Sunday, September 21, 2008

Question from Kristen - Resemblances among the Tudor generations

I was wondering if I could gauge the opinions of the regular bloggers on this forum regarding the resemblances of two generations of Tudor siblings based on the known descriptions of these people. Who do you think Arthur, Margaret, Henry, and Mary resembled respectively? Likewise, who did Mary I resemble more - Henry or her mother Catherine of Aragon?

Thank you all once again for your help!


  1. This is a difficult question to answer reliably, in my opinion, especially from a modern perspective where we are so accustomed to photography. Verbal descriptions are very subjective, as any reader of online personals ads can attest. And the written descriptions that survive for the individuals that you name are not exactly what I would call thorough and scientifically precise. Certainly there seem to have been physical traits shared by all of the Tudors, most notably hair color. But lots of English people in the Tudor period (and today) have that same hair color without otherwise resembling each other. And while we do have some remarkably life-like Holbein portraits of some of the individuals ... portraits very nearly as accurate as photographs ... we do not have such high-quality portraits for others (Arthur, Katherine of Aragon). Without being able to see very precisely what all of the people you named actually looked like, I'd be hesitant to speculate that Mary Tudor had "her father's eyes" or some such other thing. Nor would I want to speculate which of her two parents Mary most resembled. But maybe I'm being too careful and wanting too much. I just don't like to speculate and guess.

  2. I agree with phd historian that it's difficult to trace resemblances working with the extant portraits. There are word portraits, but these can change dramatically as the subject ages, or the political, familial and/or religious bias of the observer affects his or her point of view.

    I've never seen a verbal description of Margaret Tudor's appearance; Arthur is also very shadowy. Mary "Rose" Tudor receives almost unanimous praise, but contemporaries did not dwell a whole lot on her actual features; they focused more on her "grace," her "pleasing manners," her "mirth," and of course very detailed descriptions of her clothes; the terms are general, she is "handsome," she is a "Paradise." Henry we do have some fairly specific details about, as well as a number of portraits. For Elizabeth of York, there's no contemporary descriptions; the chronicler admired her "fair yelow" hair at her coronation, but it's a definite red color in her portrait (the one describing her as "uxor Henrici VII").

    Regarding the question about Mary I, at least one reasonably impartial observer felt that she was like neither parent. The Venetian ambassador Michieli reported in 1557:

    "She is of low rather than of middling stature, but, although short, she has not personal defect in her limbs, nor is any part of her body deformed. She is of spare and delicate frame, quite unlike her father, who was tall and stout; nor does she resemble her mother, who, if not tall, was nevertheless bulky."

    Of course, he might be talking only about her height. A Spaniard at her court mentioned that she had "no eyebrows," a trait that might be from her father's side, as a Venetian ambassador noted a defect in her Aunt Mary, then at the height of her beauty, in 1514:

    "She is generally considered handsome and well favoured, were not her eyes and eyebrows too light ..."

    Possibly the lightness of the eyebrows and eyelashes was something that would stand out to a Latin observer as a defect.

    I've never read a really adequate description of Catherine of Aragon, either, so it's hard to judge how closely Mary may have resembled her in the face. Ferdinand and Isabella's portraits both show a certain heaviness and jowliness about the jaw; if the portraits of Catherine and Joanna of Aragon by Sittow are correctly attributed, they shared the same feature; and the young Mary (if the miniature by Lucas Horenbout is authentic), also has that heaviness in her lower face. However, it may have disappeared by the time Antonio Moro was painting her as queen, when her jaw looks tight and clenched. I read a book a few days ago that claimed she was missing many of her teeth when she became queen (no citation, though), which may account for the tight-lipped expression.

    Henry had a round face, too, but I would guess from Michieli's other remark, about Elizabeth, that Mary did not strike observers as resembling Henry, despite the light eyebrows:

    "She [Elizabeth] prides herself on her father and glories in him; everybody saying that she also resembles him more than the Queen does and he therefore always liked her and had her brought up in the same way as the Queen."

    However, for Elizabeth it was very important that she resemble Henry, if she was to remain a viable contender for the throne. Mary was indisputably Henry's daughter, and therefore had no need to play up any resemblance (if Elizabeth was in fact deliberately adopting or simply mimicking Henry's traits and mannerisms; Mary felt her half-sister had the "face and countenance of Mark Smeaton," and Elizabeth needed to mount a deliberate campaign against this smear.)

  3. I think there's a definite family resemblence between the Sittow portrait of Catherine of Aragon and the later portraits of Mary. I also think Elizabeth took after Henry VII in looks, and even more so, after his mother (Margaret Beaufort). There's a portrait of her that I think looks remarkably like some of the later portraits of Elizabeth in terms of shape of face, expression, etc. The resemblence between Henry VIII and his maternal grandfather, Edward IV, was noted even at the time and shows in their portraits.

  4. I found an earlier description of Mary from 1541, by the French ambassador, in which it appears that she did resemble Henry:

    She is of middle stature, and is in face like her father, especially about the mouth, but has a voice more manlike, for a woman, than he has for a man. To judge by portraits, her neck is like her mother's. With a fresh complexion she looks not past 18 or 20 although she is 24. Her beauty is mediocre, and it may be said that she is one of the belles of this Court.

    I'm interested in the remark about portraits. I think many of us have the idea that when Henry discarded his wives, he or one of his minions went around smashing or burning their portraits in the palaces -- making them "unpersons," so to speak. But evidently Marillac was able to compare at least a couple of portraits of Catherine of Aragon to her daughter. Maybe they were in Mary's private apartments, but maybe they were to be seen elsewhere. Paintings were valuable, so destroying them might have been seen as wasteful. Maybe Henry felt that eventually he'd need another Imperial alliance, and having Catherine's portraits around could be useful. Even with Anne Boleyn's portraits, perhaps the solution was simply to paint over the image.


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