For centuries, King Henry VIII was mainly remembered as an obese Pope-hater with a penchant for executing anything that moved, especially if it was married to him. But the revival of interest in Tudor-era London, inspired by the success of the recent drama series The Tudors, has also transformed Henry’s portly image in unexpected ways. He is now a sex symbol.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers's young Henry is a suave lothario, prowling the streets of Tudor London in pursuit of his next mistress. And the city itself, portrayed in the series as a seething cesspit of murder, intrigue and passion, more than lives up to its ruler's charisma. While much has inevitably changed since Henry's reign, the outline of Tudor London is still visible within the sprawl of the modern city.
The obvious place to start is at the Tower of London (www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon), sitting ominously on the edge of today's financial district. Previously used as a royal residence, Henry transformed it into a death-row prison. His second wife, Anne Boleyn, was executed here in 1536. Visitors can see the royal Crown Jewels and graffiti purported to have been scratched into the wall by the nine-day Queen, Lady Jane Grey, beheaded in 1554.
Henry's bloodlust was matched only by his love for opulent palaces. The Thames was lined with the turrets of royal residences, from the Palace of Whitehall - whose only remaining section, the Banqueting House, is at the corner of Horse Guards Avenue (hrp.org.uk/banquetinghouse) - to Hampton Court in Richmond (www.hrp.org.uk/hamptoncourtpalace). Here, no less than five Henry VIII impersonators are on hand to show visitors around the King's Apartments, Tudor kitchens and the notoriously tricky maze.
The young Henry's favourite Palace, however, was at Greenwich, where he held lavish parties and jaunting contests. The Palace was demolished in the 17th Century, but its remains continue to be found - a section of the tiled floor of the Tudor chapel was discovered in 2006. Artefacts from the Palace are on display at the "Discover Greenwich" visitor centre (www.oldroyalnavalcollege.org/discover-greenwich), which also offers the chance to try on a suit of Tudor armour.
To the west of the city lies Syon House (www.syonpark.co.uk), originally the site of a medieval abbey. Henry's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was exiled here in 1541 before being executed the following year. After Henry's own death in 1547, his body spent the night at Syon, en route to burial at Windsor. Legend has it that the King's corpse exploded during the night, with dogs found licking up his remains - a little divine judgement, perhaps. Syon House is open to visitors for most of the year, and archaeological digs continue to uncover Tudor remains.
Across town, a trip to Homerton High Street in Hackney is rewarded by the finest example of a Tudor manor house in the city. Sutton House (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-suttonhouse) was built by a royal courtier at a time when Hackney had more fields than fried chicken shops. The interior remains much as it was in Henry's day, with oak-panelled rooms, Tudor windows and carved fireplaces.
Perhaps the only person from the Tudor era more famous than Henry is the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Theatre was banished from within the walls of the Tudor city for fear audiences would spread the plague, and so Shakespeare's career began just outside, in what is now the East End. In between the bars on Shoreditch's Curtain Road lies a small plaque announcing that this was once the home of "The Theatre", the first dedicated theatre in London (knowledgeoflondon.com/theatre.html). It was here that Romeo and Juliet got its first outing. In 1598, after a dispute with the landlord, the owners of The Theatre dismantled it overnight and moved it across the river. Renamed the Globe, it went on to become the most famous theatre in the world. Shakespeare was born and did the majority of his work during the reign of Elizabeth 1st, the last Tudor monarch, and so was at the forefront of Elizabethan culture. However, historians do not believe the pair ever met - whatever Shakespeare in Love might say!
The Tudors is currently airing on BBC America.