Even before you reach the top of the wooden staircase which mounts up and up and up, ho hum, the outside of William the Conqueror’s White Tower, the structure by which the Tower of London is most readily identified, you begin to hear more than a bit of hullabaloo. Then, when you push through the swing doors, it hits you full in the face. This is the All-Action-Hero Henry VIII show – military man, sporting all-rounder, enduring icon of then and now! Sounds a bit over the top? You bet! In barrow loads
The first glimpse of him you get, he is sitting astride a white charger, rearing over you, in top-to-toe dress armour, pent inside a huge glass display case set against a light box which flashes white, then blue, then white again. Curious, the horses in this show. They are all white, like strange, ice-stiffened soft toys. The presentation brings together several beguiling elements of our current civilization: a Selfridges windows display in those oozy, child-friendly days before Christmas; a CNN news flash; and the slinky, steamy glitter of the catwalk.
Next door to Henry on horseback, there’s a bit of filmic virtual reality - huge men in mortal combat, bigger, and much more manly men, than you could ever hope to be. And to help the deliriously excitable atmosphere along, there are tremendous noises coming from everywhere – the rake and clash of sword on sword, the earthquake-like trembling of horses’ hooves. And then, of course, to top it all, there is the customary racket of school kids when they mooch around in packs, munching and jawing, pounding the bare boards of this ancient hall, which used to display part of the Royal Armoury Museum, now displaced, at a gallop, to Leeds.
He spent so much money on warfare, this man – up to the equivalent of £1 billion in 2009 terms. Often not too well spent either. How many gains did he make for all that campaigning overseas. Well, there was, er, wasn’t there? But the armour, the swords, the jousting poles, these divine arquebusues, and all this gorgeous canonry! No, this man evidently wasn’t short of a Real Tennis box, as you can see if you examine the armour, even cursorily.
Yes, it has to be said that all this money and all this bought in, European expertise helped him to amass some marvellous playthings, and many of them of we won’t have seen before because they are from museums overseas. What is more, we quickly begin to learn all the arcane, toothsome terminology of armoury, and so many of these words are so delicious to roll around the tongue: the nine-plate ‘crinet’ which would have protected the horse’s neck, the vambraces, the crossed ragged staves, the parade armet…
But the problem with this show is that it’s too distortingly narrow in its focus. In trying to turn Henry into no-holds-barred action man, it loses sight altogether of most other aspects of his life and his reign. Religion? Forget it. Wife problems? What were their names? By making him larger than life, you turn him into s grotesque, small-scale caricature of his complicated self. The film on show at the end tells it all: it’s just a messy bringing together of contemporary images, clips from feature films, and other bits and pieces, to the ridiculous accompaniment of a bit of Gary Glitterish glam-rock noise. Who cares where truth ends and fantasy begins?
Still, by the end – and the show goes on for two and a bit floors – I am thirsting to own something of my own, so when I spot the full-size foot combat armour down in the shop, a snip at a mere £4,209, I get into conversation with the sales assistant. No, she doesn’t work here, not exactly, she’s in marketing, she tells me, trying to distance herself from the mugs she’s busy with, but as far as she knows, they have sold a few sets. For example, just a few years back, there was that man who wanted two for his restaurant in Italy.
So I ask the lanky lad on the till. Not since I’ve been here, he says. Something to do with transportation difficulties probably, he guesses. I put in a call to the wife all the same: muzzle the Bedlington, dear; enlarge the door frame.