This year is going to be Henry VIII’s. Imprinted on to our minds as a big rotund man, a tyrant of a king famous for having six wives and beheading two of them, and for the break with Rome and dissolution of the monasteries, with the 500th anniversary of his accession to the throne of England coming up, everywhere and anywhere with any association with this Tudor monarch is set to hold some sort of special event.

From art to lectures, Tudor cookery to live performances, there’ll be masses going on. To take just a few examples, the British Library has an exhibition which started on April 23, the day on which, 500 years ago, Henry was proclaimed king, that promises to look beyond the myths and stereotypes, and Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London have teamed up to hold year-long celebrations.

But where, for us in Oxfordshire, better to start than down river at Windsor Castle, Henry VIII’s one-time home and final resting place?

From this April until April 18 next year, Windsor is holding in its Drawings Gallery an exhibition of treasures from the Royal Collection and the archives of St George’s Chapel.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, ‘Henry VIII: A 500th Anniversary Exhibition’ has some exquisite artworks in it. Exhibits include drawings, paintings, key religious texts, illuminated manuscripts, and objects of interest, among them pieces from the Mary Rose and the Great Seal of Henry VIII.

Seldom do you find yourself passing drawings by Leonardo and only briefly stopping. But this is how it was. I gave them their due, naturally, and the other non-Henry-related drawings, but I wanted to move on, knowing something of the treasures that waited.

Above all, I knew there’d be Holbein’s unsurpassable drawings. A few were in Tate Britain’s exhibition in 2006, but to see them again is always a treat.

Arriving in England in 1526, Hans Holbein the Younger soon became the king’s painter, portraying many of the key personalities of Henry’s reign. Among his works here are studies of Sir Thomas More (the drawing is clearly pricked out for transferring on to a painting) and other men of influence, such as Sir Henry Guildford, Comptroller of the Household (the imposing finished portrait can be seen in the State Apartments), and the lugubrious looking William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury.

One display is about the six wives of Henry VIII.

Holbein depicts three: a preparatory study for a portrait of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third and favourite wife; a rare portrait of Anne Boleyn, a simple black and coloured chalk drawing on pink paper (c.1533) showing a rather heavy-chinned beauty; and a miniature of a lady thought to be Katherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, executed less than two years after their marriage. Robert White portrayed Katharine of Aragon (1681), and later, Cornelis Vermeulen made engravings of Anne of Cleves and Catharine Parr.

A small painting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is particularly interesting. It shows the Old Testament story of the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon to check if stories of his wisdom were true. Henry VIII was compared to the wise Solomon, and the Queen of Sheba held to represent the Church.

Made around 1534, the year of the break with papal authority in Rome, the watercolour probably was an allegory of Henry VIII accepting the submission of the church. Equally probably a member of the court commissioned it from Holbein as a flattering gift to the king.

The most spectacular manuscript on display is the Black Book of the Garter from c.1535. Its pages open to show us an enthroned Henry worshipping with his Garter Knights in St George’s Chapel. Also, Thomas Wriothesley’s Garter Book (1523) containing what is thought to be the earliest surviving picture of the opening of Parliament. The wonderfully stylised picture shows Henry at Blackfriars surrounded by his bishops and advisors, the justices seated on woolsacks, and members of the House of Commons at the bottom.

The typical view of Henry is big and round and dominating. But Lucas Horenbout’s miniature shows him differently. Painted when Henry was 35 — thus one of the earliest known portraits of the king — it shows a slimmer fitter man. When Henry ascended the throne he was a striking man, said to be “much handsomer than any sovereign in Christendom”.

Known, too, for his great physical energy, Henry loved hunting at Windsor. His hunting sword, a beautiful damascened blade made for him in 1544 by Spanish swordsmith Diego da Çaias, is in the exhibition.

I thought of this fine steel when I’d left the Drawings Gallery and gone into the State Apartments. There for me, amid hundreds of paintings and fine furnishings, Holbein’s portrait of Derich Born (1533) stood out. The young German steel merchant had supplied Henry VIII’s armourer with military equipment. Holbein painted the 23-year-old in a classic pose, looking confidently out at us, one arm resting on a stone ledge, the other casually on top of it, set against an elegant almost emerald background of twirling foliage.

One of the enjoyable things about this exhibition is scouting about the castle grounds making links to Henry VIII. You have to pay the entrance fee to the castle to get into the exhibition, but, once inside, that’s it. There’s a rather good children’s trail, too, that takes in the exhibition, State Apartments (for Henry’s enormous last suit of armour), the Henry VIII Gate, and St George’s Chapel.

lEntrance to Henry VIII: A 500th Anniversary Exhibition is part of a visit to Windsor Castle. For visitor information and opening hours, see or phone 0207 7667304. For a calendar of events all over the UK see