We instantly picture him in that swaggering pose, staring defiantly at the viewer, with his massive gut, preposterously wide shoulders and bulging codpiece. And this one image conjures up many associations: Henry the misogynist, the serial husband, the executor of wives; Henry the tyrant, savage and ruthless to his enemies, and some of his friends; Henry the strong, the willful, who had to have things his own way, so much so that he set up his own church to marry his mistress.
This instantly recognizable image of Henry was originally part of a huge mural showing Henry and his family: father Henry VII, mother Elizabeth of York, and third wife Jane Seymour. Hans Holbein painted it on the wall of the king’s privy chamber in Whitehall Palace in 1537.
One reason why it’s so familiar is that in the last years of Henry VIII’s life, and later in the sixteenth century, Henry’s portrayal in this mural was frequently reproduced, almost certainly commissioned by important courtiers to proclaim their loyalty to the king. These copies survive at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool; Petworth House, Chatsworth; Trinity College, Cambridge; and even at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.
Since then, it has also been repeatedly parodied and replicated. Charles Laughton used the famous stance to portray Henry in his 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII (the first English film to feature the king), and it has been a constant reference point for other filmmakers. (The only portrayal to eschew this image was the recent Showtime series, The Tudors, but their early marketing deliberately played on its absence: ‘You think you know a story, but you only know how it ends. To get to the heart of the story, you have to go back to the beginning.’)
The enduring power of this one image is so successful, in fact, that one might almost believe that it was intended to be remembered.
Well, it was. Not by us, perhaps, but by the people who mattered in Henry VIII’s England. Henry was not interested in mass propaganda, but he wanted this powerful and enormous image (the original mural was 9' by 12') to be seen by the most important individuals in the land.
Why? To associate Henry indelibly with power, virility and supremacy.
Power: Henry dominates the picture. Compared to the closed body language of his father, mother, and wife, Henry stares aggressively at the spectator. Standing at 6’ 2” when the average man was 5’ 7”, in this picture he has been made to appear even broader and taller than he actually was. His voluminous gown emphasises his enormous shoulders, whilst comparisons to his armour show that Holbein elongated Henry’s legs (rather like a model on the front cover of Vogue) to increase the viewer’s sense of intimidation. It worked. An observer in the early 17th century commented that the king seemed “so lifelike that the spectator felt abashed, annihilated in his presence.”
Virility: The two triangles formed by Henry’s improbably wide shoulders and splayed feet (which mimic a military pose) meet to focus the gaze on his oversized codpiece. The codpiece is impressively large compared to other portraits of the period, and protrudes from the skirts of his doublet in a contrasting colour to emphasise it further. Henry’s hands frame this area, and hold a dagger and glove suggestively. Henry VIII is bearded whilst his father remains clean-shaven. As the ability to grow facial hair was linked to the ability to produce semen, this is another clear signal of Henry’s claim to potency and virility.
Supremacy: Whilst Henry is the dominant figure, at the centre of the picture is a stone altar on which there is an inscription in Latin. It compares the achievements of Henry VII and Henry VIII, and praises the latter for putting down “the presumption of popes” and ”restoring true religion.” It is, in other words, a paean to Henry’s break away from the church of Rome and adoption of the position of Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1534. It asserts that Henry, as king, does have a right to decide the spiritual future of his kingdom and what his subjects should believe.
But why did Henry need these messages expressed in a portrait in 1537? The answer lies in the events of the previous year, 1536--a year of profound loss, humiliation, disappointment, and betrayal that would turn Henry from the breezy, affectionate, and charismatic man of his youth into the obese tyrant we all imagine.
A near-fatal fall from his horse whilst jousting in January 1536 left this great champion of the tiltyard injured, and plagued by constant and debilitating pain for the rest of his life. Unable to joust again, Henry lost an important source of his masculine pride, and the lack of exercise was the key to his later obesity (his waist measurement went from 37” to 54” in just five years).
Then four months later, Anne Boleyn, having suffered a devastating miscarriage in January, was “discovered” to have committed adultery with a number of the king’s men, including her brother, and the confession of a key defendant led to her rapid arrest, trial and execution on 19 May 1536. Adultery by a woman, in sixteenth-century thinking, meant her husband had a lack of sexual potency, and Anne’s brother sealed this in his trial, saying that Anne had told him that Henry was “not skilful in copulating with a woman,” and had neither “vigour nor potency.”
And to top it all, in October 1536, the largest peacetime rebellion in English history ignited in the north of England. 50,000 men took up arms against their king, protesting his assumption of the position of Supreme Head and the use of this power to dissolve the monasteries. Henry’s small army was no match for the rebels, and if it had to battle, Henry VIII might well have been deposed.
This portrait, painted the following year, was therefore designed to rewrite history. It was painted to be seen by the members of the court, those very people who had watched Henry fall from his horse, heard his virility defamed, and seen his very reign come under threat. It was intended to be an aggressive assertion of his masculinity, potency, and royal supremacy over the church.
In other words, it is no accident that our picture of Henry VIII suggests to us his power, appetite for women, and ruthless treatment of his enemies. If we remember Henry VIII like this, it is just as he would have wanted it.