King Henry VIII

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King Henry VIII

by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist
oil on panel, circa 1520
20 in. x 15 in. (508 mm x 381 mm)
Purchased, 1969
Primary Collection
NPG 4690

On display in Room 1 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

  • King Henry VIII (1491-1547), Reigned 1509-47. Sitter associated with 99 portraits.

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

This painting is a version of a pre-Holbein portrait type of Henry VIII. Although Holbein's image of the king, as seen in the Whitehall cartoon, still dominates as the most widespread likeness of Henry VIII, there were several other portrait types produced during his lifetime by other artists or workshops.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Bolland, Charlotte, The Tudors Passion, Power and Politics, 2022, p. 26
  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 20 Read entry

    Prince Henry was a second son, born to wield power but not to hold the throne. However, the death of his older brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, in 1502 changed his fate, and he acceded the throne in 1509, shortly before his eighteenth birthday. Perhaps most popularly known for his six marriages, Henry’s reign was characterised by ambition abroad and ruthlessness at home, as he initiated the break from the Catholic Church in Rome and transferred the Church’s assets to the Crown and nobility following the dissolution of religious houses in England. Henry was tall and athletic, and was described by the Venetian ambassador in 1515 as: ‘the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height ... his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight in the French fashion; and a round face’. This image is one of the earliest-surviving portraits of Henry VIII as king; infrared reflectography reveals that the preparatory drawing was based on a pattern depicting a man with a thinner face and smaller features. The artist may have had to modify an earlier portrait type derived from an image of Henry made when he was still a prince in order to more convincingly depict the king as he approached thirty.

  • 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. 42
  • 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), pp. 58-63
  • Cannadine, Sir David (Introduction); Cooper, Tarnya; Stewart, Louise; MacGibbon, Rab; Cox, Paul; Peltz, Lucy; Moorhouse, Paul; Broadley, Rosie; Jascot-Gill, Sabina, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, 2018 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA, 7 October 2018 -3 February 2019. Bendigo Art Gallery, Australia, 16 March - 14 July 2019.), p. 94 Read entry

    Henry VIII married Katherine of Aragon just before his coronation and they ruled the country together for over twenty years. They had a number of children, but only their daughter Mary survived infancy. The pressure to provide the realm with a male heir to the throne ultimately caused Henry to doubt the legitimacy of their union and he sought to have his marriage annulled in order to marry Anne Boleyn.

    Various portraits of Henry and Katherine were produced during their marriage. The composition and pose of these two paintings (NPG 4690 and NPG L246), dating from around 1520, suggest that they are examples of portrait types that were probably intended for display as a pair. The king and queen are depicted wearing the most luxurious cloths of gold and velvet. Henry is posed in the process of either removing or placing a ring on his right hand; this gesture was frequently used in royal portraits and may refer to the acceptance of kingship or the bestowal of authority. When Henry married Anne Boleyn, Katherine was exiled from court. She continued to refer to herself as queen, however, and an inventory taken after her death poignantly records that she retained a paired image of herself and Henry among her possessions.

  • Gittings, Clare, The National Portrait Gallery Book of The Tudors, 2006, p. 6
  • Lucinda Hawksley, Moustaches, Whiskers and Beards, 2014, p. 20
  • Rab MacGibbon, National Portrait Gallery: The Collection, p. 15
  • Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 28
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 40
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 296
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 32 Read entry

    The reign of Henry VIII, who succeeded his father to the throne in 1509, aged seventeen, would dramatically change the course of English history. Notorious for his six marriages, Henry rejected the authority of the Pope in Rome, dissolved the country’s religious houses, and established himself as head of the Church in England. This painting pre-dates the Holbein portrait type of Henry that is now so familiar, and was produced when the young king was married to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. It suggests something of the King’s noted athleticism and magnificent dress.

    Henry is posed removing a gold ring from the little finger of his right hand. Extensive underdrawing, visible in infra-red light, shows that the shape of Henry’s face was changed during painting and was originally closer to existing likenesses of his brother Arthur, and of his father Henry VII. The green damask background and gilded corners suggest that this work may have had a companion portrait and it is possible that the composition was intended to be displayed alongside a portrait of Katherine of Aragon.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1520back to top

Current affairs

The 'Field of Cloth of Gold' - an elaborately staged meeting between the courts of King Henry VIII and Francis I of France takes place near Calais.

Art and science

The German gunsmith Gaspard Kotter invents rifling in the barrels of firearms, improving their range and accuracy.


The German Protestant reformer Martin Luther publicly burns the Papal bull Exsurge Domine (Arise, O Lord), written in response to his 95 Theses. Luther is subsequently excommunicated.
The Stockholm Bloodbath - Danish troops massacre Swedish nobles and churchmen opposed to the rule of Christian II of Denmark.
Death of Selim I and succession of Suleiman I as Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

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Harriet Bennett

14 August 2018, 17:20

Hi - the decorative buttons on Henry VIII's sleeve - do they not allude to Catherine of Aragon's badge of a bundle of arrows used as one of the motifs on the wonderful desk at the V&A? Be wonderful if you could confirm and I can't find any research to confirm this. Thanks!