Experts believe that a painting held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth may contain one of the earliest known depictions of Henry VIII. The image, pictured above, shows what is thought to be the future king weeping on a bed upon the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth of York. The painting wasn’t initially recognised as being particularly important until a recent reinterpretation suggested that the figure dressed in green in the top left-hand corner may be Henry.
We spoke to manuscripts librarian Dr Maredudd ap Huw about his interpretation of the image.
Is there anything that we know about the figures in the illustration? How do we know that the figure in green is the young Henry?
Firstly, context: the date of the hand and illuminations suggest the late 15th century or early 16th century, as does the closed crown on the head of the king. The notes on folio 206 show that it was owned by Joan Guildford, wife of Sir Richard Guildford (Comptroller of King Henry VII’s household), and mother of Sir Henry Guildford (great friend of Henry VIII, and Comptroller of Henry VIII’s household). She was called ‘Mother Guildford’ by Princesses Mary and Margaret Tudor, and served as their lady governess. The iconography of the manuscript, meanwhile, is somewhat Tudor (white and red roses, portcullises, dragons and wyverns).
The only occasion when there were three children (one boy and two girls) in the Tudor court was after the death of Arthur in April 1502, and before Margaret’s marriage to James IV of Scotland in August 1503. Next comes the black head-dresses worn by the girls, the black-draped bed under black hangings, the broken ‘lock’ (possibly symbolising the breach by death in the mortal marriage), the crying figure (with reddish hair), and the king’s black dress (under his robe).
Has there been a death? The two French texts are certainly suggestive: the passional (the last week in the mortal life of Christ, his death, and Resurrection), and the Le Miroir de la Mort (on the futility of pride in life in the face of certain death), with an image of a dead young woman in a shroud. Queen Elizabeth of York died in February 1503 (notice the winter fire before which the girls sit). What are they doing? Weaving in all probability, a common domestic scene, or possibly echoing Isaiah 38:12: “Mine age is departed, and is removed from me as a shepherd’s tent: I have cut off like a weaver my life: he will cut me off with pining sickness: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.”
Adding together all these elements made me (tentatively!) claim that “Preliminary investigations suggest that these background figures may be the thirteen-year-old Princess Margaret, later wife of James IV of Scotland, seven-year-old Princess Mary, later wife of Louis XII of France, and thirteen-year-old Prince Henry, shortly after the death of their mother in February 1503.” Another possibility is that the wand-bearing individual in red at the front of the picture is Sir Richard Guildford himself, carrying the wand signifying the office of Comptroller.
Our great mystery is the identity of the figure presenting the volume to the king. This would usually be the person who was responsible for commissioning the manuscript, but I have as yet failed to identify the arms on ff 40 and 51 which, in all probability, would identify this individual. All help gratefully received!
How did the importance of the artefact first come to light?
The manuscript has been here at the Library since 1921, and has been examined by scholars. Alas, they seem not to have realised its significance. Whilst examining every page recently as part of a pre-digitisation study, and having deciphered some of the later-dating inscriptions on f206, I began to ask questions as to what the first illumination meant. What was going on? Who were these people?
There are some 30,000 manuscripts in our collections, and many more archives, but properly and closely examined, most come up with interesting features, and some with exciting discoveries. ‘Finds’ are often made in quite open and accessible items, if only the person examining them asks the right questions! Detective work is an essential aspect of the life of a Manuscripts Librarian (and a lot of curiosity!).
What are the future plans for it?
Next comes the proper and detailed study for a catalogue entry in our online catalogue: scholars, historians and others are welcome to study the images for themselves and to send us ideas, suggestions and information. Placing this item in the context of other manuscripts of the period may bring further information to light. How did it come into the hands of Joan Guildford? Was it a Royal gift, perhaps in memory of Elizabeth of York, or in remembrance of associations with Mary and Margaret? Was it given because Sir Richard Guildford is depicted in the first illumination?
I have only raised possibilities hitherto, and look forward to hearing from readers (and online viewers!) who may have further thoughts and suggestions: you can look at the manuscript itself online. I hope someone will look further into the life of Joan Guildford herself: she is an interesting character (complimented by Erasmus, present on the Field of the Cloth of Gold, accompanied Mary to France before being sent home by Louis XII, and embroiled in the King’s Great Matter as witness in the first royal divorce. Her son’s role in that divorce is interesting too!).