'Exciting discovery' reveals Henry VIII as firm believer in Catholicism

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Henry VIII, known as the scourge of the Catholic church, has been revealed as having been a firm believer in the religion he later tried to destroy, thanks to a new discovery.

A prayer roll once belonging to Henry and inscribed with his own handwriting, has been brought to light ahead of a major new exhibition on his life.

It will be shown in public for the first time at the British Library's exhibition Henry VIII: Man and Monarch, which opens later this month and marks the 500th anniversary of Henry's accession to the throne.

The roll, which is around 13 feet long and 5 inches wide, is made of narrow strips of parchment stitched together.

It bears Henry's official badge of arms and the Tudor rose, and is decorated with a series of illuminations including the Trinity, the Crucifixion and scenes from Christ's Passion.

Under the central image of Christ's Passion is an inscription written by Henry, which reads: "Willyam Thomas, I pray yow pray for me your lovyng master: Prynce Henry."

It is believed that the teenage Henry gave the roll to William Thomas, one of his personal servants in his Privy Chamber, some time between 1505 and 1509, when Henry was the Prince of Wales.

The prayer roll will go on loan to the British Library from Ushaw College, a seminary for the formation of Catholic priests in Durham, which has owned the roll since the mid-19th century.

Dr David Starkey, the historian, who has curated the British Library's exhibition, described the roll as "a very exciting discovery".

He said that its existence finally ended the ongoing debate between scholars and historians over whether Henry had always harboured doubts about Catholicism or whether he underwent a "conversion" during his struggles with Rome over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his first wife.

Its whereabouts for more than 300 years remains a mystery as it did not emerge until around 1850, when it was donated to Ushaw College by a wealthy Liverpool merchant.

Dr Andrea Clarke, the curator of early modern historical manuscripts at the British Library, and co-curator of the exhibition, said: "Everyone tends to associate Henry with schism and breaking with Rome, which has led to a general belief that he always had doubts about the church and the Catholic faith."

"But this shows that he did, in fact, practise the traditional devotions of the Catholic church and that he was a very pious prince, which slightly balances our view of him. It is very exciting that we are able to show it in public for the first time."

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