Off with his head – how Henry VIII was decapitated from royal painting

imageOne of Tudor England’s most famous paintings, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, contains an unsolved puzzle.

It is one of Tudor England’s most famous paintings, depicting the pomp and splendour of Henry VIII’s reign.

But a key feature of The Field of the Cloth of Gold remains shrouded in mystery – just how Henry lost his head.

The painting portrays the 1520 meeting between Henry and Francis I of France near Calais, an 18-day spectacle arranged by Henry to boost propaganda surrounding his reign and project an image of harmony between the two nations.

The English king is depicted three times in the picture, but the most prominent image of him on horseback contains an unsolved puzzle – why was his face cut out and replaced?

Now, for the first time, the little-known theories of how Henry may have lost his head will be revealed in a new BBC Radio 4 series highlighting the treasures of the Royal Collection.

Although the painting’s artist and date are unknown, it is believed to have been commissioned by Henry to hang in Whitehall Palace and is traditionally dated circa 1545.

An episode of The Art of Monarchy, broadcast this week, will suggest that the painting may have been completed much earlier, before Hans Holbein’s famous 1537 portrait of Henry for the Whitehall Mural, which subsequently became the king’s favourite picture.

The “replaced” head of Henry in The Field of the Cloth of Gold strongly resembles Holbein’s portrait and some art experts believe that for reasons of vanity, the king wanted to “update” his image in the painting and had the original head replaced with a newer version.

Another theory to be explored in the programme is that the painting was defaced by republicans for looking too “royal” during the Interregnum.

Following the execution of Charles I in 1649, Oliver Cromwell ordered that all royal art works be sold to clear Charles’ debts. Henry’s head may have been removed by Cromwell’s supporters as an anti-monarchist statement before its sale, and later replaced by Charles II when he re-acquired the painting in 1660.

A third, alternative version of how Henry’s original head was removed from the painting which now hangs at Hampton Court, is an act of foreign vandalism.

The programme will recount how in 1621, the Spanish ambassador visited James I at Whitehall for diplomatic discussions during the ongoing volatile relationship between Spain and England.

A letter sent in 1621 from a courtier to one of James’ diplomats is believed to have mentioned that aides to the Spanish ambassador attacked several of the art works at Whitehall while the meeting took place, and Henry’s head may have been hacked from The Field of the Cloth of Gold during this attack.

Jennifer Scott, curator of paintings at the Royal Collection who extensively researched the picture for her book The Royal Portrait: Image and Impact said: “The fascinating thing about this painting is that it is such a famous historical document, yet still so little is known about it.

“Each theory of how Henry could have lost his head is intriguing, and while we may never discover which one is historically accurate, they provide us with an interesting new way of looking at the painting’s extraordinary history.”

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