King Edward VI and the Pope

© National Portrait Gallery, London
King Edward VI and the Pope
Unknown artist | c.1575
Oil on panel | 24 1/2 in. x 35 3/4 in.
NPG 4165

This captivating and complex painting contains many iconographic symbols.

To the left is Henry VIII on his deathbed (1) pointing to his heir, Edward VI (2). The figures to Edward’s right are the members of his council, including the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour (3), and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury (4).

The inset on the top right (5) shows the destruction of holy images, as ordered by Edward during his reign.

At the bottom of the picture is the Pope (6), who has been defeated by the English Bible. Its open pages read:

‘the word of the Lord endures forever.’

On the Pope’s chest is ‘All fleshe is grasse’, a reminder that human life is transitory. Ribbons from the Pope’s tiara read: “idolatry” and “supersticion” [superstition].

It may have been the artist’s intention to have further anti-papal messages on the blank white panels.

Until recently it was thought that
 this painting was from Edward’s
 reign. However, dendrochronological
 analysis has show that the panel of
 wood on which it is painted came from
 a tree felled between 1574-1590.
This dating suggests that this painting
 was created to celebrate the anti-
 Catholic politics of Edward’s reign
 during that of his sister Elizabeth I,
 under whom Protestantism was reestablished
 in England.

This painting celebrates the anti-Catholic policies swiftly enacted at the beginning of Edward’s reign.

The longevity of these changes, however, was not secure. In early 1553, just as he was about to come of age, Edward fell fatally ill, most likely with tuberculosis.

The next in line was Edward’s oldest sister Mary, the daughter of Katherine of Aragon, and a fervent Catholic.

Fearing that under Mary England would return to Catholicism, Edward and his advisors desperately scrambled to secure an alternate successor.

When Edward died in July 1553, his first cousin Lady Jane Grey was pronounced queen. Her succession was forcefully resisted by Mary, and Jane reigned only 9 days before she was deposed and ultimately executed.

With Mary’s accession it looked as if all Edward’s hard work was about to be undone.

© National Portrait Gallery, London
King Edward VI
by Workshop associated with ‘Master John’ | circa 1547
NPG 5511

Explore the Tudor history we tell through this portrait:

Religious reform


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