Henry VIII

WAG 1350


This full length portrait of the English monarch King Henry VIII is derived from the Whitehall Mural, painted by Hans Holbein in 1537. It is one of the most recognisable images in the Walker Art Gallery’s collection. The mural depicted Henry VIII, Henry VII and their wives, Jane Seymour and Elizabeth of York respectively. It was painted onto the wall of one of the state rooms of Whitehall Palace. It was probably intended to serve as propaganda to reinforce the strength of the Tudor dynasty and Henry VIII’s total authority. It was destroyed in a fire at Whitehall Palace in 1698. The Walker portrait was produced by an unknown artist who was familiar with the Whitehall mural. The artist had access to the designs or patterns used by Holbein. Like the original mural, the Walker portrait conveys the immense power and authority of Henry VIII. This is achieved without traditional symbols of royalty such as a crown or sceptre, but instead through Henry VIII’s pose, facial expression and visible symbols of his immense wealth such as his costume and jewellery. Henry VIII’s fatness here is a sign of his power, with his barrel chest and his feet placed firmly apart. His hand hovers near his dagger and he fixes us with his cruel gaze. Today, it is easy to forget the absolute terror that such a portrait would have struck into the hearts of Henry VIII’s subjects. Henry had a reputation as a fierce and egotistical King who would execute at will anyone who stood in his way without trial. He had several of his closest advisors and friends beheaded, including Thomas Cromwell. When his wife Anne Boleyn suffered a miscarriage, he reacted by ordering her execution because he thought it stood in his way of producing a male heir. Henry was also known for making radical changes to English law and the constitution, in order to secure and expand his royal power. For example, in 1533 he passed a law in England called the Buggery Act, which prosecuted against acts of sodomy. This made homosexual acts illegal according to civil law in England for the first time. However, it is believed this law was introduced only in order to aid his desire to wrestle wealth and power from the Catholic Church. It allowed for the arrest and execution of monks, and hence the confiscation of their land and goods. Though few were convicted of this law in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, it reinforced existing homophobic attitudes in wider society. It served as the basis for future laws in England, introduced in the 19th century and in place until 1967, which did lead to the frequent prosecution and persecution of anyone thought to engage in homosexual activity. Moreover, the law was adopted by the original thirteen colonies. It therefore introduced the idea that homosexual acts should be punished by death into societies which had previously held very different social attitudes to same sex desire.