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A Much Needed New Exhibition That Challenges the Misconceptions of Two Iconic Queens!

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

In the first week of February, I went along to the new exhibition at Hever Castle in Kent. Catherine and Anne: Queens, Rivals, Mothers. Below is my take on this new exhibition and why it is so important to our understanding of two of the most known and yet most misunderstood women in history.

English history is full of stories and individuals we all know! The Battle of Hastings, The Great Fire of London, The Black Death, The Blitz, the list goes on. Adding to this, there is one larger than life character you simply cannot ignore when you are compiling a list of the 'most famous and infamous' characters in English history and that is of course, Henry VIII. Henry VIII is often seen as a tyrant of a King, a man who married six times, executed two of those wives and ripped down the monasteries of England, stealing all their wealth and power. He is seen as a bloated, vengeful, jealous, angry and often paranoid monarch with an ulcerated leg and vile temper. However, this grotesque image is massively overplayed and in places inaccurate.

In truth, the young Henry was the polar opposite of these things. He was handsome, tall (at over six foot) as well as deeply religious, charismatic and incredibly romantic. He loved to write music and poetry as well as dance, joust, wrestle and play tennis. Henry was every bit the Renaissance prince! He also was not a fan of the Protestant Reformation, although he would later use it for his own advantage. In fact, in 1521 Henry wrote an entire book condemning the work of Martin Luther. He actually referred to him as “a venomous serpent, a pernicious plague, infernal wolf, an infectious soul, a detestable trumpeter of pride, calumnies and schism.” In recognition of his religious devotion, the Pope proclaimed Henry 'Defender of the Faith'.

So, this leads to another point that needs to be addressed. If we can misjudge Henry, then what does that say about the way public perception has judged his wives?.......

We have all heard the rhymes that helped us remember their names as children. 'Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived'. Six women, reduced to a poem to remember them. In truth, there is so much more to these queens than the one dimensional myths and legends that plague their legacies. This is something that has frustrated me for a very long time. So when this very subject became the focal point of a new and exciting exhibition at Hever Castle, I just had to venture there for a visit.

After the incredibly successful exhibition Becoming Anne: Connections, Culture, Court, I knew that the team, which comprised of Curator Alison Palmer and Assistant Curators Dr Owen Emmerson and Kate McCaffrey were doing something special at Hever. They were bridging the gap between 'mainstream cultural history' and serious academia with an emphasis on critical thinking. How did they do this? By bringing a popular character in history to the forefront of historical debate, while breaking down the misconceptions which have been around in our history nearly as long as the person themselves. Becoming Anne looked at more than just 'Anne Boleyn comes back to the English court, captivates Henry away from his wife and refuses to be his mistress'. It looked at what elements of her early life, including her education in France and her families political connections helped to shape the woman who returned to court. Cleverly the exhibition did not focus on her time as Henry's wife but ended with his growing interest in her. We see her grow, we see her develop and we see a glimmer of what made historians, like Dr Emmerson and McCaffrey argue that Anne acted in many ways, like a modern woman. Historians can confidently argue that Anne knew her own mind! We see this in not only the way she conducted herself, her quick wit, fashions, knowledge of the scriptures and her ability to stand out in a crowd, but also in her own writing, in her own letters and her own books. Hever Castle, as well as being 'the childhood home of Anne Boleyn' is also home to two integral pieces of historical evidence once owned by Anne, two beautifully illustrated prayer books which includes her Book of Hours.

Two Incredible Women, Within the Pages of Two Incredible Books.

On the 19th May 2021 (19th being the anniversary of Anne's execution) Hever detailed that ground breaking research had been carried out on the Book of Hours Volume by McCaffrey. Using modern ultra-violet light technology it was discovered that names and words were hidden in amongst the pages, some which had not been seen for hundreds of years. So why is this so important? Well, legend has it that the book was handed to one of Anne's ladies in waiting after her execution and from that point on, much was unknown. Henry ordered any reference to his former queen to be removed after her death, and for many years this book stayed hidden away. With thanks to Kate McCaffrey, further work was conducted on these items as the subject for her dissertation at the University of Kent. It was then used as the basis and inspiration for this new exhibition. With thanks to this we are arguably closer to understanding what lies inside, even connecting Anne to her daughter, one of England's greatest monarchs, Elizabeth I.

In the introduction of the accompanying exhibition guide (which you can purchase here) Professor Suzannah Lipscomb notes that 'Katherine and Anne were far more similar than they were different'. She continues that 'both were intelligent, educated, and determined women whose learning found expression in their piety'. Indeed, it is their piety which brings me to one of the most exciting items on display, the Book of Hours once owned by Catherine of Aragon.

In a 2021 article for The Morgan Library and Museum, McCaffrey notes that whilst researching Anne's Book of Hours she discovered another copy of the same book existed and was in the care and possession of the library itself. Books of Hours were often hand made. They were also designed to look like the traditional handmade books, often produced by monks. These editions were actually printed manuscripts made by a famous Parisian printer Germain Hardouyn and individually customised decorations added to the owners preference. While there would be variations of those editions, they would all essentially follow the same style. Excitingly she discovered that Anne's book and Catherine's were beautifully produced from the same original. Thinking back to Professor Lipscomb's points, the fact that they both owned the same book makes so much sense. What makes these books even more fascinating is that they would have both existed in the same time and space in one of the most highly-charged periods of English court life. A court which saw one woman's star fading while the others was shining bright.

To me, it is spectacular to imagine both of these women, often depicted in history as rivals, taking silent contemplation from the very same pages. Therefore, when I first entered the room whereby Catherine's book was placed on display, I was spellbound. I think it is important to mention here that securing this book for this exhibition is no small feat! Again, hats off to Hever and their team. To have these books in the same room, for the first time (if ever) for hundreds of years is a triumph. I strongly urge anyone who has not visited to make sure they do not miss the chance to see these books. Catherine's book of hours will be returning to the Morgan Library's collection in June before the exhibition ends in November.

Coming Full Circle With Childhood Memories

Now, for most exhibitions, this item and its acquisition would be the centrepiece to attract historians from far and wide. However, luckily for us, Catherine and Anne offers so much more. I must confess, there was one exhibition I missed over the last couple of years and it was the ONE I am the most heartbroken about, the costumes from the 1969 historical classic, Anne of the Thousand Days. So when I heard that one of Richard Burton's costumes from the film would be on display I was thrilled beyond belief. This film was one of my earliest introductions to the Tudors and when I think of it I think of Hever and often when I think of Hever, I also think of this film! That is no surprise really. Afterall, the picture was filmed there as well as neighbouring Penshurst Place. When I was six I remember my parents wondering what to do on a Sunday afternoon and that conversation turned into a trip to this beautiful castle in the Kent countryside. It was a strange time for me! That summer I had been diagnosed with epilepsy and Mum was adamant she wanted me to do as much as possible in the holidays to ensure I was not 'thinking about it'. I weirdly don't remember a huge amount about the day, other than the long gallery with the figures which I still adore, and buying a poster print of the National Portrait Gallery painting of Anne. What I do remember, in detail was how this new-found fascination with Hever found its way into the next morning.

Anyone remember those St Michael books from Marks and Spencer? It was green and had The Tudor monarchs on the front. Well, Mum had a copy and I remember being sat in my room reading through it and being fascinated beyond belief. Then it was not long before she sat me down and we watched Anne of the Thousand Days, her favourite film. Anne Boleyn is played by the incredibly talented Geneviève Bujold and Henry (as mentioned above) is played by one of Britain's greatest classically trained actors, Richard Burton. While not overly historically accurate in places, the film is an emotional journey through the doomed love affair between Henry and Anne with performances, costumes and sets which make it a timeless masterpiece. I have lost count of the amount of times I have watched this on a cold, wet and windy Saturday afternoon. So when I got the stand so close to such an important piece of film history, I was once again that six year old child, ironically stood in the very place it all started. Special thanks here should be given to Colin and Tracey Craigie who kindly loaned the costume to Hever for the exhibition, I for one will be forever in their debt. Of all the costumes from this film that could have been included in this exhibition, this one is the most perfectly placed. Burton wore this at a pivotal scene regarding the development of his relationship with Anne. Wolsey has just informed the King that he is unable to get the annulment. This event, known by historians as 'The Kings Great Matter' starts the chain reaction whereby Henry divorces Catherine, proceeds with the Reformation and is excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

On Screen, Up Close and Personal

As we know, Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn did not bring about the son he wanted. It was not until his marriage to Jane Seymour that a boy, the future Edward VI was born. Apart from creating a religious and social divide between his country, the Reformation equally created one between his three children, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward. Edward and Elizabeth were Protestants and Mary a devout Catholic. History has unkindly labelled Mary 'Bloody Mary' because of her burning of Protestants in an attempt to force Catholicism back onto England once more as the recognised religion. In truth, Edward was a true reformer and historians have debated whether he would have been as devout a Protestant in adulthood that his sister Mary was a Catholic. Edward as a king is a period often glossed over; partly because he was both a child and equally because his time as king was short. However, in the 2022 Starz television series Becoming Elizabeth, we do get to see his reign as the backdrop of the informative years of the future Elizabeth I. This brings me on to the next exciting part of the exhibition, costumes worn by the cast of the series.

On show we see the costumes of four central figures in the series, Edward played by Oliver Zetterstrom, Mary played by Ramola Garai, Elizabeth played by Alicia Von Rittberg (pictured here on the right) and Catherine Parr played by Jessica Raine (pictured below). While in places the series suffered from questionable historical writings, there is no denying that the acting was superb and the costumes exquisite.

One thing that struck me about all the costumes is just how up close and personal you can get to them. This was definitely something I loved being able to experience. To see the stitching, the jewels, the fabrics and point out the referencing to real Tudor clothing was incredible and you can really see these elements with Catherine Parr's gown. When we compare the Raine costume to the famous painting of Catherine from the National Portrait Gallery (below) we can see the referencing and inspiration jump out at us from the big screen. The inclusion of Catherine's costume is another beautifully crafted addition that sticks wonderfully to the theme. Of all of Henry's other wives which were not the mothers to his children, she was the most influential when it came to bringing the family together. She also played an important part in the education of her stepchildren, Edward and Elizabeth.

Like Anne, Catherine was a reformer who challenged the power of the church and surrounded herself with others who read banned booked and indulged in 'heretic conversations'. Although Henry broke with Rome, he was still a Catholic deep down and even questioned the length of change and reform that was taking place. In fact, Catherine nearly found herself at the hands of the same fate when a warrant for her arrest was issued. By a twist of fate she was told about the warrant by the kings own physician and intervened. Miraculously, Henry ordered the destruction of the warrant and Catherine would go on to outlive him. She would later marry Edward's uncle, Thomas Seymour and sadly die in childbirth, as his mother had done in 1537.

A Mother's Daughter Returns to Hever

It is quite ironic that for all of Henry's efforts to have a strong son to reign after him, that it was his daughter Elizabeth who would become his most successful offspring. Elizabeth's early years were filled with perils and dangers which included a stint in the Tower of London at the hands of her sister, Mary I. Elizabeth was accused of being part of a plot to overthrow Mary and when no evidence could be found she was released and placed under house arrest. Elizabeth's turbulent and unpredictable years before becoming queen helped to shape the monarch she would become. Keeping with the cinematic theme, we find ourselves in the presence of another great costume. This time, worn by Academy Award winning actress, Cate Blanchett in the 1998 picture, Elizabeth.

I unashamedly adore this film! I know it is incredibly inaccurate in places but Blanchett is a triumph. For me, as Elizabeth she channels her inner Glenda Jackson alongside an incredible cast set amongst great sets in stunning costumes. Hever have managed to secure the coronation robe and gown as well as the crown, orb and sceptre. These items are also placed alongside a copy of the National Portrait Gallery painting for reference and the effect is mesmerising. To look at these two items side by side shows the extraordinary craftsmanship that went into the gown. Every tiny detail matched the famous painting, therefore to see it in the flesh was another special moment in the exhibition for me.

I remember watching this film for the first time as I completed my GCSE's. It is strange the things you remember at times! I remember convincing myself that watching the film was great revision because if I could point out everything that was wrong with it, I obviously knew my stuff! It's true that I do adopt this attitude even now, much to the annoyance of my husband who has told me he refuses to watch historical films with me for two reasons. One, because I will constantly say what's wrong and two, because (as I do with Anne of the Thousand Days and Darkest Hour) I will recite the whole film without knowing I am doing it! In truth, history is just something I never switch off from. I absorb everything I can, like a sponge and I have no doubt that I will visit this exhibition again, just to soak up whatever I missed the first time.

As I walked out of the castle, I was left with a mixed sense of calm and excitement about what I have seen. Hever is this wonderful place that makes you feel that way in general, but to have new and wonderful things to see and take in, just makes it that little bit more magical. I think the reason Hever makes me feel that way is because Anne would have felt that way while she was there. Hever is not a place of sadness and desperation for Anne. She spent many happy days there, her family would have entertained Henry there and she would later have received many letters from the King there too. In fact, it has even been argued that it was while at Hever Anne had accepted Henry's proposal of marriage. Hever is glorious and so is this exhibition. There really is nothing I can fault and as someone who has worked in history for a long time, I can assure you, this level of hard work should never go unrewarded or lack praise. For 8 years I worked in the White Tower at the Tower of London and now as a secondary school history teacher and I can confidently say that getting your facts right, knowing how to entertain and trying to hit a bar of academia as well as serve a public interest and deliver ground breaking research is equally hard on all levels. The team at Hever are doing all of these in equal measures and I really applaud them for this. I also think its marvellous that they seem to be given the creative and historical freedom to do this. These types of exhibitions do not come together over night. I remember being part of the Henry 500 exhibition in 2009 and seeing it all come together and painstakingly installed, you never stop appreciating those with the dedication and passion to see these things through and give you something truly magical.

So this is my first blog post, I hope you enjoyed it. Please leave a comment below! I love to interact and discuss all things history with you.

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