The archetypal image of an unsmiling, bejewelled Henry VIII staring directly out of Hans Holbein’s famous painting with his legs spread wide apart was a mastermind of propaganda for the Tudor monarchy.
Even today, centuries after his death, coming face to face with a life size copy of the painting is intimidating. The image was designed to show the king’s power, his riches and his divine right to rule.
The original painting was part of a life size mural which included life size portraits his parents (Elizabeth of York and Henry VII) as well as his third wife Queen Jane Seymour. She was the mother of his heir Prince Edward, and she may have been pregnant with their son during the time that it was painted.
Portraits of Jane and Henry, some painted long after her death, helped to safeguard the future of their son’s throne by showing the kings approval of the marriage and acceptance of Prince Edward as his legitimate heir. Henry was buried with Jane at St. George’s chapel Windsor, possibly for the same reason.
The Whitehall Mural was painted during a time when Henry’s reign was in crisis. 1536 is sometimes called ‘the year of three queens.’ Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife had died in January 1536, Anne Boleyn, his second, was executed on 19th May and Jane Seymour, his third wife, married Henry on 30th May 1536. Jane died in child birth in October 1537 leaving the king with a legitimate but motherless prince.
On top of all this personal turmoil Henry then had a serious jousting accident at Greenwich Palace in January 1536. He never jousted again. Henry may have become aware of his own mortality at this point because aged forty five he was no longer considered a young man, he was without a son and his people were becoming restless.