- Holbein’s art from Henry VIII’s court opens at the Queen’s Gallery today
- The artist documented the most turbulent period of Henry’s reign
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The Tudors are the most famous English dynasty of them all. Thanks to a plethora of blockbuster films and TV adaptations, Henry VIII and his six wives are as familiar to us as soap stars.
Less familiar is what the king and his half dozen consorts actually looked like. Thankfully Henry employed the German born Hans Holbein as the go-to artist to sketch and paint his wives, children and half the court.
A selection of real life ‘Wolf Hall’ sitters by Holbein and his contemporaries goes on display at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace this month, and is an ideal chance to compare the real Tudors with the celluloid ones.
Holbein was appointed the King’s Painter at an annual salary of £30 during the most turbulent period of Henry’s reign. (This was a modest salary for a man of his abilities even taking inflation into account – the equivalent of around £21,000 today.)
He had moved to England in 1532, the year before the king’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon. By the time the artist died in London eleven years later, the king was married to his sixth wife Katherine Parr.
Somehow, he managed to move seamlessly amongst the factions and intrigue at court, and never fell out of royal favour. It was he who painted the flattering portrait of Anne of Cleves, which drove Henry to make her his fourth wife.
Unfortunately, when his mail-order bride appeared in the flesh, he immediately realised he should have swiped left and declared ‘I like her not.’
As a result, Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Great Chamberlain, was given the chop for brokering the deal, but Henry never blamed Holbein.
It was Wife Number Two who gave Holbein his first commission. The exhibition includes a sketch of her wearing a furred gown and a plain linen cap.
The drawing is executed in black and coloured chalks and the end result doesn’t give the viewer a clue as to why Henry was so besotted with her. A description of her from 1532 by the new Venetian ambassador is similarly unflattering.
Anne, he wrote, was ‘not one of the handsomest women in the world. She is of middling stature, with a swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the King’s great appetite, and her eyes, which are black and beautiful.’
She was clearly nothing like the procession of stunning actresses who have portrayed her on screen from Vanessa Redgrave to Natalie Dormer.
Four years later Holbein sketched Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, and once again fails to flatter the sitter, giving her a prim expression and the ‘proud and haughty’ look noted by Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador.
Chapuys also wrote she was ‘of middle statue and no great beauty, so fair that one would call her rather pale than otherwise.’
Jane gave birth to Henry’s much-anticipated male heir, the future Edward VI. The king commissioned Holbein to produce an enormous dynastic mural featuring the proud parents alongside Henry’s own mother and father, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.
The result was the defining image of Henry VIII, tall, arrogant, full-face and with feet firmly apart, that we are so used to seeing in the many film portrayals. The Nicholas Hilliard miniature in the exhibition is copied from Holbein’s portrait.
It is generally assumed that another Holbein miniature of a Tudor lady is Henry’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard. This identification is based on the large ruby, emerald and pearl jewel which is identical to the one in his portrait of Jane Seymour.
Holbein sketched Prince Edward for a portrait he presented to the king as a New Year’s gift on 1 January 1539.
It is fascinating to think that when he succeeded to the throne as Edward VI following Henry’s death, the young king owned the book of Holbein’s portrait drawings including this image and the one of his mother.
For over a century the book had various owner’s both royal and non-royal until in 1675 it was again acquired for the Royal Collection by Charles II.
Edward’s successor Mary I also appears in the exhibition in a half-length sketch by Holbein which shows the princess wearing a fashionable English hood as well as a necklace and pendant.
Holbein painted many of Henry’s chief courtiers including Sir Thomas More, who commissioned the artist to paint a family group of More with his wife and children. The statesman became Holbein’s first English patron thanks to a letter of introduction from the Dutch humanist scholar Erasmus.
Other Tudor courtiers featured in the exhibition include the powerful noble, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk (1473-1554), uncle to both Anne Boleyn and to Katherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife.
He was godfather to Prince Edward and married his daughter Mary to Henry’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond. His son and heir was Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Father and son were arrested for plotting to take control of the country during Henry VIII’s final illness.
Unfortunately for Surrey, the king was just well enough to sign a death warrant and the earl was executed on 19 January 1547, nine days before his monarch expired. Another Holbein subject who was a victim of Henry’s wrath was John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and a supporter of the king’s first wife Katherine of Aragon.
In the topsy turvy world of Tudor politics he was executed for high treason the same year he became a cardinal.
Two final ‘Wolf Hall’ sketches, are of the poet and ambassador of Sir Thomas Wyatt.
Despite being imprisoned for allegedly committing adultery with Anne Boleyn, he managed to avoid execution. Five years later he was again arrested for treason and this time was freed due to the intervention of Queen Catherine Howard. When he died the following year, aged 39, his head was still surprisingly intact.
One career diplomat who not only survived but thrived was Ralph Sadler, secretary to Thomas Cromwell, but who went on to serve as a Privy Councillor, Secretary of State, and ambassador to Scotland.
He also prospered during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I. One of the main characters in ‘Wolf Hall’ and other fictionalised accounts of Tudor life, when he died in March 1587, he was not only in his 80th year but was also said to be ‘the richest commoner in England.’
- Holbein at the Tudor Court is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace from November 10