Item One Blog Entry
I had borrowed a copy of The Inventory of King Henry VIII: The Transcript a few days before the moving truck came, but it was only this week that I got much of a chance to look through it, as well as Carley's The Libraries of King Henry VIII. It’s a fascinating book, but slightly overwhelming at the same time — it weighs roughly as much as Henry’s coffin must have, and there’s just so much of everything — tables, carpets, pictures, books (including an ornate edition of the Decameron originally belonging to Edward IV, who else?), all of them gilded and burnished and fringed and tasselled to within an inch of their lives. The sheer quantity of textiles of every kind and quality is so great that it seems impossible that most of them should have vanished — pictures of some surviving specimens are in the second volume, and fully justify their descriptions.
And of course, I couldn’t help comparing the conscientious lists drawn up by some long-gone clerks to the itemizing lists I was making for the things we were donating or packing. Social historians of the future aren’t going to have nearly as much fun with me. Whereas Henry VIII treats us to
Item one Riche carpette of crymson and purple vellat alover embraudered with damaske peerle & venice gold garnished in soundrye places with pearle with borders of crymson Satten likewise embraudered
Item a booke of golde garnished full of diamountes, rubies, and saphires
a thorough inventory of my own possessions would include notes more along the lines of
Item iiij payre of jeans wth seames ripped alover
In a lytle blacke purse, much worne, Item ij billets for filme Monsters Inc, xij yeres old, also Item i university carde, xiij yeres old
Item ij identical paper bokes conteyning poesy of Edward Lear
Item a purple brydesmaydes gown of clothe of polyester
These books are a tremendous blessing for a novelist, albeit a blessing that would involve a fearsome amount of work. On the one hand, assuming either some significant spare cash or a good library, novelists now have more accessible information about Henry’s (and of course Anne’s) actual possessions than ever before. If you want to spend enough time at it, you can now find an actual velvet-bound, bejewelled book for Henry to thump in frustration, or a specific tapestry of Esther and Ahasuerus for Anne to hide behind when overhearing a vital conversation. Beds and clothing also have some expansion potential — sixty years ago, any novelist who didn’t happen to live right by the records was pretty much stuck with the black satin nightgown and yellow dress which Agnes Strickland described, plus the items in The Privy Purse Expences if it was accessible to them, but such is not the case now.
There is the risk of becoming paralyzed by the depth of information. If it’s nice to know that there was, say, a purple and vellat carpett extant at Westminster, that doesn’t mean that panic should ensue if you want to put a similar carpet at Hatfield and can’t find a similar record there. The fact that Henry owned roughly 4,000 pounds of fabric doesn’t mean he needs to know much about it, much less regale the reader with a fabric catalogue. Those beautifully decorated books were often gifts and can’t all have been read with maximum attention. Which is to say that, speaking as an extremely picky reader, I would be thrilled to find items from the Inventory and the Library turning up unobtrusively in the story, but I also would rather that they not begin to take it over. My only firm request is that somebody please work Edward IV’s Decameron in somewhere. In writing such a grim story, you can’t let lighter moments like that one slip away.