Henry IX is one of the most interesting monarchs Britain never had.
The eldest son of James VI of Scotland and his wife, Anne of Denmark, Henry, who was born in 1594, took after his mother in looks. He had a long, chiseled face with intelligent eyes, a long nose, and a small, determined chin. Agile and athletic—he loved to practice feats of skill with the pike and lance—he also showed considerable interest in hydraulics and other scientific advances, enthusiastically backed exploration of the New World, and was a patron of the arts whose remarkable collection of paintings included works by Breugel the Elder, Rubens, and Titian.
If he had lived longer, it is tempting to wonder whether he might have done better than his younger brother Charles I at negotiating with Parliament, forestalling unpopular taxes, adopting a firmly Protestant role in Europe, and thus avoiding the Civil War that signed the death warrant for the British monarchy until Cromwell’s early demise without an obvious political heir provided an opportunity for its restoration.
London’s National Portrait Gallery exhibition devoted to images of Henry and his circle is a dazzling show. Ruling in the 16th century was all about display: Power had to be made manifest, glory rendered visible. As James VI explained in the advice book he wrote for his son, Basilikon Doron, “The people that see you not within, cannot judge of you but according to the outward appearance of your actions and companie, which only is subject to their sight.” The costume and trappings of royalty were all-important in projecting the role that the king and his family sought to play. It was the heir apparent’s job to represent the virtues and splendors of national strength.
The portraits of Henry as a young man are remarkably consistent in portraying his features, but they are also allegories of his potential. In one masterpiece by Robert Peake, Henry is depicted in splendid hunting attire, standing over a dead stag. His sword is raised above his head, ready to plunge into the beast’s carcass. In the iconography of the time, his attitude is also that of the Archangel Michael, or St. George, about to slay the dragon. Henry is clad in green: the color of hunting, but also, in Renaissance symbolism, of hope. The picture is, to a degree, naturalistic—Henry loved hunting and horsemanship—but it is also clearly a hopeful depiction of a future leader, one who (perhaps) might not shy away from war with Catholic Spain as his father had done.
In another portrait, Prince Henry is mounted on a horse, and an old man, probably representing Time, is following his progress, his forelock tied to Henry’s pennant. The detail with which armor, clothing, and jewelry are depicted in these paintings is a miracle of workmanship. You can see the very gold threads in Henry’s embroidered doublets, the diamonds on the cuff of his glove, the filigree filaments of lace in his ruff, the embroidered carnations and forget-me-nots in the bodice of his mother’s ivory silk gown.
Diplomats often looked for signs of foreign policy in the origin of the textiles and ornaments that the royal family favored. The cut of one’s cloth might well signal the cast of one’s political mind. James VI and his family spent massively on jewelry: Henry’s bills amounted to three or four thousand pounds at a time. In these extraordinary, jewel-like paintings, one can see the royal family presented itself as a kind of intricate crown, sparkling with gems and glittering with promise. (Children at the exhibition were fascinated by the shoe buckles, some of them like many-pointed, layered starfish inset with pearls. A return of these to high fashion seems long overdue.)
Included as well are various artifacts that offer a fascinating insight into the education of a prince in the late 16th century. Henry was born in Scotland and was, according to Scottish custom, sent away shortly after his birth to live with the Earl of Mar and to be schooled in the ways of princely virtue. His mother was understandably devastated, and we can see from the earliest days a contest between competing influences for Henry’s attention.
James VI was very specific about the instruction he wanted his son to have. It was principally a moral education, with emphasis placed on sound religious observance and physical training. James encouraged fencing, wrestling, tennis, and archery, but forbade “all rumling violent exercises, as the football.” He wanted Henry to have book-learning, but felt that scholarly excellence was not the business of a king.