IT never seemed quite right that Mary I was chosen to acquire the epithet “Bloody” when other Tudor monarchs happily burned those with whom they had a religious disagreement and cut off the heads of anyone who threatened their hold on power. But seeing his portrait got me thinking.
The depiction of Mary in 1554 is part of an exhibition, “The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics” now at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool (Arts, April 22), which gives new clues as to why the Tudors exert such a hold on the English popular imagination.
The tumultuous years from 1485 to 1603 marked a change of era, breaking with more than a millennium of Catholicism, establishing the Church of England and ushering in an era of imperial exploration and expansion. But it was also the time when portraiture, once the exclusive domain of the monarch, spread to courtiers, bureaucrats and nobility. This is the first generation of which we also have images of power brokers, corsairs and poets.
So we don’t just see Henry VII, with his wicked little abacus fingers and the piercing eyes of a calculating accountant. We see Thomas More, sad and thoughtful even a decade before his execution. And Thomas Cromwell with the air of a butcher, ensuring that his assistants are not too generous in distributing his meat.
William Cecil has the hooded look of a politician who somehow survived under Edward VI, Mary, and then Elizabeth. Boy Edward exudes a chilling self-confidence at just ten years old. And then there is Mary.
Hers is a portrait intended to flatter, commissioned in 1554 to convince Philip II that she was a bride. Despite this, her strong, fierce eyes—their darkness accentuated by the green tiles behind her—seem to stare directly into the viewer’s soul. She’s not a woman you want to meet in a dark alley.
It’s a single intimidating image. Perhaps more informative are the successions of images of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. In Henry’s 1520 portrait, where he is paired with Catherine of Aragon (a pair she kept until her death), he looks weak and forgiving unlike her. strength and determination. But, in 1537, he marches like a colossus, arms and legs akimbo, in Holbein’s iconic image of power.
Elisabeth’s succession is equally revealing. The oldest, dating from 1560 – seen as an early tool in the marriage negations she deftly carried on without conclusion for decades – shows her softer side. But later, the famous image of the Pelican brooch suggests the selflessness with which she supported the nation. Next, the manly resolution of the Armada portraits evokes “the heart of a king and king of England”. All document the skill with which she navigated the difficult waters of the 16th century queen, when marriage was both a solution and a problem for questions of succession.
The excellent volume that accompanies the exhibit is full of fascinating details, such as how Henry VIII tried to undermine the popular reputation of English monasteries for charitable piety by passing the Buggery Act of 1533 to allow a series of libels without evidence on monastic irregularities. There are no related portraits to this, which is maybe just as well.