The Whitehall mural

painting of royal family

Copied after Hans Hobein's Whitehall mural, Remigius van Leemput, 1667, oil on canvas, 88.9 x 98.7cm, © The Royal Collection, Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II

Henry VIII ‘inherited’ Whitehall Palace after Cardinal Wolsey’s death in 1529. He spent a considerable amount of money on it and it was regarded as the largest palace in Europe. It covered 23 acres and included extensive private lodgings.

It was here that Holbein created his largest and most important royal commission, the Whitehall mural, in which Henry was portrayed with his Queen Jane Seymour and his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Sadly the palace burned down on 4-5 January 1698 when a laundry maid left washing drying in front of an open fire. Holbein’s painting was lost forever.

Luckily, in 1667 the Flemish artist Remigius van Leemput (an assistant of Van Dyck) had produced a small copy of the great wall painting. It measured 88.9 x 98.7cm. This reduced version is now the only complete record of the mural painted in oil, which stood at an impressive 270 x 360cm. According to the copy’s inscription it was created at the command of Leemput’s royal master King Charles II.

No contract survives for the Whitehall mural, but it must have been commissioned in the short period between Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour in May 1536 and her death following a Caesarean childbirth in October 1537. The commission was possibly requested when she became pregnant. There is evidence to suggest that she was dead by the time the mural was completed.

There have been disagreements about why the painting was produced and who was meant to see it. Some believe that it was made for publicity purposes and to be seen by visitors. Others believe it was a private image, meant meant only to be seen by the king and his senior courtiers, whilst intimidating selected diplomatic visitors. But it was probably painted on a wall in Henry's Privy Chamber in Whitehall Palace.

The painting included Latin verses, directing praise at the two male rulers. However, Henry VIII’s historical role is explicitly ranked as higher than his father, Henry VII:

“The son, born indeed for greater tasks, from the altar
Removed the unworthy and put worthy men in their place”.

The inscription emphasizes Henry VIII’s defeat of his rebellious advisors and his supremacy over the Roman Catholic Church and papacy. His confrontational pose facing the viewer front on makes him seem more forceful and powerful than his father, even though Henry VII is higher up in the picture.

The mural has often been described as propaganda for the Tudor dynasty, extolled the virtues of two great kings, but Henry VIII clearly outshines his father in Holbein’s portrayal.

Those who saw it would have been in awe of the king. Henry VIII had a fierce reputation and the low position of the mural would have made the daunting figure terrifyingly close. 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”.

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Exhibition sponsor

Henry VIII Revealed was sponsored by BWD Rensburg Investment Management.