The Portraits of the Wives of Henry VIII


Katherine of Aragon

Katherine of Aragon c. 1502 by Michael Sittow.
Katherine of Aragon c. 1502 by Michael Sittow.
Katherine of Aragon in later life by Lucas Hornebolte.
Katherine of Aragon in later life by Lucas Hornebolte.

 

Katherine of Aragon in later life, miniature attributed to Lucas Hornebolte.
Katherine of Aragon in later life, miniature attributed to Lucas Hornebolte.

The portraits of Katherine of Aragon all vary hugely. The first one was painted after the death of Arthur, Prince of Wales, during Katherine’s widowhood. She would have been about sixteen, and the auburn hair is clear in the painting, unlike the dark hair she is often seen to have. She is wearing a cumbersome hood, and is dressed in black, typical for mourning. Her gaze is focused down, rather than at the painter.

The second painting is probably supposed to be Katherine as Henry VIII’s wife and Queen of England. She still wears the cumbersome Spanish hood, but her hair is covered with a veil and the hood is pulled further forward. Her dress is red and gold and it is decorated with more jewels than the first one. Her body seems to be bigger, and has lost some of the childish beauty of the 1502 one. The constant pregnancies and miscarriages did this to her.

The final painting was done about the time that Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn and decided to divorce Katherine. Her looks have completely gone, due to the pregnancies and the miscarriages and the fear of rejection. Her auburn hair has faded, and she looks less like a queen than in the previous portrait. Her dress is still rich and she still wears a lot of jewels, but she looks tired and more vulnerable.

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait, copy of a lost original.
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait, copy of a lost original.
Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery, copy of a lost original.
Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery, copy of a lost original.
Sketch by Hans Holbein of Anne Boleyn.
Sketch by Hans Holbein of Anne Boleyn.

The first and second portraits of Anne are the most famous ones. The second shows her hair as auburn, where the first shows it as dark, which is how it is described by most first hand accounts. She wears a French hood, from her time in France at the court of Queen Claude. Her eyes are dark “hooks for the soul” and she wears her trademark ‘B’ necklace in both portraits. Her cheekbones are defined and her chin is pointed, also as described in first-hand accounts. She wears a dark dress with a low bodice and in the second portrait, she also has red accents. In the first portrait she holds a red rose, symbolising her connection to the royal Tudor house. Both were painted during Anne’s tenure as Queen 1533-36, as they are labelled ‘regina’, and it is unlikely she would have had a portrait painted before then.

The final drawing is a Holbein sketch and has long been debated over whether it is in fact Anne Boleyn, or another lady at court. It seems unlikely that a queen would dress like that, and allow a portrait to be drawn. That is, unless it was a preliminary drawing and Holbein then developed it into a full-colour portrait, which has since gone missing. The cap seems to be very unlike Anne, but the dress tied up to the neck is consistent with Anne trying to hide a small deformity, if she had one.

Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein.
Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein.
UnknownPossible painting of Jane Seymour at Nidd Hall.
Possible painting of Jane Seymour at Nidd Hall.

The first portrait is the generally accepted image of Jane Seymour, painted when she was queen. Unlike Anne Boleyn, she mimics Katherine of Aragon in wearing a Spanish hood with a veil. Her hair seems to be blondey auburn. She doesn’t seem to be classically beautiful but she does seem to be very richly dressed with a red dress, classically royal, and decorative sleeves, also bedecked in jewels. Her position, facing slightly to one side, with her hands clasped together, suggests that Jane was shy, and not used to public attention. This is exactly what attracted Henry VIII to Jane Seymour – that she was so different to Anne Boleyn.

The second portrait is debated over whether the subject is Anne Boleyn or Jane Seymour. Although the subject wears an ‘AB’ pendant, it is thought that this is a later addition, as the facial structure is very similar to the accepted portrait of Jane. Also, the hood and the dress and jewels are almost identical between the first and second portraits. The style of the dress is also very similar between the two portraits, as is the position of the subject. These similarities, and the fact that the portrait doesn’t bear any resemblance to Anne, strongly suggest that the subject is Jane Seymour.

Anne of Cleves

Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein 1539
Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein 1539
Anne of Cleves by Barthel Bruyn 1530s.
Anne of Cleves by Barthel Bruyn 1530s.

The first portrait is the only definite portrait of Anne of Cleves, and definitely the only one from the period of Henry and Anne’s courtship and marriage. This was the portrait that persuaded Henry to marry her over her sister. Anne is dressed in a typical German style, with a cumbersome head-dress and a high-necked dress with big sleeves. She also wears a lot of jewels but they are very unlike the English ones, a lot more detailed. She is looking directly at the camera; as if she wants Henry to be sure that she isn’t hiding anything, and after what happened to Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, this probably was a clever move.

The second portrait is an earlier portrait from the 1530s at Trinity College, and is less well-known. The posture is the same as in the first one – hands clasped in the same position, but she isn’t looking directly at the camera in the second one, probably not as bothered to be sure she isn’t hiding anything. The head-dress is also similar between the two portraits, classically German, as is the high-necked dress and the jewels. Women were not supposed to reveal themselves in Germany as they did in the English and French courts. Anne herself found that unusual.

Katherine Howard

Disputed portrait of Katherine Howard.
Disputed portrait of Katherine Howard.
Katherine Howard miniature by Hans Holbein.
Katherine Howard miniature by Hans Holbein.

The first portrait makes Katherine look a lot older than she actually was. It was probably towards the end of her queenship. She took after her cousin, Anne Boleyn, with the French style head-dress and the portrait shows her to have auburn hair, unlike Anne. She is wearing a high-necked outfit, with a large jewel at the neck, likely a gift from Henry, if the stories of his generosity towards her are anything to go by. The dress is black embroidered with gold, and only royalty could wear gold. She looks young, but trying to look older by wearing more grown-up clothes.

The second portrait makes Katherine Howard look even younger than the first one. Again, wearing a French hood and a lot of jewels. She’s sitting in a very similar position to that of Jane Seymour, possibly from looking at her portrait and realising that Jane was Henry’s favourite wife. In contrast to the first portrait, Katherine is wearing a lower cut dress, which seems more like her, looking at her promiscuity with Henry Manox, Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper. Her dress is rich and she also seems to be wearing animal fur, again confined to the very upper classes.

Katherine Parr

Katherine Parr at the National Portrait Gallery.
Katherine Parr at the National Portrait Gallery.
Katherine Parr 1545 by Master John.
Katherine Parr 1545 by Master John.

The first portrait is the primary recognised portrait of Katherine Parr and was painted when she was queen. She wears a flat hat with a feather rather than a gable or French hood, possibly a nod to her Protestant beliefs. She also wears a high-necked gown with just a necklace at her neck, again a nod to her Protestant beliefs, as Protestants didn’t believe in decoration, unlike Catholics. Her hair looks dark brown and she has long fingers, which she crosses like Jane Seymour and Katherine Howard did in their portraits. She wears a red dress (very popular with royals) with gold embroidery (again, popular with royals).

In the second portrait, a full length one, Katherine again wears red and gold, with animal fur (possibly ermine) at the sleeves and a large jewel on the bodice. The portrait has previously been identified as Jane Grey, though it now seems more like Katherine Parr. In this portrait she wears a decorative French hood with beads at her neck, and carries a prayer book, typically Protestant. It is unusual for queens to be painted full-length, and this is the only wife of Henry VIII where a full-length portrait still exists.

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12 thoughts on “The Portraits of the Wives of Henry VIII

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    1. I was just outlining some of the opinions that have been given on the portraits. The third of Anne Boleyn is the one most likely to have been considered as hiding a deformity, as G.W. Bernard outlines. Sanders only built on what Chapuys and other Catholic writers had already written.

      The second Jane Seymour portrait does have an AB on the front of her dress, but this was an acquisition of the 18th or 19th centuries.

      There is evidence of the opinions of Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador. He believed that Anne was deformed, as explained in some of his letters to the Emperor: an extra finger / nail and moles and a possible goitre. He explains that she hid them by wearing high collars and long over-hanging sleeves.

      I agree that Henry VIII wouldn’t have fallen in love or married a woman with a noticeable disfigurement, however.

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      1. Where does Chapuys state a belief that Anne was deformed? Ives and Bernard both note a hostile comment from an observer of Anne’s coronation that “The crown became her very ill, and a wart disfigured her very much. She wore a violet velvet mantle, with a high ruff (goulgiel) of gold thread and pearls, which concealed a swelling she has, resembling goître,” but neither attributes the comment to Chapuys. The comment doesn’t mention an extra finger.

        I believe the first portrait of “Katherine Howard” is now thought by many to be one of Jane Seymour’s sister Elizabeth.

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    2. I think it’s fair to post what others think of the portraits. G.W. Bernard and Eric Ives both have substantial sections on the Anne Boleyn portraiture and Bernard believes that it is possible that Anne was disfigured, and as that’s a text I read very closely for my undergrad dissertation last year, I thought it fair to at least mention it.

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  5. Why would Anne be trying to hide a deformity in the third painting but not the first two? Just in case you do not know Anne’s rumors of deformity didn’t come about until Elizabeth’s rein when a man named Robert sanders who hated Elizabeth was trying to defame her reputation . One way of doing that was by saying her mother had deformities and was a witch. Henry was very picky in his woman and I’m sure he would have never picked a woman with a deformity .

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