Material History: Henry VIII at Windsor Castle

This post was contributed by Eva-Maria Lauenstein, Birkbeck Department of English and Humanities after she attended the Arts Week 2015 event Material History: Henry VIII at Windsor Castle

Henry VIII. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Henry VIII. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Can objects speak about history? In this fascinating talk Dr Richard Williams, Education Curator at the Royal Collections, Windsor, took us on a journey along the precarious roads of political legitimacy and religious faction through the objects that stood at the centre of the unfolding narrative of Henry VIII’s reign.

Williams began by making his audience look at Windsor with fresh eyes. From the battlements of the gate tower, built by the young Henry, to the importance of the depiction of delicate nuances in fabric in portrait painting, we were reminded that it was through objects the king thought to secure the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty.

As Williams guided us along Tudor ways of self-fashioning, we also got a glimpse of Henry’s early dealings with reformation thinking. Revealing the power of the material object, Williams could have made his point in no less striking a way than by revealing a presentation copy of Henry’s own defence of the church and pope, the Defence of the Seven Sacraments, signed by the monarch himself. It highlights both Henry’s religious belief and conviction and subsequent shift, but in a strikingly personal way how the king sought legitimacy through a religious alignment with Rome.

Just as we have learned to read between the lines of texts, Williams reminded his audience of how fascinating and important it is to study the ethereal, the material objects which we no longer possess.

Through this, we are reminded that many of the art forms we cherish in contemporary society, including portrait painting, may have had a status altogether different, perhaps not worthy of mention or preservation.

Be it a rich tapestry or the festive arches erected for the royal entrances of kings, the transience of certain objects is at once a hurdle to our studies, as well as a great opportunity.

This was an inspiring talk, reminding researchers of the vastness of the Royal Collections and the opportunities for discovery that it provides. It also reminded the audience of the immense beauty of Windsor Castle. Dr Richard Williams certainly convinced many of us to go back for a visit, and a closer look.

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