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History in paintings. King Henry VIII and his six wives

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Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived… This is the mnemonic device for English schoolchildren to remember the fates of six wives of King Henry VII. The history of the monarch, who changed the religion of an entire country to get an heir, is well known, because it inspired multiple generations of writers, composers and filmmakers. In movies, the images of the queens were embodied by such stars as Charlotte Rampling, Helena Bonham Carter, Claire Foy, Natalie Portman, Natalie Dormer and Emily Blunt. Selecting their performers, the directors focused on their talent, not much on their resemblance. Let’s see how these legendary women actually looked.

Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of Aragon was the youngest daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. She was named Catalina (or Catherine, in the English manner) in honour of her maternal great-grandmother. She arrived in England in 1501 at the age of 15 to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, but only a few months after the wedding, he passed away. In 1509, the Infanta became the wife of Arthur’s younger brother Henry VIII. They had five children, of whom only Princess Mary survived, who later became Queen Mary I of England. Catherine died in 1536, after she refused to recognize her marriage annulled in favour of the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533.
  • Maria Doyle Kennedy as Catherine of Aragon in The Tudors series
  • Charlotte Hope as Catherine of Aragon in the Spanish Princess mini-series
The National Portrait Gallery in London houses a portrait of the Queen, which was painted by an unknown artist in about 1520. Historians identified the model relatively recently, in 2013, and this picture was exhibited along with a portrait of Henry VIII, stored in the same gallery. Although initially these panels did not make a match, they have a comparable date of creation, scale and a similar green damask background. Probably, these were examples of portraits of the king and queen, painted in several versions, some of which were shown together.
  • Unknown artist, «King Henry VIII» (ca. 1520). National Portrait Gallery, London
  • Unknown artist, «Catherine of Aragon» (ca. 1520). National Portrait Gallery, London
The Catherine of Aragon, as the Magdalene by Michael Sittow, an Estonian artist, is also widely known. This work is stored in the Detroit Institute of Arts and represents the Infanta with a golden vessel in her hands. Catherine was to marry the King of England, and it seems that the artist wanted to emphasize her modesty and chastity in this way.
On the Internet, you can find another image of the same Sittow’s authorship, belonging to the Museum of the History of Art in Vienna. For a long time, it was considered a portrait of Catherine of Aragon, but recently a more reliable assumption has been put forward that this is an image of Maria Rose Tudor, sister of Henry VIII.

Anne Boleyn

She conquered the heart of Henry VIII, divided the church and became the Queen in 1533, shortly before the divorce of Henry and Catherine of Aragon. Later that year, their daughter, Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I), was born. By 1536, Henry was tired of Anne and, still desperate for an heir, began to doubt the legality of his marriage. In the same year, Boleyn was accused of adultery and incest and executed in the Tower of London.
Anne Boleyn performed (top to bottom, left to right) by Natalie Dormer, Claire Foy, Natalie Portman and Charlotte Rampling
After beheading the beauty queen, her images were destroyed. They deleted Anne from history so eagerly that only one damaged medallion with her lifetime portrait has survived to this day, which is stored in the British Museum.

Having ascended the throne, Elizabeth I revived the memory of her mother. The portrait closest to the original is considered to be the one at the National Portrait Gallery in London. This picture is probably an early copy of an unreserved image. They described Anne Boleyn as a woman with a long neck, large mouth and dark beautiful eyes. To restore this work, the gallery organized a campaign to raise funds and public donations.
Unknown artist. Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn
XVI century, 54.3×41.6 cm
In 2015, a facial recognition program by researchers from California found a close resemblance between the woman depicted on the medallion from the British Museum and the image stored in Bradford art galleries and museums. The picture from the Nidd Hall depicts a lady with jewels, who was considered Anne Boleyn for a long time. However, scientists did not come to a consensus about her personality. Some of them believe that this is the successor to Boleyn, Jane Seymour, the third wife of the King Henry.
Alleged portrait of Anne Boleyn from Nidd Hall. Source: The Independent

Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour was born in Wolfhall, in the south of England, about 1509. She was the sister of Edward Seymour, subsequently Duke of Somerset, and Thomas Seymour, Lord High Admiral. Henry VIII notive the girl when she was a maid of honour first of Catherine of Aragon, and then of Anne Boleyn. Jane married the king in May 1536, less than two weeks after the Anne’s execution, and in October 1537 she fulfilled Henry’s most secret desire — she gave birth to their son, who later became king Edward VI. 12 days after the birth of the boy, Jane died of a fever and was sincerely mourned by her husband, who ordered to bury him next to her in Windsor.
Annabelle Wallis as Jane Seymour in The Tudors series
The portrait of Hans Holbein the Younger, which is kept at the Vienna Museum of the History of Art, depicts no trace of this human drama. The painting captivates with brilliantly painted jewellery, pearls and expensive fabrics, which testify to the high rank of the model. She herself is cold and motionless, keeps the viewer at a distance, turning away from him. Obviously, Holbein created this image on the order of the King within the interval between the wedding and the early death of Jane (most likely the artist painted his similar portrait, which has not survived to this day).

The Queen’s image is based on a chalk drawing from the British Royal Collection. A trimmed copy of the portrait with minor changes to the costume and jewellery is a part of the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague. Despite the fact that the Holbein’s workshop made several versions of the picture, the virtuosity and mastery of this duplicate suggests that it belongs to the brush of Holbein himself.

  • Hans Holbein the Younger, «Portrait of Jane Seymour» (ca. 1536). Museum of Art History, Vienna
  • Hans Holbein the Younger, «Portrait of Jane Seymour» (ca. 1536). Royal Gallery of Mauritshuis, The Hague
In all these portraits, Seymour wears the "Tudor bonnet" or gable, unlike her predecessor Anne Boleyn, who preferred a more modern arcelet — a lightweight "French hood" in the shape of a heart or horseshoe.
Hans Holbein the Younger, the most famous representative of the glorious clan of artists, was the court painter of King Henry VIII.

Anne of Cleves

After the death of Jane, the king again became to search for a new wife (at that time, one son was not yet a firm guarantee of succession to the throne). However, in Europe, his reputation as a husband was tarnished, and he was refused one by one. The advisor Thomas Cromwell convinced the monarch of the need for an alliance with the Protestants and the advisability of marrying the daughter of Duke Johann III of Cleves. Hans Holbein was sent to his court with an order to paint a portrait of the bride. Henry saw it and was delighted. However, having met the girl in reality, the fat, sick 48-year-old king found that she looked like "a hefty Flemish mare", "she wasn’t sweet and smelled bad", and said that this prevented him from fulfilling his conjugal duty.
  • Joss Stone as Anne of Cleves in The Tudors series
  • Hans Holbein the Younger, «Portrait of Anne of Cleves» (1539). Louvre Museum, Paris
Their divorce followed six months after the wedding. Since Anne was resigned to this, she was granted several estates, considerable content and the unofficial title of "the beloved sister of the King". The failed wife enjoyed freedom unprecedented for women of that era, because she did not depend on anyone except Henry, with whom she maintained warm friendly relations. She even refused to remarry, although she was given the privilege of choosing any spouse. Anne of Cleves was invited to the monarch’s marriage with his last chosen one Katharina Parr, as a witness.

The notorious portrait by Holbein’s brush is now stored in the Paris Louvre. The German Princess is depicted in finely balanced regal colors — rich red and honey-gold against a green background. A close examination reveals that the artist did not flatter Anne of Cleves. Emphasizing her jewellery and clothes, he bluntly stated that he showed the model in the best possible way. She had an attractive face, but dull eyes, Holbein sought a balance between honesty and decency.
Historian David Starkey argues that there is no real evidence that Holbein’s portrait influenced Henry’s decision to marry Anne of Cleves. According to the expert, the king listened to the convictions of influential courtiers, and this explains the fact that the artist was not punished for monstrous disappointment.

Catherine Howard

Catherine Howard came from a very noble family and was a maid of honour of Anne of Cleves. By September 1539, she had attracted the King’s attention. They married on 28 July 1540. However, Catherine only was the Queen of England for 16 months; in November 1541, she became known to have cheated on Henry, and in February 1542 she was beheaded in front of a curious crowd.
  • Emily Blunt as Catherine Howard in the Henry VIII movie
  • Hans Holbein the Younger, «Portrait of a Lady, possibly Catherine Howard» (ca. 1540). Royal Collection, Windsor
There is no documentary evidence that the portrait of Catherine was painted during her life. However, historians do not exclude that this could be done during her short stay on the throne from July 1540 to November 1541 (Holbein managed to portray Jane Seymour, who reigned just as briefly). The British Royal Collection houses a medallion by the same Holbein, dated 1540. The already mentioned David Starkey identified the model as the queen on the grounds that she wore jewellery that belonged to her predecessors — the same necklace with ruby, emerald and pearls can be seen in the portrait of Jane Seymour. However, it is known that Queen Jane presented her jewellery to her maids of honour, one of which, Mary Montegle, could be depicted on the medallion.

Catherine Parr

The last wife of Henry VIII was unique. At the time of the marriage with the king, she had already been a widow twice; she had no royal or court background; she was smart enough and insightful to stay on the throne, despite the court plots and attempts to eliminate her. In 1545, Catherine Parr published her work "Prayers or Meditations", which made her not only the first English Queen to publish prose, but also the first woman to do so in the 16th century.
Joely Richardson as Catherine Parr in The Tudors series
Master John. Katherine Parr
1545, 180.3×94 cm
Unknown artist. Katherine Parr
XVI century, 63.5×50.8 cm
Portrait of Catherine Parr, end of the 16th century. Private collection
The iconography of Catherine Parr is of particular interest. It is ironic that only five confirmed images have survived to this day, although she was the main patron of portrait painters in Tudor England. Thus, she ordered the first full-length portraits of her stepdaughters Elizabeth and Mary, where she flatly wanted to emphasize their status as the heirs to the English crown, and more than a dozen of her own images. Now we can imagine the last wife of Henry after the miniature from Sudley Castle and two portraits from the National Portrait Gallery. Another one is kept in the Lambeth Palace and represents the young Catherine in the 1530s, and the fifth is a copy of Hans Eworth's painting from a private collection, it shows the queen at the end of her life.

Henry VIII passed away on 28 January 1547. Just four months later, Catherine Parr got married for the fourth time to Thomas Seymour, the brother of the King’s third wife. She died on 5 September 1548 from a fever, giving birth to her only daughter Mary.