Saturday, 25 April 2009

Happy Families: A Deceiving Portrait?

Simon Thurley’s The Royal Palaces of Tudor England: Architecture and Court Life, 1460-1547 is a fascinating read, and contains many wonderful images. Whilst researching for my undergraduate dissertation I came across this interesting drawing. It is designs by Erhad Schön, or his workshop, for the left-hand side of the east window of the chapel of Hampton Court. The drawings date to c.1520/29 and were commissioned by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who by this time was still the owner of this impressive palace. The designs are rather conventional – the royal family are depicted along with three saints, two of which are probable the royal couple’s namesake. This includes (from left to right), St Katherine, St Henry and St George. The three royals are Princess Mary, Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII. They are presented as engaging in prayer emphasising the expected and actual pious nature of the characters in question (and yes – for all his actions Henry was, or at least perceived himself to be extremely devout!).

The designs remind me of a previous family group image – that of Henry VII, Elizabeth of York and their children kneeling before Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate, from the Ordinances of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, London, 1503 (see image to the left). Again the individuals are depicted in prayer, and the children most unrealistically depicted (only four of Henry VII’s children survived infancy, but Prince Edmund and Princesses Elizabeth and Katherine all of whom died as infants are depicted as adults, or at least as adolescents here. Furthermore Princes Arthur and Henry along with Princesses Margaret and Mary were all children when this image was created but all appear older).

A similar situation may have occurred with this image of Henry VIII and his ‘first family’. If this drawing does date to the early 1520s than Princess Mary would have been a small children (she was born in 1516). Yet she is depicted as older. On the other hand Mary’s maturity here could indicate a later date, maybe the mid 1520s, or slightly later. The date c.1527/9 could be ruled out as in 1527 Henry asked Wolsey to investigate the validity of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. By this point Henry was arguing that owing to Katherine’s previous union with his brother, she was not his lawful wife. Thus it would have been incredibly bold or, to be blunt, rather foolish for Wolsey to commission an image depicting Henry alongside Katherine in the full regalia of the queen.

I think it is possible that the image dates to the mid 1520s when Mary was sent to Ludlow. I believe that Henry VIII was never confident about having Mary as his heir and by the mid 1520s he was awarding his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, far more titles and powers than his legitimate daughter. Yet Henry was proud of his daughter and commissioned images of her (including the Lucas Horenbout miniature). By 1525 he decided to send her to Ludlow Castle, the traditional seat of the princes of Wales and she went with an impressive household, composed by Wolsey. Importantly, she was sent to represent the king in Wales and the marches. Whilst Henry did not, and never did, officially grant Mary the title of ‘Princess of Wales’ (although other people took to calling her that), he was signifying that she was his daughter, and therefore a suitable candidate to represent him in a part of his realm.

Could then this image date to this period; at which time Mary was no longer an infant locked in the royal nursery but becoming a more active member of the royal family?

Interestingly, if this image does date to the mid 1520s, it belongs to a time when Henry was starting to have significant concerns regarding the lack of a male heir. Beneath this harmonious family portrait lays tensions. It is often believed that Henry stopped sleeping with Katherine around 1525 (which may have been an indication that she had ceased to be able to bear children). Thus it seems Henry had given up on hopes to have a male heir with this wife. At the same time he was advancing his illegitimate son, and according to David Loades in Mary Tudor: The Tragical history of the first Queen of England, he was also keen on separating Mary from Katherine. According to Loades, Henry ‘was keeping his options open, and at the same time separating the child from what he probably saw as the overweening influence of her mother’ (p. 22). Was he perhaps also punishing her for what he came to see as her failure to produce a male child? Despite Henry’s belief that both he and Katherine had sinned by marrying one another he clearly perceived his first two wives to be at fault for the lack of a son.

So this image is fascinating in its attempts to convey a picture of domestic peace when it may in fact date to the beginning of the breakdown of Henry VIII’s first marriage. Poignantly, it may also represent the beginning of one of the most drastic and tragic episodes in Mary’s life.

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