Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Blank Tudor Faces

Judith Arnopp

 We have all become so familiar with royal Tudor images that we no longer really see them. One glance tells us who they are. We think we know them. They exude power, majesty and the iron fist of mastery.

Earlier portraits of the Plantagenet kings, and even the early portraits of Henry VII are very different to that of his son and grandchildren. But it was Henry VII, the first ‘Tudor’ king who began to develop the ‘Tudor’ brand.

The royal portraits of Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III are all quite sombre, the artist doing his best to portray an ordinary man who was king. Even this portrait of Henry Tudor has nothing overtly regal about it; there is even a glimpse of personality, perhaps a measure of distrust, cynicism, impatience, or is it amusement? However you interpret his expression, it is a portrait of a human being, not a representation of royal supremacy.

 In the early days of Henry’s reign his position was unstable, he was an unknown quantity. There were no guarantees of peace and there were several Yorkist attempts to take his throne. The Tudors were the new kids on the block; nobody could foresee what sort of king Henry would make and his popularity depended very much on that of his wife, Elizabeth of York. Yorkist propaganda demeaned his claim to the throne, declaring that his mother’s line was illegitimate and that Lancaster had stolen the crown in 1399. They also sneered at his great grandfather who had been a lowly innkeeper.

Henry, realising he needed to reinforce his hold on the country, invented (or perhaps ‘embellished’ is a better word) his family history to create an impressive Tudor dynasty. He stressed the royal connection of his mother, Margaret Beaufort, and her descent from John of Gaunt and, to strengthen his claim further, he legally removed the stigma of bastardy from the family. He reiterated the royal descent of his grandmother, Katherine of Valois and, more surprisingly, claimed descent from the ancient Welsh King Cadwaladr, and King Arthur. To further cement his link to Arthur he named his first born son in his honour and embellished the round table at Winchester with the Tudor rose.

With the blood of both York and Lancaster flowing in the veins of his two sons and several daughters the Tudor line looked set to continue but Arthur’s sudden death in 1502 taught Henry that a king can never have too many sons. He lost no time in teaching his remaining son, later to become Henry VIII, the finer points of kingship. He stressed the importance of his role, the unreliability of the fickle populace, and the crucial need for strong male heirs to perpetuate the dynasty. The importance of heirs was a lesson young Henry never forgot, and one he fought tooth and nail for the rest of his life to achieve.

The blooming of the Renaissance and the introduction of men like Holbein to the royal court helped to reinforce this new Tudor image, and during Henry VIII’s reign new style of royal portraiture began.

I think of them as ‘power portraits’ that were loud declarations of Tudor permanence and dominance.
This one was painted by Holbein the younger after 1537, at a time when Henry was at the height of his power. He had freed himself from Anne Boleyn and the Pope, and Jane Seymour had finally provided the son and heir he’d been craving.

Today, we are used to seeing this image and others like it but imagine its impact in a world in which images were rare and people’s lives were not dominated by photographs or colour. Everything in this portrait is designed to impress; we cannot take our eyes from the breadth of shoulder; the sumptuous quality of his clothes; his immovable stance; the potent codpiece, and the unflinching expression in his eye. The portrait exudes wealth, power and uncompromising control. It is an unspoken declaration. ‘I am the king; it shall be as I say.’ There is not the slightest hint of insecurity, yet Henry was very insecure.

We all know about Henry; his failed marriages, his quest for an heir, his break with Rome, his megalomania, and ruthless rule but, what about the man behind the grandeur? Take a closer look at his face. What does it tell us about the inner man?

He looks bullish at first glance but on closer inspection you will see his eyes are blank, his expression closed. You might say he looks belligerent or mean but is that really what we are seeing, or is that a preconceived idea, because of what we already know? Personally, I think his inner feelings are obscured by my pre-knowledge but, if I try to wipe my mind and focus solely on his face, I see ennui, and sadness. As if he is hiding behind his own splendour.

All the Tudor monarchs have this same expression. The portraits as a whole are only concerned with an outward show of majesty, a declaration of authority. Edward VI was ten years old when he became king, a young skinny boy with a burgeoning ego that would soon match his father’s. Here he is carefully painted in a similar stance to Henry. He is well-padded and embellished in satin and fur, and a much smaller cod-piece than his father’s promises future virility and heirs to carry on the Tudor name. But again, it is the image of a king with an empty face. ‘I may be young,’ he is saying, ‘but do not underestimate me; I am my father’s son.’

Edward’s short reign was one of religious persecution as the Protestant king tried to terrorise his subjects into following his will. His premature death was greeted with relief by many Catholics for now it was the turn of the Protestants to be subjected to the will of Mary Tudor.

Unlike her father and brother, Mary is seated, but her portrait is no less authoritative. Her erect posture and uncompromising stare are enough to turn living flesh into stone but there is little to be read there; we cannot see beyond her steely gaze to the woman within.

Her attempts to reinstate the Catholic religion and wipe out the much newer Protestant religion resulted in the burnings and torture that earned her the posthumous name ‘Bloody Mary.’ But viewed more objectively, her personal sorrows were immeasurable. Mary had lived a sorry life; rejected by her father, disinherited from the succession, stripped of her title ‘princess’, separated from her mother, Katherine of Aragon, Mary channelled all her frustration and anger into her religion. Her devotion to God and the Catholic Church was matched only by her passion for her husband, the reluctant Philip of Spain, and her wish for a son to follow after her.

Her health was never good; there is some evidence that her menstrual cycle was erratic and she suffered both physically and mentally from a young age. In later years her failure to conceive, her phantom pregnancies and failing marriage compounded her misery until she died a painful death in 1558 leaving no heir. Mary, who had gone to extreme lengths to rid England of the new religion, was now forced to leave the realm in the hands of a Protestant queen, her sister Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was the greatest Tudor of them all and the one who exploited royal portraiture to the full. The queen was very aware of the power of image and iconography. Encouraged by her adviser, John Dee, her portraits became more and more extreme. In every image she is majestic and fabulously dressed, her tiny frame all but obliterated by satin, velvet, lace and jewels. In looks Elizabeth resembled her great grandmother, Margaret Beaufort and her grandfather, Henry VII but by nature she was very much like her father.

If her grandfather and father had coveted England and parts of Europe, Elizabeth's ambitious eye went further - to the New World. In the Armada painting below, her hand rests on a globe and, just in case the viewer should forget who wears it, the crown of England is just above. If you look closely, her famously long, white fingers are covering the Americas and behind her are commemorative paintings of the Spanish fleet being driven onto a rocky shore by a storm that became known as the 'Protestant Wind,' suggesting God's approval of England's victory over Catholic Spain. Elizabeth is proclaiming herself the saviour of her people; the mother of her expanding empire: a victorious, virgin queen, blessed by God.

These are the things the Tudors wanted the world to see and believe. Their private 'selves', their inner thoughts and feelings were none of our concern and so they turned their faces into masks - a blank page devoid of personality yet replete with majesty.

Although the Tudors are well-documented and easily accessible through portraits and records, writing about them is not easy. We know what they did and when they did it; we know the relationships they had, the political scene, the style of their clothing, the shade of their hair and eye colour but there are only the tiniest glimpses of their inner selves. In order to populate my novels with believable characters I have to mentally prise off their masks, strip off their rich finery, and try to reach inside their minds. What is left are people as ordinary as you and I. In their natural state it is easier to consider these icons of monarchy as human beings, and imagine the emotions that triggered their most bizarre behaviour.  Each Tudor monarch had hopes and fears (mostly of failure) and insecurity, and they had dreams too, and a vast self-disappointment that ate away at them all.

For all their power, all their wealth and status, they could not have or hold the things they most desired: fidelity and adulation.

Photographs in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons

Judith Arnopp is the author of eight historical fiction novels including:

The Beaufort Bride: Book one of The Beaufort Chronicles - Available to pre-order NOW

A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck

Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr

The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn

The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII

The Song of Heledd

The Forest Dwellers


For more information please visit the webpage

Author page: click here

or look for her on Facebook.


  1. I wouldn't have wanted to meet any of these people in person. Not only because I know from history what they were like and what they did but just their looks. I think they all look very conceited, tough and mean spirited, even Edward.

    1. I can imagine Edward, in some ways, was the worst of them all. His father was so infamous for his behaviour that he would've likely felt the need to 'top' it. Plus, being a child King his ego would've been through the roof, I'd wager.

  2. Great post. I never really thought about Tudor faces that way, although they always did strike me as a little odd. I can't imagine anybody actually looking like this. They really do look like masks.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.