Court and politics

painting of Henry VIII

Unknown, painted between 1537- 1557? oil on 5 oak panels, 238.3 x 122.1cm, Petworth House, The Egremont Collection

Hans Holbein the Younger’s rise as a court painter to Henry VIII coincided with a number of significant national events that came to define the king’s rule. The painter returned to England in 1532 at the beginning of one of the most dramatic decades in English history.

In 1531 the king separated from his Queen, Katherine of Aragon. During 1533, when Holbein was busy painting his innovative portrait ‘French Ambassadors’, Henry married Anne Boleyn, proclaiming her Queen, even though the Pope had refused to acknowledge his divorce from Katherine, and proceeded to excommunicate the king.

In November 1534 Henry established himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England under a new law called the Act of Supremacy. This meant that matters of religion would be the responsibility of the sovereign, who would be regarded as God’s deputy on earth.

By May 1535 the king was ordering the execution of those refusing to swear the oath of loyalty to the Act of Succession. The Act was created to change the line of succession from Katherine’s daughter, Princess Mary to Anne Boleyn’s daughter , Elizabeth.

During the summer of 1535, Henry and Anne took a tour of the West Country to promote the recent religious reforms. They visited Sir John Seymour at Wulfhall, Wiltshire and it seems likely that Henry began his affair with John’s daughter, Jane at this time. Anne had already argued with Henry’s chief adviser Thomas Cromwell. Although Jane was not considered particularly accomplished or pretty, she may have appealed to Henry as contrast to the feisty Anne. Jane was demure, discreet and subservient, taking as her motto, “Bound to Obey and Serve”.

In 1536 Henry’s affairs took a nasty turn. During a tournament in Greenwich, Henry fell and his armoured horse landed on top of him, leaving him unconscious for two hours. He was in his mid-forties and was still in fair shape, measuring 37 inches around the waist and 45 inches across the chest. However, in the years following the accident he became less active and by 1540 had ballooned to a staggering 54-inch waist and 57-inch chest. It is possible the fall aggravated the leg ulcers and varicose veins that he had suffered since the 1520s. It may also have deepened Henry’s growing concerns about his lack of a male heir.

Five days after Henry’s jousting fall, his first wife Katherine of Aragon died and his second wife Anne Boleyn went into premature labour, losing the baby boy she was carrying. This loss marked the beginning of Jane Seymour’s rise. By March her eldest brother Edward was knighted and appointed a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber.

On 19 May 1536 Anne Boleyn was executed. The following day the king was betrothed to Jane and they were married on 30 May. She was declared Queen on 4 June and Edward was made Viscount Beauchamp.

From the spring of 1537 onwards, Holbein worked on Henry’s Whitehall mural. The painting was a concerted effort to create a popular image of the king following his break from Rome. The uncertainty and changes in political and religious allegiances that Henry created during the 1530s, had given his contemporaries a less than flattering view of him.

The French ambassador Charles de Marillac said that Henry was tainted by three vices; “distrust and fear”, “lightness and inconsistency” and that he was “so covetous that all the riches of the world would not satisfy him”. As Catholics, the French ambassadors might be considered biased, but Lutheran supporters were equally damning. Luther himself is reported to have said “Squire Harry meant to be God and do as pleased only himself”.

Holbein portrayed Henry as commanding, resolute and assertive, emphasising his wide shoulders and strong face. This powerful image was precisely what was required to convey the king as God’s deputy on earth – an image that endures to the present day.


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Exhibition sponsor

Henry VIII Revealed was sponsored by BWD Rensburg Investment Management.