diamond geezer

 Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Henry VIIIHenry VIII 500 (1509 - 2009)
Tower of London - Dressed to Kill

It's exactly 500 years ago today since Henry VIII became King of England. Half a millennium, precisely. To celebrate I'm continuing my week-long wander around sites with a historical connection the the nation's most famous monarch. Today, to the big new exhibition at the Tower. But is it any good?

There aren't many perks to being a resident of Tower Hamlets, but one truly great fringe benefit is being able to visit the Tower of London for a quid. The world famous castle lies just inside the borough boundary (there's a clue in the name "Tower Hamlets", if you'd not spotted it), so residents are given preferential treatment for admittance. All you need is a library card or a leisure card, and you'll save £16 at the gate. I'd not tried this before, but one flash of my lime green Idea Store card and the lady behind the till printed me a one pound ticket no questions asked. Excellent.

I arrived at nine o'clock, just as the Tower was opening for the morning, so I took the opportunity to nip across the Inner Ward and visit the Crown Jewels before everybody else arrived. No queues, just a long sinuous wander through a tortuous sequence of anterooms, then the opportunity to see some of the mightiest jewellery on the planet. The Sovereign's sceptre, for example, is topped by the Culinnan I diamond, while the Queen Mum's crown contains the world-famous Koh-i-noor. Both of these stones, in their time, were the world's largest cut diamond. However Henry VIII would have recognised none of the collection, bar three swords and an anointing spoon, because Oliver Cromwell had 99% of the medieval Crown Jewels melted down in 1649.

Dressed To KillAnd then to the main event, up the wooden staircase into the White Tower for the Dressed To Kill exhibition. Two and a bit floors are given over to Henry VIII's armour, plus various other protective metal bits and weapons. The first case contained a full suit of Henry's armour, raised up on horseback, lights a-flashing. He was a fit twenty-something at the time, waist measurement mid-thirties (as an accompanying graphic delights in telling you). By the third floor he'll be a 51" waist lardarse, because made-to-measure royal armour never lies. That was the ultimate fate of Good King Hal, from buff to bluff.

Back on the first floor there's a complete suit of armour engineered for 29-year-old Henry to wear at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This early outbreak of the Entente Cordiale gave Henry a chance to show off his sporting prowess, and a big electronic screen nextdoor gives the History Channel a chance to show off some of its finest Anglo-French battle graphics. Very big, very flash, very loud - not that most of the foreign tourists wandering by paused to watch for long. They were much more interested in the genuine weaponry - a jousting pole here, a big sword there, and especially Henry's astonishing curly-horned helmet (usually displayed in Leeds). The Royal Armouries hold many Tudor treasures, and a wide selection are on show here.

Up on the third floor there's one final suit of armour. You can't help but gasp at the size of King Henry's codpiece. It juts out alarmingly from the groin area, and it's either incredibly well-padded inside or its owner was genuinely prodigious. Given the bloke's marriage history, it's probably the latter.

And that's the sudden end of the exhibition, bar a big final video screen which displays a sequence of images of Henry from art, film and TV. Watch carefully and you might spot the Carry On team, Keith Michell and three Blue Peter presenters. I was pleasantly surprised that the soundtrack was an old XTC tune (not this one, but this one), pumping out across the top of the White Tower at five minute intervals. I moved on with a smile, to view the usual un-Henry exhibits in the remainder of the building.

Tower GreenThe Tower of London's historical links to Henry VIII aren't strong, it was more somewhere for the mass storage of his weaponry and prisoners than a favoured royal palace. But there is one place that bears his mark more than others, and that's Tower Green. Only seven traitors were ever executed here, but the majority of these were under Henry's orders - two of them his doomed wives. Today a tender glass pillow marks the spot, a rather more artistic tribute than the squat plaque that stood here only a few years ago. There's always something new to see at the Tower. Just remember, arrive early, and bring your library card.

» The Dressed To Kill exhibition runs until January next year. It's not worth visiting the Tower specially to see it, not unless you're on the local resident's cheap rate. But if you've not visited the Tower for years and fancy another look round, Henry's armour might be sufficient to draw you back.
» There's tons of other stuff to see at the Tower of London, including the tiny Bloody Tower where two Royal Princes might have died, and Traitor's Gate, and the medieval palace of King Edward I, and a lot of ravens. The tours led by Yeoman Warders are highly recommended - they're all fine showmen as well as knowledgeable custodians of the site.
» What you really ought to do is apply to attend the daily Ceremony of the Keys. I must go one night, assuming I can still remember how to write a letter.
» But at the moment it's all about Henry. After all, as Tower Hamlets' website proclaims, he really was "one of the most ionic figures from British history".

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