Henry VII and Henry VIII by Hans Holbein
This cartoon was the precursor to the mural at Whitehall Palace, depicting the beginnings of the Tudor dynasty. That mural included Elizabeth of York (wife of Henry VII) and Jane Seymour (third wife of Henry VIII and mother of his son, Edward VI). Practically every subsequent image of Henry VIII was taken from the Holbein mural. The major difference between the mural and the cartoon is that the cartoon has Henry at three quarter face, as per the European convention for monarchs, while the mural has Henry face-on to the viewer, a look which was deemed a little vulgar by the courts of Europe.
What I find fascinating about this image is that it is a magnificent piece of propaganda for a man who was past his glory days physically, who had become a tyrant, a spendthrift, and quite frankly a liability. In fact, it was about as untrue as the famously "sexed-up" portrait of Anne of Cleaves!
So, let's start with the codpiece! This is supposed to represent Henry VIII's virility, his masculinity and the security of the Tudor succession. The reality: he had two daughters, but who had been declared illegitimate, and no son. He was also 45 years old, and no longer the "the most handsome prince in Christendom."
His amazing, bull-like stance and his perfect calves were both intimidating and sexually potent. Yet, Henry was by this time a fat and fast on the way to becoming a semi-invalid. His legs were not in the rather beautiful condition depicted in the cartoon, but rather swollen from thrombosis and oozing pus.
The jewels on his costume are both large and manifold: a fantastic representation of the wealth of England and its King. But the fact was that Henry was a spendthrift who plundered the fortune his father, Henry VII had spend his reign amassing.
And now we come to the crux of the matter. This painting goes a long way to convince us that Henry VIII was a more potent, successful, powerful and virile man than his father, the miserly and unpopular Henry VII.
But it was Henry VII who had become the richest prince in Christendom, who has ended civil war rather than started it (as Henry did with the Reformation), who has systematically lifted England up from its broken state and made it powerful. And it was Henry VII who had made stunning dynastic marriages for his children (Arthur/Henry to Catherine of Aragon, Margaret to James IV of Scotland, Mary to Louis XII of France).
For all the sparkle, the glamour and the force of Henry VIII's image in this cartoon, he will forever be a pale shadow of a King in comparison to the achievements of the understated man behind him: his father, Henry VII.
Comments are closed.
Blogs & Sites
The Arts Desk