How Holbein left clever clue in portrait to identify Henry VIII’s queen

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Created in around 1540 by Hans Holbein, court painter to Henry VIII and one of the greatest portraitists of all time, the miniature is a prized treasure in the Royal Collection. But the sitter is unknown, with the artefact long catalogued merely as “Portrait of a Lady, perhaps Catherine Howard”, Henry VIII’s fifth queen.

Now, as a result of fresh research, she has been given a new identity: that of Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife. Art historian Franny Moyle has amassed evidence to show that this is the face of the noblewoman whom the king married in 1540 to form a political alliance.

Moyle believes that Holbein left a tantalising clue in mounting the miniature (a watercolour on vellum) on a particular playing-card – the four of diamonds – which could signify the fourth queen.

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She told the Observer Holbein layered his work with symbols and conceits and was more likely to have chosen a card that would have “made someone smile”. “These little miniatures were mounted on playing cards. Holbein didn’t do anything without meaning something. For example, he put the ace of spades on the back of the miniature of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s principal advisor, which seems pretty pertinent for a man who would call a spade a spade. That Erasmus had coined that very phrase might not have been lost on either of the men. Holbein’s portrait of the Lord Chancellor’s wife, Elizabeth Audley, is mounted on the ace of hearts, as a new bride. So the four of diamonds is arguably significant. I would have been quite miffed if it had been the three of hearts.”

Henry VIII said of Holbein’s 1539 portrait of Anne of Cleves that he was ‘not pleased with her in that German dress’. Photograph: incamerastock/Alamy

Anne’s wedding took place days after she arrived in England to meet her fiancé for the first time, only for him to be disappointed and to have the marriage annulled after six months, having turned his attentions to her attendant, Catherine Howard.

The miniature has been linked to Catherine, partly because it dates from 1540, the year in which she, too, married Henry, and because the sitter is adorned with jewels that are comparable to items in her inventory. She appears to be wearing a pendant that once belonged to Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour. The Royal Collection’s cataloguing also notes that Jane made gifts of her jewellery to her ladies-in-waiting and that the features of one of them, Mary, Lady Monteagle, in a Holbein drawing in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle, bear some resemblance to the present sitter.

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Noting that the sitter’s dress suggests high status, Moyle said: “When Henry got rid of one wife, he was in the habit of handing down their belongings to their successors. So the argument of it being Jane Seymour’s jewellery applies equally to identify Anne of Cleves.”

Moyle observed that Anne was in her mid-to-late 20s at her marriage, while Catherine was a teenager. “This portrait doesn’t look like a child bride,” she said.

Crucially, she was struck by the sitter’s uncanny likeness to Holbein’s 1539 portrait of Anne, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, with both featuring distinctive heavy eyelids and thick eyebrows. “They’re the same woman. She has this soporific expression in both paintings.”

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Holbein was first despatched to paint Anne in 1539, capturing the likeness of a potential new bride for Henry. Instantly, their marriage was in trouble. Henry told his close counsel that he found her unattractive. To the English eye, her attire looked peculiar. One contemporary observed that, when Henry saw Anne, “he was not pleased with her in that German dress”.

Moyle speculates that Holbein painted her shortly afterwards again because Anne wanted to be seen anew, with a different attire, including a so-called French hood then fashionable in England. It was more revealing than the heavy-veiled Germanic look. She said: “So I think there’s a good reason why, in early 1540 she – or Thomas Cromwell, perhaps, who was very pro the marriage – might suggest Holbein paint her again so that, in the little miniature that Henry had in his pocket, he could see a version of Anne that was more appealing.”

Part of the problem is that there is no authentic contemporary likeness of Catherine, who was condemned for adultery, and whose portraits would have been quickly disposed of, if they ever existed.

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Moyle said: “Catherine was cited as ‘young and fresh’ and a ‘ravishing beauty’. Conceptions of beauty to one side, it’s hard to apply either of these descriptions to this miniature. Anne was ‘of medium beauty’, as described by the French ambassador.”

The Royal Collection declined to comment.

Moyle’s research will feature in her new book The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein, to be published by Head of Zeus on 27 May.

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