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Henry VIII’s Legacy Beyond Those Wives

Arthur Schwarz hates it when people refer to Henry VIII as a womanizer. True, the 16th-century king had six wives over the course of his reign, but as Schwarz likes to say, he had a good reason to get rid of each of them.

“He was not just a fat man chasing women,” said Schwarz, curator of “Vivat Rex!” the latest exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library. As a Tudor historian, Schwarz heartily disapproves of the pop culture incarnation of Henry’s legacy in Showtime’s “The Tudors.”

He arranged the exhibit, which includes several original texts from Henry’s lifetime, to emphasize Henry the scholar, the theologian and the politician.

Much of the exhibit is made up of various texts, from schoolbooks to Bibles. Just as Henry was coming into power, the movable printing press was making it easier to spread texts among the people and making literacy more widespread, Schwarz said. This allowed for his reign to be well-documented, a delight for scholars centuries later.

The exhibit, which celebrates the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession to the throne, begins with the young prince’s childhood, long before he was ever expected to rule England. Back then, he was just the second son, and his brother, Arthur, was to be king.

Despite that, Henry “had one hell of an education,” Schwarz said. He spoke five languages, including Latin, the official language of the Catholic Church. His personal copy of a Cicero text sits in a display case, with the young boy’s handwriting noting, “This Boke Is Myne Prynce Henry.”

The exhibit then moves into the early years of his reign, taking a look at the extravagance and bravado of Henry’s life. A copy of a depiction of “The Field of Cloth of Gold,” showing Henry and King Francis I of France meeting in Calais, hangs on the wall. The original, five times the size of the copy in the exhibit, is a part of Queen Elizabeth II’s collection, but Schwarz feels the painting — which depicts crowds of people, several tents and a wrestling match between Henry and Francis — shows Henry’s immense wealth and his need for power and respect among his contemporaries.

To continue with the extravagance, there’s also a handwritten scroll of the gifts Henry gave during Christmas 1539. The 8.5-foot-long scroll lists various members of the court who received gifts, including bishops, dukes and earls.

The opposite side of the scroll, which can’t be seen in the display, lists the gifts received by Henry that year. Though it’s the only list on display, academics have compared scrolls from different years to see who was falling in and out of favor with the king, Schwarz said.

Henry’s religious devotion is also a theme of the exhibit. Though Henry is often remembered as the founder of the Church of England, Schwarz points out that before he broke away from the Catholic Church he was named “Fidei Difensor,” or “Defender of the Faith,” by Pope Leo X after his written attack on Martin Luther. Henry’s “An Assertion of the Seven Sacraments” is included in the exhibit, saying, “So, when we learned that the pest of Martin Luther’s heresy had appeared in Germany and was raging everywhere … we were so deeply grieved at this heinous crime.”

But soon after, Henry’s desire for a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, after she failed to produce a male heir drove a wedge between himself and the Catholic Church. One letter in the exhibit was written by Catherine to her nephew, King Charles V of Spain, the holy Roman emperor. She details how she was a virgin, or “maid,” when she became Henry’s wife, so he had no grounds to divorce her.

From there, the exhibit takes visitors through Henry’s creation of the Church of England and the failings of his various advisers and marriages. After the break with Rome, Henry ordered Bibles to be printed in English instead of Latin, which had previously been illegal. Latin and English versions of the Bible sit next to each other on display, printed only a few years apart.

Those who are interested in Henry’s love life have nothing to fear; Schwarz included a case about Henry’s wives. But it’s toward the end of the exhibit for one important reason: “I want this exhibit to present a rounded picture of this guy,” Schwarz said. “He’s not just some guy who was interested in acquisitions and sex.”

The exhibit is on display through Dec. 30. The Folger Shakespeare Library will host several events for the exhibit, including performances of Shakespeare’s play “Henry VIII.” More details can be found at folger.edu.