Henry VIII by Peter Isselburg and Cornelis Massys
Henry VIII’s portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger is perhaps the iconic image of monarchical power. Universally recognisable, it’s a remarkable piece of propaganda that shows the king at his most mighty and imposing; a British Bulldog of a man who, if it weren’t for the clothes, wouldn’t look out of place in a modern-day Yorkshire pub.
And it is largely thanks to Holbein that we know that Henry VIII did not in fact look like a King Edward potato.
Well, at least not early in life. But this is far the impression given by Cornelis Massys’s unflattering portrait. Later engraved by Peter Isselburg, the it portrays the Tudor monarch as if he’s struggling to do his very best Mr Burns impression. The one saving grace is that we can be sure that Henry VIII never set eyes on the work because he died the year before its completion. Otherwise it may well have been off with their heads.
As well as the subject of unrealistic portraits, Henry was also the recipient. In 1539, three years after beheading his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and two year after losing his third wife, Jane Seymour, to postnatal complications, Henry decided enough time had passed to make another woman the luckiest in the kingdom. Fortune fell to Anne of Cleves, an alliance with whose family Henry and Thomas Cromwell believed was much needed for isolated, Reformation England.
The king sent his most trusted artist, Hans Holbein the Younger, to Cleves so he could see what the woman he was to marry looked like. The result didn’t disappoint; Holbein brought back a pretty, demure-looking young girl with blonde hair and slight features. A treaty was signed on October 4 1539 and within weeks Anne was on a ship en route to England.
Her arrival on New Year’s Eve wasn’t quite the fanfare some may have been expecting. Having come to greet her in disguise, upon setting eyes on her Henry exclaimed, “I like her not! I like her not!” Indeed, through a clever use of angle Holbein had discreetly masked her large hooked nose, and through a clever use of lighting had covered up her smallpox marked skin. Luckily for Anne, the marriage was annulled within six months.
The 48-year-old king was hardly one to criticise over appearance. Once a strapping, handsome young man, Henry had suffered a severe leg wound in a jousting accident in 1536 which made physical exercise impossible. Because the wound aggravated a previous one, doctor’s found it impossible to treat. And so it festered throughout the rest of his life—an ulcerated gash that, combined with other gout-caused pus-filled boils on his body, made for a sorry sight. And an even worse smell.