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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Wryttyng is sumwhat tedius and paynfull….

By Stuart Frost

Detail from a Writing Box, 1520-1527, Museum no. W.29:1 to 9-1932.For a dynasty that ran its course almost five hundred years ago the Tudors have a remarkably high profile in popular culture today. Painted portraits of Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are amongst those that adorn a current issue of postage stamps issues by the Royal Mail.

Of all the Tudor monarchs it is Henry VIII who is looming largest this year. His reign is being scrutinised and reassessed in exhibitions in museums, galleries, libraries and palaces in the capital and across the country. The reason for all of this activity is that 2009 marks the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession to the throne. I’m sure he would be pleased that his fame has endured for so long.

There are numerous objects in the V&A’s collections that have a strong connection with the Tudor dynasty and Henry VIII in particular. The pictures that illustrate this blog entry are of one of the more remarkable artefacts, a leather lined writing box adorned with the heraldic badges of Henry VIII and his first queen, Katherine of Aragon (1485-1536). The desk must have been made before Henry began divorce proceedings against Katherine in 1527.A Writing Box, 1520-1527, Museum no. W.29:1 to 9-1932.

Henry owned many writing boxes, a number of which were listed in inventories of his possessions made after his death in 1547. The history of this particular example isn’t known which makes it possible to speculate. It is tempting to imagine Henry sat in front of the box penning a lover letter to Anne Boleyn. Rather less appealing is the thought that the box was made as a royal gift that passed out of royal ownership soon after it was made.

The object is not currently on display at the V&A. It has travelled a short distance across the capital to the British Library, where it is part of a fascinating exhibition, Henry VIII - Man and Monarch. The exhibition has been curated by a team headed by David Starkey. 

In the first of three lectures to coincide with the exhibition Starkey talked about the writing desk. The desk is also centre stage in his introduction to the catalogue where it is described as ‘the real seat of Henry’s power’. There is certainly plenty of evidence in the exhibition to support the view that Henry was an unusually literate and literary monarch who constantly annotated documents, books and manuscripts.

Despite Henry’s statement that he found writing tedious and painful the evidence of his own handwriting  shows that he spent plenty of time sat at a desk with pen in hand. Faced with a vast pile of papers and documents requiring urgent attention, there must have been many moments when he longed to be engaged in more pleasurable pursuits. I’m sure that is a feeling that desk-bound employees across the country will be able to empathise with!

Click on the link to see the short online film, A Royal Writing Box.

Click here to find out more about the exhibition Henry VIII - Man and Monarch at the British Library.

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