When most people think of Henry V111’s appearance, they perhaps imagine a bloated figure, quite capable of cruelty and tyranny to his six wives: all in all, distinctly unappealing. They certainly don’t see him through the eyes of Thomas Howard, the central character in my novel, who describes him as follows:
“The young King (a couple of months shy of his twenty-ninth birthday) was a resplendent figure, clad from head to toe in May-time green. He had a most pleasing appearance: “His skin is as clear and fair as that of a pretty maid,” one foreign envoy, wishing to curry favour, had written home. “His closely-cropped auburn hair is combed straight and short in the French fashion, and his red beard neatly trimmed.”
The blue-grey eyes (inherited from his Yorkist mother) beneath arched, perhaps too delicately feminine eyebrows, had a questioning look in them today. I knew they always took in every detail of the world around him.’… For me, standing in front of this Hever Castle portrait of Henry by Joos van Cleve, from the early 1530s (around the time of Thomas Howard’s description), the era when Henry was in full pursuit of Anne Boleyn, was a revelation. The face in front of me was sensitive, belonging to someone who loved water. There was a dreamy quality about him that was appealing. However, I also felt that the thin lips came from a life of pursing them at every disappointment he encountered, and bottling up bitterness. He definitely cared about his appearance and seemed a well-mannered, fastidious man. This portrait pre-dates the behaviour that has brought him such notoriety. Here, he was trying to (legally) rid himself of a once cherished wife that had failed to give him a male heir. He was still full of hope that his one true love, Anne Boleyn, could give him a whole nursery full.
I think the first time I realized that portraits could be a way of connecting with the past for me was when I stood in front of one of François the first of France in the Condé museum, located in the Château de Chantilly. Of course, in my research I’d looked at the portrait many times in books but this time it was completely different. The page in the book made the portrait seem flat, dull, and lifeless.
The reality was totally different, as if the personality of the sitter had somehow lingered in the oils used by the painter. Instead of a face that Desmond Seward, the historian, once described as (in a woman) ‘belle laide’, it was as if I was standing in front of a colour photograph or a video recording, leading me straight back to Jean Clouet and his illustrious sitter in 1515. When I looked at the portrait in a book, I saw a strong, interesting face with a very long nose; close-up, the most remarkable thing was François’s incredible sense of humour, teasing me as if he knew I was looking at him. Right then and there, it changed my whole view of the King of France, called ‘the sun king of the sixteenth century’ by Seward. The laughter in his dancing brown eyes bubbled up from within and I left the gallery knowing I’d found my man.
Anne Boleyn has been my most elusive character to pin down and where portraits are concerned, controversy still rages about what she actually looked like. After much deliberation and a careful study of all the ‘portrait candidates’, I feel that the one of Anne by John Hoskins, a 17th century miniaturist, who claimed he copied it from an ancient original appeared to be the closest. The locket was worn by Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth and up-close, shows a family resemblance.
When I was at Hever Castle, I stood in front of Anne portrait. It seemed dreamier and more sensitive than sensual. She also seemed much cleverer in knowing how to get the best of a situation.
Life at the Tudor court was notoriously fraught with danger, and although here were two women navigating its waters with a certain aplomb, in the end, neither of them could adequately defend themselves.
This portrait of Mary Boleyn is by Lucas Horenbout and entitled ‘Miniature of an unknown woman’. As with Mary’s sister, Anne, there are several portrait versions claiming to be a true likeness. I have looked at all of them and decided this one best matches the Mary I’ve described in my novel. The ‘unknown woman’ is twenty-five which corresponds with Mary’s age; in 1525, Mary had been married to William Carey for five years and, as mistress to Henry, possibly borne the King two children.
Mary has a pretty sensual face and a self-assurance that won her the admiration of two European kings: François the first of France and Henry Tudor of England. When I was writing my novel, unlike Anne, who was very difficult to capture, Mary came racing across the pages with a zest for life and a sense of mischief and fun I imagined she possessed at the time. She didn’t leave her relationship with Henry rich and set up for life (even though her husband received favours). In fact, when William Carey died of the sweating sickness in June 1528, and her sister was already high in the King’s affections, Mary became impoverished and took to begging at court for money. Instead of making a prestigious second marriage, approved of by Anne and Henry, in 1534, Mary caused a scandal by finding love with a soldier of lower birth and turning up at court obviously pregnant. Anne was outraged and perhaps a little jealous that Mary had found true happiness when it continued to elude her. There is an irony that the eldest of the three Boleyn children, and to outward appearances, the least successful, she alone survived to middle age and died peacefully in her own bed.
The Locket Ring
There is a very touching story regarding this locket ring, removed from the finger of Elizabeth 1st, Anne Boleyn’s only daughter, on her death in March, 1603. It is referred to as ‘the Chequers ring’ as it is kept in the British Prime Minister’s country residence. It is made of mother-of-pearl and the band is set with rubies: an exquisite piece hiding a precious secret. Inside are two miniature enamel portraits: one of Elizabeth at around the age of forty, and another of a lady from the court of Henry V111, wearing a French hood. The last time Elizabeth was in her mother’s arms was at the end of April, 1536, in Greenwich Palace. The King and Queen were seen at an open window quarrelling and Anne then moved away in defeat.
Although there are no written records of Elizabeth speaking publicly of the mother of whom she had no memory, the fact that she wore this ring to the end of her days speaks volumes. The tiny portrait of Anne shows a woman of great wealth, strength of character, and beauty. There is a vivacity and warmth that shines out, as if Anne finally wishes to be found, after all the other portraits that fall woefully short of a true likeness. Elizabeth and Anne were joined together by this ring during Elizabeth’s lifetime to compensate for the way they were so cruelly torn apart at the end of Anne’s life. It is a locket ring of hope and everlasting love.