How Henry VIII’s Lack of Fertility Was Disguised by Machismo

To most, Henry VIII is not a ruler with a nuanced tale. Instead, the infamous King of England’s propaganda inspired a timeless iconography we can no longer separate from him.

Jan 29, 2022By Mieke Leenders, MA & BA Art History, Medieval Iconology to Modern art


Pablo Picasso famously said that “art is a lie that makes us see the truth.” And these words might as well have been engraved into Hans Holbein’s portraits of Henry VIII. While we mainly recall Henry as the gluttonous, lustful, and tyrannical King of England who either executed or divorced his wives, this only describes him in the last decade of his life. The reason we think of Henry in such black and white terms is that we have such powerful images that go along with it. So, what does the king’s most famous portrait reveal about him? What is it that he wants us to see? What is the truth that is hidden beneath?


Henry VIII and His Great Matter: The Desire For a Male Heir

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The pope suppressed by King Henry the Eighth (original title); An allegory of the English Reformation, in John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (Book of Martyrs), 1570, via Ohio State University


In 1527, Henry VIII was nearly 20 years into his reign and into his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The otherwise happy and stable marriage had already absorbed quite a few shocks, but now, it looked as though the fatal blow was about to be delivered. While the couple had at least five children together, only one had survived, called Princess Mary. An impatient Henry grew increasingly conflicted, and his desire for a male heir was turning into an obsession that would completely alter England’s political and religious landscape. By 1527, Henry had fallen in love with one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. Their 7-year courtship culminated in Henry’s emancipation from the seat of Rome and the subsequent annulment of his marriage to Catherine.


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King Henry VII by unknown Netherlandish artist, 1505, via The National Portrait Gallery, London


Since the Catholic church refused to give credence to Henry’s spiritual scruples over Catherine’s inability to give him a living son, he took religious matters into his own hands and started England on a course towards a religious reformation that would lead to the founding of the Church of England. Henry wasted no time using his new power and abandoned a most loyal wife and queen in the hope that a new wife would surely give him the son he so desperately wanted.


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Henry VIII’s need for a male heir was for a large part fed by his tenuous reign. His father, Henry VII, was a minor noble who had won the crown on the battlefield at the close of the series of civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses. But military fervor, however useful, did not secure the title of King of England as much as a clean, royal bloodline. As the years passed, producing a legitimate heir became more than just a political act. Aging and ill Henry needed to feel secure in his potency, his virility, his ability to be physically up to the task to secure the Tudor line his father had so valiantly shed blood for.


Hans Holbein Paints the King of England: Machismo, Dynasty, Propaganda

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Henry VIII by Hans Holbein’s workshop, ca. 1537, via Liverpool Museums


Hans Holbein the Younger had already had a varied career before arriving at the Tudor court in 1532, but it was in his final 9 years as the official King’s Painter under Henry VIII, that he produced some of his most prolific work. Holbein’s iconic portrait of Henry VIII was originally part of a mural on the wall of the Privy Chamber in the Palace of Whitehall that was destroyed by a fire in 1698. Fortunately, we still have a preparatory cartoon and a series of copies.


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King Henry VIII; King Henry VII by Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1536-1537, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


The King of England is pictured posing with priceless jewels, beautifully embroidered garments, a wide, steady stance, and pertinent gaze. His well-defined calves, a highly attractive quality in Tudor times, are shown off in tight stockings and further accentuated by the garters under his knees.


The most striking visual play, however, is achieved through the shapes that make up the portrait. Two triangles guide our gaze to the essence of what the painting is aiming to communicate. The unnaturally broad shoulders taper to the waist and the splayed feet similarly direct our attention to a bulging codpiece decorated with bows. Framing Henry’s codpiece is one hand holding a pair of gloves while the other is grasping a knife.


The Henry many of us remember is a man of carnal appetites and indisputable power. Looking at this ingenious piece of Tudor Propaganda, it is easy to forget that the middle-aged and obese Henry actually had trouble producing an heir. Because on the surface, this cartoon is all about masculinity, fertility, and virility, and the complete mural that this sketch was originally designed for, takes the story a step further.


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Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, Remigius Van Leemput commissioned by Charles II of France, 1667, via Royal Collection Trust


The mural destroyed in 1698 had incorporated the famous portrait into a royal family portrait presenting the budding Tudor dynasty. A surviving copy commissioned by Charles II, King of England, shows Henry VII with his wife Elizabeth of York and Henry VIII with his third, and more cherished wife, Jane Seymour, amidst the splendor of renaissance architecture. The powerful dynastic display possesses a subtle domestic tone with the little dog nestled in Jane’s dress.


Celebrated English historian Simon Schama, stresses that not only dynasty and masculinity are portrayed, but also authority and stability that comes from a peaceful union between the houses of Lancaster and York, who were at each other’s throats less than a century earlier. This is spelled out quite literally in the Latin inscription that aims to solidify the Tudors dynasty as one of supremacy and legitimacy, with the first part reading: If it pleases you to see the illustrious images of heroes, look on these: no picture ever bore greater. The great debate, competition and great question is whether father or son is the victor. For both, indeed, were supreme. Henry VII is the more conventional hero having graced and conquered the battlefield that launched the Tudor dynasty, and Henry VIII has gained supremacy in political and religious matters, making himself Supreme Head of the Church of England.


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Battle of Bosworth Field by James Thomson after Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, 1802, via Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco


But the story doesn’t quite end here. Holbein’s mural was commissioned between 1536 and 1537, a period that marked a fundamental change in Henry’s life. On January 24th, 1536, Henry suffered a near-fatal jousting accident that caused a significant head injury and aggravated an old wound on his leg. The menacing ulcer forced the otherwise active king to lead a more sedentary life. It did nothing to curb Henry’s appetite, however, and the pounds started to creep on, shaping the obese monarch we know today. To make matters worse, Anne Boleyn had, much like Catherine of Aragon before her, neglected to give Henry a son. She had given birth to a daughter in 1533, the future Elizabeth I, but when she miscarried a boy in the same month as Henry’s accident, a desperate Anne could feel her power waning.


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De Arte athletica II by Paulus Hector Mair, 16th century, via Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum


Anne’s enemies wasted no time and used her diminishing influence over the king to spread rumors about her supposed misconduct and treason. Henry, an increasingly paranoid monarch, didn’t need much convincing of the no-doubt-fabricated allegations that were brought up against Anne. In May of the same year, Anne found her way to the executioner’s block, and less than two weeks later, Henry married Jane Seymour.


Jane, who bore Henry a son in 1537, the future Edward VI, would go down in history as Henry’s one true love. She is commemorated as a vital key in the line of succession in the famous 1545 representation of Henry VIII’s family showing Henry seated on the throne as King of England, sharing the central panel with Jane and Edward at the very heart of the Tudor dynasty.


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The Family of Henry VIII by the British School, c. 1545, via Royal Collection Trust


Henry himself recognized the power of his portrait, and artists were encouraged to create reproductions. In fact, Henry gifted various copies to delegates, ambassadors, and courtiers. Of course, this was not so much a gift as it was a political pamphlet. And the message was clear, by owning this portrait you recognized the King’s potency, masculinity, and supremacy.


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Copy of Hans Holbein’s Henry VIII by Hans Eworth, ca. 1567, via Liverpool Museums


This message was also picked up on by a number of other nobles, who went as far as to commission their own version of the portrait. Some later versions of copies still survive today. While most are not attributed to any specific artist, others can be such as the copy by Hans Eworth, one of Holbein’s successors who was honored by the patronage of Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth and final wife.


Artistic references to Holbein’s portrait persist well into the 18th century. Even pop culture borrowed some of the artist’s iconography to parody Henry’s complex character. Take The Private Life of Henry VIII from 1933 or BBC’s 1970’s interpretations Six Wives of Henry VIII and Carry On Henry, where the character of Henry might as well have walked straight out of the painting.


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Screenshot of the ending scene in Showtime’s The Tudors


However, in The Tudors from 2007, Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Henry doesn’t exactly follow Charles Laughton’s boisterous and gluttonous king. Instead, the show presents a more charismatic Henry even in his final years and ends with the camera focused on a more youthful and flattering replica of the famous portrait. An old and feeble Henry gazes upon a virile king he remembers from long ago and grimly compliments Holbein on a job well done.


What Tudor Propaganda Says About Henry VIII

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Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540, via Palazzo Barberini, Rome


The series of portraits inspired by Hans Holbein’s mural are often the first ones we can connect to Henry. Even when we tell ourselves that these portraits were meant to deceive us, it is not hard to see why they created the most enduring image of Henry today when such a remarkable story is told by these works of art.


Henry seems to be saying that all the misfortunes that had befallen him (and the male heir that had so long eluded him) were not and could not have been his own doing. Because here he is, the King of England, a man of virility, a man of power, who has played a central role in creating the young Tudor dynasty. We now understand that the stories go a bit deeper. They show a wounded king losing his luster, and a middle-aged man extravagantly displaying a virility he may, in reality, be lacking.

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By Mieke LeendersMA & BA Art History, Medieval Iconology to Modern art Mieke is a writer, editor, art historian, and social justice advocate. She holds an MA and BA in Art History from the University of Leuven, Belgium, where she specialized in medieval and renaissance iconology. Next to that, she dived deeply into modern and contemporary art forms from painting and sculpture to outsider art and new media. She also made a profound study of history, western philosophy (ancient to modern), classical music, literature, and anthropology. A passionate traveler, Mieke set out on a solo backpacking trip in 2017, exploring regions of Asia and Latin America. She is currently residing in Costa Rica.