Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger 1539


I tried for this post not to revolve around the doomed Thomas Cromwell, but it was near impossible as he is so intricately woven into Holbein’s tale at Henry’s court. As we’ll recall from Part III, Cromwell was one of the strongest advocates of the English Reformation – the English church’s break with the papacy in Rome. Cromwell engineers the annulment of the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, setting the stage for Anne Boleyn’s coronation in1533. 

The king embarks on a grandiose program of artistic patronage. Hans works for Cromwell as he masterminds Henry VIII’s reformation, which changes the tides at court a scant three years later. To tell without extraordinary measure: the Boleyn family – Cromwell alliance falls apart. Anne’s brother declares Cromwell an enemy of the Queen, who had so far failed to produce a male heir and Cromwell, aware that the King was impatient for lack of a son and already enamored with Jane Seymour, ruthlessly accuses Anne of adultery and incest.

Portrait of Edward VI as a Child, Holbein c. 1538.

King Henry VIII marries Jane on May 30, 1536 – just eleven days after Anne is beheaded.  Hans is appointed King’s Painter having deftly survived Anne’s downfall, but his official portraits of her do not. Jane dies of infection in October 1537, several weeks after bearing Henry’s only son, the future Edward VI. 

Hans is now commissioned to paint portraits of noblewomen eligible to become Henry’s next queen. He is dispatched to Brussels in 1538 to sketch Christina of Denmark. The 16-year-old widow sat for the portrait but made no secret her opposition to marrying Henry VIII, who by this time had a reputation around Europe for his mistreatment of wives. Henry pursued the match until January 1539, when an English diplomat in Brussels advised Cromwell that the king should,“fyxe his most noble stomacke in some such other place.”

Cromwell  suggests Anne, the sister of the Protestant Duke of Cleves, an important ally. Hans is sent to the Duchy in the summer of 1539 to paint Anne of Cleves. After viewing the portrait and hearing compliments of her by his courtiers, the king agrees to wed Anne, albeit under loud protest. On Anne’s arrival in England, Henry found her unattractive, privately calling her a “Flanders Mare”. There is no record of Anne’s opinion of her morbidly obese new husband.

Portrait of Anne of Cleves, Holbein c. 1539

Henry wishes to annul the marriage so he could marry Katherine Howard, who was rumored to be pregnant. The Duke of Cleves was in a dispute with the Holy Roman Emperor, with whom Henry had no desire to quarrel. Queen Anne did not impede Henry’s quest for an annulment. Upon the question of marital sex, she testified that her marriage had never been consummated, that Henry merely kissed her on the forehead before retiring each night. The marriage was dissolved. Anne received the title of “The King’s Sister” and was granted Hever Castle, the former residence of the Boleyn family.

Cromwell fell into great disfavor with the king because of the marriage debacle and it was his ultimate undoing. The King was already unhappy with Cromwell over the extent to which he pushed religious reform in the Church. The marriage was the perfect opportunity for his conservative enemies at court to topple him.

Cromwell was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. A bill of attainder containing a long list of indictments, including treason, heresy and corruption, was passed in the House of Lords in June 1540. Cromwell was condemned to death without trial and beheaded on Tower Hill on 28 July 1540, the day of the King’s marriage to Katherine Howard.

Henry came to regret Cromwell’s execution, and later accused his ministers of bringing about Cromwell’s downfall by false charges. Though Hans Holbein retained his position as King’s Painter, Cromwell’s death left a gap no other patron could fill.


The Artist's Family, Holbein the Younger c. 1528.

The moving combination of resolution and frailty seen in this family portrait is unique in Holbein’s production. The introverted mood of the work extends beyond the usual level of reticence in his English portraits, where courtly finery and the dignity inherent in status to some extent shield the private lives of the sitters.The work provokes consideration of the relationship between the painter and his wife, who was separated from him for years at a time, bringing up their four children alone. The strain of this fractured family life may be seen here in the weary resignation of Elsbeth’s wan face.The sober colours and emphasis on linear execution (seen in young Philip’s profile) are perhaps concessions to what was acceptable in reformist Basel at the time, although elements of the dislocated triangle of the composition and the modelling of the mother’s hand on the boy’s shoulder are reminiscent of Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, which Holbein probably saw during his visit to France in 1524. — Web Gallery of Art