Editor’s Note: I recently surveyed several historians, novelists, and history lovers to solicit their opinions of the greatest historical contributions to English History of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex. In celebration of his remarkable life, tomorrow, on the anniversary of Cromwell’s tragic execution, will explore many of the fascinating responses I received.
Today, enjoy the thoughts of Art Historian Melanie V. Taylor. As you will soon learn, Thomas Cromwell’s contributions included his strong patronage of the arts, particularly but certainly not limited to the brilliance of Hans Holbein the Younger.
Thomas Cromwell – Creator of the Royal ‘Tudor Brand’
by Melanie V. Taylor
Today we are used to seeing the English royals on TV, in photos on social media, and on the front of our newspapers. Back in the 16th century, the royal family were rarely seen in public, therefore their faces were mostly unknown except by the social elite of the court. If I were to ask you to describe Henry VIII to me, how would you do it? Would you flip out your smartphone and show me a miniature portrait of the king by Lucas Horenbout? Probably not, but until the 1530s and only if you were a member of the court, would you be aware of the power of portraiture to reinforce royal might.
The king was aware of the power of portraiture, thanks to having been sent miniature portraits by of the Dauphin and his brother being held hostage by Emperor Charles V after the battle of Pavia. The intention had been for the English king to be so taken with the plight of these two boys that he would intercede with his nephew-in-law for their release, but Henry was more enamoured of the idea of a small portrait being encased in a bejewelled locket than of the diplomatic task allotted to him. It is probable that the French court artist, Jean Clouet, was the hand behind the brush, but unfortunately, these miniature portraits have disappeared. However, the result of receiving these, the English king liked the idea of these small portraits and commissioned his own limner, Lucas Horenbout, to create portraits of himself, Queen Katherine and Princess Mary. There are various surviving examples like the one above that are either stand-alone, or appear on Letters Patent such as those of Thomas Forster (V&A ), but the royal face is there to reinforce the notion that the gift is from the king, and does not form part of a dedicated propaganda programme, nor is Henry’s portrait used to create a defining ‘royal brand’ until the mid-1530s.
Is it pure coincidence that the rise of Thomas Cromwell and that of the artist, Hans Holbein the Younger (c1497-1543), coalesce at the establishment of the Anglican Church, the dissolution of the monasteries and the wider use of imagery to reinforce the king as head of the English church after the break with Rome? I think not.
In 1532 Cromwell was appointed Henry’s Master of the Jewel House and Cromwell commissioned a portrait showing him deep in thought. This portrait now hangs in the Frick Collection, New York facing Holbein’s portrait of Sir Thomas More wearing his chain of office for the Duchy of Lancaster. Cromwell too would go on to hold the post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and no doubt the curators hung these portraits so the two former Chancellors can eye each other across the room. Sir Thomas More, died for his adherence to the Catholic faith and refusal to swear the Oath of Allegiance, and the reformist Cromwell being the man who became the king’s Vicar General (1536) and was, to all intent and purpose, responsible for the break with Rome and establishment of the Anglican Church.
Holbein has caught Cromwell in a moment of deep contemplation and reveals the inner character of this brilliant politician from humble beginnings. Despite this painting having been over cleaned, thus removing much of the delicate subtlety usual in Holbein’s work, it has been established by X-ray analysis that this is the original version.[i] A few years ago, the art historian Bendor Grosvenor was visiting Petworth House and above a door-frame he saw a framed sketch labelled ‘Unknown Man’. Bendor recognised it immediately as a sketch of Thomas Cromwell similar to this pose. Further investigation revealed that up until the 1959 inventory of Petworth House it was known that this was an oil sketch of Cromwell, but somehow during that inventory taking this item got mis-posted. Just goes to show how sloppy administration can easily lose an important piece. What has not been established is who did that sketch.
This narrative is on a piece of vellum some 22.9 x 18.3 cms, and shows King Henry as King Solomon seated on his throne holding an orb and sceptre, surrounded by his court and receiving the Queen of Sheba and her retinue. It has been argued that this small narrative illumination was a gift from Anne Boleyn and that she is represented as the Queen of Sheba. I am not keen on this idea, as it smacks of someone making the facts fit their theory. In my opinion, it is more likely to have been a commission by Thomas Cromwell. The date of 1534 coincides with the Act of Supremacy and the wording, being adaptations of verses from the Old Testament first book of Kings and second book of Chronicles, are designed to illustrate the redefinition of Henry’s power.
In the foreground are the words, REGINA SABA (Queen of Sheba). While no surviving written records of an historical figure of this name exist, she is well documented in the various religious texts of the Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Ethiopian faiths. In I Kings 10: v 1-13, the Old Testament records “And when the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to prove him with hard questions. And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bore spices and very much gold and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart. And King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.”[iii]
While this last sentence might be considered by some to be a reference to Henry’s second wife, it is more likely that the Queen of Sheba represents the Church. Rather than speculate on words that are not present, but have been used in an attempt to prove someone’s pet theory, we are obliged to analyse the words that are.
BEATI VIRI TVI … ET BEATI SERVI HI TVI / QVI ASSISTVNT CORAM TE … OMNITPE ET AVDIVNT / SAPIENTIAM … TVAM come from come from II Chronicles 9: 7 and appear in the blue spaces either side of the enthroned King. They translate as “Happy are thy men, and happy are these thy servants, who stand continually before thee, and hear thy wisdom.” The words on the curtain behind Solomon SIT DOMINVS DEVS TVVS BENEDICTVS, / CVI COMPLACIT IN TE, VT PONERET TE / SVPER THRONVM SVVM, VT ESSES REX / CONSTITVTVS DOMINO DEO TVO are adapted from II Chronicles 9:8 and translate as “Blessed be the Lord thy God, who delighted in thee, to set thee upon his throne to be King elected by the Lord thy God”; and finally, those on the steps – VICISTI FAMAM / VIRTVTIBVS TVIS are “By your virtues you have exceeded your reputation” II Chronicles 9: 6.
Clearly this small narrative is a masterful piece of visual and verbal propaganda created just at the time when the Anglican Church comes into being. The words “Happy are thy men and happy are these thy servants . . .“ suggest a male patron, and furthermore someone with a deep intelligence as to how the words would be interpreted by the recipient and those privileged enough to be shown this image. A contemporary Tudor audience would know their biblical texts far better than today’s, and may well have wondered whether it was Anne Boleyn or Cromwell who had commissioned this. The idea of covert layered messages underlying an apparently obvious one was not new. As an added layer of piquancy, that audience might well have seen parallels in those words from I Kings 10: v1-13 “And King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty” with Henry’s obsession with Anne that had brought about the break with Rome and the establishment of the king as head of the Anglican Church. Without definitive evidence of patronage, no doubt the identity of just who commissioned this work will continue to be debated.
The risky project of the publication of the Coverdale Bible in 1535 has an elaborate narrative frontispiece. Holbein was known for his work with the Basel publisher Johannes Froben and it has been argued that, despite this bible being printed by Merten de Keyser, in Antwerp, Holbein created the block for the engraving of this frontispiece. Clearly Holbein was part of the reformist element at court, otherwise why would he have risked his expanding career on something this risky. We know that Cromwell was a key lay reformist, but I leave it to others to debate his involvement in this 1535 project to produce a bible in English.
The text of the Great Bible is a reworking of the 1535 Bible and, according to Kenyon, Miles Coverdale had the manuscript ready for printing by April 1538.[i] If that is the case, then it is not out of the question that Holbein had designed a new frontispiece long before he departed for his trip round Europe at the behest of the king and his Chief Minister to paint the various portraits of prospective royal brides. The history of the printing of the Great Bible and how Cromwell managed to bring the various presses and plates back to England is told elsewhere. Certainly the various works for the Master of François de Rohan are of varying quality and in my opinion, not up to the level of Master Holbein or of this engraving.
You have to ask yourself, if Cromwell were already aware of the talent for visual propaganda he had in the person of Hans Holbein, why would he engage an unknown Frenchman lacking the knowledge of the complex English iconography that is very apparent in this frontispiece? Also, if Holbein did actually design the block for the 1535 Coverdale Bible, which was also printed abroad, then it stands to reason that he could have done the same for this one long before the printing process began.
From the various surviving miniature portraits of Cromwell, which are described as being ‘after Holbein’, it becomes apparent that Henry VIII’s Chief Minister, Master of the Jewel House, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Principal Secretary, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Lord Privy Seal, and Vicar General was well aware of the benefits of being able to give a portrait of himself as a diplomatic gift to visiting worthies. However, Cromwell’s use of visual propaganda was not confined to large portraits, diplomatic gifts in the form of miniature portraits and the inclusion of himself in the frontispiece of the Great Bible. Thanks to the incredible Sherlock Holmes ability of researcher Terry Fitzgerald, we now know that Cromwell used Holbein to record the image of his son Gregory. The commissioning of a portrait of his young son and heir gives us a glimpse of the family man behind the more calculating face of the Master of the Jewel House portrait in the Frick. Later, as an adult Gregory commissioned a miniature portrait, possibly as a present for his wife, Elizabeth Seymour (now in the Pushkin Museum, and no image is currently available.)
The 1530s is also the period that Holbein paints those iconic portraits of Henry VIII. The small head and shoulders image of the king, now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Spain, is striking. The online version makes you wonder what it would be like to come within the orbit of the man with the unsympathetic piggy eyes, small pinched mouth and the burgeoning reputation of being explosive if crossed. Seeing it in the flesh is remarkable. If Henry were to blink, then I would not be surprised.
A full-length portrait of the king, now hanging in the Walker Gallery, Liverpool, has been described by David Starkey as ‘the first portrait of a fat man’.[i] This portrait is probably the image you would have presented in answer to the question at the beginning of this article. Henry is majestic, powerful; Holbein manages to convey certain elements in this face that suggests this man is not one to be crossed.
Although this finished image was painted by the workshop of Holbein and derives from the cartoon for the Whitehall mural, now in the NPG, London, it has become the iconic image of Henry VIII. The cartoon version was used to form part of the Whitehall mural painted in 1537 in Henry’s private apartments, destroyed by fire in 1698. By 1537, the king was very keen on the use of his image to promote the Tudor right to rule, and the mural is a clear statement of dynasty. Even though we know that Henry was intelligent, we also know that his interests lay in more active pursuits. The use of imagery laying down a trail for future generations to admire and glorify suggests a more complex intelligence. You can almost picture Henry listening to the suggestion that using the talents of Master Holbein to immortalise the Tudor dynasty might be a good idea. With a wave of his hand he might well have said “Yes, brilliant idea. See to it Cromwell!” Then he turns to his best friend and suggests, “Now Brandon, what say you we go out to the field and see if we can find us some sport?” But this is pure speculation on my part, with just a hint of Hollywood.
The more art historians examine the work of Holbein during his second sojourn in England together with the career of Thomas Cromwell, it becomes increasingly clear that Holbein’s talents are utilised by Master Cromwell to promote the royal family; yet I wonder whether this king would have taken to this form of display if he had not had the genius of Cromwell to persuade him of the benefits of creating a visual ‘brand’. Likewise, would Cromwell have had the temerity to use narrative imagery and portraiture if he had not had the talent of Hans Holbein on which to draw? Probably not, but luckily for us Cromwell rose to prominence and through his deliberate use of the talents of Hans Holbein the Younger, they allow us to enter the Tudor world and appreciate its glory, both in word in the form of the Great Bible and by the portraiture of those in power during the latter part of the reign of Henry VIII.
R.I.P Master Cromwell.
M V Taylor
Art historian & novelist.
[i] Lecture at the National Gallery. 2006.
[i] X-ray analysis revealed pentimenti alterations, thus determining it being the original version of the three surviving versions of this portrait. John Rowlands, Holbein, Boston: David R. Godine, 1985, pp. 137–38.
[ii] RCIN 912188: Royal Collection.org.
Having studied the History of Art, Architecture & Design at Kingston University, Surrey (UK), in 2005, Melanie V. Taylor embarked on a full-time Master of Arts degree in Medieval & Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent, graduating in the summer of 2007.
Now living in Surrey with her terrier, she lectures on both art history and history. The various courses she has taught in art history are Art & Architecture in Renaissance 1350-1500; The Exchange of Ideas between Southern & Northern Europe 1400-1600; The Italian High Renaissance & Mannerism; The Stranger Painters of the Tudor Court (stranger is a way of describing foreigners); The Marketing of Monarchy; Elizabeth I – the Age of Gloriana; The Golden Age of Dutch Art. My medieval history courses include The Normans in Europe; The Reconquest of Spain; The Rise of the Venetian Republic; The Albigensian Crusade; France 1450 – 1500; I also run study days on the Life and Works of Hans Holbein the Younger; The History of the Tudor Miniature; Nicholas Hilliard – Elizabeth I’s Miniature Portraitist. In addition, she gives talks to art clubs on all various art movements, which tend to be technical as opposed to lots of the history of the period and the artists.
In November 2007, she started Ashtead Art Lovers, which meets on the last Friday of the month. You can see what they have looked at over the past ten years on the “What we have looked at before“ page. Art is a very much a matter of opinion, which is why Mell steers away from the artists of the latter part of the 20th century and concentrates on earlier periods.
In the past, she has written articles for the Tudor Society. Now she is able to continue her research into the creators and imagery of illuminated manuscripts of the late 15th and 16thcentury. Why not visit Melanie V. Taylor – Art Historian with an Interest in Visual Messages occasionally to see what Mell is up to.