“Tree rings date Henry VIII portrait to 1525…the year he became obsessed with Anne Boleyn,” the headline at the Telegraph UK breathlessly tells us.
We like knowing the beginnings of things — this sort of purity of source. Many Evangelical Christians hold this hope in their heart that, if one were to drill far enough down/back into history, you’d find the purest version of Christianity that ever existed, before it was corrupted by politics and propositions, changed by shifting alliances and points of view.
It doesn’t work that way, though. There has never been an ur-version of Christianity at all. There have been Christianities. But can it work with a portrait? Can we pinpoint when a portrait was painted, and can we then know when someone’s obsession started, the purist form of that possession?
First, that’s the portrait, just right up there. The article tells us that “in the past it has been wrongly attributed to both Hans Holbein the Younger and Jan Van Scorel,” and if I were either of those men, or, rather, even better, if either of those men were still alive AND if I were the incredibly compassionate and courageous lawyer I am sure I’ve always been meant to be, then I would absolutely represent them both in a defamation suit and seek the death penalty.
Because if anyone painted the above picture of Henry, it was this lady:
Using a lot of science and then Britain’s tree-ring database (maybe the only time in my life I’ve understood what a database is for), a bunch of people in the present figured out that, based on tree rings and some et cetera, the painting can be dated to ~1525.
But do we know anything else?
The article opens by telling us that 1525 is the year Henry became obsessed with Anne and fine. Maybe that’s true. What bearing that has on a painting is tough to suss out. Whoever painted it (<ahem>Elias Garcia Martinez</ahem>) didn’t hide Anne somewhere in his doublet. He’s not carrying a flower that might speak of a promise, nor is he wearing any sort of fancy piece of lovely Anne might have given him. It’s just getting-fat Henry painted poorly on some wood that we know was around in 1525.
This is the slippery part of being an historian — and I am not an historian — but the slippery part is this: we want to draw conclusions based on what we find in the leftovers pile. We see a letter, or we read a diary, and we assume (a) we can rely on it; and (b) that the person writing it had no agenda that they were trying to convey. But we never have that kind of certainty. That kind of certainty isn’t the bailiwick of historians. Seers, maybe, if they can see into the past and suss out feelings and motivations — but we’ve dribbled so far down the glass of possibility that I figured I could get weird with this metaphor to keep us interested.
Paraphrasing Dame Hilary Mantel: Historians tell us what we have — i.e., letters, a shoe, a priest’s hiding place, a contraband Bible — and novelists tell us what it means. Historians can tell us that we have a very bad painting of Henry VIII. It’s our job to make sure the conclusion makes sense.