Recent depictions of Henry VIII in programmes such as The Tudors have countered the myth of the king as an obese tyrant, and a new exhibition at the Tower of London further demonstrates that, at least in his youth, Henry was a virile sportsman and warrior. ‘Dressed to Kill’ also shows the extent to which he was aware of and in control of his image.

An impressive collection of armour and weaponry presents the viewer with Henry the man, unencumbered by his spouses, and traces his figure by analysing the measurements of successive suits of armour. This analysis is not necessarily accurate, as only the Field of Cloth of Gold tonlet armour has interlocking pieces, rather than overlapping sections that leave some ambiguity with regards to Henry’s actual size.

As a viewer, it can be challenging to fully appreciate armour, as it’s as much functional as decorative. The curators attempt to rectify this by marrying the pieces with multimedia illustrations of their use, from dramatic reconstructions to computer-generated images. There are also arcade-style games that allow one to try out weapons (in which Country Life’s Architectural Editor showed great enthusiasm, if not accuracy).

‘Dressed to Kill’ gives emphasis to the technical virtuosity of the Greenwich armourers, who were tasked with implementing Henry’s ambitions. Karen Whitting, the exhibition’s project manager, believes that the armourers were comparable in artistry with Renaissance painters and architects. The king appreciated the autonomy of his new armoury, using it to experiment in order to distinguish the English style—and thus cement his own status as a powerful European presence.

These ideas were not merely driven by vanity—although the competition with other European monarchs was certainly a factor—but also by practicality. On display are experimental items of weaponry, such as a three-barrelled gun, a combination mace and gun and a gun shield, that Henry hoped would give his army the edge in battle. Although not all successful, they do demonstrate his engagement with innovation in warfare, beyond aesthetic concerns.

The original Field of Cloth of Gold foot combat armour of about 1520, which was left unfinished when the French changed the rules of dress, has elements of technical innovation from the Greenwich armourers, such as articulating lames inside the joints of the body that allow freedom of the limbs, but still protect every part of the body. This intricacy of construction is so impressive that it was studied by NASA when it designed the first space suit in the 1960s.

Not all the pieces are compelling purely for their functionality. The Wilton anime armour of about 1544, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was based on the new Italian style. As well as creating a colossal image, it shows great skill in detailed construction, with beautiful etched and gilt bands of floral ornament.

The exhibition demonstrates Henry’s awareness in developing such an image, and Miss Whitting has labelled him the ‘king of spin’. The Greenwich armoury afforded him unprecedented control, and Henry added to his iconic status through the use of iconography and propaganda—when distributing English-language Bibles to the populace, he ensured that his own portrait was displayed in the front of them. Such an awareness of image, from painting to armour, contributed to the reputation of a monarch who is still vividly in the popular consciousness today.

Sporting hero
Jousting had claimed the lives of so many figures that Henry VII forbade his son from partaking in it. Following his father’s death, Henry VIII became a passionate jouster, gathering a loyal group of fellow sportsmen known as his ‘minions’. In the exhibition is a wonderful historical record—an original jousting score sheet featuring the king and fellow jousters, such as the Duke of Suffolk and Earl of Essex. It’s displayed beside a contemporary lance, the sheer size of which impresses on the viewer the strength and sportsmanship that the activity required. Henry was also a keen footballer, and commissioned a pair of football boots for four shillings (£100). On display is the oldest known football in the world, dating from about 1540–70. This ‘bladder ball’ is an inflatable pig’s bladder with a strong leather cover.

‘Dressed to Kill’ is at the Tower of London until January 17, 2010 (0844 482 7799; www.hrp.org.uk). The accompanying ‘Henry VIII: Arms and the Man 1509-2009’, edited by Graeme Rimer, Thom Richardson and J. P. D. Cooper, is published by the Royal Armouries at £50

To read about other events at the Historic Royal Palaces, click here