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German Great Artist Hans Holbein - The Legend of Henry VIII

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 12:01 AM
An image for posterity, The archetypal image of Henry VIII was created in Holbein's dynastic portrait. The painting is destroyed, but part of the majestic cartoon survives. The formidable frontal pose was repeated in endless copies and variants.

The Legend of Henry VIII

Henry VIII inherited from his father a country that was prosperous and stable after decades of civil war. He made his own image a crucial factor in strengthening still further the power of the monarchy.

During the reign of King Henry VIII (1509-47), Englishmen had their first significant contacts with the Renaissance, the new outlook in life and art that had first appeared in Italy and was gradually spreading throughout Europe. Henry himself welcomed Renaissance artists such as Holbein and the Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, and patronised the 'New Learning' of scholar-writers such as the Dutchman Erasmus and England's own Sir Thomas More. In the early part of his reign Henry enjoyed playing the part of the ideal Renaissance monarch handsome, cultivated, extravagant, warlike, and above all the absolute monarch of his realm. With age, corpulence and ulcers, much of the King's glamour disappeared, but his mastery in the state had become greater than ever. Henry, the man of many wives and many executions, was the first 'Tudor despot'.

Henry was the second of the Tudor monarchs. His father, Henry VII (1457-1509), founded the dynasty by defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. This brought to an end the thirty-year Wars of the Roses, during which aristocratic factions had made and unmade kings with alarming frequency. Henry VII was not a colourful figure like his son and other descendants, but he commanded respect and succeeded in restoring royal authority. Astute, persistent, hardworking and a first-rate businessman, he made his nobles keep the peace and greatly enriched the royal coffers.

Domestic pleasures, This informal view shows the king playing the harp to his jester. Henry loved music, and tradition has it that he composed the famous song Greensleeves. Henry VIII was more erratic and lavish in his spending than his father, whose carefully accumulated fortune he soon frittered away. But he maintained the policy of strengthening the Crown, both practically and symbolically. Like his father, he employed 'new men' from outside the nobility men whose loyalty could be relied on, since they owed everything to him. At the same time, Henry made the court a magnet for the nobility, encouraging them to compete for decorative offices and signs of the king's favour, SO that they became psychologically dependent on him and spent less time on the estates which constituted their bases of power. Splendid ceremonies emphasized the special character of the king; and a small but significant fact Henry ceased to be addressed as 'Your Grace', like previous monarchs, and became the first to be called 'Your Majesty'.


Hampton Court, Cardinal Wolsey began this magnificent building in about 1515. Henry was angered at being outdone by one of his subjects, and Wolsey gave him the palace hoping to appease him.
Hampton Court became Henry's favourite residence and he lavished money on it. His additions included the majestic Great Hall and a court for the game of 'real tennis' (that is, 'royal tennis'), a forerunner of the modern game. The palace was the scene of two of his weddings (to Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr) and his son Edward was born there in 1537.

The minister who organized all this for Henry was Thomas Cromwell, another 'new man', the son of a brewer and blacksmith. He developed the Tudor administration into something that resembled a permanent and specialized civil service. Wales was integrated into the English system in the mid-1530s, and later on Henry promoted himself from 'Lord' to King of Ireland.

Centre of a dynasty, This window at Hampton Court shows Henry like a religious image. He is flanked by the coats of arms of his six wives and stands above those of three of his children.
But the king or his advisers knew that the drastic religious changes he had introduced when he separated England from the Church of Rome were bound to confuse and alienate many people. To counteract this, they launched a large-scale propaganda campaign in the 1530s that was clearly intended to reach all classes. Plays and pageants explained the changes, mocked the pope and played on popular anti-clericalism; there was even a mock-battle on the Thames between papal and royal barges which ended with the 'pope' and his 'cardinals' getting a good ducking. Lawyers and moralists published pamphlets and books that exploited the rising tide of nationalism, making loyalty to England and the king the supreme value. And efforts were made to raise the status of kingship even further.


Now head of the Church, Henry was presented as, in effect, a semi-divine being. When Holbein, normally so perceptive and realistic, was called on to paint the King's portrait, he represented him as a cold and fearful icon rather than a man; or, as a contemporary put it, 'not only a king to be obeyed, but an idol to be worshipped'. In another of Holbein's works a miniature Henry appears as Solomon under an inscription reading 'Blessed be the Lord thy God, which delighted in thee to set thee on his throne, to be King for the Lord thy God.' And, for more popular consumption, Henry was shown on the engraved titlepage of Cranmer's Great Bible, enthroned like a divinity while he distributed 'the word of God' and multitudes below shouted 'Vivat Rex'! (Long live the King!).

The king's minister, Cardinal Wolsey was the dominant figure in English government from 1515 to 1529. His failure to secure Henry's divorce sealed his downfall, and he died while under arrest. The royal idol also advertised his greatness by building on a large and lavish scale. Wolsey's suinptous houses at Hampton Court and York Place (later Whitehall) were taken over and expanded into great royal palaces, and in Surrey a palace with a fairytale skyline, Nonsuch, was built from scratch to rival the famous French Renaissance ch√Ęteau of Chambord. Nonsuch and York Place are now destroyed, but Henry's portions of Hampton Court remain among the glories of English architecture.


During Holbein's first visit to England (1526- 28), Henry was in his mid thirties but still had something of the playboy about him. Tall and powerfully built, he revelled in his athletic skills, and was also an accomplished musician. Effective power was exercised by Cardinal Wolsey, a 'new man' (reputedly the son of a butcher) who ran the government while the King jousted and hunted.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries, The monasteries were one of the great bulwarks of the papal system, so they represented a threat to Henry's authority after he had declared himself head of the English church. He appointed his chief minister Thomas Cromwell to carry out a programme of suppression and confiscation that left manly monasteries to fall into ruin. By the time Holbein returned in 1532, every-thing had changed. Wolsey was dead, and the king involved himself far more closely with policy. Wolsey was doomed mainly because he failed to obtain a divorce for the king. After many years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry had only a single child, the Princess Mary. This seemed to threaten the entire Tudor achievement, since everybody knew that no woman could govern properly, and that chaos, civil war or foreign occupation would inevitably result. (Of course Mary, and later Queen Elizabeth, were to show that 'everybody' was quite wrong).

Desperate for a male heir, Henry convinced himself that his marriage was invalid (for Catherine had been the wife of his dead brother), and put his case to Pope Clement VII. The situation was complicated by politics as well as theology (the Pope played for time, since he was a virtual prisoner of Catherine's nephew, the Emperor Charles V), and by Henry's love for Anne Boleyn,. who insisted that he prove it by marrying her. Eventually Henry took matters into his own hands, breaking with the Pope, making himself Supreme Head of the English Church, and marrying Anne.

The Tudor triumph, This allegorical painting shows Henry VIII on his deathbed handing over the succession to his son Edward VI. The pope lies crushed and beaten at young Edward's feet, symbolizing the Tudor triumph over Rome.
Ironically, then, the weakness in the Tudors' political system the succession brought about a series of events that tremendously enhanced the royal authority. In effect, Henry became pope as well as king; and the Royal Supremacy which excluded papal power from England also ended the independence of the English Church, whose courts at last became answerable to the civil power. Furthermore, the vast wealth of the medieval church restored the royal finances when Henry dissolved (that is, closed down and took over) the thousand or so English monasteries, confiscating their accumulated wealth and extensive lands.


Henry's reign was far from an unqualified success. He had six wives, executed two of them, and had still not produced a healthy male heir. When invasion threatened, possible claimants to the throne were removed by judicial murder. Ill-judged wars bankrupted the Crown, and tampering with the currency seriously damaged the economy. Yet Henry's propaganda campaign worked. We still see the King through Holbein's eyes, as a splendid, godlike figure; and the strengthened Tudor state bequeathed by Henry to his successors stood the test of revolutions and § counter-revolutions over the three turbulent a reigns that followed.

Writer – Marshall Cavendish

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