One of the great benefits of the massive scanning project undertaken for the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website is that it is now considerably easier than before to compare a number of different manuscripts. Recently, I have found it particularly interesting to compare the use made of the initial letter on plea rolls (a ‘P’ for ‘Placita’). The King’s Bench rolls are the more decorative – more on them later – but there are also some interesting images in the Common Pleas rolls.
Things start off under Henry VIII much as they had ended under Henry VII, in a not terribly interesting fashion, with rolls until 1521 being rather workaday manuscripts, without illustration (though ‘titles’ are emphasised with some decorative lettering, and a couple have religious inscriptions). Thereafter begins the Common Pleas tradition of portraying Henry VIII in profile, looking away from the lettering, to the reader’s left. Some of these images are rather sketchy,e.g. CP 40/1031 m.1; but by the late 1520s, they are more finished
In CP 40/1032A m.1, the king is spewing foliage in a rather ‘green man’ depiction – certainly something to consider alongside the many discussions of the presence of such images in ecclesiastical contexts. In CP 40/1035, he is in ermine, reminiscent of the standard King’s Bench regal image. In CP 40/1055, CP 40/1057, CP 40/1063, Henry is clothed in courtly fashion, with a hat. By 1530, however, the conventional Common Pleas portrait of (what I assume is) him is more martial. He appears to be wearing decorative Greenwich-style armour and a helmet, open to show his face and beard. The facial expression changes, as does the colour of the beard and the style of the moustache, but this is clearly a standardised image, present from 1530 to the end of the reign.
Obviously, it is difficult to draw conclusions as to the ‘meaning’ of this portrait – all the more so because the artist(s) is or are unknown, and the rolls were not intended for the king’s entertainment, nor for the general public’s consumption, so that the purpose of such portraiture is somewhat problematic. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Henry VIII was portrayed in this ‘heroic’, martial (and lean) fashion in such a large number of manuscripts from 1530 until the end of his reign. The contrast with the ‘regal’ KB portraits, the portly coin images of the later years of his reign and, of course, the famous Holbein portrait, is noteworthy.
It should also be noted that the armoured man image persists throughout the Common Pleas plea rolls of Edward VI, with the exception of his very last roll. This could be taken as evidence that it is not supposed to be Henry at all, but it seems to me more likely that the portrait of Henry was included during Edward’s minority, because the king’s father still overshadowed his heir. The image disappears from the rolls with the accession of Mary.