A King of Infinite Space: The Textual and Spatial Management of Henry VIII’s Legacy
My thesis centers around three examples of Henry VIII’s historical presentation: Polydore Vergil’s The Anglica Historia, William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, or, All is True, and Hampton Court Palace, a historic palace and museum. The media in which he is represented as a historical figure further affect how he is remembered: text, play, and artifact all play a role in the massive space that Henry occupies in the public memory. The three historical media integrate materiality, representation, and imagination to capture history and play with it, affecting how our own past is changed in the present.
The history text that I work with is a history book commissioned by Henry VII and Henry VIII, The Anglica Historia by Polydore Vergil (1512-1555). The Tudor dynasty tasked Vergil to legitimize the Tudor claim to the throne through the manipulation of the historical narrative. Vergil relies not just on the conventions of history writing, which legitimates itself with argument and sources, but also the conventions of early modern performance. Henry becomes a trope in a larger morality play on history, with Vergil playing director.
While Vergil’s performance is heavily controlled by his authorship in which he controls the text, a play is blank, an empty page awaiting the audience’s interpretation. In 1613, William Shakespeare wrote Henry VIII, or, All Is True. Henry’s history becomes a kinetic storytelling onstage, with actors, objects, and divided scenes all working to make historical events and characters bend to a dramatic structure. Performance forces the audience to imagine history, and thus the events and people are affected by the conditions of audience interpretation, understanding, and decision making.
As Henry is even more removed from his actual life from 1491-1547, he becomes fractured, expanded, and popularized. Museums expand on single artifacts, using objects to tell broader stories. These artifacts become icons or even relics when telling the story of a monarch. At Hampton Court Palace, Henry’s story becomes one of decadence as they display a highlight of their collection: a recreated crown. The static museum artifact fetishizes information and relies on both the historic space and the audience’s imagination to invoke history, isolating Henry’s history and condensing it into a single symbol.
The process of presenting history through material media, representation, and imagination is a larger process than restating facts or telling historical narratives. The various media through which Henry’s history is told expose the contemporary conditions in which the history is being retold. Through changes, new media, and various curated iconographic decisions, Henry VIII is expanded, simplified, fictionalized, but also complicated, lost, and refound over and over by different groups and through different historical ideas and sources. The process of making Henry is ongoing; our understanding of history is only maintained through the consistency of its changes.