Throughout history, royal portraits have been about more than just decorative pictures for Great Halls and bed chambers. They were the advertising signs or political propaganda mechanisms of their day. Here, I explore how English royal portraits have been used to forge alliances, marriages, scare off enemies, display power and wealth and combat insecurities whilst humbly, albeit likely strategically, hanging on a wall.
Using Royal Portraits to Arrange Marriages and Alliances
Although most arranged marriages were based on religion and alliances, royals still liked to get a picture of their potential suitors.
Clearly back then, you couldn’t swipe a dating app or hop on a Zoom call. Yet to meet, and see if there was a spark, (not that it often mattered) took forever. You’d have to drag some poor foreign Duchess or Princess to England, which could take months especially if the unpredictable seasons, disease outbreaks and choppy English Channel had anything to do with it. Plus, by the time they got to England alliances might have shifted anyway (I’m looking at you Henry VIII).
Instead, they relied on accounts by ambassadors (who let’s face it, might be exaggerating) and the sending and receiving of portraits. Sometimes, it turned out OK. The ‘goods’ matched the description, and sometimes, well not so much.
In 1795, the future Queen Caroline of England upon first meeting her fiancé, the Prince of Wales said. “I find him very fat, and by no means as beautiful as his portrait.”
Whilst, poor Anne of Cleves, who apparently looked nothing like her portrait, is ever to be maligned in history as the unattractive “Flanders mare” sent to marry Henry VIII. Although there’s no evidence he said this the marriage certainly didn’t blossom.
Sending Messages to Friends and Enemies through Symbolism
Royal portraits were not just about looking attractive or making a happy love match, they were laced in coded messages or symbolism.
Rulers wanted viewers at home and abroad to think a certain way about them beyond ‘ooooh that dress must have cost a few quid.’
This is shown in a great post by Rebecca Larson, Tudors Dynasty where she dissects the symbolism in classic Queen Elizabeth I portraits.
Elizabeth used some obvious ones. She’s always dripping in pearls as a sign of peace and purity. Well, she was supposed to be the virgin Queen after all.
But some are less subtle like the bizarre little eyes and ears on the dress of the ‘Rainbow’ portrait. Was this to show she was a Queen who was willing to listen to her people or perhaps it was a warning that through her spies she had eyes and ears everywhere? It’s certainly a very intentional political choice rather than a fashion one.
Paintings were a Serious Part of Politics and Power
Firstly, have you ever seen a royal portrait where they’re smiling? I don’t think I have. The purpose of portraits, especially of men, was to show wealth, status, and power.
This is no better illustrated than in the dramatic gold portrait of Henry VIII. When I stood next to this portrait in Hampton Court Palace it glowed, and you felt a beam of light upon you. The detail, captured by the genius, Hans Holbein the Younger, is exquisite, especially the sleeves and jewellery.
The timing of the portrait, c1536, tells us a lot. It took place around the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution, during enormous religious tumult as the monasteries were dissolved and when Henry was still yet to secure a male heir. So, you cannot help but feel the beaming gold was driven by insecurity. An attempt to project authority through a glow of holy divinity.
Size was everything
I remember going to the Louvre and being completely underwhelmed by The Mona Lisa. I turned to my husband and said, “is that it?”
But, as I walked into one of the great rooms of The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, the royal portrait of Charles II just blew me away. It was huge. The flowing reds, silvers and whites, even the wig, somehow took over the room. And that is the point. The Mona Lisa was not created to intimidate. It was a painting of a noblewoman commissioned by her husband for their new home. How nice.
Royal portraits, like this one, were created to dominate a room, make the King the centre and the first thing you saw when you walked in.
The size was to humble foreign visitors and domestic petitioners, demonstrate their divine right to rule, which placed them above anyone else and for a potentially conspiratorial Court to be aware of his ever-present force in the room.
It can surely, be no coincidence the largest portraits I have ever seen were:
- The deeply unpopular King Charles I
- A surely insecure George I
- Henry VIII before the birth of his son Edward.
- Charles II who would have been slightly on edge after his father’s execution.
So next time you’re visiting a Royal Palace, Castle or Stately Home, I encourage you to step back and take a deeper look at the portraits hanging on the walls.
The symbols, colour, expression, size and date painted all tell a deeper story about their existence which I’m so pleased survived the ages for us to enjoy today.
English History. https://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/portraits-king-henry-viii/
Tudors Dynasty. https://tudorsdynasty.com/symbolism-elizabeths-portraits/
Elizabeth Hill-Scott is the founder of Smart History Blogging, which gives you smart ways to save time, grow your traffic, make money, and write about what you love. A life-long history fan since she saw her first English Castle on a school trip, Elizabeth teaches entrepreneurs and bloggers who want to start or grow a successful niche blog in the fascinating field of history.
She is also a post-graduate and communications expert who spent over 15 years advising senior UK politicians and public figures.
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