On King Henry VIII’s Other “Great Matter”

In Northern Renaissance on February 14, 2011 at 5:06 PM

Applying any adjective to describe the influence throughout culture and history to King Henry VIII does him no justice. Henry is known probably most of all by his knack of taking wives, with numerous documentaries, books and dramas dedicated to the lives of the six wives of Henry VIII. His first marriage to Katherine of Aragon and his infatuation with Anne Boleyn produced one of the most detailed divorces of the Renaissance, deemed “The Great Matter”. However, throughout Henry’s reign, another great matter proves to be Henry’s large focus beyond his marital affairs.

King Henry VIII was schooled by Erasmus, considered one of the greatest thinkers of his time and a close friend to another great humanist who later became one of Henry’s many Lord Chancellors, Thomas More. This instilled in Henry a humanist sense within, which would later prove to be the seeds that would overcome his Catholic upbringings and help to bring about the Reformation of the Church of England. And from this split from the Pope’s authority and the Catholic Church of Rome, the inspiration for one of the greatest depictions of King Henry VIII’s reign came to a German painter employed by the king; Hans Holbein.

The Whitehall Mural

This was the Whitehall Mural. I note it in the past tense because, sadly, the original mural, which once encompassed an entire wall of the palace at Whitehall in England and stood three meters tall, was lost in a fire that engulfed the palace. Luckily, several smaller copies were made that still exist to this day, which provides us, in the present, with a great insight into the mind of Henry during the latter half of his reign. As I noted earlier, this mural was painted by Hans Holbein, respected as one of the greatest portrait painters, in 1537 (Henry VIII Patron).

The mural portrays Henry, along with his new wife, Jane Seymour, on the far right, as well as his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, standing above him(The Whitehall Mural). In the center, a large column, covered in rich tapestries of gold and silk, exhibit dominate colors that would have been even more vibrant in its original form. The fixtures that outline the walls and ceilings, as well as the rich clothes adorned on the four figures, portray the wealth and status that Henry held during that time. His stance, which is now recognized as the predominate figure that Henry has been portrayed as in future portraits, displays a power held by both the King of England and the head of the Church.

In the original, it is said that when one walked into the Privy Chambers that this mural adorned, people who entered would be greeted by this imposing figure of Henry, standing around his actual height, a sight which startled the few allowed into his chambers (Henry VIII Patron). This is because of the other key feature that dominated portraits of Henry in later years. His face is pointed straight out towards the audience viewing the mural, his eyes staring out, intimidating any who looked upon his face. This was not the original intention.

A Cartoon By Holbein

A Cartoon of a portion of the Whitehall Mural by Holbein

The image above is an original sketch that was done by Holbein in preparation of the final product, depicting a softer Henry, looking off towards the center of the mural. Whether Holbein or Henry determined the change in Henry’s view in the mural is debated, but the effect and ultimate reason is undeniable. During this period, England was undergoing the drastic Reformation from the Catholic Church to the Church of England, with Henry as the head of the church. There was much uprising, as Henry, seen today during this period as an iconoclast with his destruction of the monasteries in England, attempted to force the people into his new Reformation. While this mural was not seen to many as a public display of his power and influence during this Reformation, the effect is undeniable and flowed into other court paintings, tapestries and propaganda distributed by Henry and his advisors (Henry VIII Patron). Not only is it a masterful work by Holbein, but the motives and themes expressed in this piece is the reason I chose to share its history.

This mural itself, with a portion of the latin inscription on the column literally translated to “The son, born indeed for greater tasks, from the altar. Removed the unworthy and put worthy men in their place” (The Whitehall Mural), proclaimed Henry to have surpassed his father, Henry VII, and to have conquered the Pope and, therefore, the Catholic Church in Rome. The Whitehall Mural, therefore, provides an insight into the mind of Henry during this tumultuous time in English history, as well as hides a potential secret. For the mural was most likely finished at a time when Henry’s weakness, his inability to produce a male heir to the throne, was substantially brought to the forefront of Henry’s, as well as his people’s minds. It was also completed when Jane Seymour was recently revealed to be pregnant, in what would be a final period to the great matter that dominated all of Henry’s reign.

Works Cited

“Henry VIII: Patron or Plunderer? Parts One/Two” Henry VIII: Patron or Plunderer? BBC. BBC Four. 17 Jun. 2009. Television.

“The Whitehall Mural” Henry VIII Revealed. Liverpool Museums. Web. 13 Feb. 2011.

  1. King Henry VIII is one of the more unique Kings. As you stated what most people note about him is the number of wives he had. I think it is interesting that you choice this piece. At least the replica of this piece. This is one of few pieces that have been destroyed by fire and yet where able to still a copy reference too. We now take great care to ensure the safety of beautiful artwork. I find that I love to study murals because as you stated on my comment you never know where to begin. You could study the piece for a long time and still find things you missed.

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