Longsword by David Pilling

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Face of a Tudor

'Contemplating the horrific visage of the miserly old Welshman painted by Michael Sittow in 1505, with which we are all so familiar, one may wonder how such a creature could attract any adherents at all.'

Desmond Seward wrote the above in reference to the famous 1505 portrait of Richard III's nemesis, Henry Tudor alias King Henry VII (1485-1509). Below is an image of the painting.

Even for a non-Ricardian like myself, it's hard to disagree with Seward's assessment. Henry does look fairly horrific in this picture, and you have to wonder how Sittow got away with it. The king's eyes are narrow and mismatched, and there is something mean and unattractive about the set of his mouth. All in all, he looks more like an evil Dickensian lawyer than a King of England. Or, as Richard Curtis and Ben Elton put it, he had a face like a ferret.

Is this a fair representation of Henry? The picture hardly tallies with Polydore Vergil's eyewitness description of the king: he said that Henry's 'appearance was remarkably attractive, and his face was cheerful, particularly when speaking.' Vergil goes on to admit that Henry's complexion was sallow, and his teeth in very poor condition, so he wasn't writing a mere panegyric for his Tudor paymaster.

Professor S.B. Chrimes, who wrote the definitive biography of Henry VII, describes him thus: 'We have to think of a man impressive and outstanding - tall, rather slender, dignified, of sallow complexion and rather aquiline features, whose most striking characteristic was the vivacity of his expression and the brilliance of his small blue eyes, especially in conversation.'

The accounts of Vergil and Chrimes are more in keeping with the bust of Henry, made from a plaster cast taken from his death mask. See below.

This Henry, though still a forbidding prospect, is rather more kingly and distinctly less ferret-like than the Witton portrait. It's far easier to imagine this man standing his ground at Bosworth and putting an end to thirty years of dynastic bloodshed. The death mask itself (below) shows a gaunt, dried-up, surprisingly sensitive face, with a hint of melancholy about the eyes.

The mask is perhaps the closest we can get to the real man, shorn of the whims of portrait artists. When I look at it I'm reminded of the confession Henry made to Philip de Commines, while he was still in exile in Brittany. In a rare moment of relaxation, Henry said that 'since the age of five, I have been guarded like a fugitive or kept in prison.'

There is one more portrait to consider. This was drawn in the 16th century, but based on earlier portraits, and shows Henry as a young man, again while still in exile.

Chris Skidmore says of this image: 'It is Henry's eyes, large and weary with dark lines forming beneath them that stand out, just as they would later do for those that met him....it is perhaps this sense of weariness, of a young man who had spent his entire life on the run, in danger of his life, that Henry's tired but determined eyes reflected.'

The eyes, as some wise person once said, are the windows to the soul. They also form a running theme to these portraits, and maybe forge a link between the younger, more attractive Henry and the mean-eyed, tight-lipped 'miserly Welshman' of 1505. By the time Witton painted the king, Henry had survived, often by the skin of his (bad) teeth, twenty years on a throne he won in battle and kept by any means possible, no matter how unpleasant or devious. During that time he had lost his wife and eldest son, and grappled with an endless series of conspiracies, rebellions and betrayals.

The mere effort of survival, of hanging on to his crown, broke his health and reduced him to a paranoid tyrant, personally counter-signing his own account rolls and using money as a means to cure and control all ends. We know from Henry's own letters that his eyesight was failing (no spectacles in those days) and he suffered increasingly frequent bouts of gout and tuberculosis, among other ailments. The TB would eventually kill him, as it did several other members of his dynasty.

Few men, who endured so much, could hope to reach middle age looking like George Clooney. Henry died at the relatively young age of 52, a toothless, wizened, exhausted and generally hated figure, though he left a full treasury and a peaceful and prosperous country. Looking at various portraits of the man, it's easy to see that Shakespeare was quite correct, as usual: uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and Henry Tudor's noggin lay the uneasiest of all.


  1. They say that by 50 years old, everyone gets the face s/he deserves. Guess that is true of kings as well.

  2. Very good post David. We are too much inclined even now to judge by appearances. Though the rather mean quote at the beginning does remind me of another 'Does that look like the face of a tyrannical murderer- does it?' from one Madame P. Langley.