Portraits

Henry VIII 1491-1547

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.

François 1er 1515 - 1547

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.

mary boleyn
Mary Boleyn
Anne Boleyn
Three women. Sisters and daughter/niece. But are they who we think we are? Historians cannot degree on a single portrait that is definitively either sister. As I’ve already described, 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 first two portraits above are the truest of the two women I’ve written about in my novel. The portrait of Mary Boleyn is by Lucas Horenbout and entitled ‘Miniature of an unknown woman’. The one of Anne is by John Hoskins, a 17th century miniaturist, who claimed he copied it from an ancient original. The locket was worn by Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth and up-close, shows a family resemblance.

I haven’t had the chance to view either of the above portraits (depicting two very attractive, alluring young women), but when I was at Hever Castle, I stood in front of one of Mary and one of Anne. I was drawn to Mary’s cupid bow mouth and felt that here was a woman who showed considerable intelligence in playing the game of love for the benefit of herself and her family. Anne, on the other hand, 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.

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. The portrait most associated with her (in the National Portrait Gallery, London) depicts a thin, hard-faced woman with pointed features, surely not one who could capture the heart of a man like Henry Tudor for so long. After much deliberation and a careful study of all the ‘portrait candidates’, I feel the above one of Anne by John Hoskins, a 17th century miniaturist ( who claimed he copied it from an ancient original), appears to be the closest.

Hever Castle was Anne’s childhood home from the age of three and when I stood in her bedroom there, I felt very close to her. Standing in front of a different version of the same portrait (dated 1534), I became aware of a much sensitive, dreamy woman than the ruthless, almost hysterical one we’re used to reading about. Yet still one a woman who’d been clever enough to get the best out of a tricky situation.

Life at the Tudor court was notoriously fraught with danger, and although Anne was navigating its waters with a certain aplomb, without a male heir in the cradle, she was far from secure. The woman in front of me had a sadness about her, a disappointed air, knowing that with each humiliating new tryst Henry began, it was a rejection of the great love he’d once had for her. He was also showing her it was time to keep her end of the bargain and produce the son she’d promised him.