In 1539, Henry VIII sent his favorite court painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, to the German Duchy of Cleves, where the artist was tasked with creating a portrait of the Tudor king’s potential fourth wife. The resulting likeness—featuring Anne of Cleves smiling demurely while clad in resplendent red velvet—so entranced Henry that he agreed to wed the Protestant noblewoman without ever meeting her in person.
When Anne actually arrived in England, however, the king had a decidedly different reaction. As Tracy Borman writes for History Extra, Henry was taken aback by his “tall, big-boned and strong-featured” bride-to-be, whose appearance represented a significant departure from his previous three queens. Convinced that he’d been misled by Holbein and Thomas Cromwell, the adviser who’d suggested the marriage, Henry declared, “I like her not! I like her not!” Around six months after the couple’s January 1540 wedding, the king had the union annulled and Cromwell sent to the execution block.
Now, reports Dalya Alberge for the Observer, new research conducted by art historian Franny Moyle suggests that a Holbein miniature long thought to portray Anne’s successor, Catherine Howard, may actually depict the ruler’s fourth wife.
“This portrait doesn’t look like a child bride,” Moyle tells the Observer. (Catherine’s exact age is unknown, but she may have been as young as 16 when she wed the king.)
Instead, the scholar adds, the sitter’s heavy eyelids and thick eyebrows bear distinct similarities to Holbein’s 1539 portrait of Anne.
“They’re the same woman,” says Moyle. “She has this soporific expression in both paintings.”
Outside of these parallels, Moyle, who is set to detail her findings in The King’s Painter: The Life of Hans Holbein (out in the United States on October 5), points out that the artist mounted the 1540 miniature on a four of diamonds playing card—a possible reference to Anne’s status as Henry’s fourth queen.
Per the London Times’ Laura Freeman, Holbein, a German-born painter renowned for his portraits’ realism, had a “passion for symbols and visual puns.” He mounted a 1532 miniature of Cromwell on an ace of spades in recognition of the adviser’s frank demeanor and a 1538 miniature of the newly married Elizabeth, Lady Audley, on an ace of hearts.
“Holbein didn’t do anything without meaning something,” Moyle tells the Observer.
Speaking with Natalie Grueninger of the “Talking Tudors” podcast last year, art historian Emma Rutherford explained that portrait miniatures evolved “from these very powerful, relatively formal portraits to something much more secretive.” Perfectly sized for concealment in a noblewoman’s bodice, brooch or locket, the pint-sized paintings played a key role in marriage negotiations and love affairs, which were, according to Rutherford, “all happening at the same time” in Tudor England.
Moyle posits that Anne, or perhaps Cromwell, commissioned Holbein to paint her in a different light. This time, the scholar suggests, the new queen posed in a fashionable French hood rather than her more conservative German attire.
“[T]here’s a good reason why, in early 1540 she—or [Cromwell], … who was very pro the marriage—might suggest Holbein paint her again so that, in the little miniature that Henry had in his pocket, he could see a version of Anne that was more appealing,” Moyle tells the Observer.
Much of the difficulty of identifying the Holbein miniature’s sitter stems from the fact that no confirmed portraits of Catherine survive today. Several paintings are often labeled as likenesses of the queen, but none can be conclusively linked to her, wrote Conor Byrne, author of Katherine Howard: Henry VIII’s Slandered Queen, for On the Tudor Trail in 2019.
As the Royal Collection Trust notes, Catherine’s “ascendancy and reign as queen” spanned just over a year, meaning she may not have had a chance to sit for an official portrait. Another possibility is that Henry ordered likenesses of his fifth queen destroyed following her execution on charges of adultery. Per Rebecca Larson of TudorsDynasty.com, the mercurial king pursued a similar policy of destruction after the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn.
Anne of Cleves, for her part, was arguably the luckiest of Henry’s six wives. She escaped the marriage with her head intact and enjoyed the king’s favor, likely earned by agreeing to the annulment, until his death in 1547. She went on to outlive her former husband by ten years, dying on July 16, 1557, at the age of 41.
Holbein, on the other hand, experienced a slight drop in stature following the disastrous Cleves commission but soon returned to favor, continuing to work at court until his death in 1543.
“It takes about a year for his work to pick up again after that incident,” Moyle tells the Radio Times’ Kelly-Anne Taylor. “... Holbein gets off through a mixture of brilliance and charm. I can only suggest that it was because of his talent, and the king’s personal love of him, that the king didn’t want to lose him.”