Playing King Henry VIII

From muscled Adonis to disease-ridden tyrant, Henry VIII presents a challenge to any actor. Eric Ives looks at portrayals of Henry on screen and on canvas... 

This article first appeared in the September 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine.

Portrait of Henry VIII by Cornelius Metsys, c1544. (Hulton Archive/Getty images)
Portrait of Henry VIII by Cornelius Metsys, c1544. (Hulton Archive/Getty images)
Londoners flocked to the Fortune Theatre north of Cripplegate in 1604 to see Henry VIII portrayed on stage for the first time. The title of the play was When you see me you know me, but Henry had been dead for almost 60 years. So how could the author, Samuel Rowley, be so confident? The illustration on the title page of the 1613 edition gives the answer. There is Henry in heroic pose, arms akimbo, feet astride, the iconic image painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1536–37. Copies and derivatives of the Holbein portrait circulated widely and we still recognise it. Actors chosen to play the king start with Holbein. His formula dominates film and television, from Charles Laughton in 1933 to Sid James in Carry on Henry in 1971.  
But the 21st century has taught us to distrust images. Every portrait – paint as much as photography – is posed for a purpose. Very few sitters echo Oliver Cromwell’s call to be painted warts and all and artists who insist on that risk their work going the way of Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill, destroyed by Clementine Churchill in 1956. Holbein was required to paint royal majesty. Indeed, where his first effort depicted Henry in quarter profile, subsequent versions have the king full face, so producing the maximum impact on the viewer and, perhaps minimising Henry’s prominent nose. 
But Holbein’s Henry is Henry at the age of 46 in enjoyment of his supreme achievement – having gathered into his hands all authority in England, both secular and religious. In later years the king – and his likenesses – aged rapidly. Portraits repeat the Holbein face, but the body is of an old man huddled in a great coat and leaning on a staff. By then his waist measured 50 inches or more and he needed a mobile stretcher to get him round his palaces. The last extant likeness, by the Antwerp engraver Cornelis Metsys, is of a king in terminal decline. 
How different he had been. A chubby child, by his mid-teens Henry had put on real muscle – “his limbs are of a gigantic size”. Soon after becoming king in 1509 at the age of 18, he was described by one diplomat as “the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height [6 feet 2 inches], with an extremely fine calf to his leg; his complexion fair and bright with auburn hair and a round face so very beautiful that it would become a pretty woman, his throat being long and thick”. Six years later another reported: “He speaks French, English, Latin, and a little Italian, plays well on the lute, sings from book at sight, draws the bow with greater strength than any man in England and jousts marvellously. Believe me, he is in every respect a most accomplished prince and I have now seen all the sovereigns in Christendom”. 
With a 32 inch waist and a 42 inch chest Henry was very much the athlete. Even at 28 he still drew admiring glances, as a contemporary noted: “Extremely handsome. Nature could not have done more for him. He is much handsomer than any sovereign in Christendom”. Henry was as concerned to set off his assets as any fashion model. He bought cloth of gold and silks from far-away Florence and jewels from everywhere. 
He often dressed according to the role he was to play 
that day. At the launching of The Great Harry he was a sailor with a bosun’s whistle made of gold, nine inches long. Welcoming ambassadors from the Habsburgs of Austria, he dressed Hungarian fashion one day and on another like a 
Turk, with the scabbard of his scimitar embroidered with pearls and jewels. 

The many ages of Henry

The modern theatre can easily counterfeit the clothes and jewels, but what of the man inside? What age is Henry to be, or if the script extends over many years, can one actor age realistically? Charles Laughton could safely base his Henry on the Holbein likeness because The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) only begins in 1536 when Henry was in his mid-forties, and the black-and-white format meant that he did not have to adopt Henry’s ginger colouring. 
In A Man for All Seasons (1969) Robert Shaw was convincing as Henry in his late thirties, as was the 41-year-old Keith Michell when playing Henry in the BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) for which he won an Emmy. His Henry also aged convincingly, but despite a valiant attempt he had been less happy as Henry the bridegroom: Annette Crosbie was credible as Katherine of Aragon, the 24-year-old bride, but no viewer would have guessed that Henry was 18, a six-year age-gap that was to become massively significant in later years.
So the problem is the young Henry, as tackled by Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the BBC series The Tudors. The temptation is to take him at face value. Outdoors, the life of the king and his courtiers focused on substitutes for war – hunting and sports – but inside on the game of courtly love, and it is easy to interpret Henry’s high spirits in these years as the king sowing his wild oats. But courtly flirtation was a stylised ritual, nothing like “a summer of love”. Henry was no stud, however much he bragged that “he’d never spared a man in his anger or a woman in his lust”.
Europe was, as always, agog to discover the sex secrets of royalty, but only two brief affairs can be documented. Henry was prudish, sexually insecure and on occasion impotent – and for that we have both his own admission and the word of Anne Boleyn, the woman he loved beyond reason. The artificiality of courtly love protected the king from having to deliver. Significantly he preferred the safe course of paying court to mature women. 

An anxious young man

Insecurity may also explain why his early portraits are less than impressive. It is very difficult to see signs of an emerging Holbein image. One must also remember that during these years, anxiety was being fed first by the failure of his sons by Katherine to live for more than a few weeks and then by the blocking of his marriage to Anne. The only pre-Holbein portrait which suggests relaxed confidence can be dated to 1535 when Henry and Anne were in tearing good spirits together and, one guesses, sexually fulfilled. Certainly, by autumn of that year, she was pregnant. 
One can also detect in Henry VIII 
a wider insecurity which he masked 
by extrovert behaviour and cordiality. He was intensely suspicious: “if I thought that my cap knew my counsel, I would cast it into the fire and burn it”. He was also totally self-centred. 
Personality traits are often accentuated by age, so perhaps the most revealing image of Henry is the truth engraved by Cornelis Metsys from the safety of Antwerp. Face puffy, cheeks fallen, mouth pursed, the 53-year-old king huddles in furs, rubbing his podgy fingers together, egoism and suspicion personified. 
The real challenge for any actor portraying the younger Henry is not to exemplify the Olympic athleticism and apparent bonhomie of the king at 20. It is to reveal the Metsys latent within the youthful Adonis. 
Eric Ives is emeritus professor of English history at Birmingham University.
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