Henry VIII, ca. 1513
Oil on panel
15 x 9 3/4 in. (39 x 25 cm)
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This unusual portrait of a slender, beardless Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) was painted when the young king was about twenty-two. It is the earliest known portrait of him as king. The image matches the description given by an Italian ambassador to the English court: "His complexion is very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short in the French fashion, and a round face so very beautiful, that it would become a pretty woman, his throat being rather long and thin." He is shown wearing a red gown with brown fur edges, with the sleeves slashed to reveal cloth of gold beneath. Around his shoulders is a chain of balas rubies (a red gemstone found in present-day Afghanistan) surrounded by clusters of pearls. On his black cap is an enseigne, or cap badge. Enseignes often depicted scenes from the Old Testament. Many people wore them on their caps, but only the king's was allowed to be gold. As with his father's portrait, the young Henry holds the Tudor rose, symbolizing his continuation of the dynasty.
Henry VIII stands out as the most colorful, flamboyant, and ambitious of all the English kings. Two issues characterized his reign: his desire for unprecedented and unequaled wealth, and his need of a male heir to continue the Tudor dynasty. Both concerns ultimately led to his abolishing the Catholic Church in England and establishing a state religion with himself as its supreme leader. With this single act, he destroyed the medieval ecclesiastical culture and ushered in an age of renewed social and economic activity, controlled by the all-powerful monarch. No other king or queen has had such an impact on English history.
Henry was born the second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York and so was not directly in line to become king (see the Berger Collection portrait of Henry VII). But in 1502, his elder brother Prince Arthur died of the "sweating sickness," and ten-year-old Henry became heir to the throne. As a young man, he was intellectual, endowed with physical prowess, and fluent in French and Latin. He was also extremely talented, ambitious, and determined to continue his father's project of establishing the Tudor dynasty. In 1509, his father died and Henry was crowned Henry VIII.
Probably the Knevet family, Old Buckenham, Norfolk; from whom acquired by Mr. Day and bought by Mr. Kerrich on August 7, 1790; the lords Gwydir; by descent to the earls of Ancaster; with Spinks, London, 1926; with Arthur Newton, New York, 1931; by whom sold to George Kemp, 1st Baron Rochdale; Sotheby's, London, July 10, 1996, lot 9
J. Fletcher, "A Group of English Royal Portraits Painted Soon After 1513," Studies in Conservation, Vol. 21, 1976 pp. 171-178, fig. 5 illus.; F. Hepburn, "The Portraiture of Arthur, Prince of Wales," Journal of the British Archaeological Association, Vol. CXLVIII, 1995, p. 168, note 73
Exhibited: British Library, London, Man and Monarch: Henry VIII, ed. Susan Doran, 2009, p. 59, cat. no. 43, repr.
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