How we know the Movers & Shakers of Tudor Society

How does a 21st century audience recognise the shakers and movers of Tudor society? Clearly those historians who immerse themselves in documents will have a feel for the way they believe these men and women thought.   Combine that with the use of the portrait as a propoganda tool and suddenly these influential people are no longer faceless names accessible only through the analysis of dry documents.

So why did the stand alone large portrait become so popular at the beginning of the 1500s? The first man to use his self-portrait to promote his work was the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).

Albrecht Durer self portrait c1500

Far from being an arrogant statement that he was as influential as Christ, as this might look like to a modern audience, Dürer is actually saying that only God could have given him such incredible artistic talents. Despite his amazing ability to render a two dimensional image with such reality that no one would be surprised if he spoke.  This portrait marks a turning point in the art of portraiture and Dürer was well aware of the propaganda and public relations value of the portrait. What better way of demonstrating just how good you are than by having a self portrait for a prospective client to compare with the living artist.

In England, the portrait was not something in the royal arsenal of public relation weaponry. It was another European, this time a scholar, who was to introduce the man who would transform the English art world. This man was Erasmus of Rotterdam whose portrait was painted and delivered to Sir Thomas More in the mid 1520s by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543).

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Desiderus Erasmus of Rotterdam c 1525.  Hans Holbein; National Gallery, London.

This particular portrait is on the walls of the National Gallery, London on loan from Longford Castle and is thought to be the one that was the gift to Sir Thomas.

The Protestant Reformation was brought about by the writings of Luther, Erasmus, John Calvin, Huldrick Zwingli and many more philosophers. The resulting wars of religion meant it was impossible for an artist to make a living in Germany, or anywhere that embraced the reformed concept of Christianity, which is possibly why Erasmus gave Holbein letters of introduction to his friend Sir Thomas More who immediately commissioned his own portrait from the young artist.

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Sir Thomas More: Hans Holbein. Frick Collection, New York. 

What I find puzzling is why one of the two most important men in England did not introduce this new artistic talent to his king. We know from surviving sketches that More commissioned a group family portrait from Holbein and the original painting eventually ended up in a European collection that was unfortunately destroyed by fire a couple of hundred years later. The Holbein sketch survives and towards the end of the century, Rowland Lockey used it to create his own version of this group portrait. Unlike Erasmus, who used his portrait to market himself, More appears to have used the portrait as a way of immortalising himself and his family and not realised how a portrait would be a great propoganda tool. The portrait of the tired Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that now forms part of the Frick Collection in New York, is a statement of his ceaseless work on behalf of his king. The realm at this time was steered by Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. The King’s Great Matter and divorce was yet to happen. That the portrait of More survived is probably because it was hidden away from public view even before Sir Thomas fell from grace.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey d1530. A copy 1589-95 of a 1520 painting. Anon. NPG 32.

It would be surprising if Cardinal Wolsey had not taken avantage of Holbein’s talent and had his portrait painted to celebrate the founding of his school and Oxford college. Unfortunately the only surviving portrait of the Cardinal is a rather wooden portrayal of a portly man in profile. This is a copy of an original painting done c 1520. This was done between 1589-95 of and forms part of the primary collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London. (Ref. NPG32). Wolsey holds his staff of office, which is a prominent feature of the marginalia of the Wolsey lectionaries – surviving illuminated manuscripts created for the cardinal and treasures of Magdalen College and Christ Church College, Oxford.

One member of the court who took advantage of Holbein’s talent was Sir Henry Guildford, Henry VIII’s Master of Horse and Comptroller of the Household. Guildford’s portrait is in the Royal Collection and hangs in the drawing room at Windsor Castle. Sir Henry also had his wife painted as the pendant to his own, but her portrait now hangs in St Louis Art Museum, USA.

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Sir Henry Guildford. Hans Holbein the Younger. The Royal Collection.

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Lady Mary Guildford. Hans Holbein the Younger. St Louis Art Museum, USA.

The Royal Collection has many Holbein sketches created as preliminary drawings of royal courtiers, but not all the final paintings survive. The sketch for Lady Mary survives and instead of the dour faced woman, who patently could turn milk sour with a glance, we see someone who is full of joie de vivre and could easily burst into giggles at any moment.

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Holbein’s sketch of Lady Mary Guildford. The Royal Collection.

Her husband, Henry Guildford was in charge of the festivities to celebrate the signing of the 1527 Treaty with Francis I of France and employed Holbein as the decorator for the temporary banqueting hall at Greenwich where the entertainments were to be held. Therefore, during his first trip to England the German artist was already adorning the Henrician court with temporary artistic marvels even though he had yet to come to the notice of the king as a painter of significant portraits.

However that might be because Henry VIII had other distractions, and it is possible that Mistress Anne Boleyn had her portrait painted by Holbein, but no such portrait survives. Like Cardinal Wolsey who had also fallen from grace, we know from the royal accounts that any visual reference to both Wolsey and Queen Anne were to be removed from the royal palaces in 1536 therefore any portrait hanging on a royal wall would have ended up on a bonfire. There is a Holbein sketch in the Royal Collection that Sir John Cheke identified as being of Anne and a copy of this hangs in Henry VIII’s bedroom at Hever Castle. Since Sir John would have been familiar with Anne’s visage, it is unlikely that he would have mistaken this sketch for someone else. This is such an intimate image of a woman wearing what appears to be a night cap, I have always thought that perhaps Holbein was inside the Tower and sketched Anne’s portrait as a memorial to her last moments on this earth. Whether this was because Henry wanted to have a witness that she had been executed, or if it were at Thomas Cromwell’s behest I have yet to resolve. Perhaps this would be best done as a short story.

The Frick Collection in New York has placed what is now accepted as Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell painted sometime in the early 1530s exactly opposite the portrait of Sir Thomas More.

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Thomas Cromwell. Hans Holbein the Younger. The Frick Collection, New York.

Cromwell’s stern and forbidding expression creates a sense of foreboding: just who is he thinking about? What is he plotting? Whose name is written on that piece of paper he holds in his hand.

Anyone who has seen Wolf Hall will recognise that the makers of the series clearly studied the ring visible on Cromwell’s forefinger. A copy of the ring was made and Cardinal Wolsey (played by Jonathan Pryce) presents it to Cromwell (Sir Mark Rylance) as a token of his respect. Whether this happened, or whether it was an invention by Mantel, I know not. Either way, the fact that Cromwell’s costumes and the ring echo Holbein’s portrait demonstrates the importance of these paintings for film-makers today.

What I find incredible is that it is not until after the death of Jane Seymour does Holbein finally paint a portrait of Henry VIII.

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Henry VIII: Hans Holbein the Younger. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.

By the 1530s Holbein was famous for his ability to capture the essence of his sitters. The king is presented as a man of wealth and magnificence, but despite all the trappings of cloth of gold, rubies set in gold, diamond rings, rich furs and elaborate gold lace at the neck and the doublet of complex blackwork embroidery, Holbein has not disguised the look of calculation in the piggy eyes and tight thin lips. Neither has he shown the king as anything other than overweight. The original portrait is in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.

The National Gallery, London contains the Holbein cartoon for the Whitehall Mural where Holbein stands with his hands on his hips and legs firmly planted apart, as if standing on the deck of a ship (NPG4027).

Holbein cartoon of Henry VII & Henry VIII for the Whitehall Mural. National Portrait Gallery, London. 

What dominates this cartoon is the size of Henry’s codpiece suggesting that perhaps this mural was conceived when Jane was pregnant as opposed to being finalised after Prince Edward’s birth. The design process would have taken a long time and we know the mural was finished by 1538.   Perhaps the decision was taken not to include an infant prince because of the instance of infant mortality, but the size of that codpiece is deliberate – we are intended to acknowledge either the impending or recent actual birth the from the oversized projection from Henry’s clothing. What is important is that this is the only surviving 16th century portrait that depicts both the founder of the Tudor dynasty, Henry VII, and his son, Henry VIII.

Prior to Holbein’s painting the Madrid portrait and the Whitehall Mural, Henry VIII had appeared in narrative paintings by the British School depicting The Field of the Cloth of Gold and the Departure for the same. Henry is seen as a triumphant warrior, and in various miniatures, or on illuminated documents his portrait is a realistic portrait of the man himself. There were other large portraits of Henry, but it is unlikely the king ever sat for Joos van Cleeve, or any other artist other than Holbein and the royal illuminator, Lucas Horenbout. Even then, it is likely that the artists had no formal sitting and they had to make do with observing the king everyday at court and doing their sketches as and when they could.

The use of the royal portrait on letters patent and other illuminated documents were for a very limited audience whereas the large portraits were designed to be seen by courtiers, diplomats and anyone privileged enough to go to Court.

The Holbein in England exhibition held at Tate Britain from September 2006 – January 2007 was one of those exhibitions that left lovers of Tudor history completely mesmerised by the genius of Holbein the Younger. For anyone attending the exhibition it became obvious why large portraits became popular. Gone were the religious problems of the sin of pride – thanks to the Luther’s Protestant Reformation. Provided you could afford it, who would not want to be immortalised in paint by this German genius? Sadly, Holbein’s career was cut short in November 1543 by the sweating sickness. Some suggest it may have been plague, but this is not proven.

William Scrots was the next official painter of large royal portraits recruited from overseas.Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 18.14.32 Somehow the young prince does not convey the same authority as his father. The prince looks more like a petulant teenager and less like a king, even though the boy’s stance echoes his father’s that occupied a wall in the private royal appartments in Whitehall Palace. Scrots has painted a much smaller codpiece, which may be deliberate. Edward was still a minor and it was thought unhealthy for a boy to have sexual intercourse before the age of 14. There may also be another reason. Since this may have been a portrait painted with a specific marriage in mind perhaps it was thought diplomatic not to over-emphasise the prince’s genitals in case it was interpreted that the prospective bride was only being approached for her child bearing possibilities. On the other hand, perhaps Scrots is being more subtle than his predecessor by placing Edward’s left hand on his poignard as a way of saying that the prince needs to marry, but at present is not yet mature enough to fulfil his husbandly duties. A poignard being a smaller thrusting dagger!

In a head and shoulders portrait of the prince (courtesy of the Philip Mould Gallery) we see the Prince Edward portrayed against a dingy brown background with what appears to be an embroidered E and R on either side of his head for Edwardus Rex.

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King Edward VI. attr William Scrots. 

The letters tell us this was painted after Edward had become king, which makes you wonder why the artist used a cheap pigment that has turned from blue to brown over time. We see the same effect in the Man in a Black Cap (1545) attributed to John Bettes the Younger.

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Man in a Black Cap (1545) Attr. John Bettes the Younger.

 We know the background in the portrait of the Man in the Black Cap was originally blue as scientific anlysis has identified it as the cheap blue pigment, smalt. This is a much cheaper pigment than ultramarine and one which degrades into this brown grunge with prolonged exposure to light. The contract between the artist and his unknown sitter may have specified various more expensive pigments, but it would be many years before this blue would turn brown revealing the fraud. This was one way an artist could cut corners to make a profit! It is unlikely that Scrots, who was paid an annuity by the king for his services, would stoop to using inferior materials. Since art historians are always changing their minds, perhaps this portrait of Edward will be given more consideration and will be re-attributed to another artist such as Bettes, or even that more prolific artist A.Non.

During Edward’s short reign many European Protestants fled to England to escape persecution. One of these religious refugees was the artist Hans Eworth who portrayed one of his English patrons as a marine god. The portrait of Sir John Luttrell is the first example of Renaissance visual allegory in English portraiture.

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Sir John Luttrell. Hans Eworth. The Courtauld Institute.

The painting is held in the Courtauld collection. At first glance it is more likely a modern audience would be reminded of photographs of a bare chested Vladimir Putin sitting astride his horse. There may be centuries between the two images but the message is the same. Both men are considered military leaders. No doubt there was a conversation between the artist and patron as to how Sir John wished to be painted and this has resulted in a complex allegorical narrative depicting Sir John Luttrell as a quasi marine demi-god. In the case of Putin, the photographer has captured an image that is intended to show the Russian leader in the role of a traditional warrior, but we have no idea who came up with the idea of getting him to strip to the waist. Perhaps it was the Russian leader’s idea?

We have no record of how Sir John’s portrait was received, but thanks to the wonders of modern technology we can see a mounted bare chester Putin at the click of a mouse. It is not an image I find attractive so if you want to remind yourself of it, you can type a phrase into your favourite search engine yourselves!

When Edward’s sister Mary ascended the throne her thoughts were on marriage and producing children to ensure the continuity of the Tudor dynasty and she duly married Philip II of Spain in 1554.

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Mary I of England. 1554. Antonis Mor, Prado.

The Venetian master, Titian, had painted Philip’s portrait in 1551 when both prince and artist were at the Imperial Court at Augsburg. At the same time Titian painted a portrait of Philip’s father, Emperor Charles V. Titian was the Holy Roman Emperor’s portraitist of choice and became a favourite of his son, Philip. Later Titian was commissioned to create allegorical mythological paintings the private royal apartments in the Escorial.

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Philip II of Spain. Titian. Spain.

Thanks to Titian we are very familiar with Charles V & Philip II’s prominent Hapsburg jaw. Despite the ornate and expensive ceremonial armour with a prominent codpiece, the sitter is not a jaw dropping object of beauty. Are we supposed to be awed by his presence? Perhaps an English audience has an inbuilt prejudice against Philip because we are well aware of his later exploits as a zealot Catholic monarch.

The first of the Philip mythological paintings of an erotic and sensual nature he commissioned from Titian was delivered in December 1554 to London. The entry on the Web Gallery of Art for this painting is as follows:

In its own day Venus and Adonis was considered one of Titian’s most erotic works, especially in the compression of Venus’ buttocks in her seated pose, but it also suggests the indulgent condescension of a younger man towards the frantic and overprotective reaction of an older woman.” 

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Venus & Adonis. 1554. Titian. Prado, Spain.

In Book X of Metamorphoses, the Roman writer Ovid tells us of the story of Venus and  the beautiful young man, Adonis, who is killed by a wild boar while out hunting. In this particular painting it is as if the naked Venus wishes to keep him with her. As a goddess perhaps she knows what will happen should he be allowed to leave on his hunting trip. Alternatively, it might be interpreted as the goddess wishing to drag him into bed. Cupid (aka Eros) is asleep under a tree and his bow and quiver full of his darts of love hang from the branch of another. From this visual clue we can deduce that love is fast asleep and that Venus has no hope with the callow Adonis.

Philip was considerably younger than his English bride and perhaps it is unkind to suggest this was commissioned as a specific comment about the royal match, but Mary was eleven years senior to her husband, so perhaps there is a nugget of truth in this idea.  The letters between Philip and Titian commissioning these ‘poesie’ paintings as they are known, still exist in the Venetian archives, but there is nothing written about whether this was a deliberate visual comment on Philip’s English nuptials.

Clearly Philip wished to be thought of as a warrior, hence his portrait with the ceremonial armour. However, Titian was commissioned to paint further mythical stories where sensual and erotic nudes frolicked across the canvas for Philip’s personal enjoyment in the privacy of his royal apartments. What I find interesting is that there do not appear to be any surviving paintings of this type created for a 16th century English audience. Does our rather prurient attitude to sex go as far back as Tudor times?

During the Elizabethan age the desire of the great and the good to have their portraits painted continued. Elizabeth I used portraiture as a way of enforcing the message that she would remain England’s Virgin Queen and thus the logical conclusion is that there would be no heir to continue the Tudor line. Therefore, the closest blood relative with a legitimate claim to the English throne was Mary Queen of Scots (NPG 429).

Mary Queen of Scots. (After Nicholas Hilliard). NPG 429. London.

The museum containing portraits of the key players of Elizabeth’s court is the National Portrait Gallery in Charing Cross Road. Here the important men are hung next to, or near the queen in the Tudor section on the first floor.

Sir Christopher Hatton has a complicated double sided portrait showing his astrological birth chart, but this example is a traditional portrait (NPG Ref. 2162).

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Sir Christopher Hatton. NPG 2162. London. 

The NPG has 13 portraits of Hatton including a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard.

On the same wall are portraits of Sir Walter Raleigh, Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham and hung next to her, Elizabeth’s favourite – Robert Dudley.

Sir Walter wears the black and white colours of Elizabeth’s livery, but apart from this being a visual statement of his loyalty, the portrait does not do much else other than show us what Raleigh looked like (NPG7). He too had a miniature painted by Hilliard.

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Sir Walter Raleigh. The ‘H’ monogrammist. NPG 7, London.

Sir Francis Walsingham is seated and looks directly out at us. His penetrating gaze reminds us that he was the queen’s spymaster with the most efficient spy network in Europe. This painting was created in 1585 by John de Critz, five years before Walsingham died. Thanks to Walsingham’s spy network the Throckmorton and Babington plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth were foiled, and information leading to the trial and execution of Mary Queen of Scots was discovered. What we have to decide is whether de Critz has captured the menace that being in Walsingham’s presence must have been felt.

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Sir Francis Walsingham 1585 (Elizabeth I’s Moor). John de Crtiz, NPG, London. 

Walsingham’s complexion was sallow, which led to Elizabeth calling him her “Moor”. She had pet names for all those she was fond of. Sir William Cecil she called her “Spirit” and Robert Dudley, was her “Eyes”.

In this painting Sir William is every inch the statesman in his Garter robes (ref NPG362).  There are various portraits of Cecil, but this one portrays Elizabeth’s great statesman at the pinnacle of his career. This portrait is not signed, but is attributed to another Flemish artist, Marcus Gheerhaerts the Younger.

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Sir William Cecil (Elizabeth I’s ‘Spirit’). Marcus Gheerhaerts the Younger. NPG, London.

Finally, but not least in Elizabeth’s affections, there is Robert Dudley. This particular portrait is in Waddesdon Manor. Probably painted by an artist of the Anglo Netherlandish School in 1564 when Dudley was made Earl of Leicester. Dudley’s coat of arms is portrayed twice: on the left it is surrounded with the collar of the French Order of St Michael, an order founded in 1469 by Louis XI (1423-1483). To the right, the much older English Order of the Garter.

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Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Anglo Flemish School. Waddesdon Manor, England. As well as Elizabeth I’s ‘Sweet Robin’, he was her ‘Eyes’.

In her book Dynasties, the art historian Karen Hearn states the painting was originally created to celebrate Dudley being created Earl of Leicester in 1564 and the coat of arms surrounded by the collar of the Order of St Michael was added in 1566, the year Dudley was given this honour by Henry IV of France . Before anyone jumps up and down and says, “but this painting is by Steven van der Meulen”, that is impossible. It is now known that van der Meulen died either at the end of 1563 or at the beginning of 1564 as his will was proved on 20th January 1564, hence the re-attribution to the broader soubriquet of Anglo Netherlandish School.

There are many portraits of Dudley by foreign artists who had settled in England and visiting artists such as the Italian, Federico Zuccaro. Plus, Dudley was also patron for England’s first artist that was internationally acclaimed, Nicholas Hilliard, who created several miniature portraits of the Earl. Was Dudley vain, or was he merely keen to ensure he will be remembered by future generations. Certainly vanity plays a part in this group of Tudor men we know from the annals of history. They are not the equivalent of the modern day casual ‘selfie’, but important statements of the sitter’s social standing within society.

Elizabeth I, 1572. Nicholas Hilliard.  NPG, London.

Elizabeth I was the ultimate mistress of visual propaganda and this 1572 miniature, in reality just over one inch in diameter, is the first of many created during Hilliard’s career as her miniature portraitist, but that is a much longer story for another day.

These are just a small sample of the surviving portraits allowing us to know the faces of these Tudor characters and so enable us to picture them in our mind’s eye when reading anything written about them.


2 thoughts on “How we know the Movers & Shakers of Tudor Society”

    1. Hi Stephanie, Many thanks for your comment. I’m working on some new stuff, plus I’m working with Team Wadlow on the identification of the Wadlow portrait sitter. Why not join us on our FaceBook page, William Shakespeare and Other Elizabethan Mysteries.


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