Henry VIII, nationalist icon or global prince?: A tale of two portraits.

Henry VIII lived in unprecedented times, partly of his own making and partly not. Two massive cultural moments define the period in which he ruled – The Reformation and The Age of Discovery –  but only one of them has fixed the monarch’s subsequent image in popular memory.

Henry’s role in the Protestant Reformation has seen the king and his reign heralded as an origin story of English Nationalism. He was the monarch who freed England from the tyranny of Rome, who brought renewed military glory against the old enemy – the French – and who started the process of building the navy that was to become the envy (and menace) of the entire world.

But Henry also operated in a uniquely global context. He came of age, and to the throne, when the fundamentals of European knowledge about the world were being swept away. In 1492, a new continent had been discovered, and by 1498 Europeans had found a direct Sea route to the Indies that opened a treasure trove of exotic goods and spices. This no doubt had a significant effect on the king and his perception of his place in, and relationship to, the wider world. This side of Henry, however, has been little discussed both academically and in the popular sphere. When compared to his rival monarchs on the continent he has been painted as rather uninterested and disengaged with the global times he lived in.

To the contrary, Henry had many cosmopolitan connections and spent considerable  money, time, and effort projecting himself visually and materially as a monarch intimately engaged with and interested in the growing early modern globe.

To think of Henry and his court as inherently nationalist is thus an anachronism, largely born of the C19 Whig tradition that privileged these elements of his persona in the writing of the period. If you were to walk into one of the King’s many palaces, at Hampton Court or Whitehall, you would not find a bunch of ‘little Englander’s’ decked out in badges of Saint George, sat at a table gorging on ale and pork pies. These same men would also be decked out in the finest venetian velvet, drinking out of cups with ‘Moorish design’ and enjoying a feast seasoned with spices from the far most corners of the globe. They may also be seated on top of a fine ottoman carpet, surrounded by a Flemish tapestry depicting voyages to the other side of the word.

The tale of the two Henrys –  the national emblem and the cosmopolitan prince – and their legacy, is perhaps best summed up in a tale of two portraits, both painted by Hans Holbein the younger. The Whitehall Mural (1537) and The Ambassadors Portrait (1533.)

The Whitehall Mural is the most enduring and probably the most important image we have of the king.


Reproduction of the Whitehall Mural, originally painted by Hans Holbein the younger c.1537.

It is this representation that has so strongly fixed the image of Henry as national hero. Painted in 1537 to commemorate the break from Rome and the birth of what was to be (infuriatingly) Henry’s only male heir, Prince Edward, it was designed as a powerful statement of national dynasty. It depicts Henry, his third wife, Jane Seymour, and his parents King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York stood around a classically designed monument. Henry dominates the mural. Standing at the forefront – face on, legs apart, hands on hips, dominant codpiece – he projects sovereign power and independence. This message is further cemented by the inscription on the plinth that recalls the glory of his achievements and invokes England’s independence from Rome. It reads “The son, born indeed for greater tasks, from the altar removed the unworthy and put worthy men in their place.” The ‘Whitehall Henry’ went on to become the prototype for most subsequent images of the monarch, and at the mention of his name is likely the first image that comes to mind, bringing with it all the connotations of sovereign national power and even pride.

However, there is another image, almost as famous as The Whitehall Mural that alludes to the more cosmopolitan reality of Henry’s persona, but has failed to become as closely associated with the monarch as it should be.


The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1533, The National Gallery, London.

The Ambassadors portrait is a tour de force of renaissance global achievement and enterprise. It is an image of two cosmopolitan individuals bound up in an exciting and unprecedented global moment. Its sitters, two Frenchman, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, are surrounded by the technology and spoils of discovery. There are globes, compasses, and a beautiful oriental carpet. What is less celebrated, or even discussed, is that this work was painted at Westminster Abbey when de Dinteville was on mission to Henry’s court as the King of France’s ambassador. The culture of this portrait was also Henry’s world. In fact, many of the items on display were not owned by the sitters but were lent by individuals extremely close to the king. The polyhedral sundial almost definitely belonged to Nicholas Kratzer, Henry’s court astronomer. The same dial appears in Holbien’s earlier portrait of him painted in 1528.

Holbien cropped
The polyhedral sundial from The Ambassadors.
Nicholas Kratzer, Hans Holbein the younger, 1528.

Moreover, the terrestrial globe bears a striking resemblance to Martin von Behaim’s ‘Erdapfel’ (earth apple), the first of its kind made c.1493 as a pitching prop for German merchants selling their enterprises to wealthy potential patrons. Both Kratzer and Holbien had very close links to this community in London, so it is not unlikely that they may have lent a version of the globe for this occasion. 

The tale of these two portraits is indicative of how the King’s image as a cosmopolitan monarch has been largely overwritten by his national persona and the ‘Whitehall Henry.’

Why may this have been the case?

Today, when we think of the national and the global they are not the easiest of bedfellows. This has never been clearer than in the political environment of 2016-2017 – the year of  Brexit and of Trump – where the new division being written is between the ‘nationalists’ and the ‘globalists.’ Could it be that this modern paradigm, which attempts to force a choice between one or the other, is distorting our understanding of these concepts and how they operated during the first global age?

When we look at Henry, a king defining what it meant to be English in an increasingly global context – we see both a national emblem and a cosmopolitan king with little contradiction. Rather, these discourses operated within the same cultural web. If we take another look at that most ‘nationalist’ of images, the Whitehall Mural, this reality is clear. The mise en scène is distinctly cosmopolitan. Henry et al are stood on an Ottoman carpet and surrounded by ornate architectural forms that would be at home as much in an eastern palace as a western one. Read in this way, the ‘Whitehall mural’ remains a powerful image of English identity but it also suggests that cosmopolitanism may be far more embedded in the national than we are encouraged to think, and perhaps this is an important reminder that in our own modern world the choice doesn’t’ have to be one or the other.