These fragments of early sixteenth century painted panelling were once part of a frieze featuring many of the great Saxon Kings. While the cycle was broken apart many years ago, historians have identified the pieces in the Society’s collection as part of a whole thanks to the brocade curtain depicted in the background of each fragment, which would have connected each element of the cycle when in its complete state.
The scheme would originally have been of a considerable size, requiring a large room for display and it is possible it was originally located in Eltham Palace Hall where the young Henry VIII spent his Christmases. It is believed the scheme was commissioned during the reign of Henry’s father, King Henry VII (a series of early kings painted contemporaneously for Henry VII at Richmond Palace may have been the prototype). As such, these pieces represent some of the earliest paintings of the Saxon Kings of England.
Henry VII had come to the throne as a challenger whose right to reign was questioned by many, so he sought to prove his legitimacy by tracing his ancestry back to one of medieval England’s most powerful Kings – Athelstan, who united the lesser kingdoms of England in the tenth century. The Saxon ruler was seen as a great peacekeeper and, after the turmoil and bloodshed of the War of the Roses, Henry VII hoped to draw a favourable comparison. The inscription on the featured panel identifies it as Athelstan, making a connection between the Tudors and the first King of England.
If Eltham Palace was their original home, the young Henry VIII may well have been impressed by the power of the imagery that surrounded him; the story that it told of his powerful and noble ancestors; and by the figure of King Athelstan – the peacekeeping monarch who brought stability during turmoil and unified his Kingdom. Henry held onto this fascination with majesty as propaganda, and drew inspiration from the past when stepping forward to fulfil the humanist ideal of the peacekeeping King.