The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered

Past display archive
12 September 2014 - 1 March 2015

Room 1, 2 and 3


This special display allowed visitors to rediscover the well-known Tudor monarchs through the most complete presentation of their portraiture staged to date.

Works from the Gallery’s Collection were presented alongside exceptional loans and a prized possession of each monarch, as well as recent research undertaken as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain project, to help visitors understand how and why such images were made. The search for a ‘real’ portrait of Lady Jane Grey in the sixteenth century was also explored through the display of a commemorative portrait of Jane that dates from the Elizabethan period.

Following its London run The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered formed the core of a larger exhibition organised in partnership with Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais at the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, in 2015.

King Henry VIII by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c. 1520 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Making Art in Tudor Britain

The National Portrait Gallery holds the largest public collection of Tudor and Jacobean paintings in the world. The collections are one of the most significant resources for the understanding of visual culture in the English Renaissance. This research programme offers a unique opportunity to develop and share our knowledge.

Sandy Nairne, Director

Many of the portraits included in this display had been examined as part of the Gallery’s Making Art in Tudor Britain project, in which scientific analysis resulted in new discoveries and insights into the dating, technique and production of Tudor portraits. Details of the project are included below.

Making Art in Tudor Britain was generously supported by an anonymous donor, Arts and Humanities Research Council, Bank of America Merrill Lynch Foundation, the British Academy, the John S Cohen Foundation, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Idlewild Trust, the Leche Trust, the Leverhulme Trust, the Märit and Hans Rausing Charitable Foundation, the Mercers' Company, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and PF Charitable Trust.

The Tudor Monarchs

King Henry VII
King Henry VII by Unknown Netherlandish artist, 1505
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Henry VII (1457–1509)

Reigned 1485–1509

the Crowne which it pleased God to geve us

The first Tudor monarch, Henry Tudor seized the English throne from Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire in 1485, aged twenty-eight. Marriage to Elizabeth of York soon after his coronation helped to heal the dynastic dispute between the houses of Lancaster and York that had resulted in the ‘Wars of the Roses’. Henry’s reign brought a degree of order and stability and he was praised for his legislation although he developed a reputation for avarice.

The Gallery’s oldest portrait, which is of Henry VII, was displayed with a Book of Hours inscribed by the king to his daughter.

New research into this portrait of Henry VII revealed that it was probably painted as part of an unsuccessful marriage proposal by Henry to Margaret of Savoy. Read the case study.

Henry VIII
King Henry VIII by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, circa 1520
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Henry VIII (1491–1547)

Reigned 1509–1547

The Rose both white and Rede / in one rose now doth grow

Henry VIII was seventeen years old when he became king in 1509. He was tall and athletic and was described by the Venetian ambassador in 1515 as 'the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on'. Perhaps most well known for his six marriages, Henry’s reign was characterised by ambition abroad and ruthlessness at home. The lack of a male heir with his first wife Katherine of Aragon ultimately resulted in the annulment of their marriage, causing a break with the Catholic Church in Rome. Henry went on to marry Anne Boleyn and establish himself as the head of a new reformed church, known as the Church of England.

This display included six portraits of Henry VIII, presented together with the king’s rosary on loan from Chatsworth.

Three of the Gallery’s portraits of Henry VIII went through technical examination in order to explore the techniques used in their production. Read about the technical examination.

Edward VI
King Edward VI
by an Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish workshop, dated 1546 to 1547
© Lord Egremont Collection

Edward VI (1537–1553)

Reigned 1547–1553

What a King should England have had if God had given him his father’s age

Edward was only nine years old when he became king. His reign, under the stewardship of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and subsequently John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, saw the establishment of the Protestant Church in England. The desire to preserve a Protestant legacy lay at the heart of his attempt to write his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth out of the succession and to name Lady Jane Grey his heir. Edward died of tuberculosis shortly before his sixteenth birthday.

Portraits of Edward VI were presented together with a page from his diary in which he reports his father’s death.

Four portraits of Edward VI were scientifically examined to explore when they were made and the circumstances of their production. How did artists respond to the challenge of making a nine-year boy look like a regal figure? Read the case study.

Mary I
Queen Mary I
by Hans Eworth, 1554
Loaned by kind permission of the Society of Antiquaries of London © Society of Antiquaries of London

Mary I (1516–1558)

Reigned 1552–1558

A queen, and by the same title a king also

Mary was thirty-seven years old when she became England’s first crowned queen. She suffered years of ill health and was described by the Venetian ambassador Giovanni Michiel in 1557 as being short and 'of spare and delicate frame ... [with eyes that] are so piercing that they inspire, not only respect, but fear, in those on whom she fixes them.'

As the daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, Mary faced years of struggle following the annulment of her parents’ marriage. After the death of her half-brother Edward VI she successfully rallied supporters to claim the throne. She embraced the opportunity to restore Catholicism across the realm but faced strong resistance to her decision to marry Philip II of Spain.

This display included five portraits of Mary, as well as her Prayer Book loaned from Westminster Cathedral.

Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown English artist, circa 1588
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth I (1533–1603)

Reigned 1558–1603

Time stands still with gazing on her face

The only surviving child of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth was twenty-five years old when she inherited the throne from her half-sister Mary. In 1557 she was described by the Venetian ambassador as:

comely rather than handsome ... tall and well formed, with a good skin ... she has fine eyes and above all a beautiful hand of which she makes a display

On becoming queen, Elizabeth surrounded herself with able advisors and together they brought about the re-establishment of the Church of England. Over the course of Elizabeth’s long reign England developed as a maritime power, and saw the emergence of the first public theatres and an outstanding literary culture. Elizabeth never married and became idealised as the ‘Virgin Queen’ in the later part of her reign.

Several portraits of Elizabeth I were displayed alongside her locket ring, a rare loan from Chequers.

Technical analysis was undertaken on two portraits of Elizabeth I: The Phoenix and the Pelican, which revealed that they must have been painted in the same studio around the same time. Read about the Phoenix and the Pelican.



Discover the essential conservation work undertaken on three Tudor portraits ahead of their inclusion in The Real Tudors display. The conservation was supported by the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Art Conservation Project.

The condition of Tudor portraits


The Bank of America Merrill Lynch Art Conservation Project


Conserving a portrait of King Edward VI


The conservation of the 'Phoenix' portrait of Elizabeth I


The conservation treatment of a portrait of Edward VI and the Pope


The methods of technical analysis






Creature Feature: An unexpected discovery