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  • Writer's pictureAccessible Art History

Art and History: Three Tudor Executions

Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! For this post, I thought I would combine my two favorite types of history: art and Tudor! This is because this week is filled with anniversaries of important historical moments from the Tudor period, specifically three different executions. So, I’m going to explain these events and show how art helps us to understand them. So, to learn more, keep on reading!


Catherine Howard

Catherine Howard was the fifth wife of King Henry VIII. (She was also the first cousin of his second wife, Anne Boleyn.) She was 17 years old when she caught the 50 year old king’s eye. They were married only a couple of weeks after he divorced his fourth wife. However, young Catherine was in love with someone else. His name was Thomas Culpepper, a favorite courtier of the king. They engaged in a secret tryst facilitated by Catherine’s lady in waiting and cousin in law, Jane Rochford. Some sources do indicate that the pair were in love before Catherine was pursued by the king.

Unfortunately, Catherine and Thomas’ affair was discovered and they were arrested. Despite trying to see the king to convince him to change his mind, Catherine was sent to the Tower of London. After a few months of imprisonment, she was executed on February 13, 1542. According to some sources, she stated at the scaffold that she was dying as a queen, but she would have much rather died the wife of Thomas Culpepper.

There are no confirmed portraits of Catherine Howard. However this work, dated 1540 by Hans Holbein, is the one accepted by most scholars as her likeness. They came to this conclusion because of the jewelry and clothing the sitter is wearing.

What this tells us is that the king set out to eliminate all memory of his disgraced queen. He was deeply hurt by the betrayal and didn’t want to be reminded of it. In fact, her own family removed all images of her from their households as well. Unfortunately for modern viewers, this means they aren’t exactly sure of what she looked like.


Lady Jane Grey

Commonly known as the “Nine Days Queen”, Lady Jane Grey was the eldest granddaughter of Mary Tudor, the younger sister of King Henry VIII. She was raised alongside her cousin, Edward VI, and shared his Protestant views. This led the king to mark her as his heir, eliminating his half sisters from the line of succession. Although he used their quasi illegitimacy as an excuse, he was more concerned about his sister Mary returning the country to Catholicism.

Edward VI died on July 6, 1553 and Jane ascended the throne four days later. However, her supporters miscalculated just how popular Princess Mary was. Nine days later, the Privy Council proclaimed Mary as queen and Jane and her supporters were arrested and taken to the Tower of London. It was understood that Jane was essentially forced to take the crown. But, Mary knew that it was too dangerous to leave her alive. She was executed for treason on February 12, 1554. Jane was only 16-17 years old at the time of her death.

A work of art that truly captures Jane's story is this piece by Paul Delaroche in 1833. It shows a blindfolded Jane being led to the scaffold. She is wearing white (chosen to depict her innocence) and her pose radiates fear and confusion. Her attendants sit in the back of the room, one has collapsed with grief and the other leans on a column for support. Even the executioner looks sad at the task he is duty bound to perform. This work is meant to show us that Jane was simply a pawn in a larger, political game.


Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary became Queen of Scots when she was a mere six days old. Her mother, Marie de Guise, ruled as regent and established an alliance with France. Mary was sent to live in France with the royal family and was also betrothed to the heir to the throne, Francis. However, he died young, and she returned to her homeland as a young woman.

In order to secure the Stuart succession, she married her half cousin, Henry, Lord Darnley. (They were both grandchildren of Margaret Tudor, sister to Henry VIII. Mary from her first marriage and Darnley from her second.) Although the couple produced an heir, the future James VI, their marriage brought turmoil to the land. After Lord Darnley was murdered in 1567, suspicion was cast on the queen. She ended up fleeing to England, hoping her cousin Elizabeth would shelter her.

However, Elizabeth was a shrewd leader. She knew that Mary had styled herself as Queen of England due to the Catholic view that Elizabeth was illegitimate. Elizabeth moved Mary from manor house to manor house for eighteen and a half long years. But, eventually, it was discovered that Mary had been helping create a scheme that would overthrow Elizabeth and install herself on the English throne. Elizabeth had no choice but to order her arrest and execution. Mary, Queen of Scots was executed on February 8, 1587.

This work of art is a bit different than the other two examples. It is a drawing by Robert Beale, a clerk for the English Privy Council. He attended the event and sought to capture the moment on paper. In his sketch, the room is absolutely packed. This was a major event because an anointed queen had ordered the execution of another anointed queen! In the center of the drawing is Mary herself. She is wearing fine clothes, a queen until her last breath. According to reports, she wore dark red, the traditional color for Catholic martyrs. This work shows the pride that Mary had and the sacrifice she was willing to make for her power.


Art can be used to tell us all about events of the past. Even if the works do not directly represent the event, we can pull details out of them to help us understand how and why things happened. These three works and their corresponding stories are great examples of this!



Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey

Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser

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