The Tudors are arguably the most famous of England's monarchs, with the exception of the present House of Windsor. However, the violent and extreme marital activities of Henry VIII and the “Merry England” of his daughter Queen Elizabeth tend to dominate the public perception of the dynasty. The beginning of the House of Tudor was equally dramatic. Arising out of the mid-15th-century civil War of the Roses, Henry VII eventually emerged triumphant as the first Tudor king. Establishing legitimacy was no easy feat, and a level of self-promotion and advertising was required. Christ's College at the University of Cambridge in England has discovered an example of what they term early 16th-century “royal branding”: a magnificent wall-painting featuring royal symbols.
Christ's College was established in 1505 by Lady Margaret Beaufort. The powerful, wealthy daughter of the Duke of Somerset, she had royal blood tracing to King Edward III. At 12 years old, she married Edmund Tudor, the half-brother of the unfortunate monarch Henry VI who became embroiled and was ultimately deposed during the War of the Roses. Decades of turmoil and “kingmaking” ensued among the elite nobles of the Yorkist and Lancastrian factions. Lady Margaret had a son who grew up to end the bitter civil war by claiming the crown himself as Henry VII, due to his heritage from King Edward III.
While a great patron of the college, Lady Margaret was also a mother and powerful political mind. The mural painted on the high wall of the library building in the early 1500s was likely a tribute to her and her family's new position, painting it as legitimate and derived from their bloodline. The painting was discovered, well-preserved behind an existing wall, during renovations of the building known as First Court. University of Cambridge art historian Dr. Christina Faraday says, “This is a really exciting and unusual discovery, revealing the ways that the College celebrated and advertised its royal patron during the early years of the 16th century, following its re-founding.”
The design centrally features a red Lancastrian rose, crowned much like Henry VII (who used the symbol) was by this point. To the left, a portcullis (the gates that were raised and lowered at castle entrances) is depicted. As the symbol of the Beaufort family, it too is crowned. On the right, a large symbol is either a fleur-de-lis or feathers associated with the Prince of Wales. The former would indicate the historic connection of the English and French thrones, although by Henry VII any pretension to being the king of France was becoming largely tradition and vanity. The painting is well-preserved, and the etchings in the plaster which guided the hands of the painters are still visible.
“Such survivals are extremely unusual,” said Dr. Faraday. “Wall paintings were a relatively cheap and disposable form of decoration, and so were rarely deliberately preserved. Now we can appreciate them for their historical value and what they reveal about Tudor art beyond the more traditional portraits.”
While the painting is not in a location which can be easily displayed to the public, the College is working on how to best preserve, publicize, and study it. A search of college records suggest the paintings have been hidden since about 1738, and their reemergence is a royal surprise.
At Christ's College, within the University of Cambridge, restorations of a 15th-century building revealed an imposing royal-themed wall painting.
The University calls it “royal branding” of the medieval sort, featuring a red Lancastrian rose.