Wolf Hall: the truth behind Damian Lewis’ tiny codpiece

Art critic Waldemar Januszczak says we have Holbein to thank for our sizeable opinion of King Henry VIII

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Last week the first episode of Wolf Hall aired to effusive reviews from critics and viewers alike – only one trifling detail disappointed: Damian Lewis’ already infamous codpiece.

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As his Henry VIII strode around Tudor England and verbally jousted with Mark Rylance’s Thomas Cromwell, many took to Twitter to express their consternation at its brief cameo.

Yet it turns out director Peter Kominsky is a stickler for even the most diminutive details. Waldemar Januszczak explains in Radio Times magazine that our sizeable opinion of Henry VIII to Renaissance portraitist Holbein’s imagination.

“The notorious king we all know today, the instantly recognisable Henry with the extra-wide shoulders, standing there like a Tudor gunslinger with his legs apart, was invented by Holbein,” writes the art critic.

“If you examine the royal measurements that survive from Henry’s time, or the king’s surviving armour, you will see that Holbein tinkered with the royal proportions. Below the knee, he gave the king several inches of extra calf to make his legs longer and more elegant. The famously wide shoulders were mightily exaggerated.

“And to stress the king’s masculinity, Holbein painted him with a particularly large codpiece. In fact, as Anne Boleyn once confided to the Venetian ambassador, Henry ‘lacked vigour’ below the waist. The royal codpiece was wishful thinking.”

So it seems Henry’s six wives were attracted to his intellectual stamina rather than to his modest appearance. As Januszczak explained in his Culture Show special on Holbein, the court painter also applied artistic licence to his portraits of Cromwell, Boleyn, Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour and Sir Thomas More – and is probably responsible for our perennial fascination with the 16th-century monarch.

“I have stood to some of Holbein’s greatest pictures – the portrait of Thomas More in the Frick Collection in New York; the so called Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling in the National Gallery in London – and, take it from me, it’s as if the people in them are still alive.

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“You can feel their breath on your cheek. Holbein made the Tudors immortal. It’s one of the reasons we are so obsessed with them.”