Facing up to the Tudors

A new exhibition at the Holburne Museum, The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics, features 25 famous Tudor portraits, bringing visitors face to face with the five Tudor monarchs and other significant figures of the period, from Sir Walter Raleigh to Thomas Cromwell. Here are some excerpts from the exhibition catalogue that paint a picture of why these portraits were such a powerful political tool for those who commissioned them.

The Tudors are a cultural phenomenon
For over 400 years since the death of Elizabeth I, the lives of the Tudor monarchs and their subjects have provided rich source material for historians, writers and artists. The period is filled with memorable characters: the six-times married king, the virgin queen, the ideal courtier, the spymaster, the explorer, the poet, the martyr. The stories of the central cast and their close social and familial networks can be followed down the generations…

At the same time, the Tudor dynasty presided over a period of seismic change in England and Wales, which fundamentally altered the structure of society and re-shaped the country’s relationship with the wider world. These two factors have encouraged subsequent generations to repeatedly return to re-examine and re-tell the stories of the Tudor period: the break with the Catholic Church in Rome and establishment of the Church of England; conflict with Spain, France and Scotland; the impact of migration triggered by religious persecution; the exploration and piracy that enabled imperial expansion and laid the foundations for trading companies that would bring unimagined wealth to the country; and the extraordinary development of the English language through poetry, drama and translation. All of these threads have been woven together over the centuries, building a cumulative storytelling power and securing the Tudors’ prominence in the popular imagination.

This position has been enhanced through portraiture. Theirs is the first English royal dynasty, court and society whose faces we can encounter on the walls of galleries, in historic houses and reproduced in the books that tell their stories, through both fact and fiction. That the lives of some of the most famous Tudors have proved so engaging is in part due to the fact that it is possible to satisfy our basic human curiosity as to what they looked like.

…Nonetheless, we have only a partial picture, for the majority of Tudor portraits that survive today present an elite social identity. Over the course of the 16th century, portraiture moved beyond being the exclusive preserve of the royal family and aristocracy in London to be commissioned by professionals and gentry families across the country. However, while the market for portraiture diversified, it was only the aristocracy and those with connections to institutions such as the universities and livery companies, whose portraits were likely to be maintained, and the sitter’s identity preserved, down the centuries. This poses a challenge. As consideration of who and how people contributed to Tudor life and culture expands beyond the people who ran the apparatus of the church and state, and the people who have been granted the spotlight by previous generations, the champions of other stories are not always able to rely on the power of portraiture to fire the historical imagination.

One of the greatest
…portraits of the Tudor period is lost, destroyed in the fire that consumed Whitehall Palace on 4 January 1698. Painted on a wall as part of the lavish development of the palace, the portrait was intended to overwhelm the viewer with the majesty of the second Tudor king. Henry VIII was depicted at full-length, standing square on and staring out at his subjects. While the king was undoubtedly the main focus, the portrait celebrated the Tudor dynasty and its future: Henry’s father stood behind him and on the other side of the composition stood his mother, Elizabeth of York, and Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour. At the time the portrait was conceived Jane was pregnant; Henry’s queen was key to the performance of his power. Following the break with the Catholic Church in Rome in order to secure his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, Henry had assumed the title of Supreme Head of the Church of England. It is therefore not surprising that the potency of the portrait of the king was immediately recognised. The preparatory cartoon for the mural was soon being used to create copies of Henry’s image, stamping his authority on spaces beyond the palace walls as a fitting demonstration of the way in which his temporal and spiritual power was, in the words of the French ambassador, making him ‘not only a King to be obeyed, but an icon to be worshipped’.

The German artist
… Hans Holbein the Younger had a meticulous approach to portraiture, which seems to bring us into the presence of the people who populated Henry VIII’s court, not only the royal family, the aristocracy and statesmen, but also religious leaders and intellectuals, merchants, and fellow members of the royal household.

The lives of these sitters reveal the opportunities for advancement offered by the court, and the danger of carving out a career under a capricious king who used the appetite for religious reform to seize more power than had been held by any other English monarch, and who demanded absolute loyalty. An anecdote recounted by Holbein’s first biographer, Karel van Mander, in the 17th century suggests that the king prized the artist’s skills, informing a shocked earl who had attempted to complain about Holbein that ‘I can make seven earls (if it pleased me) from seven peasants – but I could not make one Holbein, or so excellent an artist, out of seven earls’.

As Thomas More
… counselled a courtier in a poem: ‘You often boast to me that you have the king’s ear and often have fun with him … This is like having fun with tamed lions – often it is harmless, but just as often there is fear of harm. Often he roars in rage for no known reason, and suddenly the fun becomes fatal.’ Once the king’s most trusted advisor, More was beheaded on 6 July 1535, two weeks after Cardinal John Fisher, after both refused to take the Oath of Supremacy recognising Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. The execution of such prominent and revered figures sent shockwaves across Europe, and Holbein’s portraits of both came to serve as memorials that were copied repeatedly over the centuries. It was not only religious figures, both the ‘new men’ of Henry’s court and the aristocracy were vulnerable. Cromwell was executed on 28 July 1540, while the Duke of Norfolk was only spared execution by Henry’s death on 28 January 1547…

Elizabeth I’s singular
… approach to queenship is documented through her portraits – even though she occasionally needed to be persuaded to participate in their production. Her ambivalence could perhaps relate to the way in which the portraits of her predecessors, both as queen’s consort, and her sister as queen regnant, were so closely identified with marriage: the portraits of Jane Seymour that were created to pair with images of Henry VIII; the images of Anne of Cleves that were sent to England in advance of her arrival; and the counterpoint to these examples in the seemingly deliberate destruction of painted portraits of Anne Boleyn, of which only posthumous versions survive…

Of Henry’s queens, only Katherine Parr engaged in portraiture, commissioning works from a number of artists, and it is tempting to speculate as to whether her proactive self-presentation related to her attempt to secure the position of Governor during Edward VI’s minority. Mary I, by contrast, only briefly explored the possibilities of an iconography for a queen regnant. Once she had committed to marrying Philip II, her image was conceived in relation to his. This could be seen in the portrait commissioned from Philip’s court artist, Anthonis Mor, which was reproduced in order to be shared with his family and with other courts, and which portrayed Mary seated in the manner of her predecessors as Habsburg queens consort.

At first, Elizabeth
… continued to use portraiture as a pragmatic tool for marriage negotiations, but over time portraiture was freed to express new identities for the queen. As Elizabeth and her courtiers navigated her long reign, they used portraiture to place her into roles beyond that of wife and mother. In a court where performance permeated every aspect of life, drawing on classical sources, the Bible, encounters with other cultures through trade and exploration, and stories translated from across Europe, Elizabeth came to be revered not only as a queen, but as a goddess, an empress, and mother to the nation.

The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics is at the Holburne Museum until 8 May. holburne.org