Mail-order queen

Well aware of this increase in realism, Henry VIII decided to choose his fourth wife from her portrait. Traditionally, dynastic marriages were arranged between (often teenage or even pre-teen) parties who may never even have seen one another before the ceremony – they were pawns in power plays, and personal preference did not have much to do with it. Henry, however, in middle age, felt free to be choosy; he sent an artist to paint pictures of Europe’s most eligible young ladies.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

There were plenty to pick from; indeed, more than a dozen candidates were suggested, including Christina, Duchess of Milan, ‘the most beautiful woman in Flanders’, who had been married at thirteen and widowed at fourteen, and was said to be a widow and a maid. Her advisers, however, did not approve.

Christina of Denmark, Ducchess of Milan by Holbein

Christina of Denmark, Ducchess of Milan by Holbein

Then there were several women in the French court. Henry asked whether he could meet seven or eight of them at Calais, but was told firmly that ‘It is not the custom in France to send damsels of that rank and of such noble and princely families to be passed in review as if they were hackneys for sale.’ There was enormous Marie de Guise, as fat as Henry himself had become – his doublets and jackets had to be let out frequently in the late 1530s – but she was already betrothed.

And then there was Anne of Cleves, who intrigued him, partly, perhaps, because he hoped to get his hands on some alum. Anne was German; her brother William had the resonant titles of Duke of Juliers, Gelders, Cleves and Berg, Count of Marchia, Zuphania and of Ravensburg, and Lord in Ravenstein.

Betrothal portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1539 (watercolour of parchment)

Betrothal portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1539 (watercolour of parchment)

The picture of Anne that came back was so stylized that Henry could not tell what she really looked like; his counsellors complained that in the painting it was not possible to see her properly, from which most people assume that they were criticizing not only the ability of the artist but also her rather high neckline – in other words, they were not able to see enough of her! So he sent one of the finest artists of the day, his court artist Hans Holbein, to paint her again. Henry was in hurry and Holbein therefore painted a miniature that was quick and easy to send across Europe. In this miniature Henry thought she was stunningly attractive, and he was smitten. Within weeks he sent a proposal of marriage, and two days after Christmas 1539 she crossed the Channel from Calais with a retinue of 350 people, including 13 trumpeters.

Henry, having persuaded himself that this was to be his real love, rode romantically to meet her at Rochester Abbey on New Year’s day, and strode unannounced into her chamber. He was confronted by a tall, thin, plain woman, with a very long nose that had not been obvious in the face-front miniature. She wore stiff, old-fashioned German robes, had a though, determined expression and scarcely a word of English. ‘Marvellously astonished and abashed’, he forced himself to give her a peck on the cheek, and then left as quickly as he had come.

A miniature portrait  of Anne of Cleves

A miniature portrait
of Anne of Cleves

He tried to wriggle out of the marriage, asking the German envoys for evidence that her prior agreement to marry the son of the Duke of Lorraine had been properly revoked; but they had not brought the necessary papers and he could not put off the wedding. So he married Anne, but disliked her so much he called her ‘the Flanders mare’, and claimed that he was never able to consummate the marriage. Then he discovered that her previous betrothal had indeed been binding. This gave him an escape route, and his marriage to Anne was dissolved after only seven months, by which time he was already casing the scandal by his frequent meetings with Anne’s pretty little maid Catherine Howard.

In spite of Henry’s disastrous experience with Anne’s portrait, the idea of keeping miniature portraits of loved ones took root. The Tudors also revelled in big formal portraits, which were the pictures that made the most impression; they allowed ordinary people to have some idea of what the King looked like. Portraits of Henry VIII are far more realistic and revealing than even those of his father Henry VII. This revelation was exciting and also dangerous, and before long the possibility of manipulating the image emerged. Henry’s daughter Elizabeth drafted laws that prevented anyone from painting her without approval: ‘some special cunning paintor might be permitted by access to her majesty to take the natural representation of her majesty… he shall have first finished a portraiture thereof, after which finished, her majesty will be content that all other painters or gravors shall and may at her pleasures follow the said pattern.’

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) (panel) by Hilliard, Nicholas (1547-1619) (manner of) oil on panel

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I  by Hilliard, Nicholas (manner of)
oil on panel

Even authorized artists had to work from a handful of approved ‘patterns’, made by ‘pouncing’, which meant pricking holes in the outline on a paper pattern, laying it on a prepared board, and scattering carbon dust through the perforations. Then the dots could be joined up. She got the court artist, Nicholas Hilliard, to design a great seal in which she sits in heavenly majesty. The queen had effectively made her image into a logo, and she stamped it everywhere – on coins, in  Bibles, on paintings. No one was going to forget who was Queen. And still today the image maketh ma and woman – pictures speak more powerfully than words.

from ‘What the Tudors & Stuarts Did For Us’ by Adam Hart-Davis