The Death of Hans Holbein

by Franny Moyle

What do we know of Holbein’s Death?

Leonardo da Vinci died in the Chateau de Clos Lucé, apparently in the arms of the French King, Francis I. However, the place and circumstances of Leonardo’s near contemporary Hans Holbein the Younger, beloved by Henry VIII, has eluded art historians. As Holbein’s most recent biographer, I found myself facing this puzzle and to my surprise, I discovered that a simple mistake has allowed crucial details about Holbein’s death, once in common currency, to vanish from history.

Hans Holbein spent the last decade of his life, from 1532 to 1543, living in London, painting the defining portraits of the Tudor court. A celebrity avant la lettre, he was honoured with the title of Henry VIII’s ‘King’s Painter’.

Records from 1541 locate Holbein paying taxes in the parish of St Andrew Undershaft, in Aldgate.  His will, dated two years later, cites his home in the same location. My research suggests the painter may have had a prestigious address there, shared by Sir Thomas Audley, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor

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Hans Holbein the Younger, self portrait.

Audley has significant property interests in Aldgate. In 1533 he acquired Holy Trinity Priory there, and converted this former religious institution into a prestigious urban estate which became known as Cree-Church Mansion, so named after the nearby church St Katherine Cree. This gated community comprised not just Audley’s considerable dwelling, but leasehold residential properties, along with business premises. Audley enjoyed his London mansion until his death in 1544. Then, when the Fourth Duke of Norfolk married Audley’s daughter Margaret in 1558 the complex passed into his ownership and was called Duke’s Place thereafter.

Evidence of Holbein’s professional association with Audley lies in the miniature he painted of the Chancellor’s wife, Elizabeth, probably in 1538. Londoners have long believed that Holbein lived and died on Audley’s property at Cree-Church Mansion. This was noted as late as 1827, in the History & Antiquities of London. When I checked old maps, although the majority of the Mansion complex fell into the parish of St Katherine Cree, its westernmost flank fell into the parish of St Andrew Undershaft. So Holbein could indeed have been a parishioner of the latter, and part of the Cree-Church Mansion community, were he a leaseholder in Berry St.

So why has recent scholarship ignored this? George Vertue, the 18th century engraver who copied Holbein’s work, believed Holbein died in Cree-Church Mansion. But Vertue referred to it as it was known in his day– Duke’s Place. The art historian Horace Walpole therefore dismissed Vertue’s claim, on the basis that Duke’s Place dated to 1558, after Holbein’s death, and noting Holbein’s association with the Third Duke – whom he portrayed – not the Fourth. In his Holbein biography of 1867, Ralph Wornum repeated Vertue’s claim, and demolished it with the same arguments. With considerable oversight both Walpole and Wornum failed to grasp that Holbein could have lived in Duke’s Place in its earlier incarnation, when it was known as Cree-Church Mansion. But Wornum’s word was apparently the last, and thus the fascinating connection between Holbein and Audley’s building became lost.

If one mystery is solved, another remains. Why is there no gravestone commemorating the great Holbein? The answer is the plague. Shortly after Henry VIII married his sixth wife Catherine Parr, in July 1543, London was stricken. Aldgate was the epicentre of the epidemic. Plague pits were dug because local churches could not cope with individual burials. On October 7th 1543 Holbein wrote his will. On 29th November it was executed. Whether Holbein succumbed to the pestilence or not (and surely he did?), any burial at this moment would have been communal.

The pit for those who died in Cree Church Mansion was at St Katherine Cree. So was it here Holbein was laid to rest in the late Autumn of 1543? Though no record of Holbein’s burial survives, once again supporting evidence emerges if one looks hard enough. In 1668 Mayor Payne Fisher made a catalogue of tombs and inscriptions in London’s churches. In St Katherine Cree he noted one to ‘Hans Holben’, most likely part of a wider list of the plague dead. Perhaps made in haste, much like the burials, this inscription simply wore away? Maybe it was removed during church renovations in 1878?

Holbein’s death lacks the romance of Leonardo’s. He did not live a long life, nor die in a French chateau. He certainly did not enjoy the company of a king in his final hours. Holbein died at forty six, in the midst of plague ridden London. But he was perhaps in an English mansion, with the King’s Lord Chancellor looking on.

Franny Moyle is the author of 

The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein 

published by Head of Zeus.

Contents shared with special thanks to Aspects of History

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