The British Royal Family has been a source of interest for hundreds of years, both for people living in Britain and those abroad. Until the advent of television, most people never saw the reigning monarch except in paintings. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has partnered with the National Portrait Gallery to create a timeline of royal portraits from the Tudors until today. The exhibition, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, features over 150 portraits of kings, queens, consorts and children, spanning 500 years and five royal dynasties: Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian and Windsor.
Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509)
The oldest painting in the exhibition is a portrait of Henry VII by an unnamed Netherlandish artist. Henry was born in 1457 to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and Lady Margaret Beaufort. His mother was a descendant of the Lancastrian king Edward III (1312-1377) and believed her son had a claim to the English throne. After defeating the Yorkist king Richard III (1452-85) at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Henry seized the crown. The following year, Henry married Elizabeth of York (1466-1503). The marriage united the York and Lancaster dynasties and put an end to the War of the Roses.
This portrait was produced after the death of Henry’s wife. The inscription along the bottom reveals it was painted on 29th October 1505 by the order of Herman Rinck, who worked for the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I (1459-1515). Art historians suspect it was given as part of a marriage proposal to the Emperor’s daughter Margaret of Savoy (1480-1530). The proposal was unsuccessful, and Henry passed away four years later. Henry’s eldest son Arthur (1486-1502) predeceased him, and his second child was a girl, Margaret (1489-1541), so the throne went to his third child, Henry.
Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47)
Painted in circa 1520, this portrait of Henry VIII pre-dates versions by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), who started working for the king in 1535. The artist is unknown but probably came from the Netherlands. Henry’s pose and the gilded corners suggest it was one of two companion paintings. The missing half was most likely a portrait of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536).
Henry was only 17 when he succeeded his father to the throne. He immediately married his brother’s widow but divorced her in 1533 after failing to produce a son. This event involved rejecting the Catholic Church and establishing the Church in England. Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn (1501-36), also failed to produce a male heir. Rather than divorce Anne, Henry ordered her execution.
Edward, Henry’s only legitimate son, was born to Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour (1508-37). Unfortunately, Jane died two weeks after the birth, and the king remarried for the fourth time. Henry disapproved of his new wife’s physical appearance, and the marriage remained unconsummated. He divorced Anne of Cleves (1515-57) in 1540 and married Catherine Howard (1523-42). After accusing Catherine of adultery, Henry had her beheaded and married his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr (1512-48). When Henry died in 1547, he only had three legitimate children, Edward, and two daughters from his first two wives, so Edward succeeded the throne.
Edward VI (reigned 1547-53)
Born at Hampton Court Palace in 1547, Edward was Henry VIII’s “most noble and most precious jewel”. He was only nine when his father died, so reigned with the assistance of his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset (1500-52), and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (1504-53). Unfortunately, Edward never reached the age of majority, so never ruled the kingdom on his own. He caught a chill in 1553 and passed away at the age of 15.
Several portraits of Edward were painted during his childhood, including this one, completed the year before he became king. By this time, William Scrots (active 1537-55) was the court painter, but art historians believe one of his students completed this particular image. The colours have faded significantly over time, resulting in an unfinished appearance. The background was originally blue, and Edward wore a luscious red coat, befitting a future king.
Lady Jane Grey (proclaimed 1553)
Shortly before Edward VI passed away, he named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey (1536-54), as his heir. Jane was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s youngest sister and was married to Guildford Dudley (1535-54), son of the Duke of Northumberland. They, like Edward, were Protestants and could carry on the Reformation in England, unlike his Catholic half-sister Mary. When Edward died, the Duke of Northumberland immediately seated Jane on the throne, but Mary and her supporters protested. Nine days later, Mary took the throne from Jane and threw Jane and her husband into prison for treason. After a rebellion in Jane’s favour, Mary had the nine-day queen beheaded.
Although the artist is unknown, analysis of the panel reveals Jane’s portrait was produced long after her death. It probably belonged to a series of paintings of Protestant martyrs, but it is impossible to tell how good a likeness it is because Jane’s portrait was never taken during her lifetime. Damage to the artwork suggests the painting may have been subject to an attack at some point in history, most likely by a rebellious Catholic.
Mary I (reigned 1553-58)
Mary (1516-58) was the only surviving child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She became the first crowned Queen of England at the age of 37 and restored the Catholic faith across the country. Those who refused to conform to the faith of the queen faced execution. As a result, she became known as “Bloody Mary”.
One year into her reign, Mary married Philip II of Spain (1527-98), who thus became a joint ruler of England. Despite this, Philip spent most of their marriage in Spain, and they produced no children. Miniature paintings of both Mary and Philip were produced to celebrate their union. They were given as gifts to notable courtiers and allies. Mary’s portrait is based on a larger painting by the Netherlandish artist Anthonis Mor (1517-77), which was commissioned by Philip’s father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-58).
Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603)
When Mary I died childless, her 25-year-old half-sister inherited the throne. Elizabeth (1533-1603) was the child of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. As queen, Elizabeth re-established the Church of England, once again removing Catholicism from the realm. Yet, she reigned in relative peace, except for the failed Spanish Armada in 1588. With Elizabeth’s permission, English explorers discovered new lands and established foreign trades, which brought new cultures to England.
Elizabeth remained unmarried, despite several marriage proposals. With no children and no legitimate siblings, the question of succession was ever-present. Elizabeth was also the first woman to rule alone without the help of a man, which was another reason some wished to find her a husband. Several portraits of the queen were painted, possibly to attract potential suitors. Instead, the portraits asserted Elizabeth’s power, despite being female.
This artificially staged portrait, known as The Ditchley Portrait, was requested in 1592 by Sir Henry Lee (1533-1611), who lived in Ditchley, Oxfordshire. Lee had recently retired from the role of Queen’s Champion but had fallen from grace after choosing to live with his mistress, Anne Vavasour. Painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636), the painting marks the occasion of the queen’s forgiveness of Lee. This is symbolised by stormy skies that retreat into the background, as though banished by the queen.
At the time of painting, Elizabeth was 59 years old, but, ignoring her mortality, Gheeraerts portrayed her as an iconic “Virgin Queen”, wearing the youthful clothing of an unmarried woman. She stands on a map of England, signalling her control over the nation. Her feet point toward Oxfordshire, where the painting was produced. On the right-hand side, the artist includes a sonnet about the sun, symbolising the monarch. Lee is the assumed author of the poem, in which he refers to Elizabeth as the “prince of light”.
James I (reigned 1603-1625)
The Virgin Queen died, and so ended the Tudor Dynasty. In 1603, her cousin, James VI of Scotland (1566-1625), acceded to the English throne, uniting England and Scotland for the first time. With James I came a new royal house, the Stuarts, whose rule resulted in significant changes across the country, not least civil war.
James I is perhaps the most scholarly of all past British monarchs. He wrote poetry, prose and arranged for the translation of the “King James” Bible. He and his wife, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), were patrons of visual arts, including architecture. The Queen’s House, next to the National Maritime Museum, was intended for Anne, although she passed away before its completion. The king and queen also enjoyed the theatre, especially plays by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who completed over half of his works during James’s reign.
Unlike his predecessor, James did not enjoy sitting for portraits. As a result, there are not many paintings of the first Stuart king. This portrait of James I wearing the robe of the Order of the Garter was painted by Dutch artist Daniël Mytens (1590-1648) in 1621. The inscription above his head reads, “Beati pacific”, which means “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Mytens included this in the painting to indicate James I’s peaceful reign.
Despite the king’s aim to be a peacemaker in Europe, he narrowly escaped death in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He also accrued significant debts during his reign, which turned some of his supporters against him. James and Anne’s eldest son, Prince Henry Frederick (1594-1612), predeceased his father at the age of 18. Following James’s death, the throne passed to the next eldest son, Charles (1600-49).
Charles I (reigned 1625-49)
Charles I carried on his father’s patronage of the arts and became one of the greatest royal collectors of paintings. He employed painters, such as Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), to produce portraits of his growing family. Despite suffering from physical disabilities as a child, Charles overcame his issues to establish a successful marriage with Henrietta Maria of France (1609-69) and produced six children who lived beyond childhood.
The majority of the famous portraits of King Charles I are in the Royal Collection, but the National Portrait Gallery owns one by the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656). It is fairly formal in comparison to grand paintings by Van Dyck, and historians believe it may have been a study for a larger painting at Hampton Court. Charles had commissioned Honthorst to produce a mural-like painting of the king and his wife as the Roman gods, Apollo and Diana, with other notable people as other deities.
Despite his eye for art, Charles was less adept at politics. He spent excessive money buying paintings, which he paid for by placing heavy taxes on the population. When Parliament complained, Charles dismissed them, which prompted the Puritanism movement within the Church of England. Many openly expressed their dissatisfaction with the king, which led to increasing civil and political unrest. Eventually, civil war broke out across Britain between the king’s supporters and the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). The war came to a dramatic end with the execution of Charles I outside the Banqueting House in London on 30th January 1649.
Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of England 1653-58)
Charles I’s death resulted in a republic, which lasted until 1653. During this time, Parliament argued about how to govern the country. These disputes resulted in the installation of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. Cromwell had been one of the leading men during the civil war, which made him a natural choice for the protector of the realm.
Unlike the previous monarchs, who wore glamorous, ornate clothing, Cromwell was a puritan and refused any decoration. His portrait, based on an unfinished version by Samuel Cooper (1609-72), depicts Cromwell in shining armour, emphasising his position as Lord Protector, rather than a king. The dull background colours befit his purist ways and pious religious beliefs, which rejected anything ostentatious and unnecessary.
Cromwell died in 1658, and despite his wishes, his funeral effigy was crowned as though a king. His son, Richard (1626-1712), briefly took on the role of Lord Protector, but he had very little political or military support. Parliament began to crumble, and the only way to save the country from ruin was to re-establish the monarchy.
Charles II (reigned 1660-85)
Charles I’s eldest son, also called Charles (1630-85), was invited back from exile to become king in 1660. Life under Puritan rule had been difficult, so the people rejoiced to see the return of the monarchy. Charles reopened theatres, which Cromwell had shut down, and allowed women to act on the stage for the first time. Charles also established the Royal Society to encourage scientific enquiries into the workings of the world.
Despite his warm welcome, the first few years of Charles II’s reign were challenged by events beyond his control. In 1665, the Great Plague caused over 70,000 deaths in London and neighbouring cities. The following year, the Great Fire of London devastated 436 acres of the capital city. Eighty-seven of London’s 109 churches were destroyed as well as approximately 13,200 houses.
Charles II’s portrait, attributed to the English artist Thomas Hawker (d. 1699), depicts the king towards the end of his reign. He was around 50 years old but still looked striking in his royal clothing, which matched his charming personality. Many considered Charles as a party-goer, although he could often be cynical and lazy. Events during his childhood and the execution of his father greatly affected the king, and he tried not to make the same mistakes as Charles I. He wanted to make his people happy, providing them with many sources of entertainment. He held a certain degree of popularity with the public and felt at ease with “ordinary people”.
Despite his attempts to be a good king, Charles received criticism about his numerous mistresses, including actress Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn (1650-87). Charles had fourteen illegitimate children but failed to produce an heir with his wife, Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705). When Charles died in 1680, none of his children had the right to the throne, so it passed on to his younger brother James (1633-1701).
James II (reigned 1685-88)
Within months of James II’s accession, a rebellion was led against him by Charles’ illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. Despite defeating his nephew, the public distrusted James for his Catholic beliefs. Since the reign of Elizabeth I, Britain had been a Protestant country, and the population was not happy to reintroduce Catholicism.
James’s first wife, Anne Hyde (1637-71), with whom he is pictured in a double portrait by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), was also a Catholic convert, but she did not receive the same hatred as her husband because she died before he became king. The portrait was painted when James was still the Duke of York. He met Anne while in exile on the continent and promised to marry her after getting her pregnant. The wedding took place in secret shortly after the coronation of Charles II, which upset many people. Not only was Anne Catholic, she was a “commoner”.
Anne and James’s first son, Charles (1660-61), died before his first birthday from smallpox. They went on to have seven children, but only two girls, Mary and Anne, survived infancy. Anne passed away shortly after the birth of their youngest child, Catherine (1671-71). In 1673, James married another Catholic, Mary of Modena (1658-1718). By the time James became king, all their children had died in infancy. At this time, James’s only heirs were Anne’s daughters, who had converted to Protestantism, but the birth of a son, James Francis (1688-1766), caused widespread anxiety throughout the kingdom. The public did not want another Catholic king.
To prevent Catholicism from prevailing, Parliament invited William of Orange (1650-1702), the husband of James’s eldest daughter, to invade England. William met little resistance, and the king, fearing for his life, fled to France. This Glorious Revolution resulted in the joint reign of Mary II (1662-94) and William III. They agreed to sign a Bill of Rights to make England a constitutional monarchy. This meant they had some power as head of state, but Parliament was entitled to make decisions about running the country.
Mary II (reigned 1689-94)
Mary and William reigned as joint rulers until Mary died in 1694. William spent the first couple of years in Ireland fighting against the Jacobites, who wanted James II returned to the throne. While he was away, Mary proved a wise ruler, establishing many charities, including the Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich. The painted hall at the hospital features allegorical paintings of Mary and William on the ceiling, which are still much admired today.
Jan van der Vaart’s (1650-1727) portrait of Mary is based on an earlier painting by Willem Wissing (1656-87), which was produced when Mary lived in the Netherlands. Van der Vaart altered Mary’s dress to resemble royal robes and added a crown and sceptre in the background.
Unlike her husband and sister, Mary was a tall and healthy woman but contracted smallpox in 1694. After isolating to prevent the spread of infection, Mary passed away at Kensington Palace, aged 32. William was devastated but agreed to reign alone as King of England. Sadly, he no longer resembled the happy man who reigned with his wife; instead, he felt like “the miserablest creature on earth”.
William III (reigned 1689-1702)
William III’s equestrian portrait was painted after Mary’s death but honoured the king’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland four years earlier. William also fought in the Nine Years’ War (1688-97) against France, which he eventually lost to Louis XIV (1638-1715). Despite this, the French king recognised William as the King of England, which gave him an ally against the Jacobites.
Towards the end of William’s reign, England was at peace with France, but this came to an end with the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). England and France were again on opposing sides, but William was less involved in the physical fight. Instead, William broke his collarbone after falling from his horse, which had tripped on a mole’s burrow. The wound caused complications, resulting in pneumonia, and William passed away in 1702.
William and Mary had no children, which meant they had no heir. Traditionally, the next eldest brother had the right to the throne, but the Bill of Rights signed at the beginning of William and Mary’s reign agreed that England could only have a Protestant monarch. As a result, the crown passed to Mary’s sister, Anne (1665-1714).
Anne (reigned 1702-14)
Although Anne had several health problems, she had a successful reign as Queen of England. During her reign, England was victorious in the War of Spanish Succession and negotiated peace in Europe through the Treaty of Utrecht. When Anne succeeded the throne, she was crowned the Queen of England, but in 1707, following the Act of Union with Scotland, she became the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.
Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) was the Principal Painter to Mary, William, Anne, and the next monarch, George I. Kneller produced this portrait of Anne in 1690 before she became queen, when she still looked young and slender. Later portraits of the queen depict her as a much larger woman, and she was known to suffer severe bouts of gout. She relied on a wheelchair to move around or a sedan when at royal events.
One of Anne’s claims to fame was having seventeen pregnancies within seventeen years. Sadly, only five resulted in live births, all of whom tragically died young. Only Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (1689-1700), reached double figures, but he passed away from unknown causes at age eleven. On the fourteenth anniversary of her son’s death, Anne suffered a stroke, which rendered her unable to speak. She passed away a month later on 1st August 1714 and was buried beside her husband and children in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
Once again, a monarch had passed away without an heir. Determined to keep the Catholic Stuarts from the throne, Parliament looked for distant, Protestant relatives of the queen. They traced the family tree back to Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), the eldest daughter of James I. This made Elizabeth’s daughter, Sophia of Hanover (1630-1714), the heir presumptive to the throne of Great Britain, but she too died in 1714. As a result, her son, Georg Ludwig (1660-1727), was crowned George I of Great Britain. Anne’s death resulted in the end of the Stuart dynasty, and George’s coronation marked the beginning of the Georgian era.
To be continued…