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.
In the 16th century churches were the centre of community life. Ordinary people relied on church alms, hospitality and nuns and monks for medical aid and charity. Henry did not replace these charitable organisations which he dismantled and peasants suffered from their loss.
In autumn 1536 a rebellion of 40,000 people including local gentry rose up against their king in Lincolnshire. Peasants were fearful that the church plate would be confiscated and sold to fill the king’s coffers. There were rumours that baptisms would be taxed too. People were upset by the dissolution of the monasteries and by church land being distributed to the gentry. By 14 October the protesters occupied Lincoln Cathedral.
The King sent word for the rebels to go home or face Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk and his men. The vicar of Louth and Captain Cobbler, leaders of the rebellion, were captured and hanged at Tyburn. The Lincolnshire Rising inspired the more widespread Pilgrimage of Grace which finally ended in February 1537.
In the original mural Henry’s bold confrontational stare gives the appearance of challenging the viewer to defy his will. Did recent events make Henry feel vulnerable? Did he have the urge to produce an image that portrayed him an all powerful monarch because he felt that he had something to prove?
The first part of the Latin inscription on the plinth in the centre of the composition translates: ‘If it pleases you to see the illustrious images of heroes, look on these: no picture ever bore greater. The great debate, competition and great question is whether father or son is the victor. For both, indeed, were supreme’. It continues to pronounce that… the son, born indeed for greater tasks, from the altar removed the unworthy and put worthy men in their place.’
Henry VIII clearly needed to be seen as a son who outshone his father and by the size of his codpiece he wanted to be seen as virile, young and glowing with youthful health.
Comparisons of surviving sets of Henry’s armour tell us a different story. They show the king’s legs were much shorter in reality than they were depicted in the painting. By 1536 Henry was in his old age by Tudor standards, he would never joust again or father another child. He was already suffering from the health problems which would plague him later in life and he would die only ten years after the painting was completed.
Today we might think that Henry was having a Tudor midlife crisis and doing his very best force his will on his people by intimidation.
Karel van Mander, writing in the early 17th century commented that as Henry, “stood there, majestic in his splendour, he was so lifelike that the spectator felt abashed, annihilated in his presence”
Fletcher, A and MacCulloch, D, (2008) Pearson Education Ltd, Harlow, England. Chapter 4
https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/405750/henry-vii-elizabeth-of-york-henry-viii-and-jane-seymour Accessed: 28/3/2018 at 18:45
https://www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/making-art-in-tudor-britain/case-studies/portraits-of-henry-viii Accessed: 28/3/2018 at 18:00
Featured image by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1536/7
The Latin on the plinth reads:
SI IVVAT HEROVM CLARAS VIDISSE FIGVRAS
SPECTA HAS MAIORES NVLLA TABELLA TVLIT.
CERTAMEN MAGNVM LIS QVÆSTIO MAGNA PATERNE
FILIVS AN VINCAT VICIT VTERQVE QVIDEM
ISTE SVOS HOSTES PATRIÆQVE INCENDIA SAEPE
SVSTVLIT ET PACEM CIVIBVS VSQVE DEDIT.
FILIVS AD MAIORA QVIDEM PROGNATVS AB ARIS
SVBMOVET INDIGNO SI SVBSTITVITQVE PROBOS
CERTÆ VIRTVTI PAPARVM AVDACIA CESSIT
HENRICO OCTAVO SCEPTRA GERENTE MANV
REDDITA RELIGIO EST ISTO REGNANTE DEIQVE
DOGMATA CEPERVNT ESSE IN HONORE SVO.
PROTOTYPVM IVSTÆ MAGNITVDINIS IPSO OPERE TECTORIO
FECIT HOLBENIVS IVBENTE HENRICO VIII
ECTYPVM A REMIGIO VAN LEEMPVT BREVIORI TABELLA
DESCRIBI VOLVIT CAROLVS II. M.B.P.E.H.R.
A° DNI. MDCLXVII