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King Edward VI and the Pope

2 of 47 portraits of Thomas Cranmer

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© National Portrait Gallery, London

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King Edward VI and the Pope

by Unknown artist
oil on panel, circa 1575
24 1/2 in. x 35 3/4 in. (622 mm x 908 mm)
Purchased, 1960
Primary Collection
NPG 4165

Artistback to top

Sittersback to top

This portraitback to top

Dendrochronological analysis shows that the panel on which this intriguing picture is painted comes from a tree that was felled between 1574 and 1590. The painting may well have been produced to commemorate the anti-papal policies of Edward VI and to celebrate the successful re-establishment of the Church of England under Elizabeth I. It shows Henry VIII on his deathbed (left), pointing towards his successor Edward VI. To the right of Edward are members of his council including the Protector, Lord Somerset, and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. In the inset (top right) is a scene of the destruction of holy images, and below Edward, the Pope is crushed by 'the worde of the Lord' - written in English. The blank white spaces may have been intended for further anti-Catholic inscriptions.
Conservation of this painting was supported by the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Art Conservation Project.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Audio Guide
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Bolland, Charlotte; Cooper, Tarnya, The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered, 2014 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12th September 2014 to 1st March 2015), p. 85
  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 20
  • Cooper, Tarnya; Fraser, Antonia (foreword), A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 2012, p. 5
  • Gittings, Clare, The National Portrait Gallery Book of The Tudors, 2006, p. 15
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 20 Read entry

    Until recently, this painting was thought to date from Edward’s reign, and to be a comment on the further protestantisation of the Church; it has now been convincingly shown that it dates from the reign of Elizabeth I, and was addressed to the queen and her government as a reminder of the appropriate direction the church settlement should take. Research has demonstrated that the strikingly unusual depiction of key objects such as Henry VIII’s bedpost and the collapsed building in the scene of iconoclasm at top right was borrowed from a Dutch source not available before the mid-1560s.

  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 41
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 41 Read entry

    This complex allegorical painting has been the subject of a complete monograph, The King's Bedpost, by the historian Margaret Aston. She has managed to make sense of what is going on in the picture. Henry VIII is sitting on his deathbed and pointing towards Edward VI, his son and heir. Beneath Edward is the vanquished Pope, with the inscription on his chest ALL FLESHE IS GRASSE. To the right sit Edward's Privy Councillors. It was always assumed that the painting dated from 1547, but the ornamental bedpost of Henry VIII's bed derives from a print published in 1564, and the detail in the top right-hand corner in which soldiers are smashing images comes from a print published in the second half of the 1560s. So instead of being a work of ecclesiastical propaganda from Edward's reign, it must date from the late 1560s and indicates the trememdous hostility to the Pope still current in Elizabeth I's reign.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 719
  • Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, p. 21,294,344

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

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Events of 1575back to top

Current affairs

Queen Elizabeth I declines the offer of sovereignty of the Netherlands made by William of Orange, leader of the Dutch Protestant resistance to Spanish rule.
The royal favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester hosts a lavish entertainment for the Queen at Kenilworth.

Art and science

The composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis dedicate Cantiones Sacrae (Sacred Songs) to Queen Elizabeth I after receiving a royal patent for the exclusive right to publish music.


Facing bankruptcy, Philip II of Spain suspends all payments by the Spanish crown. Don Luis de Requesens can no longer pay his troops in the Netherlands.
Akbar, Mughal Emperor of India, conquers Bengal.
The Battle of Nagashino features the first decisive use of firearms in Japanese warfare.

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Andrea Di Carlo

27 May 2016, 10:52

This painting has attracted a great deal of scholarship, but British historian Margaret Aston (1932-2014) provided a ground-breaking historical interpretation of it in her book "The King's Bedpost: Reformation and Iconography in a Tudor Group Portrait" (1993). She contends that the painting was produced at a much later stage, during the Elizabethan Age, where iconoclasm resurged, as it is posited in the inset in the right-hand corner; both King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I were likened to Old Testament iconoclastic kings, Edward VI being Josiah and Queen Elizabeth being Hezekiah.

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