The face of Henry VII

henry7manuscript2I’m delivering a session on Henry VII tomorrow so this is by way of a warm up for me. I thought it would be quite interesting to look at the way we perceive Henry through his portraits. The one to the left of this paragraph shows a very young man receiving the book in which he is illuminated (Henry VII’s book of astrology).  It could be any medieval  monarch- apart from the fact that his robe is embroidered with roses – I’m not sure whether its the red rose of Lancaster or the Tudor rose.  It should be noted that the Yorkists and the Lancastrians did not make as much of the roses as history and novelists would perhaps like.  It was Henry Tudor who sought to use the red and white rose unified to weld together a new royal house through its symbolism.

According to the National Portrait Gallery there are sixty-four portraits in its collection of Henry Tudor – most of these are, of course, reproductions of a few images dating from the Tudor period.

Most of us, me included, think of the arched portrait of him in middle age against a backdrop of blue, leaning out of the frame holding a rose in one hand. There are several versions. There’s the version in the National Portrait Gallery by an unknown artist from the Netherlands copied from Michael Sittow which has him holding a Tudor Rose and wearing a collar for the Order of the Golden Fleece (founded by Philip of Burgundy. Henry was elected to the order in 1491). Michael Sittow was a Flemish painter who worked, largely, for the courts of the Hapsburgs and Isabella of Castille.  In that particular version of the portrait – which was destined for abroad rather than home Henry holds the Lancaster rose.


henryviiSittow painted other Tudors as well as Henry VII. There is a portrait in Vienna of a demure young girl. It is usually thought of as a youthful Katherine of Aragon following the death of Prince Arthur but in recent years it has been suggested that it might be Mary Tudor. Whoever the young girl might be the reason for the portrait is relatively straightforward – betrothal and marriage. It was a usual part of the diplomatic process of international marriage for portraits to be exchanged. Fitch Lytle dates the Sittow portrait to 1505 and a commission by Margaret of Austria when there were marriage plans in the air between Margaret and Henry (p135). The negotiations came to nothing but Margaret kept the portrait. It remained in her palace at Mecelen until her death in 1540.


The words that spring to mind are cautious and watchful. Note also the fur-lined robe embroidered with gold thread.  It actually looks remarkably like the robe from the first illustration in that there seems to be Tudor roses embroidered into the design.  The clearest one in the picture is to the right of Henry’s fingers.  Henry wanted his prospective bride to realise the King of England wasn’t a pauper. There’s also the rose. In the Sittow portrait it’s a red rose. Henry is a Lancastrian  after all- or else perhaps he was indicating that despite the fact that he’s a monarch in his middle years he’s still a passionate man; or possibly a martyred one! – a rose can mean many things in medieval/renaissance symbolism. In other copies – this one housed at the National Portrait Gallery for example- he is holding the red and white rose unified – and is much more straight forward to interpret.



The other portrait I immediately think of isn’t taken from life but copied from elsewhere by Hans Holbein for the Whitehall Mural which is a piece of political propaganda for Henry VIII created in 1537. Looking at the portrait of Henry VIII the viewer sees a powerful renaissance monarch. It disguises the fact that Henry had experienced a disastrous tilt yard accident the previous year that would leave his leg increasingly badly ulcerated; that his subjects in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Westmorland and Cumberland had risen up against him in the Pilgrimage of Grace (the citizens of the West Country hadn’t been frightfully well behaved either); and most importantly that he was having trouble producing a brood of healthy sons, Jane Seymour had died after giving birth to his only son. Yet if you look at the Whitehall Mural you see none of that.


In the mural Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, is overshadowed by his son. Henry VII is robed as befitting a king, medieval and stately- though possibly slightly chilly as he seems to twitch the robes more closely around him, but in the shadows. His son, dressed as a renaissance prince faces the viewer squarely in a dominant stance – a daring thing in a portrait of that time. It drives home the answer to the question that the inscription on the central plinth poses: ‘If it pleases you to see the illustrious images of heroes, look on these: no picture ever bore greater. The great debate, competition and great question is whether father or son is the victor. For both, indeed, were supreme’.  The answer quite definitely (in Henry VIII’s mind at least) is that Henry VII is outshone by his son. He may have founded the Tudor dynasty but Henry is majesty personified.


There are however at least three other contemporary (ish) images of the king as well as Polydore Vergil’s posthumous description of the monarch. Interestingly eye-colour and hair colour as well as general demeanour aren’t always in agreement. Polydore Vergil’s description comes from knowing Henry VII and being commissioned to write the Anglia Historia  in 1501 but wanting to please Henry VIII as the official history of England wasn’t published until 1534:

His body was slender but well built and strong; his height above the average. His appearance was remarkably attractive and his face was cheerful, especially when speaking; his eyes were small and blue, his teeth few, poor and blackish; his hair was thin and white; his complexion sallow. His spirit was distinguished, wise and prudent; his mind was brave and resolute and never, even at moments of the greatest danger, deserted him. He had a most pertinacious memory. Withal he was not devoid of scholarship. In government he was shrewd and prudent, so that no one dared to get the better of him through deceit or guile. He was gracious and kind and was as attentive to his visitors as he was easy of access. His hospitality was splendidly generous; he was fond of having foreigners at his court and he freely conferred favours of them. But those of his subjects who were indebted to him and who did not pay him due honour or who were generous only with promises, he treated with harsh severity. He well knew how to maintain his royal majesty and all which appertains to kingship at every time and in every place. He was most fortunate in war, although he was constitutionally more inclined to peace than to war. He cherished justice above all things; as a result he vigorously punished violence, manslaughter and every other kind of wickedness whatsoever. Consequently he was greatly regretted on that account by all his subjects, who had been able to conduct their lives peaceably, far removed from the assaults and evil doing of scoundrels. He was the most ardent supporter of our faith, and daily participated with great piety in religious services. To those whom he considered to be worthy priests, he often secretly gave alms so that they should pray for his salvation. He was particularly fond of those Franciscan friars whom they call Observants, for whom he founded many convents, so that with his help their rule should continually flourish in his kingdom, but all these virtues were obscured latterly only by avarice, from which…he suffered. This avarice is surely a bad enough vice in a private individual, whom it forever torments; in a monarch indeed it may be considered the worst vice, since it is harmful to everyone, and distorts those qualities of trustfulness, justice and integrity by which the state must be governed.

Polydore Vergil, The Anglia Historia


henry7deathmaskThe three images that spring to mind are Henry VII’s death mask for his funeral effigy; his bust by Torrigiano and the effigy on top of the vault where he is entombed in Westminster Abbey. Henry died 21st April 1509. He’d suffered from gout and asthma. The death mask, which is exactly what it says it is, was made to form part of the funeral effigy which would have lain on top of Henry’s casket when it was transported to Westminster for burial. The wooden image would have been dressed, and looked exactly, as Henry looked in life. Westminster has a slightly macabre but hugely interesting collection of these effigies. Henry looks careworn and, unsurprisingly, ill.


henry viit

By contrast the bust by Torrigiano (the chap who once broke Michelangelo’s nose) depicts a man clad in the fur lined gown and black Tudor style hat who looks as though he probably could win a battle if push came to shove.   Like his portrait’s there is something cool (and not in a modern slang sort of way) about the subject. He looks as though he is weighing up his options. Whatever it is that he’s looking at he doesn’t seem terribly approving but then king’s weren’t supposed to look merry or approachable – though being a shade more charismatic might perhaps have been helpful especially when you were a king trying to hold a country together in order to avoid another outbreak of civil war. It is thought that Torrigiano made use of Henry’s death mask and then knocked several years off. The bust which is made from painted terracotta is in the V & A.  This image comes from their website.

The bust was probably a preliminary to the gilt bronze tomb effigy. Incidentally Torrigiano wasn’t terribly impressed with the English. He described them as ‘bears’ and ‘beasts.’

Cooper, Tarnya. (2008)  A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits. London: National Portrait Gallery

Eds. Fitch Lytle, Guy and Orge, Stephen. (1982) Patronage in the Renaissance