I took advantage of the four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend to travel to Washington, D.C., where I was lucky enough to catch “Vivat Rex! An Exhibition Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Accession of Henry VIII.” The exhibition was mounted at the Grolier Club in New York in 2009 and traveled to the Folger Shakespeare Library this fall. (You can still see it in Washington through December 31.) The exhibit contains a number of objects associated with Henry VIII, his family, and his contemporaries. I particularly enjoyed seeing Elizabeth of York’s inscribed prayer book, a New Year’s gift roll from 1539, and a book of instructions given by the widowed Henry VII to his ambassadors, who had been sent to scout out the Queen of Naples as a possible bride. (“To marke hir brestes and pappes whether they be bigge or smale.”)
I’m the sort of exhibition-goer who always leaves wishing I’d looked at certain exhibits more closely, so naturally I couldn’t resist purchasing the exhibition guide, which is worth purchasing on its own if you can’t get to the exhibit. It contains pictures of the items on display and short commentaries on them, along with essays by John Guy, Dale Hoak, and Susan Wabuda.
To coincide with the exhibit, the Folger has been staging William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, which has the distinction of having caused the Globe Theatre to burn down when it was produced in 1613. It’s a rather odd play, which focuses on the downfall of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, the schemes and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, and Henry’s infatuation with and marriage to Anne Boleyn, to the cost of Catherine of Aragon. It ends with the christening of the future Elizabeth I, whose glorious reign is predicted by Thomas Cranmer. In this production, a number of the roles are taken by Henry’s Fool, Will Sommers. I found the acting and staging excellent and was delighted that I had a chance to see this little-performed play!
My Henry VIII weekend continued in my reading matter for the trip: Giles Tremlett’s new biography of Catherine of Aragon. I found it well written and insightful, especially as to Catherine’s years in Spain. My one quibble is that the edition of the book published in the United Kingdom has no end notes; a set taken from the American edition, however, can be viewed at the website of the British publisher, Faber and Faber. This is one instance where I wish I had been a little more patient and waited for the American edition, but at least I can print out the notes.
So there you have it, my Henry VIII weekend! I only wish I could have stayed until Monday, when author Margaret George will be doing a reading, but at least I have her upcoming novel on Elizabeth I to anticipate.