The ‘supreme’ Tudor monarch and material culture

All Tudor monarchs used material culture to enhance their status as the ‘supreme monarch,’ by constructing themselves as the supreme authority in several different aspects of life. Henry VII first used material culture to communicate the legitimacy of the Tudor claim, and during the Break with Rome, and subsequent religious changes, material culture was used to communicate that the monarch was the supreme head of religion in England. Objects such as the Angel Coin also communicated the divine link between the monarch and God, and implied their supreme healing powers. Material culture was also used to communicate the supremacy of the monarch to the lay people. These ideas culminate, in visual art, which successfully communicates the supremacy of the reigning Tudor monarch in all aspects of life, earning them the overall title of ‘supreme monarch.’

Henry VII first sought to construct and communicate the legitimacy of the Tudor claim to the throne. He used Arthur’s Round Table at Winchester Cathedral to do this. The table dates back to Edward I, and reflects a time in which the Arthurian legends were popular, as they epitomised nobility and the chivalric ideal. Henry VII tapped acknowledged this, and Martin Biddle asserts that Henry’s decision to baptise his son Arthur at Winchester meant, in trying to connect his family with King Arthur, Henry was trying to communicate the legitimacy and ‘genealogical prestige’ of the Tudor family. This also aimed to dispense the Tudors’ somewhat dubious claim to the throne, as they descended from the illegitimate children of John of Gaunt. Henry took this further, and when Emperor Charles V visited in 1522, he painted a Tudor rose in the centre of the table and painted himself in Arthur’s throne. This showed Henry as supplanting Arthur’s position as the ideal knight and monarch. This further strengthened the link between Arthur and the Tudors, and the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty due to their ancient, British roots. This placed the Tudors on equal footing with other European emperors, who claimed that their families were related to Charlemagne, and so worked to assert the legitimacy of the dynasty on a global stage. After constructing the legitimacy of their claim, the Tudors then sought supremacy over religion.

Beginning with the reign of Henry VIII, the Tudors asserted themselves as the Supreme Heads of the Church and religious policy. Henry VIII used material culture to do this, as seen on the front cover of the Great Bible, published in 1539. The Bible came following the Break with Rome, a series of Parliamentary legislation that facilitated England’s split from the Roman Catholic Church, beginning with the First Act of Supremacy in 1534. According to John Guy, this act granted Henry the caesaropapism that he desired, as his secular authority now incorporated religious authority. This is depicted on the cover of the Great Bible. It was commissioned by Thomas Cromwell, who Henry proclaimed as Vicegerent in Spirituals, and was written by Myles Coverdale. On the front cover, Henry is depicted at the centre, delegating various religious doctrine to Cromwell, who in turn directs the Bishops. What is displayed is a hierarchy of authority, with Henry delegating the religious reforms at the front and centre. A small image of God is depicted above him emphasising the divine link between the two, but also Henry’s superiority over God, whose image he dwarfs.

The role of Cromwell also demonstrated the authority that Henry could grant his advisors. Cromwell controlled the printing of English Bibles, and reduced the price from 13.s 4d to 10s, to ensure that all English parishes had access to one, which they did by 1547. This technique was also employed by Elizabeth I, who, when she reinstated Royal Supremacy in 1559, issued the Elizabethan Bible. Elizabeth is depicted on the front as ‘Hope,’ with the figures of ‘Faith’ and ‘Charity’ either side of her. Like the Henry, this communicates divine Elizabeth’s status as the supreme head of the English Church. As well as being the supreme head of religious policy, the Tudor monarchs were also believed to have supreme healing powers.

These ideas are communicated by the Angel Coin, as it was believed that this, prayers, and the Kings Touch could cure Scrofula. The gold coins, which are nineteen millimetres in diameter, were first introduced in 1465. One side depicted Archangel Michael slaying the dragon, a reference to the triumph of good over evil, and the idea of the Guardian Angel. On the opposite side, an English Galley is depicted, with a ‘H’ and a rose below the main topmast. A shield with the Kings arms is also present. ‘By thy cross save us, Christ redeemer’ is inscribed in Latin around the circumference of this side of the coin, and implies the connection between Christ and the monarchy, the latter represented by the Kings Arms. A hole is punched through it to negate its monetary power. The coin symbolises the idea that the ruling monarchy was sacred, as they were chosen to rule by God. This was also communicated in ceremonies such as the Maundy, an event which took place on Maundy Thursday every year. The monarch would wash the feet of poor people, as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. This closely aligned the monarch with Jesus. This enhanced the ‘legitimacy’ of Tudor rule, Max Weber argues, as the Tudor monarchs were seen to be carrying forward ancient traditions. This was particularly prevalent for Elizabeth, whose image as the Virgin Queen closely aligned her with the Virgin Mary, as Carole Levin has argued. This emphasised further the divine nature of the monarch, and also led to the creation of the Cult of Elizabeth.

This was used by Elizabeth to maintain her image and authority amongst her people. Her gifting of the Heneage jewel to her courtier Thomas Heneage communicates this. Made in 1595, the jewel is a gold locket containing a miniature of the Queen by Nicholas Hilliard. The dissemination of her image allowed Elizabeth to enforce her supremacy and authority and acted as a physical reminder to the people of who they should serve. This image was also perpetuated through events such as Crownation Day, an event purported by David Cressy as the ‘queen’s holy day.’ This celebrated the anniversary of Elizabeth’s coronation, way into the reign of James VI.

The dissemination of images of the monarch among the populace was not new however. Anne Boleyn’s 1534 medallion was struck to in anticipation of the birth of a male heir, and was inscribed with Anne’s motto the ‘moost happi.’ Images such as these helped the people feel a personal closeness to the monarch. Visual displays of material wealth had the same function.  Jousting’s were used to epitomise the military supremacy of the monarch, and such events were organised to celebrate the birth of Edward. Progresses also communicated the authority of the monarchy directly to the lay people, as it gave them a rare opportunity to see their monarch and their entourage.

These ideas, about the legitimacy of the Tudor line and the divinity of the family, are communicated in Tudor paintings, which were used as propaganda. An example of this is the 1545 ‘The Family of Henry VIII’ portrait. Tara String opined that majority of Henry’s portraits positioned him in a stance that accentuated his calf muscles and shoulders, emphasising his military prowess and physical strength. His large codpiece is also the focal point of the painting, demonstrating his success in the roles of the courtly male lover: fertility and virility. His virility is also demonstrated by the presence of his three children in the painting, along with his late wife Jane Seymour. The structure resembles a triptych employed by ‘The Donne Tryptych.’ This 15th century piece by Hans Memling depicts the Virgin Mary holding Christ at its centre, flanked by Saints. This religious allusion present in the 1545 portrait communicated the divine status of the Tudor family and dynasty. Elizabeth reissued a similar image in 1590, to reassert her legitimate claim to the throne and her own divine nature.

I have demonstrated that material culture was regularly employed by the Tudors to construct and communicate themselves as the supreme monarchs of the 16th century. By communicating their superiority in several important aspects of life, they asserted their role as the overall supreme monarch. This began with Henry VII’s rooting of the Tudor dynasty in Arthurian legend to assert the dynasty’s legitimacy on a global stage. Henry VIII asserted supremacy in another aspect of life: religion. By making himself head of the Church of England, he granted all Tudor monarchs the power to legally alter the religion of England. Through the construction of Bibles, the monarchs also communicated their own divinity. This, as well as the dissemination of images, was used by Elizabeth to ensure that her courtiers and country were loyal to her. These ideas are instilled in the 1545 family portrait, which constructed and communicated the legitimacy, religious authority and overall supremacy of the Tudor monarchs.[1]


[1] All my own knowledge – written under exam conditions.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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