The Tudors - A Century of Change

5. The Image of a King

Tudor England was a highly visual age. Although much of the pageantry that surrounded the court was of a very transient nature it absorbed a great deal of energy and talent, some of it first-rate. Despite this, remarkably few authentic likenesses of the Tudor monarchs have survived. This section looks at these images and what they tell us about the personalities depicted.

Henry VII

The only portrait of Henry as a young man is that copied into a 16th Century sketch book now in Arras, which is thought to be based on a contemporary likeness. Henry was painted a number of times after he became king, but the most realistic image is the small panel now in the National Portrait Gallery. It is said to have been intended for showing to possible brides, when Henry considered marrying again following the death of Elizabeth of York in 1503. However, it is scarcely flattering, the spider-like fingers seeming to confirming the king's reputation for avarice. In contrast is the dignified bust by the Italian sculptor Torrigiano, probably based on the king's death mask and used as the model for the king's tomb effigy in Wesminster Abbey, completed in 1521.Twenty years later Hans Holbein returned to the same source when commissioned to decorate the wall of the privy chamber in Whitehall. The resulting family group showing Henry VII and Henry VIII with their respective wives is known to us through copies and Holbein's own preliminary sketch.

Of Henry's eldest son, Prince Arthur, only one, very conventional likeness survives (another painting said to have been of Arthur is now thought to be the young Henry VIII). Henry VII's wife, Elizabeth of York died after chilbirth in 1503. The wooden effigy made to lie on top of her coffin during the funeral ceremonies survives, its head and shoulders carved of wood, the rest of the body being made up of various materials including leather, canvas and straw. Real hair was once attached to the head and the figure was dressed in the queen's own clothes, portions of which survive. From this evidence and that of a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery it seems that Elizabeth was round-faced, fair and bright-eyed, very much her father's daughter.

Illustration: Henry VII (1457-1509)

Henry VII (1457-1509)

The posthumous child of Edmund Tudor, half-brother of Henry VI, Henry spent most of his early life in exile in Britanny. His appearance as a young man was recorded and copied in a book of drawings known as the Receuil d'Arras, which also includes portraits of the pretender Perkin Warbeck and Cardinal Wolsey. Following his victory over Richard III in 1485 Henry reigned uneasily over a kingdom that yearned for the return of the more glamorous Yorkist line. In 1499 he was described as 'old before his time', personally checking his household accounts in a miserly and un-kingly way. A portrait painted by Michel Sittow in 1504 emphasises these characteristics but a terracotta bust by the sculptor Torrigiano shows a nobler side. Torrigiano also fashioned the king's tomb effigy in Westminster Abbey.

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Henry VIII

Illustration: Henry VIII (1491-1547)

Henry VIII (1491-1547)

It was not until his mature years that Henry VIII found an artist of real talent to paint his portrait. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) created the image of the king (left) that we are familiar with (left), feet firmly astride, waistline already beginning to expand as Henry was forced to give up the athletic pursuits - jousting, archery, tennis, wrestling - that had made him the best-looking monarch in Europe when he first came to the throne (right). Earlier portraits show a strong resemblance to Henry's grandfather Edward IV (who also put on weight in his later years). The close-trimmed beard, a feature of Holbein's portraits, did not appear until Katherine of Aragon, the king's first wife, declined in his affections. She always disliked it and Henry seems to have been generally clean-shaven until he fell in love with Anne Boleyn around 1526.

Everyone knows Henry VIII. The image of the corpulent middle-aged Henry, legs aggressively astride, codpiece thrust forward, is more familiar than that of any other English monarch and his later suits of armour confirm that the king did indeed put on weight in his final years, so much so that a kind of carrying chair had to be made to get him up and down the stairs of his many palaces. The reason for his loss of mobility was a suppurating ulcer on his right leg which seems to have been the result a tournament accident in January 1536. Henry was toppled from his horse and lay unconscious for two hours. It was the end of a career of athletic prowess which included wrestling, archery, and tennis. Built like a rugby player, Henry's muscle turned inexorably to fat once he had ceased to play.

What did the young Henry look like, the Renaissance prince so flatteringly described by early visitors to his court? A smiling bust by Torrigiano is thought to show him as a child, perhaps as young as eight, but we have only two small panel portraits of the king in his 'teens one of which is referred to above. Neither inspire much confidence as a likeness. For the 1520's, the period of Henry's romance with Anne Boleyn, we have to rely on miniatures, some of which show the king with a beard and some without. It is said that Henry first grew a beard about 1519 in order to rival Francis I. Katherine of Aragon did not like it and the beard duly went. It is presumably a sign of her waning influence that the beard reappears about 1525 and that Henry retained it, usually close-clipped, for the rest of his life. His hair, worn long until about 1520, was cut progressively shorter as he grew older and the last portraits suggest that he was almost bald.

What of the six wives? There are two very contrasting likenesses of Katherine of Aragon, one when she was a young girl, shortly after her arrival in England and one when she was clearly middle-aged and matronly. Usually played by actresses who are to say the least plain if not dowdy in appearance, Katherine must have once been uncommonly pretty - certainly pretty ennough to appeal to the romantically inclined eighteen-year old who married her at his first opportunity in 1509.

Illustration: Anne Boleyn (?1502-1536)

Anne Boleyn (?1502-1536)

Henry VIII's second wife. Descriptions of Anne emphasise her dark hair and black eyes, also a mole on her neck and the beginnings of a sixth finger on her left hand. The only surviving portrait of any quality, on which this drawing is based, gives little clue to the qualities that made her so attractive to the king that he was prepared to divorce the pope in order to marry her (1533). When she failed to produce the male heir Henry so desperately wanted, charges of adultery were brought against her and she was beheaded within the Tower of London on 19 May 1536.

Anne Boleyn presents a greater problem. The portrait always reproduced, which is again in the National Portrait Gallery, tells us little except that Elizabeth I resembled her mother. A description of her by an Italian visiting the court in 1532 tells us that 'Mistress Anne is not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion (i.e dark skin and dark hair), long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised and has nothing but the English king's appetite and her eyes, which are black and beautiful.' Clearly Anne's real attractions lay in her intelligence and open sensuality. Both would seem unusual and both could seem like witchcraft when the king fell out of love with her.

Jane Seymour had the good fortune to be painted by Hans Holbein, her sole surviving portrait being a companion to one of the king now lost. Nevertheless, it gives even less of a clue to her real appearance than the likenesses of Anne Boleyn. Jane has always been portrayed as a gentle, undemanding, rather innocent young woman, the 'heaven' into which Henry VIII had come after the 'hell' of his marriage to Anne but there is another interpretation which sees her as every bit as manipulative as her predecessor, learning from Anne that to give in to the king too soon was to throw away the chance of a crown.

Anne, of course, was buried in the Tower, in what was said to be a chest for longbows, the king having forgotten to provide a coffin for her. Jane was buried in a temporary vault in the choir of St George's Chapel Windsor and the king was buried alongside her when he died in 1547. A magnificent tomb, taken over from Cardinal Wolsey, was in preparation in a separate building behind St George's. However, despite Henry's instructions in his will, this was never completed, its fittings being sold off during the Commonwealth and the black marble sarcophagus being used for Lord Nelson's burial in St Paul's in 1805.

Of the three remaining wives, Anne of Cleves was buried in Wesminster Abbey in 1557, Katherine Howard in the Tower, alongside her cousin Anne Boleyn, and Katherine Parr at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire. Like Jane Seymour Katherine Parr's death came about, not from childbirth, but from infection afterwards. Following Henry's death she had married Jane's younger brother Thomas, an ambitious and dangerous man who already had his eyes on an even greater match, the Priness Elizabeth. His marriage to Katherine had brought him status and wealth but marriage to Elizabeth might bring him the crown. David Starkey sees a connection between Elizabeth's future aversion to marriage and the sexually-charged romps that she had with Seymour whilst staying at Katherine Parr's house in 1548.

Again authentic likenesses are few. For Katherine Parr none that are undisputed and for Katherine Howard only attributions that are far too old and plain to represent Henry's 'rose without a thorn.' In the case of Anne of Cleves we have the very portrait that Holbein was sent to paint so that Henry could know what she looked like before he agreed to marry her. It was - famously - far too flattering. Henry's own nickname for her - 'his Flanders mare' - scarcely matches the demure young woman dressed in a very German fashion who looks out at us from Holbein's panel, but there is a hint of a chin too sharp and a nose too wide for Henry's taste.

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Edward VI

Edward, Henry's longed-for son, was painted throughout his short life. Holbein represented him first as a two-year old in a portrait presented to the king as a New Year's gift in 1539. Thereafter he was portrayed at regular intervals, portraits often being sent as gifts to other royal courts. By 1552, when the king was on the verge of adolescence, there is a conscious echo of the last pictures of his father - the same assertive pose, clearly suggesting a monarch ready to exercise real power. Alas, it all came to nothing when pneumonia set in after what seems to have begun as relatively mild chest infection. However, the image of the 'young Josiah' remained a powerful element in Protestant propaganda for many years to come.

Illustration: Edward VI (1537-1553)

Edward VI (1537-1553)

The longed-for son of Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour, Edward was not the frail child his early death suggests but a sturdy and self-confident teenager, on the verge of assuming full power when an ordinary chill turned to pulmonary pneumonia through the incompetence of his doctors. Passionate about the Protestant religion, Edward attempted to prevent the succession of his Catholic half-sister Mary by leaving the crown to his cousin Lady Jane Grey. Unfortunately his pathetic 'devys for the succession' did not have the force of parliamentary statute, unlike his father's will. The attempt of his loyal adviser, John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, to enforce it led to Mary's victory and Lady Jane's execution. Edward's diary provides a unique insight into the thoughts of a boy who was very ordinary in some ways yet always conscious of his high destiny.

Edward was buried, according to the Protestant rite, in Westminster Abbey, his coffin laid on the steps leading down into the vault where Henry VII and Elizabeth of York lie. No tomb was ever made for him and the location of his burial was lost until he was found by the famous Victorian Dean of Westminster, George Stanley, during a search for the coffin of James I. A silver plate on the outside of his lead coffin gave his name and titles.

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Mary I

Only one authentic likeness of Mary Tudor survives: that painted by the Dutch artist Hans Eworth shortly after her accession. Mary's forced submission to her father following his repudiation of her mother and the guilt it caused both show in her face. This is indeed the Bloody Mary of historical legend. Yet we must also remember that Mary showed considerable courage in facing down Sir Thomas Wyatt's rebellion aginst her intended marriage to Philip of Spain in 1554. She also got her way in returning England to the universal church, showing a sensible flexibility when it came to the question of returning church property. Her husband, though called king, never exercised any formal power and had to abandon his title when Mary died. Mary's 'blindspot' was her hatred of heretics and of Archbishop Cranmer in particular. Pursuing the old man to his death in spite of his offer to recant, made him a martyr whose example did more to defeat her efforts than any argument.

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Elizabeth I

This recollection of Queen Elizabeth was written by Sir John Clapham (born 1566) who was at court during the later part of her reign:

In her disposition and natural gifts of mind and body she matched or excelled all the princes of her time; as being of great spirit, yet tempered with moderation; in adversity never diverted; in prosperity, not altogether serene; affable to her subjects, but always with due regard to the greatness of her estate, by reason whereof she was both loved and feared. In her latter time, when she showed herself in public, she was always magnificent in apparrel, supposing haply thereby, that the eyes of her people, being dazzled with the glittering aspect of these accidental ornaments would not so easily discern the marks of age and decay... She suffered not at any time any suitor to depart discontented from her; and though, oftentimes he obtained not that he desired, yet he held himself satisfied with her manner of speech, which she gave hope of success in a second atempt. In granting offices she used many delays, but after long suit she gave them voluntarily. She was very rich in jewels, which were given her by her subjects; for in times of progress there was no person that entertained her in his house, but - besides his extraordinary charge in feasting her and her train - he bestowed a jewel upon her.

Illustration: Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

What did Elizabeth look like? A portrait of her as princess, aged about 15, shows a plain, rather reticent teenager with no hint of future greatness. As an adult Elizabeth sat for her portrait on very few occasions and only once did an artist dare to add any depth to the conventional outline. This was Isaac Oliver and the resulting pattern was never used. These drawings show Elizabeth at the start of her reign, (left) based on the nondescript work of Lavinia Teerlinc, and (right) at the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), based on the Oliver portrait. As with other monarchs, before and since, Elizabeth made much more impact in person. Her grace, charm, intelligence and dignity were described as unequalled, and her gift of bestowing a smile on even the humblest bystander was remembered long after by those fortunate enough to be so favoured.

This is the jewelled icon familiar from the later years of Elizabeth's reign. For a clue to what she looked like at its beginning we have a full length portrait at Windsor Castle, painted about 1546, when the princess was twelve. A formal portrait of her was made at the time of her coronation but the face is little more than an outline. Not until 1575 did an 'official' image of the Queen appear when an Italian artist called Zuccaro came to England specially to paint it. This is called the 'Darnley' portrait because it came into the hands of the Darnley family, descendants of an illegitimate son of James II, who lived at Cobham Hall in Kent.

For more than ten years the Darnley portrait provided a pattern for those who wanted to make a likeness of the queen. Following the victory over the Armada a new image was created by the Queen's sergeant-painter George Gower though it is unlikely that she sat for it. Nor is it likely that she posed for famous Ditchley portrait, painted to mark her visit to the Oxfordshire home of her chamberlain, Sir Henry Lee in 1592. There can be no doubt that the artist - a Fleming called Marcus Ghearaerts - was in the house during the queen's stay but he must have created his picture from memory as the face of the queen is too lined to have pleased her. Indeed, we can be fairly certain that she never saw it. When Gheeraerts's brother-in-law, the miniaturist Isaac Oliver, was granted a sitting later in the same year his sketch was firmly rejected because it showed the queen's age all too realistically. No official portraits were derived from it and any illicit versions were ordered to be destroyed.

What the queen wanted instead was a mirror of her achievements, emphasising her mythological existence as Gloriana, the Virgin Queen. The final portraits of her reign accurately depict the white mercuric oxide paste she used to create an illusion of timelessness. an ullusion which - according to legend - extended beyond the grave. When Elizabeth's corpse was prepared for burial its sunken features were filled in with wax. In death, as well as life, she hid behind a mask of eternal youth..

Apart from the human interest in knowing what a famous person looked like, why should the image of the monarch in Tudor times be so important? Firstly, with the Reformation, many religious images had been destroyed so that the king or queen's portrait filled this vacuum, providing a focus for loyalty and a sense of national identity, especially important when England was facing the threat from Spain. Secondly, monarchs exchanged images in the course of marriage negotiations and as keepsakes for the long years when members of the royal family lived apart. To hang a portrait emphasised kinship and connection, much as it does now. Royal portraits also conveyed power and prestige, usually through clothing and increasingly through symbolism - the portrait of Edward VI with his feet on the Pope being a most obvious example.

As we have seen however, the quality of the likeness achieved could be surprisingly poor and in some cases wholly misleading: it was not until the next century that painters like Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Velasquez could dare to show the human being beneath the trappings. Nonetheless there was a strong feeling that a person's features conveyed more than just their outside appearance. In Hamlet the prince forces his wretched mother to compare the portraits of his murdered father and her new husband, his usurping uncle...

Look here upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See what a grace was seated on this brow:
Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command...
This was your husband. Look you now what follows.
Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother..

No Tudor artist working with brushes could have matched the power of these images.

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