Henry VIII: An Image of Monarchy

Those of you who have visited the Van Dyck Exhibition will know why it is said that in the reign of Charles I, connoisseurship was the highest compliment that power can pay to art.

I don’t think this is really so in the reign of Henry VIII. Henry VIII has an instantly recognizable image. An image that modern public relations consultants would call a ‘brand’. It is so powerful, that it has become an icon of the British Monarchy itself.

But it was not always so, and the fact that it became so had little to do with connoisseurship. There was a connoisseur in the reign of Henry VIII: his name was Thomas More. I will say more about him later.

In the early years of Henry VIII’s reign, there were two related sets of values that defined the image of the monarchy: chivalry and magnificence.

1. Chivalry

Henry VIII began and ended his reign with a series of ruinous military campaigns in France and Scotland. The Court was infused by martial and chivalric values which were one of principal’s mainsprings of aristocracy. Henry VIII’s wars: (1) Battle of the Spurs (1513); (2) Paris (1523); (3) Boulogne (1544).

The King exploited his role as the leader of the chivalric élite. The Tudors grasped the possibilities of chivalrous propaganda, wooing and overawing their subjects with the magnificence of tournaments and displays of knightly prowess.

Revival of the 100 Years War: this was ‘policy’. The nobility loved it and profited from it. The rise of the early-modern state is also closely related to the harnessing of men, supplies and taxation for war. Henry VIII saw himself as Henry V, a strong, active and charismatic King, unlike Henry VI: the wimp who prayed, founded Eton and King’s College Cambridge, and wandered through the streets of London in an old blue coat because he had nothing better to wear.

Martial values closely linked to feudal values: military conscription is feudal in this period and claims to territory (e.g. Scotland) in the British Isles justified on feudal grounds. A feudal lord has dominium, but if you have dominium you also have jus. And if you have enough jus, you have an imperial claim. You have a (territorial) imperium: it was held in the Middle Ages that the sum of the King’s feudal rights amounted to a right of ’empire’. These rights were represented symbolically by the arched or ‘imperial’ Crown. By 1500 the shift from the medieval doctrine of ‘suzerainty’ to the early-modern theory of ‘sovereignty’ was under way. In England the royal supremacy and Reformation statutes accelerated a process which had already begun. Feudal and ‘imperial’ vocabulary worked in apposition, not in opposition. The classic instance is the Statute of Uses (1536): Henry VIII’s attempt to re-endow his ‘imperial’ Crown by the revival of a feudal tax. Similar ambiguities characterized the rise of the dynastic states in Europe. The occupation of Tournai between 1513 and 1519 represented Henry VIII’s earliest vision of a territorial empire. Not same as royal supremacy, but a stage on the road to it…..

2. Magnificence

  • Royal and aristocratic culture stressed the importance of princely ‘magnificence’ and display.
  • This followed the Secreta Secretorum: pseudo-Aristotelian hotch-potch given to kings on their coronations (see BL). Aristotle tells Alexander the Great: ‘It sitteth to his dignity honourably to be clothed, and ever in fair garments and robes passing other in fairness. And he should wear dear, rich and strange ornaments. Fitting also it is for a King to have a prerogative in his array above all others, whereby his dignity is worshipped and made fair, his power or might not hurt, and due reverence to him at all times given.
  • Sir John Fortescue, Chief Justice of the King’ Bench in the reign of Henry VI, writing in the 1460s and early 1470s, developed this theme in The Governance of England. In addition to dressing splendidly, the monarch should construct new palaces, furnish them lavishly, ensure that his ambassadors were sent abroad properly equipped, and that foreign ambassadors visiting England were suitably received and entertained. If the king could not manage this, then, said Fortescue, he lived not according to his princely status, ‘but rather in misery, and in more subjection than doth a private person’.
  • A key model for the functioning of the royal household is King Solomon, the ‘exemplar of householding’, who astonished the Queen of Sheba by the abundance of his table, by the order within which his magnificence was manifested and by the splendour and quality of those who served him. Solomon became the ideal for the Black Book of the Household, the Guide Michelin or Egon Ronay guide to how to run a royal court with three red rosettes and the star for a visual panorama. Magnificence was obligatory for effective Kingship, so was the ritual display of that magnificence. The Queen of Sheba had been particularly impressed to see nobles who in her own land would have ranked among Kings, acting as servants at the table of the King. And the culture of noble service at Court which is a hallmark of the governments of the Yorkists and Tudors, is another milestone in the subordination of the magnates to the power of the Crown that Lawrence Stone famously called ‘the Crisis of the Aristocracy’. I will return to Solomon later.

The Court of Henry VIII became the focus for both ritualized demonstrations of chivalry (tournaments and Court entertainments) and magnificence. The monarchy of Henry VIII was a personal monarchy centred on the Court and bolstered by the rituals and values conventionally deployed in the Renaissance to achieve the ‘imagination’ of majesty. A change was that under Henry and Wolsey, Renaissance artistic and architectural values permeated the Court circle in a significant way. Wolsey first commissioned Benedetto da Rovezzano to construct his tomb and design the high altar of Cardinal’s College, Oxford.

Wolsey took a critical interest in the preparations for the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520), where the English temporary palace was marked by its classical embellishment (and fountains of wine!). In 1527, in readiness for the entertainment of the ambassadors sent to finalize the terms of the treaty of Amiens, a spectacular banqueting house and theatre were constructed next to the tiltyard at Greenwich. At the heart of the banqueting house was a gilded triumphal arch on the back of which Hans Holbein the Younger, newly arrived in England, had painted a reconstruction of the Battle of the Spurs. The theatre was surmounted by a spectacular canvas ceiling, also by Holbein, which showed the planets in human form in their ‘houses’ as well as the stars and signs of the zodiac.

Henry VIII built on a massive scale, drawing in the last years of his reign on the proceeds of the dissolved religious houses. When he died in January 1547 he possessed over sixty houses the furnishings of which included over two thousand pieces of tapestry, over a hundred and fifty panel paintings and over two thousand items of plate.

But chivalry and ‘magnificence’ or even Renaissance artistic ideals are NOT a ‘brand’: nor is the Court itself distinctive except in the scale of its sumptuousness and hospitality. These are just aristocratic values in general.

The big change came with Henry VIII’s divorce, which also coincides with his approaching middle age, and cessation of his personal participation in the tournament.

3. Divorce and Royal Supremacy

  • A novel and comprehensive theory of monarchy was announced by the Acts of Appeals and Supremacy. The catalyst was the first divorce campaign of 1527-33, when Henry VIII annexed the language of ‘imperial’ kingship in order to break with Rome and declare his supremacy over the English church.
  • A clear line of argument had emerged on the divorce by the autumn of 1527, when Thomas More returned from Amiens and the ratification of the Anglo-French treaty. These were:
    1. the ‘Levitical’ injunction was divine law which no pope could dispense;
    2. sexual relations with a brother’s widow were an unnatural act which was also forbidden by the church. Such unions were forbidden and would be childless (= male childless according to Henry VIII).
  • A new project was started in parallel with the old: this culminated in the Collectanea satis copiosa, which was first presented to Henry VIII in the autumn of 1530 and annotated by the king in forty-eight places. 3 principles:
    1. Secular ‘imperium’
    2. spiritual supremacy = ecclesiastical ‘imperium’
    3. provincial autonomy of the Church of England.

In other words: the kings of England from the second century AD had enjoyed secular imperium and spiritual supremacy over their kingdom and national church; and the English church was an autonomous province of the Catholic church independent from Rome and the papacy (i.e not schism). Bracton was glossed to say ‘king is under God but not the law, because the king makes the law’.

4. Role of regal (theocratic) prototypes

Henry VIII’s regal prototypes were the Kings of Israel and the Christian Roman emperors, who wielded authority over clergy and laity alike, and ordered every aspect of the church’s external life. (NB The models in the Collectanea were David and Solomon, Constantine and Justinian.)

There was a debate over whether or not the kings of Israel had been able to define the articles of faith. Henry VIII certainly thought at the very least he could preside over the compilation of doctrinal formularies. NB 1531, Henry claimed the ‘cure of souls’ as integral to royal supremacy – cf. Hobbes.

It was this theory which Cromwell implemented in the Acts of Appeals (1533) and Supremacy (1534). He was responsible for the practical implementation, but not the theory itself. Henry’s political theology was proclaimed in the preamble to the Act of Appeals (1533): ‘Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one supreme head and king having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown of the same, unto whom a body politic, compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of spiritualty and temporalty, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience; [the king] being also institute and furnished by the goodness and sufferance of Almighty God with plenary, whole and entire power, preeminence, authority, prerogative and jurisdiction …’

Henry VIII defined his prerogative in terms of his imperium. He argued, first, that the kings of England from the second century AD had enjoyed secular imperium and spiritual supremacy over their kingdom and national church; and, second, that the English church was an autonomous province of the Catholic church independent from Rome and the papacy. The Act of Supremacy proclaimed the king’s new style in 1534. Moreover, the role of Parliament should not be misinterpreted. The Tudor supremacy was never equivalent to a doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. It was modelled on the prototypes of ancient Israel and the late-Roman empire: the Crown assumed full responsibility for the doctrine and ordering of the church. It was not for nothing that Henry VIII’s favourite kings were David and Solomon, and that he could quote verbatim from the Old Testament and Code and Institutes of Justinian.

So the King is God’s ‘vicar’ or immediate deputy on earth. He is Supreme Head of Earth of the Church of England. Henry VIII is an ‘imperial’ King. His power is ‘entire’ and ‘complete’.

Henry VIII had largely orthodox views on sacraments (cf. Act of Six Articles), apart perhaps from baptism and auricular confession. The focus was on Bible as the Word of God, i.e. ‘efficacious Word’ which is itself a sacrament and doesn’t need the clergy to mediate or work a miracle. Overall, Henry wants Catholic doctrine BUT without a mediating clergy. Therefore, although Catholic, he is against cults of saints, intercessions to saints and therefore images and pilgrimages for the people at large (not chapels royal – Henry VIII is not misled since he stands directly beneath God).

Cromwell, Henry’s second minister and vicegerent in spirituals, who had succeeded as minister Wolsey by the spring of 1532, wants Bible, but wants it as the supreme authority by which the church and clergy should be judged. Wants abolition of superstition. Against oral tradition: the church should be judged by scripture, not vice-versa. NB Cromwell is ‘reformed’ on issue of authority, but he did not deny real presence in the Eucharist nor teach ‘justification by faith alone’. Still, his emphasis on faith, the Bible, and preaching put him in the ‘reformed’ camp. Best term is evangelical.

No problem at first, because both Henry and Cromwell want the English Bible, but for different reasons:

  • Great Bible, 1539, repr. 1540. In every church by the death of Henry VIII. But there are earlier ones:
  • Coverdale’s (1535, 5 editions or reissues by 1539)
  • Matthew Bible (1537)
  • Bible by Richard Taverner (1539): short print run

5. Impact of the new regal prototypes

  • Henry VIII’s new understanding of the theory of kingship made an immediate impact on the mise-en-scène of Court ceremonial. Whereas before the Act of Supremacy the emphasis was on chivalric displays – ‘disguising’, ‘maskings’, interludes, dances, tournaments and other sports staged at each of the traditional festivals – after 1534 Henry jettisoned such spectacles in favour of his anti-papal campaign (and mainly classical images). It has been said that in 1533-4 ‘the Renaissance prince’ was transformed into the ‘Reformation patriarch’. A new iconography of kingship was required for which the gold standard was set by Holbein.
  • Holbein’s engraved title-page to Coverdale’s Bible in 1535 showed Henry VIII enthroned in State at the foot of the page, handing the scriptures to three mitred bishops. The page is decorated by a series of Old and New Testament models for sacred Kingship: Esdras reading the Law to the Jews, Christ sending the Apostles into the world, and Peter preaching to the Jews after Pentecost. Henry VIII is flanked on the left by King David, representing the icon of theocractic kingship, and on the right by St Paul, representing the ‘freedom’ in Christ promised in Scripture (e.g. Acts of the Apostle) as against the tyranny of Rome and the papacy.

In Cromwell’s Great Bible of 1539 Henry was depicted at the top of the page with the Word of God in each hand, almost like Christ himself (Henry is ‘vicar of Christ’) dispensing the ‘efficacious Word’. He gives a copy to Cranmer and one to Cromwell, and the Word is passed down the line to his subjects, who loyally cry ‘Vivat rex’ and ‘God save the king’. By the end of the reign there was a copy of this Bible in almost all the 9000 parishes churches: in this way was the King’s image as God’s deputy on earth disseminated in the country.

Further insights into Henry VIII’s perception of his image can be derived from his personal psalter, where the use of David as a prototype for the first Supreme Head of the Church of England is most clearly worked out:

  • David had been the first convincing king of Israel, and was recognized in the sixteenth century as the leading prototype of the theocratic model of kingship. (Francis I also had himself represented as David, and Philip II as Solomon).
  • David had been a famous warrior. He had slain Goliath and routed the Philistines (i.e. Not only had Henry VIII defeated the French (in his opinion!), but he had confounded the pope and the enemies of the God’s Word).
  • David had restored the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and planned the building of the Temple (i.e. founded the Church of England) which was carried out by Solomon, his son;
  • David was an author (he was reputed to have composed the Psalms; Henry VIII had written the Defence of the Seven Sacraments [1521] winning the title defensor fidei from the pope; also ‘king’s books’). David was a musician (he had played the lyre; Henry VIII played the lute and composed a number of instrumental and choral pieces);
  • David showed magnanimity to his enemies (Henry VIII believed he did so too!);
  • In the Hebrew tradition, David was the king whose house and dominion were to stand for ever. He had delivered his nation from tyranny (i.e. the pope and popish clergy), and the re-establishment of the full sovereignty of the ‘house of David’ was to be accomplished through a future prince of that house (i.e. Edward VI!);
  • David had attacked false worship and idols (i.e. in Henry’s case by means of the Ten Articles, dissolution of the monasteries and attacks on pilgrimages and purgatory);
  • David had sinned: e.g. Bathsheba, Uriah (NB Henry emphatically did not like to be reminded of this, but his subjects understood the comparison very well).

Henry’s psalter began with Psalm 1: ‘Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly nor stand in the way of sinners … his delight is in the law of the Lord’. To this Henry added the marginal annotation, ”Note who is blessed’. And the nearby illustration shows the royal bedroom, with a king meditating on a book; a king who is both an Old Testament theocrat and a Tudor monarch and supreme head, clad in the clothes worn by Henry VIII!

The illustration to Psalm 27 depicts Henry VIII as David slaying Goliath. That to Psalm 53 depicts Henry VIII playing the lyre in the guise of David. It also portrays the king’s fool, Will Somers, who stands at the king’s left and provides the link with the text: ‘The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God”.

By the 1540s Henry no longer thought of David and Solomon as analogues for his monarchy. He was David or Solomon. They were the ideals of his own model of Kingship. And they were fundamental to the BRAND.

The chief architect of the ‘brand’ was Holbein. His classic statement of Henry VIII’s monarchy is the dynastic fresco at Whitehall = family portrait of the Tudors. The Whitehall mural was intended to convey the ‘real presence’ of the Supreme Head of the Church in his dynastic setting. The mural was a display of charismatic power: those who viewed it said it left them feeling ‘abashed and annihilated’. It stuck terror into those who penetrated the Privy Chamber 40 years after the King’s death. The King acquired a supernatural presence. The mural was destroyed in the Whitehall fire of 1698, but the composition is known from the Holbein cartoon of the left hand side and from copies of the frescoes made for Charles II. The legend which appeared on the tablet at the centre of the composition read:

If you find pleasure in seeing fair pictures of heroes

Look then at these! None greater was ever portrayed.

Fierce is the struggle and hot the disputing: the question [is]

Does the father, or does the son – or do both – have the preeminence?

One ever withstood his enemies and his country’s destruction,

Finally giving his people the blessing of peace;

But the son, born to greater things, drove out of his councils

His worthless ministers and ever supported the just.

And in truth, the overweening power of the Pope bowed to his resolve,

When the sceptre of power was wielded by Henry VIII,

Under whose reign the true religion was restored to the nation

And pure doctrine began to be held in honour.

Holbein also did a watercolour miniature of Henry VIII as Solomon receiving the homage of the Queen of Sheba. By far the most compelling image of the Henrician royal supremacy, the figure of Solomon is a portrait of Henry VIII. The Queen of Sheba was a traditional emblem of the Church, and the composition illustrates Henry VIII as Supreme Head receiving the homage of the Church of England. The cloth of estate behind the throne bears a Latin inscription based on verses from the Old Testament (I Kings 10:9; II Chronicles 9:7-8), announcing that Henry VIII is appointed directly by, and is accountable only to, God. (To cement this point, in a place where the text of Holbein’s inscription differed from the text of the Vulgate edition of the Bible as it was traditionally cited, the word ‘constitutus’ has been bracketed in order to remove any ambiguity that might imply that Henry VIII had been ‘elected’ or ‘acclaimed’ king by popular consent.

The inscription reads:

‘Happy are your men and happy are these your servants, who stand in your presence, and hear your wisdom. Blessed is the Lord your God, who delighted in you, to set you upon his throne, to be King (‘constitutus’) by the Lord your God.’

NB The fear was that ‘constitutus’ might be read as ‘elected’ or ‘acclaimed’ rather than directly appointed by God.

The inscription on the steps of the throne read:

‘By your virtues you have exceeded your reputation.’

So this is the BRAND: the most potent images of Henry VIII are the Holbein images: the cartoon, the Thyssen half-length portrait, the image of Henry as Solomon, the image on the title page of the Coverdale Bible. (There are other images – we will look at these and some of the Holbeins in a moment…)

By establishing the ‘brand’ Holbein conveyed in colour the charismatic ‘real presence’ of Henry VIII as dynastic monarch and theocrat: the new Constantine, the new Justinian, the new Solomon, the new David!

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