Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Royal Image: Alison Weir on the Portraits of Henry VIII’s Wives

Jane Seymour

One of the glories of living in London is that you get to live next door to some of the most talented people in the world. One such person is Alison Weir, biographer extraordinaire of the Tudor monarchy and author of a dozen books on the subject. She lives not far away from me, here in the far suburbs of South London, and occasionally gives talks at the excellent central library in our borough. I attended one her talks this week on the portraits of Henry VIII’s six queens, a sold out event that had to be booked twice because of the huge local demand.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

                                                Dates of Marriage

1. Catherine of Aragon    1509-1533              Divorced
2. Anne Boleyn                   1533-1536              Beheaded
3. Jane Seymour                1536-1537              Died
4. Anne of Cleves               1540                        Divorced
5. Catherine Howard        1540-1541             Beheaded
6. Catherine Parr               1543-1547              Survived

The subject was outstandingly researched, as you would expect from Alison, and contained wonderful nuggets of information. For example, I never realized that some of the most famous portraits of Tudor Queens, like Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour (above), are held by foreign museums in Vienna and The Hague. Or that so many portraits we have today of Tudor women are actually copies made decades or even centuries after those women died. In particular, it turns out that the famous portrait of Catherine of Aragon held by the National Portrait Gallery here in London is thought to date no further back than the 18th century! (though it is based on an older true likeness.)

Some of Alison Weir’s royal output.
Alison spent years studying the subject and she guided the audience through the pitfalls of recognizing true portraits from false ones—a potential minefield since there are dozens of false portraits of Tudor Queens in existence, some of which, she said, pop up persistently on the internet as legitimate likenesses. She also pointed out what are likely to be true likenesses, and for Catherine of Aragon it turned out to be a small portrait by Lucas Horenbout where she is shown with a monkey, and on which so many later portraits were based (below). Catherine Howard’s best likeness was likely painted by court painter Hans Holbein, with the best specimen now residing in the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio (of all the foreign places!).

This miniature of Catherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout, painted from life, is said to be the most faithful representation of Catherine in existence. The monkey didn’t come out too bad either.
Holbein, as the official visual recorder of Henry VIII’s court, also painted the best likeness of Jane Seymour (above), which was subsequently included in the famous mural he painted in the palace of Whitehall, lost when the palace burned down in 1698. Alison brought the power of this mural truly to life by describing how it was sited right behind the throne in the main audience chamber, and how some people, like foreign ambassadors, were cowed by the huge awesome presence of Henry VIII, Henry VII and their wives, standing guard around the live monarch sitting below them.

Hans Holbein’s Whitehall mural, the grandest royal painting
England has ever seen. Unfortunately, it burned down along with
the rest of Whitehall Palace during William III’s reign.
This copy from 1667 comes from the Royal Collection.

On the subject of Holbein and true likenesses, Alison had some interesting comments on the famous miniature Holbein painted of Anne of Cleves which convinced Henry to marry her but that later turned out to be a misleading portrait (or so the legend says). Alison pointed out that interestingly the miniature has Anne facing forward, an unusual pose since Holbein’s portraits of Tudor women usually show them facing to the sides. Apparently this was done to mask some of Anne’s facial imperfections which were far more obvious in profile or three quarters, like her long, slightly grotesque nose according to a portrait by another artist (below). In other words, Sir Holbein was no more guilty of false portraiture than clever photographers shooting people from the best angles.   

What a difference a portrait makes. Hans Holbein’s miniature
of Anne of Cleves, on the left, cleverly masked some
of Anne’s less appealing features—on the right—like her long nose,
pointy chin and droopy eyes.

Alison spent quite a bit of time on Catherine Parr, as her portraits show the greatest variety of likenesses of any Tudor Queen. Catherine’s images are so wide-ranging in fact that several portraits of her were for years believed to be of Lady Jane Grey, though how that could be is hard to understand as Alison cleverly pointed out: Lady Jane was a discredited Queen who only ‘reigned’ for nine days so there would have been neither interest nor rationale to have many portraits of her. Alison showed us wildly different portraits (see below) which, incredible as it may seem, all portray the same woman, and can all be authenticated by several key features like specific royal jewels worn. Alison herself recently identified a new portrait of Catherine Parr which had hitherto been held to be of Elizabeth I. Personally, I found it interesting that the one Queen among Henry’s wives with the greatest variety of faces is the Queen who bore the greatest variety of names. Catherine was born Parr, then was known through her marriages as Lady Burgh, Lady Latymer, the Queen, and Lady Seymour.

Catherine the Chameleon: some of the wildly different faces of Catherine Parr.
 Perhaps she was just hard to capture in paint.
The image on the bottom right, previously thought to be Elizabeth I, has now been identified by Alison Weir as another portrait of Catherine.
But by far the most interesting part of Alison’s talk was about Anne Boleyn, who still remains Tudor hero No.1 in Alison’s heart even after decades of study and research. She described how she became captivated as a teenager by Anne’s famous portrait in London’s National Portrait Gallery which for her still remains the best representation of Anne (below). Showing her much celebrated dark eyes and small neck (which Anne joked would make it easier to cut) as well as rich Tudor clothes and personalized jewels, Alison declared that this is the one portrait that best captures the essence of this Queen. 

Anne Boleyn’s most famous portrait, owned by London’s National Portrait Gallery, was painted during Elizabeth I’s reign but it still captured that explosive combination of coquettishness and charisma that was Anne. Note the captivating ‘B’ pendant dangling above her cleavage.

Nevertheless, this is a copy painted many years after her death and it is frustrating that no contemporary portraits of Anne Boleyn have survived to our time, except for a small medal from 1536 showing a very stylized and much disfigured image. I always assumed that the reason why no contemporary portraits of her survive was because Henry VIII ordered that they be all destroyed, but when I asked Alison about that at the end of the talk she said that the explanation might be simpler than that: after Anne’s fall her images were all taken down to conform with Henry’s wish that her name not be spoken again, and her portraits were probably stored away to rot or painted over with images of new favorites at court.

What saved Anne’s image from completely disappearing from the record was the accession of her daughter to the throne in 1558. The memory of Anne was greatly rehabilitated during the reign of Elizabeth I, something the Queen herself encouraged, and this produced a swathe of portraits which were based on original likenesses, including the famous National Portrait Gallery painting. As Elizabeth became a model monarch and English Protestant hero, people refused to believe that she had been spawned from someone accused to be a witch. The daughter of the royal defender of true faith, some writers said, must have been born of the “elect of God”! And there was no mistaking Elizabeth being Anne’s daughter physically: Alison showed a portrait of Elizabeth superimposed on Anne’s face that marked the striking resemblance between the two women, especially in their dark eyes and lean angular faces.

Like mother like daughter: There is no mistaking whose daughter Elizabeth I was.

The relationship between Elizabeth and her dead mother is one of the most intriguing and complex in all of British history and it certainly shaped Elizabeth’s view of marriage, but we just don’t know what Elizabeth’s real feelings about it were as she kept most famously silent on the subject. There is no doubt however that Elizabeth cherished the memory of her mother, once even going as far as asking the King of France to suppress a scurrilous publication on Anne Boleyn circulating in that foreign country.

While she was talking on this subject Alison revealed what I thought was the most fascinating information of her whole talk. Apparently Elizabeth commissioned a ring in 1575 bearing minuscule miniatures of herself and her mother which she never took off her finger for the rest of her life (see below). This, Alison said, was the famous ring that was taken to Scotland upon Elizabeth’s death to guarantee to James VI that she had died and that he was now King of England.
This was fascinating to me because I always thought that the ring in question had been her coronation ring, which legend said had to be filed off her finger because the skin had grown around it. Simon Schama certainly made great emphasis of this in his History of Britain documentary, Part 7. It would be just like Alison Weir to sort out fact from fiction and discover that the truth is far more romantic that it had been supposed. But I’ll have to reserve my judgment on this till I research the matter myself, if only because the Simon Schama version is just too perfect to give up without a fight!

With this ring, I thee wed. Alison Weir says when Elizabeth I died this was the ring that was taken to James VI as a token of the new marriage between England and Scotland. It is currently kept away from the public at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence in Kent, though it is occasionally brought out for special exhibitions.

At the end of her talk Alison mentioned that this fascinating 1-hr presentation was just a brief overview, the tip of the iceberg on a subject she has researched for 40 years. I know from past reading that Alison has far more research on the Tudor monarchy stashed away than she has time to write books about it, but I can’t help salivating at the idea of a Weir compendium on Royal Tudor Portraiture, revealing the secrets and meanings behind the images of our most famous kings and queens. What an eye opener that book would be…

Visit Alison Weir’s website to learn more about her work and upcoming talks in Britain and beyond, and her Amazon page to buy her books.

Alison Weir: portrait of one more Tudor Queen.


  1. Hello Alex,

    I have just finished reading and responding to your lovely comment on the Being Bess blog, so I decided to pop over for a visit!

    Thank you for sharing this link! I envy you for living close enough to Ms. Weir that you can attend her lectures.

    Naturally, I found Weir's stance on the Chequers ring to be of great interest (it occupies a portion of my article, "Death Could Not Separate Them: How Elizabeth I Connected to Her Deceased Mother".

    Have you read her biography on Mary Boleyn? An appendix to the biography is on the problematic identification of the most famous portrait of Mary Boleyn; it is a fascinating study on the difficulties of conclusively assigning identities to Tudor portraits (which are ever-changing, like with the recent Katherine Parr/Catherine of Aragon portrait). I will say that agree with the conclusions she reaches in her appendix on the supposed Mary Boleyn portrait.

    I have added you to my blogroll, as well, and I look forward to a continued friendship between our two sights!

    Semper Eadem,

    Ashlie of "BeingBess" blog

    "BeingBess" is dedicated to celebrating the life of Elizabeth Tudor (1533-1603) and the legacy of her reign as Queen of England (1558-1603).

    1. Hi Ashlie!

      Thanks for popping by and leaving a comment. Yes, I do feel lucky living in London, close to so many royal authors and so many other things royal. Alison Weir is actually giving another talk at our library next month on Richard III and I will attend that also and write about it. I think she is also going to give a talk on her new Elizabeth of York book sometime in March.

      Thanks for the link below, it is very useful as I am putting together a Flick site on painted portraits of the English Monarchs. I am starting with the Tudors at the moment (I am just finishing Henry VIII) and will definitely use this interesting portrait of Elizabeth.

      I look forward to chat again. Among the future monarchy projects I have planned for this blog is a campaign to have an official Elizabeth I Memorial statue here in London. Can you believe that there is no such thing yet for Britain's greatest monarch?!

      Thanks again and keep up the good work,


  2. P.S. Also, you may be interested in this recent art news concerning the royal image of Queen Elizabeth I