One of the most dominating figures in world history is King Henry VIII. He ruled England for the first half of the 1500s but is often remembered for his unorthodox personal life. One of Henry VIII’s most trusted men was his painter Hans Holbein. After an art history expert found one of his old paintings, it led her to uncover more clues about the king and his past.
Art Expert Franny Moyle Had A Hunch
Art historians are always looking for the meaning behind all kinds of vintage artwork. Franny Moyle, a renowned art history expert, decided to do a little digging into King Henry VIII’s personal painter.
Moyle realized that Hans Holbein might have left a mysterious message in one of his lesser-known pieces.
The History Of Hans Holbein
One of history’s most accomplished portrait artists was Hans Holbein. Originally from Germany, he was tasked with creating a realistic portrait of the king.
After doing a great job, Henry VIII hired him to complete more portraits of himself and those close to him. One particular portrait from 1540 caught Moyle’s attention.
Holbein was born into an artistic German family where his father was the one who taught him to paint.
During his early adulthood, he would travel across Europe with different painting jobs. This eventually led him to work with King Henry VIII and settle in England. He soon became one of the country’s most famous artists.
Digging Deeper Into Holbein
Moyle was already quite familiar with the work of Holbein before she saw this particular portrait, but wanted to do a little more investigating.
She became aware that many of his pieces would often contain secret messages or signs that only those close to the subject would know. Every detail in the painting had a purpose.
Looking Closer At The Piece
The 1540 piece that Moyle was studying was a portrait of one of Henry VIII’s six wives. However, she wasn’t quite sure which wife it was.
She realized that there was a lot more to the portrait than originally thought and did some research on the king and his wives.
Who Was King Henry VIII?
King Henry VIII is one of England’s most notable historic figures. He ruled the country from 1509 until his passing in 1547.
During his time on the throne he managed to marry six different women and each came with a lot of grief and drama. Many of the king’s personal relationships are reflected in Holbein’s work.
Henry Wanted An Heir
During this era, the king married in order to create an heir who would rule after him. He became king at 17-years-old and was married for the first time a month later.
His first wife was Catherine of Aragon and the pair had six children, but only one (Mary) survived into adulthood.
An Illegal Divorce
After realizing that Catherine had not given him a suitable heir, he asked the Pope for a divorce. Even after he refused, Henry defied him and did so anyway.
He later founded the Church of England and married his second wife Anne Boleyn in 1533. There would soon be trouble ahead.
No Male Heir From Anne
Anne was not able to give Henry a male heir, which was devastating to the king. He did everything he could to break off the union, including accusing her of adultery and other crimes.
The king was the most powerful man in the country, so he called for Anne’s beheading.
Moving On To Jane Seymour
Within days after Anne’s beheading, King Henry VIII married his third wife Jane Seymour. She was able to give birth to a male heir who would later become King Edward VI.
However, Jane did not make it more than a few weeks after his birth. This was a huge tragedy for Henry.
A Fourth Marriage Thrust Upon Him
Since the passing of Jane was very traumatic for the king, he was reluctant to marry again. He was later advised to marry one of the two sisters from a royal German family.
After seeing their portraits, he chose Anne of Cleves. After seeing her in person, he thought she was unattractive and got the marriage annulled.
Catherine Howard Enters The Picture
With his fourth marriage only lasting a few days, he then set his sights on the 19-year-old Catherine Howard.
Similarly to Anne Boleyn, the king wanted to divorce his fifth wife and accused her of adultery and other crimes. She was later beheaded in 1542 making Henry a single man once again.
The Sixth And Final Wife
A year after the beheading of Catherine Howard, Henry married his sixth wife Catherine Parr. Historians believe she was quite influential after changing the culture of English royalty for good.
Parr was always there for the king’s support, including her help in mending his relationship with the Tudor court and during the war against France.
The End Of An Era
About four years into their marriage, Henry finally passed. Catherine Parr also met her fate a year later.
All of this information about King Henry VIII, his six wives, and his royal painter is what helped Moyle uncover some new details about the 1540 painting. She was ready to share her findings.
Miniatures Were Popular
It was common for figures of note to have their own portrait artist, but during this time certain portraits were very popular.
Holbein was asked to create miniature portraits of the king and those close to him. These kinds of portraits were favored at the time, so people could carry them around easily.
Who Would Have Miniature Portraits?
Typically, the people who would be fortunate enough to have their own miniature portraits were those in the aristocracy.
These people were known for having dramatic relationships with others and would use them to be shared amongst themselves. One particular miniature portrait caught the eyes of Moyle and she was ready to decipher its contents.
The Identity Of The Woman In The Portrait
The piece was created in 1540 by Holbein and was thought to depict Henry VIII’s fifth wife Catherine Howard. Moyle soon realized that this was inaccurate.
She exclaimed that the woman was not Catherine Howard, but instead the king’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves. Most art historians didn’t believe her claims at first.
Explaining Her Hypothesis
Moyle knew that Holbein would often include hidden symbols and signs in his paintings, which weren’t obvious to most observers.
First, she noticed that the miniature painting had been mounted to a playing card. This wasn’t the first time Holbein had done this. He had also done another miniature with a playing card for Thomas Cromwell.
The Thomas Cromwell Painting
Thomas Cromwell was an important figure in King Henry VIII’s court. The miniature painting Holbein did for Cromwell was on an ace of spades playing card.
Cromwell had a reputation for speaking in blunt, plain terms, which could go with the famous saying “to call a spade a spade.” The playing card choice was no coincidence.
The Playing Card In The 1540 Painting
Holbein loved including little visual teasers in his work. The playing card used for the 1540 painting was on a four of diamonds. The four is referring to Henry’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves.
Since the four is present, this debunks the myth that it is a painting of his fifth wife Catherine Howard.
How To Be Sure
Holbein wouldn’t have chosen a playing card at random for this painting. Both Catherine and Anne were married to Henry during the year this piece was painted.
It gave them both an equal chance to be the subject in the portrait, so Moyle looked at more details just to be sure.
Getting The Details Organized
Moyle was drawn to the large jewels the woman is wearing in the painting, which could have belonged to either Catherine or Anne.
Art historians thought the pendant belonged to Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour. “When Henry got rid of one wife, he was in the habit of handing down their belongings to their successors,” said Moyle.
Catherine And Anne Had A Big Age Gap
Moyle was able to solidify her theory by looking at the woman’s face. Catherine was a teenager when she married Henry, while Anne was in her late twenties.
The face of the woman was arguably older, which would lead Moyle to eliminate Catherine as an option. Moyle needed to look for other Holbein paintings to make her claim.
It’s Obviously Anne Of Cleves
Moyle was able to find another portrait of Anne of Cleves and found it to be a match to the 1540 miniature.
“They’re the same woman. She has this soporific expression in both paintings,” said Moyle. While Anne usually wore traditional German clothes, she is wearing English clothing in the portrait to appease the king in order to be considered more attractive.
A Hopeful Do-Over
Anne was worried that the king was going to divorce her, so she did anything she could to win his affection.
“So, I think there’s a good reason why, in early 1540 [Anne]…might suggest Holbein paint her again, so that in the little miniature that Henry had in his pocket, he could see a version of Anne that was more appealing,” said Moyle.