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Portrait of a queen: Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour


Within 24 hours in May 1536, Anne Boleyn was executed and Jane Seymour was betrothed. King Henry VIII was the catalyst in these two inextricably linked events. Portraits of Henry have remained fixed in the nation’s consciousness for the past 500 years, but of the queens, there are few existing contemporary paintings.

This picture of Anne Boleyn is by an English artist, possibly copied from a contemporary lost original and produced around 50 years after her death. The work is unsigned, as the English painter of the early Tudor period had little status. By Tudor reasoning, it was the patron who commissioned and paid for the portrait who was important, with the artist viewed simply as an employed craftsman. There was no English ‘school’ of art, and the English did not even use the word ‘painting’. An image on an oak panel such as this was referred to as a ‘table’.

Of the numerous émigré painters in London during the early Tudor period, it was the skill of the Netherlandish artists that was most sought after and praised, although Holbein’s arrival in the city from Germany in 1526 and again in 1531 did much to raise the status of the artist in England.

Anne Boleyn was Holbein’s first royal patron. He designed an arch for her coronation and in 1534, a rose water table fountain for her to present to Henry. The historian Eric Ives describes it as, ‘a pumped device which circulated rosewater into a basin so that diners could rinse their hands’. After Anne’s death, it was ironically Holbein who painted the portrait of her successor, Henry’s third queen, Jane Seymour.

Before 1540, all portraits in England were painted on wooden panels, with canvas not becoming common for at least another 50 years. The oak panels on which both Anne and Jane are painted were imported into London from the Eastern Baltic, the area today around Poland. They were preferred by artists for their superior quality and smooth, even texture. Dendrochronology (the dating of a panel by tree rings) indicates that the panels on which Anne is painted came from trees felled after 1584, confirming the attributed date of the picture as the late 16th century. Jane was painted from life by Holbein in 1536/7.

More than half a century after her death, Anne’s true image would no doubt have been forgotten, but infra-red reflectography ( a method of ‘seeing through’ paint layers normally impenetrable to the human eye) confirms that her details were taken from a pattern, perhaps that of a lost contemporary portrait. Under-drawing can be seen through the thinly applied painting of the flesh, revealing that her face has been slimmed and her left shoulder lowered. Her famous necklace of pearls and the gold chain with its ‘B’ for Boleyn monogram was re-positioned before the picture was completed, but the jewellery was accurately reproduced. It is likely Anne’s eyes were painted first and coloured with a brown glaze to heavily define them. The artist is probably referring to contemporary accounts of Anne’s appearance that makes special note of her ‘black and beautiful eyes.’

Anne Boleyn was controversially found guilty on charges of treason and adultery in May 1536. She was imprisoned at the Tower of London in the same royal apartment where three years earlier she had awaited her coronation. Her execution date was set for the 18 May. In the early dawn of the fateful day, Anne made her last confession, celebrated Mass, and prepared herself for the walk to the scaffold. However, news arrived that her beheading had been postponed to the following day and she was returned to her chambers for another night of torment.

The next morning, dressed in grey damask trimmed with ermine, she was led to the scaffold. Ermine denoted her royal status, and beneath the grey damask could be glimpsed a kirtle of red, the colour of martyrdom. The gates of the Tower had been left open and spectators gathered around the black draped scaffold to await her brutal demise. She is said to have remarked to her ladies-in-waiting that, ‘I heard the executioner was good and I have a little neck’.

Henry had shown Anne ‘leniency’ by employing a swordsman from Calais instead of condemning her to a painful death by burning, or of submitting her to the numerous misguided blows of an axe that could and often did, precede the removal of a head. The executioner readied a honed sword of Flemish steel, 2 or 3ft long with a 2” double edged blade that had a groove channelled into it, allowing the blood to run off without blunting the instrument.

Kneeling upright on the scaffold, her eyes blindfolded with a cloth of linen, Anne’s head was severed from her body with one skilled blow. It was immediately covered with a white handkerchief and lay there for hours as no-one had prepared for her burial. Eventually, her body was placed in a makeshift empty chest and taken to the Chapel Royal at St Peter ad Vincula within the walls of the Tower.

As the canons fired to signal Anne’s death, so Henry was rowed to Chelsea to visit Jane Seymour. His intention to wed Jane was announced to his Council that same day, and the following morning, the couple were formally betrothed at Hampton Court Palace. The official marriage ceremony took place on 30 May at Whitehall Palace, the largest palace in Europe that stretched over 23 acres from Charing Cross to Westminster Hall.

This contemporary portrait of Jane Seymour is by Hans Holbein, painted towards the end of her life. She is wearing a red velvet gown with sleeves of cloth of gold, and an English style gabled headdress in preference to a French headdress that would reveal some of her hair. As lady in waiting to both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Jane was well informed on the intricacies and scandals of the Tudor Court before she became Henry’s third queen.

Celebrated for his frank and revealing sketches, (which can be viewed today in the Royal Collection), Holbein has not flattered his sitter. His portraits of Jane reveal a rather long narrow nose, a pointed chin, a small, thin lipped mouth, with pale eyelashes and eyebrows. The Imperial Ambassador described Jane as, ‘no great beauty’, leaving him to surmise that her talents must lie in the more private areas of the king’s life.

Jane succeeded where Henry’s other queens had failed, and on 12 October 1537, at Hampton Court Palace she gave birth to a healthy boy. She appeared to recover quickly from the birth and sent out personally signed letters announcing the birth of, ‘a Prince, conceived in most lawful matrimony between my Lord the King’s Majesty and us’. However, on 23 October, Jane fell ill from presumed postnatal complications and died at around midnight the following night. She was 28 years old.

Henry was devastated and appeared genuinely grief stricken. In years to come he would remember her as, ‘the fairest, the most discreet and the most meritorious of all his wives’. She is the queen he chose to be buried alongside at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. For the more sceptical, she is also the only wife to present him with the longed-for son, and then to die and leave him before he fell out of love with her.

Consider these two portraits of Henry’s queens. We see the slender neck and the black eyes of Anne Boleyn, and the plain, pale countenance of Jane Seymour. The artists have given us the images we have come to expect, but looking more deeply into their eyes, we can only wonder at how much or how little they were in control of their own destiny, and pity them the fear they must both have experienced 485 years ago in 1536 when by different means, they met the same end.

Henry took another three wives and lived on for 11 years until January 1547, when he joined Jane Seymour, perhaps, ‘the only wife he ever loved’, in the vault of St Georges Chapel, Windsor Castle.

By Linda Collins

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