kid needs his dad, even in 1503.

This image has had a lot of interest lately; although the Vaux Passional has been in the National Library of Wales since 1921, it's recently been digitised and therefore re-evaluated.  No one had really looked at it in a while.  People are interested in this image because Henry VIII has never been pictured as being vulnerable or even having grieved for anyone much, even as a child.  During the re-evaluation, it became evident that this Passional was likely part of the library of Henry VIII's father, Henry VII.  In fact, it's possible that the image below actually shows the Vaux Passional being given to Henry VII:

Illumination showing the possible presentation of the book to the king.  Prince Henry is weeping in the background.

The activity in the background has actually helped to date the piece somewhat, placing its creation at the start of the 16th century.  The manuscript, which is written in French, similarly follows themes of death.  It contains two bodies of work -- a Passional and Le Miroir de la Mort by Georges Chastellain.  The Passional calls on the reader to meditate on the arrest, trial, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ.  It starts at the raising of Lazarus and ends with Judas and Pontius Pilate.  Le Miroir de la Mort is a work that discusses "the futility of wordly pleasures in the face of certain death".  Cheery stuff then.

 Illumination from the Vaux Passional showing "Christ between two thieves".  The source has stunning detail, available here)

The manuscript also shows the seige and fall of Jerusalem, which I think is my favourite illumination -- saving for that of Prince Henry:


It's worth taking a look through the National Library of Wales online gallery for this book.  It's all stunning, and all done by one person who lived in London back in the early 1500s.  No one knows who made it, but it's pretty clear they had a good understanding of death and sadness.  It's also a wonderful reminder that this "swaggering warrior king" was once a child.
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