Last October, a grand, sprawling gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City came alive with traces of the past: enormous portraits of medieval monarchs, a chalk design for a stained glass window on paper panels measuring two stories tall, a king’s ornate suit of armor, and furniture and tapestries designed to adorn palaces. The collection of more than 100 objects, many of which were on loan from institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, formed the basis of a historic exhibition titled “The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England.”

The show has been making its royal progress across the United States since January, first to the Cleveland Museum of Art and then to the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, where it will remain on view through September 24. True to its name, “Art and Majesty” reflects “this wonderful moment when [the Tudor courts] are soaking up as much as they possibly can, from travel and trade going to Europe and beyond,” Elizabeth Cleland, a decorative arts curator at the Met, told Smithsonian magazine last year.

Installation view of "The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England"
Installation view of "The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England" Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen / Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of the smallest items in this larger-than-life exhibition holds a particularly revealing tale of the Tudor era. A psalter, or religious book of psalms, owned by Henry VIII offers something that fans of the Tudors have craved for centuries: a window into the mind of the tyrannical English ruler. Henry’s psalter is so valuable that the British Library, in whose collections it now resides, has never previously lent it to a museum in the U.S.

The little book is a luxury item fit for a king. Bound in its original rich red velvet covers with silver-gilt corner pieces, the text is a devotional manuscript, or religious book whose text and pictures are crafted by hand rather than with a printing press. In the medieval and early modern periods, psalters and prayer books like the popular Book of Hours typically featured full-color illustrations, or illuminations, depicting significant biblical scenes. The text and illuminations in Henry’s psalter are the work of French artist and writer Jean Mallard, who also counted Francis I of France among his illustrious clientele.

Andrea Clarke, a curator of medieval manuscripts at the British Library who accompanied the psalter on its maiden voyage to the U.S., says the book “packs a punch.”

Illustration of Henry studying his psalter
Illustration of Henry studying his psalter British Library
Page from Henry's psalter, featuring an illustration of him as King David
Page from Henry's psalter, featuring an illustration of him as King David British Library

“It’s really the man behind the monarch. It’s such a small and intimate item,” Clarke tells Smithsonian. “It’s Henry VIII behind closed doors: It’s him sitting in his bedchamber studying the words of God, as we see him doing in the first illustration.”

The illustration referenced by Clarke is typical of personalized devotional and prayer books at the time. Wealthy clients often commissioned artists to paint them into biblical scenes, whether in altarpieces, psalters or other types of works. Indeed, visitors to the exhibition might be startled to recognize a familiar face among the seven pictures in Henry’s book. One of the most famous illuminations in the volume shows Henry himself seated in what appears to be a lush bedchamber. In the picture, several books are strewn across a colorful marble floor; open in the king’s hands is the psalter itself.

But Henry went a step further than simply instructing Mallard to include him in the psalter’s illustrations. He wanted to represent himself as no less than the biblical King David, famed for defeating the giant Goliath in his youth. David was also reputed to be a talented harpist and the author of many psalms, or devotional songs.

Mallard acquiesced to Henry’s request. One illustration shows Henry sitting in his privy chamber, playing a harp—a typical depiction of David in psalters and Books of Hours at the time.

An illustration of Henry playing the harp
An illustration of Henry playing the harp Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Martin Chapman, a curator of European decorative art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which include the Legion of Honor, emphasizes the contrast between this intimate portrayal of Henry and the stately portraits often associated with the king.

“The depiction of Henry in his private rooms in his palace, two of which show him reading and playing a harp in sumptuous Renaissance rooms, is very different from the [Hans] Holbein portraits, which show power and magnificence and are tools for propaganda,” Chapman tells Smithsonian.

Henry’s desire to depict himself as a biblical king certainly doesn’t suggest humility. James P. Carley, a historian at York University in England, has spent his career studying the beautiful books owned by Henry and his six wives; in commentary accompanying a facsimile edition of the psalter, Carley writes that the ruler’s request was far from unusual:

Henry was not the only monarch to be compared to King David as the political and religious leader of his people. It was an obvious choice of theme. Galeazzo Maria Sforza, … fifth duke of Milan, had himself depicted as David on the opening leaf of a magnificent missal intended for his chapel. Likewise, … Francis I saw parallels between himself and David.

A portrait of Henry VIII, based on an original by Hans Holbein the Younger
A portrait of Henry, based on an original by Hans Holbein the Younger Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A circa 1537 portrait of Henry by Hans Holbein the Younger
A circa 1537 portrait of Henry by Hans Holbein the Younger Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Tudor king evoked these biblical parallels for a particular reason. By the time the psalter was commissioned around 1540, he had already broken away from the Catholic Church and created a new Church of England, with himself as its head. Henry’s desire to annul his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and wed one of her ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, prompted this drastic move. But Anne—like Catherine—was unable to provide Henry with a surviving male heir, so he had her beheaded on trumped-up charges of adultery and incest in May 1536. Eleven days after Anne’s execution, Henry married his third wife, Jane Seymour, who gave birth to a prince, the future Edward VI, before dying of childbed fever in October 1537.

Henry remained unmarried for more than two years. But in 1540, he married twice, first to Anne of Cleves and then to Katherine Howard. It was against this backdrop of personal turmoil that the king combed the psalms for evidence that would legitimize his political and religious authority.

“[The volume] also speaks of Henry VIII’s majesty,” Clarke tells Smithsonian. “It’s very much seeing him explore and investigate and try to work out what the psalms have to teach him in his new role as supreme head of the Church of England.”

Henry appears to have found the self-justification he’d been seeking. Handwritten annotations in the psalter reveal what the king thought of the text and its implications for his own power. On one page, Henry scrawled “nota de peccatore quid ait,” Latin for “note: what he says about the sinner,” next to a passage declaring that sinners’ hereditary lines will be cut off as punishment for their evil deeds. By 1540, after years of waiting and seizing power to enable his multiple marriages, he had at last been rewarded with a son who would continue the Tudor line. Based on his interpretation of the psalm, Henry saw himself as being in God’s good graces—perhaps unthinkable when modern readers consider that he had already executed one of his wives, Anne Boleyn, and would soon execute another, the young Katherine Howard.

Henry VIII as David fighting Goliath
Henry as David fighting Goliath British Library
Henry as David in penitence
Henry as King David in penitence British Library

Similarly, Henry wrote “de iniustis,” or “concerning the unjust,” beside a passage in Psalm 36 declaring that “the unjust shall be punished”; he then scribbled “de iustis,” or “concerning the just,” next to a verse asserting that “the righteous shall inherit the earth.”

If these markings tell scholars anything, it’s that Henry wasn’t suffering from a twinging conscience. On the contrary, he viewed unfolding events as vindicating the very choices that later led to his reputation as a callous tyrant. Henry’s notes implicitly justify his self-empowerment; his marriages; and the executions of those who opposed him or fell out of favor, including chief adviser Thomas Cromwell and his old tutor and lord chamberlain, Thomas More. These individuals and many others were, in one way or another, casualties of Henry’s attempt to break from Rome and marry Anne Boleyn.

Henry marked his psalter up more than any other book he owned. As much of a travesty as it might seem to a modern reader to scribble inside such an obviously lavish and expensive luxury item, Carley writes that during the Tudor period, “even the most beautiful book was meant to be read, digested and inwardly assimilated.”

The king was evidently digesting the psalms at both a spiritual and political level. And this was far from the first time he had used books to justify his power.

“He’s devouring [the psalms] for evidence, and we see him doing this across many of his books and manuscripts,” Clarke says. “When he was trying to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, he had men going around the country scouring manuscripts in monasteries, looking for evidence to support his ambition [to annul his first marriage].”

Tudor antiquarian and scholar John Leland
Tudor antiquarian and scholar John Leland Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Page from the psalter, with handwritten annotations about the just and unjust
Page from the psalter, with handwritten annotations about the just and unjust British Library

The scholar and antiquarian John Leland was one of the men Henry dispatched to monasteries in search of volumes containing information that would justify his new position as head of the church. In the mid-1530s, Leland was tasked with traveling across England from one monastic library to another, seizing books that would support the king’s cause. Henry then absorbed these texts into his private collection, even as he ordered the destruction of monasteries and the parts of their libraries for which he didn’t have any use. By 1547, Leland had fallen “beside his wits,” according to a contemporary chronicler; this mental breakdown might have been occasioned by the drastic extremes of seeing so many volumes destroyed, even as the scholar seized and saved others, only to hand them over to a power-hungry king.

Henry’s appetite for authority—and his quest to justify this power—was voracious. But there was one front on which the king’s confidence faltered. Next to the line “I have been young, and now am old,” in Psalm 36, the king inscribed a note marking the passage as a “dolens dictum,” or “sad saying.” Evidently, his spiritual welfare notwithstanding, Henry was unsettled by the thought of death.

“He’s very assured of his position with God,” says Clarke. “But on a more personal level, … there’s a sense of insecurity—he’s getting old, he’s ailing—about his own mortality.”

Henry died in 1547 at age 55. By then, his litany of health issues included gout, obesity and leg ulcers from a jousting wound that had festered for years.

Thanks to his psalter and other books, the mercurial monarch’s thoughts are still very much alive. As much fodder as Henry found for self-reflection within the mirror of his psalter’s pages, however, his confidence was tinged at the edges with all-too-mortal shadows.

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