The portrait I'm referring to is the miniature of an (admittedly) 'unknown lady', circa 1540. Most Tudor enthusiasts will recognize the woman in the portrait as being - as we've all known her to be since at least the 18th century - Henry VIII's fifth queen, Catherine Howard.
'No conclusive evidence has yet been put forward to substantiate the persistent, but late, identification of this subject as Katherine Howard, particularly because there is no authentic contemporary likeness of the queen in existence.'
Anne of Cleves came to England around 1 January 1540, and when she met Henry VIII in Dover, it was the first time the two were seeing each other in person. Months prior, as negotiations for the marriage were underway, Henry sent his personal painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, to Anne's home country of Germany to paint the young woman's likeness (as well as her sister's). And because this portrait became so critical to our understanding of Henry VIII's ultimate disappointment in his fourth wife's appearance, it is undisputed that the sitter in this miniature from 1539 is, in fact, Anne of Cleves:
Now, here's where Moyle's theory gets interesting. While the original 'Catherine' portrait by Holbein is dated 1540 - and therefore rightly dated for Catherine Howard's mid-summer marriage to Henry, we must remember that Anne of Cleves was also Henry's queen in 1540. That eye-catching jewel worn round the neck of the portrait's sitter is just as likely to have been in Anne's collection as Queen of England as it would later have been in Catherine's (if we are to assume that Jane Seymour did not actually gift the jewel to Lady Monteagle, as I would argue against).
In addition to this, the Royal Collection's description of the 'Catherine' portrait indicates that it is 'Watercolour on vellum laid on playing card (the four of diamonds)'. For clarification, this means that a four of diamonds playing card is used as the backing of the portrait miniature, and as Moyle points out, this detail is particularly striking. Couldn't this suggest that Holbein was making reference to Henry VIII's fourth wife by using the four of diamonds for the portrait? While this is a tantalizing theory, several historians have remained unconvinced that the playing card plays any real significant role here, as another portrait of Holbein's - this time depicting Jane Small - is backed by a five of diamonds. There are only so many numbers and faces of playing cards with which to use for this purpose, so it's entirely possible that the four of diamonds used in this case was random and insignificant. However, London Times writer, Laura Freeman has argued that Holbein was notorious for his 'passion for symbols and visual puns,' citing two examples of playing cards and their significance to portraits of Thomas Cromwell and Lady Audley. Given this, we might want to acknowledge the possibility of some meaning behind even Jane Small's five of diamonds. What that might have been is impossible to say, but it's worth considering that the four of diamonds on the 'Catherine' portrait might well have meant something after all. And I have to admit, I'm intrigued by the possibility.
However, it's worth noting (if we're referencing Hall) that he also made mention of her 'fair, yellow, and long' hair, when describing her appearance on her wedding day. As is pretty obvious, this sitter does not have blonde hair, but rather pretty rich brunette. Admittedly, the Royal Collection's version shows lighter-colored hair, but it still appears more brown than yellow. A close comparison between the portrait in question versus other popular portraits from the period would better-indicate the intended hair color (for example, I would argue that this portrait's hair is decidedly blonder than the hair in Anne Boleyn's portrait, which is quite clearly dark brown). But without the hair having been painted as an obvious gold or yellow, the interpretation of its color remains largely subjective. Some might argue that it's a dark blonde, or maybe that Hall erroneously recorded it as yellow, when in reality her hair was light brown. Who's to know for sure? It's another element to consider when contemplating this new theory.
Of course, all of this is up to interpretation. There are certainly thought-provoking points brought up by Moyle to make us consider the possibility of the 1540 portrait depicting Anne of Cleves, but equally plenty of reason to question this theory and consider its likelihood that it represents Catherine Howard. To summarize: the jewel worn around the woman's neck could very well have belonged to both queens in 1540, and they both likely dressed in the English style illustrated in the portrait. The playing card used as the miniature's backing might have been a fluke, or it could have been another of Holbein's pointed symbolic references. The hair color might be misrepresented in either Holbein's painting or Hall's Chronicle, and the similar facial features between the confirmed portrait of Anne of Cleves and the portrait in question might indicate either the same sitter, or an unintentional coincidence. We'll never know the answer for sure, but isn't it a fascinating question to ponder? As for me, I have to admit I'm really intrigued by the theory, and I personally find myself somewhat convinced that the 1540 portrait shows a newly-Anglicized Queen Anne of Cleves.
If that is true, then we truly have no confirmed contemporary portrait of Henry's fifth queen, Catherine Howard (as the other painting that is often attributed to her has also been argued to depict a member of the Cromwell family). But who knows? As this new theory proves, we should never get too comfortable with unconfirmed sixteenth-century portraiture. We might yet find yet another possible painting of Catherine Howard in the future, and we can dive into that debate and consideration with just as much enthusiasm and intrigue as this one.
- Hall, Edward, 'Hall's Chronicle; Containing the History of England, During the Reign of Henry the Fourth and the Succeeding Monarchs', pp. 836-7.
- Hui, Roland, 'Anne of Cleves of Catherine Howard' (Tudor Faces: Observations and Musings on Tudor Portraiture and Personalities), 3 May 2021.
- 'Portrait of a Lady, perhaps Katherine Howard (1520-1542), c. 1540' (Royal Collection Trust)
- Ridgway, Claire, 'Hans Holbein's Portrait of Queen Catherine Howard? By Roland Hui' (Tudor Society), 20 August 2021.
- Solly, Meilan, 'Presumed Portrait of Catherine Howard May Actually Depict Anne of Cleves' (Smithsonian Magazine), 6 May 2021.