Saturday, May 2, 2015

King Henry VIII and a Pope's Favorite Artist

By Nancy Bilyeau

In the year 1540, in the city of Brussels, a team of men worked indefatigably at their workshop looms. Using wool, silk and the most exquisite—and astoundingly costly—threads of gold and silver gilt, they wove the story of Hercules, a demi-god of ancient Greece, for the pleasure of a man who had made himself the head of the church of England and may well have considered himself close to a god: King Henry VIII.

The Triumph of Hercules, with dimensions of 189 × 245.3 inches

The drawing they placed on the looms to guide their weave was created in the school of Raphael. Born Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, Raphael is the third artist in the triumvirate of Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo--the High Renaissance geniuses. Befriended by Pope Leo X (who excommunicated Martin Luther), Raphael produced transformative paintings such as The Madonna of the Meadow. In 1516 Raphael created 10 drawings of St. Peter and St. Paul that were to become tapestries to hang in the Sistine Chapel.  He died in 1520 of a fever supposedly following a night of vigorous sex with his mistress.

Raphael's Portrait of Leo X with cardinals Giulio de'Medici
 (later Pope Clement VII, who refused Henry VIII his annulment)
 and Luigi de' Rossi.
After Raphael's death, his large workshop of 50 artists continued to produce work inspired by his signature symmetry, clarity of form and detail. The artists specialized in producing extensive drawings—called cartoons—that were then used to weave  tapestries. Henry VIII made it known that the Raphael-influenced tapestries were his favorites. Although the King of England broke with Rome and at various times sought alliances with rulers of Protestant countries, he certainly did not share the Reformers' views on art. John Calvin and his followers advocated the destruction of statues and religious paintings as "idolatry." Henry VIII was an informed and sophisticated patron of the arts--as was his second wife, Anne Boleyn-- who celebrated the art form whose original designs came from Papal-supported artists and often depicted Old Testament stories. It is unlikely he saw the irony of this.

John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, said,
"Man's nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols." 
His followers destroyed art throughout Europe.

Today many people do not realize how important these woven creations were to the Catholic rulers of the 16th century. For Henry VIII, whose passion for tapestries has often been described as "mania," there was a distinct element of competition. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and King Francis I of France also sought out the most exquisite tapestries for their courts. (Francis even sponsored a workshop at Château de Fontainebleau.) King Henry took satisfaction in outmaneuvering them. Although his kingdom was smaller, he was willing to pay more. He had agents all over France, Italy and the Low Countries, searching for the next great one.

Raphael's Miraculous Drought of the Fishes, commissioned by
Pope Leo X to be made into a tapestry for the Sistine Chapel.

Tapestries, largely imported, were the most vibrant form of visual art in England. Apart from the paintings and murals produced by the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger, who resided in the English court, on and off, for less than 20 years, there were no significant painters in the Tudor era. England's greater homegrown accomplishments were in music and literature.

King Henry inherited several hundred tapestries from his father, Henry VII, who, like Edward IV and other latter Plantagenets, displayed large, ornate tapestries on castle walls. Apart from adornment, they kept the drafty palaces a bit warmer. Henry VIII had a different attitude. Tapestries held great emotional value. When he died in 1547, his belongings were painstakingly inventoried--and it was discovered he owned more than 2,200 pieces.

Henry VIII,
after Hans Holbein the Younger

The cost of all these acquisitions was tremendous. There is no question that, along with his passion for building and his pursuit of war against France, tapestry purchasing was where he sunk his two fortunes, the first one inherited from his thrifty father and the second acquired from the destruction of the English monasteries. The Story of Abraham, which Henry VIII commissioned after the birth of his son Edward in 1537, cost £2,000, the value of more than two warships.

During the previous decade, Henry VIII made his wishes known in not only the Raphael style of art but the subjects themselves. He commissioned his King David tapestries at the same time that he made the decision to break with the Pope. In his book Henry VIII and the Art of Majesty, Thomas Campbell, now director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writes: "As God's anointed ruler of the chosen people, David was a flattering comparison for any king...for the Tudor monarch, the notion of a divinely sanctioned king was particularly appealing."

Now, in the late 1530s, the King's attention turned to Raphael's designs of Greek gods in various poses being made into tapestries called The Triumphs of the Gods. It's not hard to see why. Henry VIII was firmly head of the Church of England with a son to succeed him. He had viciously quashed a religious rebellion in the north of England. In 1538, his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, went after the few remaining relatives of the King's with royal blood, the only ones who could possibly threaten him, in the Exeter Conspiracy. The King ordered the execution of his relations Henry Courtenay, Henry Pole and Pole's elderly mother, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury. He also threw in for good measure the beheading of his close friend Nicholas Carew because he said in 1539 that he disapproved of the indictment of Courtenay being so "secretly handled." He was as close to deity as a man could be.

At the time of the weaving of the Hercules figure, Brussels was at its apogee of tapestry creation. There were dozens of workshops. Henry VIII, the other kings, princes of the church, and rich aristocrats wanted huge tapestries in a set--perhaps as many as 10 in a group--woven with silk thread and gilted with silver and gold. Colors were varied and brilliant; human and animal figures must be lifelike. A highly detailed tapestry demanded months, if not years, of scrupulous attention. The Guild of St. Luke controlled quality with deadly seriousness, ensuring that the highest standards were maintained. It's been estimated that one in six men who lived in Brussels worked in the tapestry industry in the 1540s.

Detail of Hercules fighting a dragon from an
earlier tapestry woven by Dermoyen brothers

The Triumph of Hercules was most likely woven in the workshop of the brothers Willem and Jan Dermoyen. It shows many "feats" among the colonnades: in the central position, the bearded, muscular and scantily clad Hercules stands confidently on a platform holding his club and lion skin. He is shown holding a planet on his head, strangling a lion, shooting a centaur with an arrow, and grabbing hold of a naked woman.

When this tapestry was delivered to King Henry VIII in late 1541 or early 1542, the discrepancy between subject and owner could not have been wider. The King weighed close to 300 pounds, was tormented by ulcerated legs, severe headaches, and fevers. He exhibited paranoia and depression. Henry had divorced his fourth wife, the German Princess Anne of Cleves, after claiming he did not consummate the marriage. Then the tables turned. His fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was arrested in November 1541 under suspicion of adultery. The man who was executed along with Queen Catherine was Thomas Culpepper, half the King's age and considered devastatingly handsome.

The King nonetheless favored his new tapestries showcasing the triumphs of the gods; they were proudly mounted on the walls of Hampton Court and Whitehall. He continued to make new purchases through the mid-1540s while he took a sixth wife and waged war on France again. Only the Tudor King's death halted the mania for new tapestries.

None of his children showed an interest in collecting richly woven stories of gods and men. And, by the middle of the reign of Elizabeth I, the golden age of tapestry weaving was over. Religious wars engulfed Brussels. The Hapsburgs struggled to stamp out Protestant heresy through increasingly harsh methods; since many weavers held reformist beliefs, they fled to more sympathetic countries.
At the same time, those who hated Catholics were destroying churches, statues, and any religious-tinged-art in the entire region: riots swept through Amsterdam and Ghent and Antwerp.

The destruction of a church and its works of art in the Netherlands

One witness said of an attack on a beautiful church in Antwerp:
"It looked like hell, with above 10,000 torches burning, and such a noise as if heaven and earth had got together, with falling of images and beating down of costly works."
Soon enough, all signs of "idolatry" were gone. And so was the rarefied and exacting magic of the tapestry workshops of Brussels.

                                                        *                     *                   *

The Triumph of Hercules is one of the few surviving tapestries of the reign of Henry VIII and is on display in Hampton Court.


The Tapestry is Nancy Bilyeau's third book in the Joanna Stafford series, set in the reign of Henry VIII. It is for sale in print and on digital in North America and the United Kingdom and will be published in Germany in 2016.

“Nancy Bilyeau's passion for history infuses her books and transports us back to the dangerous world of Tudor England. Vivid characters and gripping plots are at the heart of this wonderful trilogy, and this third book will not fail to thrill readers. Warmly recommended!” -- Alison Weir, author of The Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth I

“The Tapestry moves like a modern thriller whilst at the same time managing to conjure up a Tudor England that feels very real and authentic in all its intrigue, mystery and menace. At the same time it never loses its focus on the psychological turmoil of its main character, forced to produce a thing of exquisite beauty for the man who destroyed her life. Intricately woven and brilliantly vibrant, The Tapestry is very aptly named."
-- Simon Toyne, author of the Sancti trilogy

“In spite of murderous plots, volatile kings, and a divided heart, Joanna Stafford manages to stay true to her noble character. Fans of Ken Follett will devour Nancy Bilyeau’s novel of political treachery and courageous love, set amid the endlessly fascinating Tudor landscape.” -- Erika Robuck, author of The House of Hawthorne

To learn more, go to

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