Henry VII Character and Portraits

Personality of the king

Henry VII Torrignano 1508-9By and large, Henry impressed those people, especially foreign visitors, who have left us opinions. But firstly, Polydore Vergil again:

His spirit was distinguished, wise and prudent; his mind was brave and resolute and never, even at moments of the greatest danger, deserted him. He had a most pertinacious memory. Withal he was not devoid of scholarship. In government he was shrewd and prudent, so that no one dared to get the better of him through deceit or guile.

This quality of quiet, self-contained authority comes across from other sources. In 1497, Italian visitors reported that

‘he evidently has a most quiet spirit’

In 1504 a Spanish visitor reported back to the most Catholic monarchs

‘Certainly there could be no better school in the world than the society of such a father as Henry VII. He is so wise and attentive to everything; nothing escapes his attention’

Henry was surprisingly active, especially his reputation as a rather dry, grey man. Like his son, he was mad for the hunt – a common enough passion among kings, but worth noting to combat the view of Henry as a grey bookish kind of man. In addition, he’s clearly a gambler – losing money at dice, tennis, archery. Now I am not suggesting for a moment that evidence of gambling is a good thing, but he clearly took part in sports, he is clearly not so reserved that he didn’t interact with his court and family.

And all the foreign visitors, even the negative ones, admit that he knew how to throw a good party; ;Visitors duly reported on the magnificence of his court, the wonder of tapestries and art, the quality of the music – including Erasmus in 1499 for example. He was brought up in France, he impressed visitors with his erudition and learning and languages; and particularly they comment on how well they are treated personally by Henry. Henry Throws numerous celebrations and jousts, just like any other medieval monarch.

However, a Spanish visitor, De Ayala, in 1498 had some negative things to say, and the worst was this:

‘He likes to be much spoken of and to be highly appreciated by the whole world. He fails in this because he is not a great man. He spends all the time he is not in public or in his council in writing the accounts of his expenses with his own hand…’

Hate it or lathe it, people really didn’t seem to like Henry. De Ayala again:

His crown is, nevertheless, undisputed, and his government strong in all respects. He is disliked.  

Bishop Fisher implicitly accepts this, and the suspicion and distrust that surrounded him in his later days in his funeral oration when he said

‘Ah King Henry, King Henry, if thou were alive again many a one that is present now would pretend a full great pity and tenderness upon thee.’

It is worth remembering at all stages and in all places that Henry had been through a troubled 28 years. As de Ayala wrote, ‘The king looks old for his years but young for the sorrowful life he has led’; and it would not be surprising if the worry and uncertainty and vicissitudes of fortune had not had an impact on his outlook; you’d expect him to want to build his security against misfortune; you’d expect him to be careful and suspicious.

In summary, we have a man who by and large is no cypher, not someone you could ignore or overawe, who keeps and holds his own counsel, perhaps without any great intellectual pyrotechnics, but he’s none the less a well-educated, erudite man. He’s an active man, taking part in sports and celebrations and music. But none the less there is a strong sense of the dark side in Henry. Everyone agrees that his is obsessively avaricious; there is a quietness and stillness about him that is at once impressive, but also menacing. Bacon wrote that Henry was ‘infinitely suspicious’ and called him a ‘Dark Prince’, and this has stuck to Henry VII. Even if you judge him kindly, he is a man difficult to like and maybe even to get enthusiastic about.

Portraits of Henry VII

First, let us start with Polydore Vergil’s description of Henry:

His body was slender but well built and strong; his height above the average. His appearance was remarkably attractive and his face was cheerful, especially when speaking; his eyes were small and blue, his teeth few, poor and blackish; his hair was thin and white; his complexion sallow.

Henry VII 1505There are 4 portraits that are contemporary; the rest of the many come from copies. The first is the oil created in 1505, when Henry was 48. It was painted by an artist from the low countries.

Second is the bust made of him by Torrignano around 1508-9, which has an immediacy and realism that gives a good impression of Henry towards the end of his life. It’s worth noting that Henry died in 1509, and in 1508 he was already troubled by illness.

Then there is Henry’s death mask, which is, like Edward III, an actual wax death  mask. But for some unfortunate reason, the nose was lost and had to be re-modelled, which makes it somewhat suspect.
Now all of these are towards the end of Henry’s life, when he was already ill. So there’s one rather
remarkable survival, which is a sketch when Henry is much younger, by Jacques Leboucq.

7 thoughts on “Henry VII Character and Portraits

  1. An interesting read, I had no idea he was disliked by so many. I also have read conflicting statements on his appearance as a rather ugly man. However which statements are fact and fictitious are anyone’s guess as people tend to portray their enemies in a negative term. From what I have rad of Henry Tudor, it is clear that like his Son the later king, he was a highly intelligent individual, apparently it was impossible to get one over on him.

    1. I think you are right – both Wolsey, Cromwell, Cranmer and others all found out to their dismay that when Henry applied himself to a question he was pretty sharp. It’s an intelligence that historians agree was inherited by Edward and Elizabeth, seemingly less so by Mary.

  2. I might possibly have missed it, but can you recommend a good modern biography of the man? There are a zillion on his son, but I could only find a handful on the father.

    1. Hi Lisa – Thomas Penn is your man for Henry VII, The Winter King. It;’s a good book, engagingly written; he’s a historian of the modern style, trying to find the story. He tried too hard to make the nasty side of Henry come out to sell copies I think, but it’s good. If you want worthy but dull, then S B Chrimes (an unpronouncable name surely) is your man.

  3. Jacques le Boucq’s drawing of Henry VII is not contemporarary. Entire Receuil d’Arras is from c.1570.Le Boucq’s drawing are based upon original portraits from several royal collections, but drawn in c.1570. They are not contemporary at all! …And most likely Henry VII’s drawing in Receuil d’Arras is based upon painting Meynnart Wewyck delivered to Scotland in 1502.
    (It’s in part of Receuil d’Arras with portraits from Scottish royal collection.) Hence it’s him as old too.

Leave a Reply