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A letter that claims to be from the Antichrist to King Henry VIII has been uncovered within the British Library archives and reveals how Henry was secretly ridiculed for his serial marriages.
Professor Matthew Dimmock from the University of Sussex made the archival discovery, which seemingly contradicts the long held view that the Tudor king’s latter years were oppressive and humourless.
Instead, this new document suggests that there was a thriving satirical culture in the final years of the King’s reign, but one that flourished at his expense.
The sender is a man named Balthasar, who describes himself as the Emperor of Babylon and Steward of Hell. He offers Henry the hand of his daughter and, if the King accepts, an impossibly vast dowry of 8 million gold sovereigns, plus an empire in the east and the cross on which Christ was crucified.
The British Library letter is a later 16th-century copy of an original that was probably written around the time of the embarrassing collapse of the King’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, in 1540. As his fourth marriage, the Cleves union lasted just a mere six months.
Professor of Early Modern Studies, Matthew Dimmock said: “This letter is bizarre, curious and funny. It’s a savagely satirical take on Henry VIII’s reign, and in particular his many marriages.
“It suggests that the situation with the King’s love life has become so ridiculous that he might as well marry the Antichrist’s daughter.
“There’s also ridicule for Henry’s break with Rome, showing that while he was undoubtedly feared during his reign, writers could generate plenty of humour at the King’s expense.’
Henry was notoriously sensitive of his public image and the penalty for ridiculing him was death, so it seems very unlikely that he ever saw this letter. To write and circulate such a document, even anonymously and in manuscript, was a deeply risky business.
Nevertheless the author has taken great care. Although exaggerated, the letter mirrors the formula and language used for international diplomatic correspondence in the early 16th century. It also draws upon the apocalypse-fervour of the time and a satirical tradition in which Christian authors faked letters from Muslim emperors.
Some questions remain: the letter includes an odd reference to Prince Edward, Henry’s young son; and, for obvious reasons, the author is unidentified. Whoever they were, they created something unique to England and the last years of Henry VIII’s reign.
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By: Stephanie Allen
Last updated: Friday, 16 October 2020
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