To an Italian who traveled to England in the late sixteenth century—say, one of the artists commissioned to paint portraits of the Elizabethan elite—the island might not have appeared, as it had to the ancient Roman poet Virgil, “wholly separated from all the world,” but it would certainly have seemed strange. In London the visitor would have seen many signs of wealth and power: the sprawling royal residence of Whitehall; grand dwellings along the Thames for the leading aristocrats and their entourages; the magnificent abbey at Westminster housing the royal tombs; in the busy commercial center paved streets, some of them graced with beautiful fountains; a brooding fortress, imagined to have been built by Julius Caesar and used in the sixteenth century as a prison, a mint, an armory, and a royal menagerie. But there was much else that would have given pause.

The weather was a trial. The roads were terrible, and after dark they were the haunts of robbers. In London the most popular entertainments were animal fights. Large crowds paid to see a horse with a monkey on its back attacked by fierce dogs. The poor beleaguered horse would gallop and kick; the monkey would scream; the audience would roar. When the exhausted horse collapsed and was killed, it would be time to bring out the bears and bulls, tie them to stakes, unleash the dogs, and repeat the fun. “This sport,” remarked a visitor from the Continent, “is not very pleasant to watch.”

In the churches psalms were sung and Mass was celebrated not in the time-honored Latin but in plain English. The Reformation left other, more tangible marks as well. “It is a pitiful sight,” wrote an Italian merchant who kept a journal of his visit to London in 1562, “to see the beautiful marble statues of saints and other decorations there, broken and ruined because of their heresy.” In the streets foreigners were advised to keep a low profile, since the crowds could be suspicious or hostile.

Even hospitable encounters could cause considerable bafflement. If you were invited to dinner, you had to brace yourself. “It is almost impossible to believe,” remarked the merchant, “that they could eat so much meat.” To wash it down, the English made “a drink from barley and the seeds of hops which they call beer, healthy but sickening to taste.” Compared with Italian women, Englishwomen seemed unnervingly free: they could go out of the house unaccompanied by their menfolk; bustle about in the markets and serve in shops; even go by themselves to public entertainments. “They kiss each other a lot,” observed the merchant. “If a stranger enters a house and does not first of all kiss the mistress on the lips, they think him badly brought up.” And yet at the same time women deemed to be scolds could be literally muzzled by a horrible device called a “brank,” and anyone suspected of sexual immorality could be publicly whipped and shamed.

The people spoke a language largely unknown to the rest of the civilized world. Virtually nothing written in English had aroused sufficient interest to merit translation into one of the dominant Continental languages or into Latin, the shared language of learning. Early in the century an Englishman, Thomas More, had published a brilliant short work in Latin, Utopia, that quickly earned him Europe-wide acclaim, but More was beheaded by the merciless Henry VIII. Two gifted poets in Henry’s court, Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, had some success importing and adapting Italian and French poetic models—Wyatt introduced the sonnet form into English—but they too were snuffed out. Accused of treason, Surrey was executed in the Tower at the age of thirty, and Wyatt, imprisoned on suspicion of having had an affair with Anne Boleyn, died at thirty-nine after a second imprisonment. Their deaths seem to have had a chilling effect on cultural life.

In sixteenth-century Italy the major universities were sites of extraordinary achievements: the founding of the first botanical gardens for the scientific study of plants, epochal advances in anatomy and embryology, the positing of germ theory and the creation of epidemiology, revolutions in physics and astronomy. The two English universities by comparison were scientific backwaters; learned scholars lectured on Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen, but their attention was not focused on new frontiers of inquiry. Both Oxford and Cambridge were riven by bitter conflicts as the ascendant Protestant authorities tried to eradicate any residual loyalty to Roman Catholicism and more radical Protestants complained that the Reformation in England had not gone nearly far enough.

The religious conflicts had been going on for more than a half-century, since Henry VIII’s break with Rome, and in their murderous tangles they caught up virtually everyone in the kingdom. Officially at least, the ruler’s religion was the religion of the entire country; no other faiths were tolerated—not Judaism or Islam, of course, but also not any version of Christianity other than the ruler’s own. In making himself the supreme head of the church in England, Henry’s motivation lay principally in getting a divorce and seizing the wealth of the monasteries. The six-year reign of his son Edward VI, who came to the throne at the age of nine, inaugurated a sharper turn toward Protestantism in doctrine and church organization. Then, after Edward’s death from tuberculosis and an abortive nine-day reign by his seventeen-year-old Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey that ended in her execution, his sister Mary returned the country to the Roman Catholic Church. Five tumultuous years later Mary died, and with the accession of her younger sister, Elizabeth, England once again officially became Protestant. Each of these changes of regime was accompanied by dark waves of conspiracies, suspicions, arrests, and executions, on top of the ordinary punishments meted out in a brutally punitive society.


It is difficult to take in how nightmarish the situation was, for we have little or nothing comparable in our world. Perhaps the experience of a German family that went in fewer than seventy years from the Weimar Republic to National Socialism to the Communist government of East Germany to the fall of the Iron Curtain and German reunification evokes something of its unbearable stress.

A window into daily life in Tudor England is provided by a rare diary that survives from the mid-sixteenth century. It was kept by a merchant, Henry Machyn, who lived in London and recorded events around him. On April 21, 1556, he wrote that two men, Master Frogmorton and Master Wodall, had been taken from the Tower to a courtroom to be tried on charges of “conspiracy against the queen and other matters.” On April 24 he noted that six men were “carried to Smithfield to be burned”—Smithfield was a preferred site for executing heretics—along with other men “carried into the country to be burned.” Later that afternoon he observed three men put into the pillory in Cheapside, near London Bridge, one for perjury and the other two for subornation of perjury. On April 28 Frogmorton and Wodall, Machyn noted, were hanged, drawn, and quartered, and their heads stuck on pikes on London Bridge. The next week he recorded more men hauled off to the Tower on charges of treason, more heretics (“one a painter, the other a clothworker”) burned, more malefactors put in the pillory, this time with their ears nailed to the wood.

So, interspersed with notations about the outbreak of plague, the diary goes on, page after page, and all more or less the same whether the regime was Catholic or Protestant. In such circumstances, in order to keep one’s head on, it made sense to keep one’s head down. By 1580, though Elizabeth had been on the throne for more than twenty years, her reign had largely managed to produce among her subjects only artistic mediocrities. Native English culture seemed as backward in poetry as it was in painting, sculpture, and the life of the mind. If an Italian visitor—justifiably proud of Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and others—would have been puzzled to see the miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard trotted out as the leading English painter, what (if he could read English) would he have made of the leaden versifiers Nicholas Breton, Nicholas Grimald, and William Warner? Where, he might have asked, were the equivalents in England to Ariosto, Tasso, or Vittoria Colonna? The answer is that they did not exist, and there seemed little prospect that they ever would.

Henry VIII had separated his realm, already geographically isolated, from the old faith that united most of the rest of Europe, and in 1580 his heretic daughter, nearing fifty years old, sat on the throne unmarried and without an heir. Elizabeth I was not the monster that her father was, but to someone from the Continent she must have looked exotic or perhaps simply outlandish. Her face painted a ghastly white, her hair dyed bright red, and her teeth turning black, she was periodically paraded, like a weird religious icon covered with precious jewels, before her adoring people. At court, richly clad favorites and even sober senior advisers had to address her on their knees and couch their appeals in the language of romantic love, as if she were an alluring young maiden being wooed by smitten suitors.

Fifteen years later the French ambassador André Hurault, Sieur de Maisse, upon being ushered into the Privy Chamber, was unnerved to find the aging queen “strangely attired” in what seemed to him a dress of gauze. “She kept the front of her dress open,” he wrote in his diary, “and one could see the whole of her bosom, and passing low, and often she would open the front of this robe with her hands as if she was too hot.” The following week she received him again, this time in a black taffeta gown similarly slit in front. “She has a trick of putting both hands on her gown and opening it,” the startled ambassador noted, “insomuch that all her belly can be seen.” The queen’s gambit was quite deliberate; her interlocutors, thrown off-balance, felt they were entering into an unsettling, fantastical world.


How did that world, so striking and still so immediately recognizable, get created? The answer is found in “The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England,” a splendid exhibition currently at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. The great majority of the paintings, drawings, sculptures, medals, tapestries, jewels, and other objects on display were not created by English-born artists, weavers, or craftsmen. The monarch and the tiny elite, in whose hands almost all the country’s wealth was concentrated, generally looked abroad, and with few exceptions they were not interested in acquiring the works of famous artists. The names of those who produced the extravagant settings and the fabulous costumes in which the Tudors performed their glittering, dangerous historical roles are largely unknown.

The dynasty’s acquisitive frenzy—what the exhibition’s curators, Elizabeth Cleland, Adam Eaker, and Marjorie Wieseman, call the Tudors’ “competitive consumption”—began almost at once. Henry Tudor, who reigned as Henry VII from 1485 to his death in 1509, was hardly an expansive personality; in a small portrait by an unknown Netherlandish artist he looks out at us with a shrewd, wary, thin-lipped expression, like that of a banker unwilling to loan you a penny. But after his accession to power he spent a small fortune on a set of ten enormous Flemish tapestries, a stunning example of which is on display.

He also spared no expense on a set of vestments, fashioned to his specifications in Italy. A magnificent cope, made of velvet cloth of gold brocaded with loops of gilded silver-wrapped threads, features the king’s heraldic emblems—Tudor roses twining around three large portcullises, each bearing an enormous crown at the top and five sharp spikes at the bottom. It would have conveyed to anyone who got close enough to see it, “I derive my title from my father, Edmund Tudor, whose symbol is the rose, and from my mother, Margaret Beaufort, whose symbol is the portcullis.”

There were good reasons for the sharp spikes. The grandson of a Welshman of no particular distinction by birth, Henry Tudor had gathered a troop of soldiers (more than half of them French mercenaries) who at the Battle of Bosworth Field defeated and killed the dynastically legitimate English king, Richard III—he of Shakespeare’s “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” (Shakespeare followed the lead of the usurper’s propagandists, most notably Thomas More, who immediately set about to besmirch the reputation of the murdered king.) Henry and his heirs managed to hold on to the crown for more than a century (until his granddaughter Elizabeth died childless in 1603), but they were all haunted by the insecurity of the first Tudor’s claim to the throne. On display in the exhibition is an engraving of the so-called Talbot’s Rose, an elaborate genealogical emblem created in 1589 to symbolize the Tudor dynasty. Its petals covered with heraldic emblems, the huge rose, bearing a massive crown, is meant to convey a sense of rightful inheritance, but the image resembles a grotesque face covered with pustules (see illustration below).

‘Talbot’s Rose’; engraving by Jodocus Hondius after Thomas Talbot

British Museum, London

‘Talbot’s Rose’; engraving by Jodocus Hondius after Thomas Talbot, London, 1589. Henry VII and Elizabeth I are at top left and right over a crowned rose, the symbol of the unified York and Lancaster houses, which here contains the arms of every knight admitted to the chivalric Order of the Garter during the Tudor period up to the date of the print.

Henry VII knew perfectly well that he could not secure his rule merely with expensive tapestries and vestments. The contemporary chronicler Edward Hall noted that “men remember not any king of England before that time which used such a furniture of daily soldiers.” In other words, Henry surrounded himself with an unusual number of armed guards. At the same time, he invested heavily in the pageantry of power, and his son, who succeeded him as Henry VIII, doubled down on the investment. For his 1520 meeting with the French king, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Henry had a temporary fantasy palace constructed out of canvas. It took six thousand laborers to erect the vast pavilions, two thousand masons, glaziers, and carpenters to complete the illusion, and a king’s ransom to supply the glittering textiles that gave their name to the occasion.

Henry VIII combined his taste for diplomatic display with a limitless personal acquisitiveness. In his ornate palaces cups made from rock crystal, mother-of-pearl and gilded silver chalices, and porcelain bowls from Ming China, all set in exquisitely fashioned gold and silver mounts, sat on elaborately carved tables covered with precious carpets imported from Turkey, Syria, and Egypt. “Round his neck he had a gold collar,” the Venetian ambassador reported, “from which there hung a rough cut diamond, the size of the largest walnut I ever saw…[and] his fingers were one mass of jewelled rings.” As the years passed his swelling flesh seemed to mirror his boundless rapacity. A relatively svelte suit of armor created for him early in his reign gives way to the massively swollen one from 1544 on display nearby. Toward the end of his life his huge bulk had to be lifted onto horseback with a crane.

The royal taste for luxury goods and the mania for showing them off spread throughout the Tudor elite. It is difficult to think of another social class in history that has exceeded this one in its unrestrained, utterly shameless exhibition of sartorial opulence. The multilayered clothes with their embroidery and fine slashes, their fur collars, velvet sleeves, spangled gauze, pleated ruffs, silk hose, lace embellishments, and solid gold buttons, all overlaid with heavy gold collars, diamond brooches, and ropes of pearls, were designed to dazzle and to overwhelm. The dissolution of the monasteries and the despoiling of the bejeweled ancient shrines swelled the royal coffers and gave the busy goldsmiths innumerable precious gems to reset as personal adornments.

“The Tudors” has several pieces of this dazzling loot on display. More of it is depicted in the spectacular array of paintings and miniatures, for Tudor monarchs and their followers were eager to have themselves represented in the full splendor of their power and wealth. Many of these representations of life at the top of fortune’s wheel are manifestly mere exercises in sycophancy, but there are exceptions. Among the most prominent is a series of magnificent portraits by the German master Hans Holbein the Younger, by far the greatest artist in the Tudor ambit. Holbein had a rare ability to capture the particular character of each of his sitters and to persuade the viewer that the depiction was deeply truthful.

His justly celebrated portrait of Thomas More, on loan from the Frick, manages almost miraculously to suggest that beneath the heavy gold chain and the rich robes of office More is holding back some part of himself, a hidden reserve that is not at the disposition of the king or the state. A decade later, after the beheading of More, as well as John Fisher, Anne Boleyn, and many others, Holbein painted Henry VIII, then in his mid-forties. The king, with wrinkles beginning to gather about his eyes, looks out coldly, his small mouth compressed sourly in his large, fleshy face. Blood-red rubies sewn into his embroidered, slashed doublet glow, along with the jewels in his hat and on his fingers. The portrait does not tip all the way into satire, as some of Goya’s do, but the cruelty, menace, and aggression are perfectly conveyed. Perhaps that is what the king wished his image to convey. Holbein’s full-length portrait of Henry in the great mural at Whitehall was destroyed in a fire in 1698, but a Dutch art writer who visited earlier in the century remarked that it was “so lifelike that anyone who sees it is afraid.”

Both of Henry VIII’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, inherited their father’s love of extravagant clothing and jewels. In a 1554 portrait by the Flemish-born Hans Eworth, Mary stands stiffly, her hands clasped at her waist. The artist seems to have paid merely polite attention to the queen’s pale, sober face, but he was clearly fascinated by her heavy, starched, pearl-encrusted, and brocaded gown, her sable stole, and her fabulous baubles: six rings, a pearl-and-ruby choker with a pendant cross inherited from her mother, Catherine of Aragon, and a large diamond brooch inherited from her last stepmother, Katherine Parr. Viewed in this exhibition in close proximity to her father’s suits of field armor, Mary’s costume too seems made of etched and gilded steel. It was her own costly suit of armor.

The full flowering of Tudor magnificence—a style dreamlike both in its lavish excess and in its undercurrents of anxiety and menace—came during the long reign of Elizabeth I. Acceding to the throne in 1558 at the age of twenty-five, Elizabeth understood, as her older sister had not, that she could turn her gender from a disadvantage to a powerful instrument of rule—provided that she stayed unmarried. She inaugurated almost at once the cult of romance that the French ambassador saw her continuing to deploy forty years later. Her Accession Day was annually celebrated with jousting, her gorgeously arrayed champions risking their lives in faux-medieval combats in defense of their fair lady’s honor. Ambitious courtiers vied with one another to express lovesickness for their royal mistress and to shower her with romantic (and suitably costly) love tokens.

She in turn could reciprocate and fuel her suitors’ hopes for favor. “We all did love her,” wrote her godson Sir John Harington, “for she said she loved us.” Impeccably kept vellum rolls—one of which is on view at the Met—for the annual New Year’s exchange of gifts document the queen’s receipt of 4,400 gifts, many chosen for their symbolic as well as their cash value. But it was not always a perfect lovefest. When Elizabeth was displeased, she was capable of an anger that, as Harington put it, “left no doubtings whose daughter she was.” On one occasion, smarting from a sign of her displeasure, Sir Philip Sidney presented her at the New Year with a jewel-encrusted whip.

Gift-giving was important in Tudor diplomacy as well as court life. The portraits were understood to be highly charged symbolic representations—stand-ins—for the sitter, and the viewer’s response to them was carefully monitored and reported. “She took me to her bed-chamber,” wrote one ambassador of his audience with Elizabeth, “and opened a little cabinet, wherein were divers little pictures wrapt within paper, and their names written with her own hand upon the papers.” The ambassador clearly felt that he was glimpsing something of the queen’s secret feelings, and his report captures his excitement:

Upon the first that she took up was written, “My Lord’s picture.” I held the candle, and pressed to see that picture so named. She appeared loath to let me see it; yet my importunity prevailed for a sight thereof, and found it to be the Earl of Leicester’s picture.

It is extremely unlikely that the queen was showing him anything that she did not want him to see, but it is not surprising that miniatures, such as the one he glimpsed, were painted with such exquisite care. They were an enactment of a precious intimacy.

Visitors to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries in Westminster Abbey can see another type of stand-in: the remains of the wooden and wax effigies that from the fourteenth century onward were made upon the deaths of English kings and queens. During the bombing raids of World War II, many of these were damaged, but the head of the effigy of Henry VII, the first Tudor, survived and is astonishing in its eerie realism. When new, the effigies were used to produce awe. Life-size, some with movable arms and legs, and dressed in full coronation regalia, they were carried in the funeral procession and then brought to the abbey. There, until the coronation of the new monarch, while the coffined remains of those they represented slowly began to rot, the effigies were treated, well, like royalty. Servants brought them food and wine on silver trays, bowed before them, and observed all the court rituals.

Elizabeth seems to have understood that she did not have to wait until she was dead to deploy representations that compelled the awe and devoted service of her subjects. She took an intense interest in her image on portrait medals, in prints, in miniatures, and in paintings. In 1563 a draft proclamation envisaged the issuing of an official likeness to satisfy those who desired “to procure the portrait and picture of the Queen’s majesty’s most noble and loving person.” Though the plan does not seem to have been carried out, there are signs that she had her own firm idea about the way she was to be represented. She indicated to the miniaturist Hilliard that she did not want “any shadow at all” in her portraits. She was determined in effect to remain untouched by time or at least to resist the probing exploration of inner life that characterizes great portraiture.

The result of this determination is spectacularly on display in the famous portraits of Elizabeth I that form the climax of “The Tudors.” These portraits are not inept—quite the contrary, once seen they are unforgettable—but they have virtually no psychological interiority. One of the most memorable of them, from her adviser Robert Cecil’s grand estate Hatfield House, shows the seemingly ageless queen, her face an expressionless mask; she is not merely dripping with jewels but also holding a rainbow in her hand and dressed in a gown embroidered with disembodied eyes and ears. A Latin inscription, non sine sole iris, suggests that the rainbow is hers to clutch because she is the sun. She is the source of all light, and without her there is no promise of peace. And she is also, as the embroidery on her gown indicates, the all-knowing: she hears everything and sees everything. The grotesque flattery is all too familiar from panegyrics to one or another Great Leader in our own time, but the imagery is uniquely Tudor.*

These royal portraits are not paintings in the conventional sense of aesthetic representations, but rather quasi-magical icons of power: you are meant to understand that you are in the presence, at once thrilling and dangerous, of an absolute monarch. “No other power effecting woe or bliss,” wrote her courtier and sometime favorite Sir Walter Ralegh. “She gave, she took, she wounded, she appeased.” Ralegh wrote these words from his cell in the Tower, where he was imprisoned for secretly marrying one of the queen’s maids of honor. Desperate to recover royal favor, he wrote a long, plangent love poem, conjuring up the queen’s images as if he were viewing the very pictures on display in the Met exhibition:

Far off or near, in waking or in dreams,
Imagination strong their lustre brought.
Such force her angelic appearance had
To master distance, time, or cruelty;
Such art to grieve, and after to make glad;
Such fear in love, such love in majesty.

Thanks to “The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England,” we can join Ralegh in admiring these objects for their enduring luster, but we can be grateful that the majesty—the power to grieve and to hurt, as well as to reward and protect—has faded into art.