Henry VIII: the impossible portrait

Posting about the Great Cameo, and its impossible image of stability within the Augustan succession, brought to mind this other impossible dynastic image.  The Hampton Court portrait of Henry VIII with his family represents the Tudor monarch as the head of a successful nuclear family.  He sits in the centre in majestic bulk, flanked by a younger edition of himself, and his dear wife.  The daughters, older, but by English law always lower than sons in the line of succession, stand dutifully one on each side.

Henry VIII and his family

This picture may have been commissioned by Henry about 1545 for his Royal Palace of Whitehall, but it now hangs suitable enough in the Haunted Gallery of Hampton Court Palace.  The Royal Collection has an interesting page about it.  Its function was to project Henry’s vision of his own stable family, for his own satisfaction and presumably to impress state visitors.  And yet the scene it represents is very misleading.

We start with the middle.  The whole painting glows with gold, but this section is extraordinarily rich, and surrounds the King with priceless objects proclaiming his royal lineage and power.


Central detail

Behind and above him is a black velvet canopy embroidered all over in gold thread.  It bears his initials and royal arms.  his feet are supported by a matching cushion placed on top of a rich carpet.  He himself wears cloth of gold and gold embroidered red.  His huge padded sleeves increase his breadth, turning his bulk into power and suggesting the huge shoulders of the athlete he had been in his youth.

On his left, at a lower level, but close under his arm, sits his beloved wife Jane, the mother of his son.  She is demure, but arrayed in cloth of gold and ermine.  Henry’s right hand rests on the shoulder of his son, Edward, who stands, as is appropriate in the presence of his royal father, but is gathered affectionately under his father’s arm and behind his knee.  His stance, features and costume (minus the gold) suggest that he is in every way his father’s son.  This closely gathered trio present a united front to the world – the males confront the viewer in full face, the Queen modestly tilts her head inwards to avoid the direct gaze.  Beneath their feet stretches an exquisite carpet.

Edward was born in 1537 to Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour who barely survived the Christening.  His age in the picture is one of the clues to its date, which is towards the end of Henry’s reign, conventionally 1545.  As the mother of the Prince and heir, Jane is is Henry’s eternal Queen in the picture, but she was long dead when it was painted.  She had never lived to sit by her husband while their son stood at his right hand.  And Henry had not kept her place vacant.  There had been Anne of Cleves (divorced) and Catherine Howard (executed).  In legend, Catherine’s screams for mercy haunt the Gallery where the portrait now hangs.  And finally, Henry married Catherine Parr, who was to survive him.  She, not Jane, was his Queen in 1545.

Standing on ornate tiles, not carpet, and separated from the central group by a colonnade, stand the two dutiful older daughters, Mary on Henry’s right, Elizabeth on his left.  They are dressed almost identically, but their height is used to indicate their age.  If this is 1545 Elizabeth is 12, and Mary 29.  The artist has smoothed out the age discrepancy and emphasised their physical resemblance.  They are not here as individuals, but as the royal daughters, included as a matter of course in the courtly scene.  But there was nothing matter of course about how they got there.

Just as the Great Cameo celebrated some development in the Augustan Succession, perhaps Tiberius adoption of Germanicus’ sons, or Claudius’ marriage to Agrippina, so this portrait puts into living form Henry’s Third Succession Act of 1543.  His son by Jane is his principal heir.  Then in order of age come his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.  Given usual rules of succession in the period, this looks like a very standard arrangement, but there was nothing standard about it in this case.

The Third Succession Act replaced two earlier acts; the Succession Acts of 1533 and 1536.  The First Succession Act of 1533 followed Henry’s annulment of the marriage to first wife Catherine of Aragon, his conversion of the national religion to Protestantism, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  In this Act, Henry repudiated Mary, the only surviving child of the marriage to Catherine of Aragon, as a bastard and disinherited her, in favour of the new born Elizabeth,  his child by Anne.  Mary was demoted from Princess to Lady, and spent three years attached to the court of her baby half-sister and separated from her mother who died in 1536.

But Catherine of Aragon wasn’t the only royal consort to die in 1536.  Anne Boleyn’s reign was over and, accused among other things of adultery and witchcraft, she was beheaded.  Now the Second Succession Act bastardised and disinherited Elizabeth too.  Henry had no named successor until his third marriage produced Edward in 1537.  At this point, Henry still hoped for more male heirs, but in 1543 he restored the girls to the line of succession.  Whatever he had said about them, he privately accepted that that were his biological daughters.

So finally this Tudor family were united in an image which dismissed all the unsatisfactory marriages and focused on Henry’s relations to his three children.  This was the next stage of the dynasty.

But, like Augustus, Henry’s manipulation of the succession had already produced the roots of serious complications.  Edward was too young to reign when his father died in 1547, and he was very ill, possibly with a congenital disease inherited from his father.  He did not live to marry.  Edward’s reign was dominated by his advisers, and characterised by Protestant religious intolerance.  It was a dangerous time for Mary and Elizabeth.  When he died in 1553, there was a brief Civil War between the supporters of Mary and the supporters of Jane Grey.  Why?

Mary, who had suffered so much at the time of the divorce, had clung to her Catholic faith.  This gave a Protestant faction the opportunity to try to replace her with a Protestant cousin, Jane Grey.  Mary triumphed easily, and set about replacing the intolerant Protestantism with intolerant Catholicism.  Her religion and her odd status as the King’s bastard had kept her unmarried – Henry should have learned from Augustus to focus on the grandchildren.  Now she married the King of Spain, Philip II, and hoped desperately for an heir.  The prospect of Philip’s son adding England to the Spanish Empire, and importing the Spanish Inquisition caused unrest in England.  Fearing a repeat of the Jane Grey rebellion, Philip urged Mary to execute Elizabeth if she would not convert, and Elizabeth ended up in the Tower of London.

Mary’s death without heirs in 1558 brought Elizabeth to the throne.  But her early life experiences may be responsible for her lifetime refusal to marry.  She had seen her mother executed, and then Catherine Howard, who had been a kind stepmother.  The legend is that, as Catherine fell, Elizabeth, aged 8, declared to her cousin Robert Dudley that she would never marry.  In Edward’s reign, living under the protection of the dowager Queen Catherine Parr,  the teenage Elizabeth was compromised by the advances of her stepfather, Thomas Seymour, who exploited his access to try to involve her in an affair, and, with luck, eventually a marriage.  His ambitions cost him his life and endangered Elizabeth’s.   Later, Elizabeth saw her half-sister Mary finally gain the throne only to give in to domination by Philip of Spain, who roused up her subjects against her and neglected her in private life.  In her adult life, she had ample opportunity of observing her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, lose her child and her kingdom through her marital disasters.  Elizabeth was not prepared to share power, even for the sake of producing an heir.  The Tudor dynasty died with her.


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