Many people recall a painted portrait of Henry VIII holding a turkey leg in one hand.
It’s among my memories, too. It was a classic painting of Henry VIII, in the Holbein style (at right), but Henry is shown enjoying a hearty meal. I recall something that looked like a turkey leg in one hand. (I thought it was his left hand — on the right side of the canvas — but I may be wrong.)
I also recall a large, opulent goblet in front of him. I assumed it was to show that God had blessed the monarch with good health and a comfortable lifestyle.
(Portrait artists sometimes included symbolic objects in portraits. The Petworth House portrait on the right shows the king holding his gloves in his right hand. That was a symbol of luxury and refinement, frequently used in his portraits.)
Apparently, the “turkey leg” portrait doesn’t exist. It never did… not in this timestream, anyway.
That’s odd, because so many people seem to recall it.
My memory is so clear, I’ve wondered if Mad magazine or another parody in the media had morphed the image from one of the monarch’s famous portraits. So far, I can’t seem to find one, but it’s the most rational explanation, if one ignores alternate history possibilities.
Henry Tudor, King of England, lived from 1491 to 1547 and ruled between 1509 and his death. He was well-known for his banquets, though he may not have been as “well-fed” as his portraits suggest. Some historians say that he was trim most of his life, but gained weight shortly before his death, when an old leg injury prevented him from being very active.
The turkey question
Some insist that Henry VIII couldn’t have dined on turkey, because the turkey was native to North America, and it wasn’t available in England in Henry VIII’s time.
That’s not true.
During Henry’s time, guinea-fowl were a delicacy in England. They were generally imported through Turkey, so they were sometimes called turkey-fowl, shortened to just “turkeys.”
However, if you look at a photo of guinea fowl, they look like partridges. In the apparently non-existent portrait, there’s no way Henry VIII was brandishing a guinea fowl’s leg. It may have been the leg of a peacock, a large chicken, or some other big bird, but not likely a guinea fowl, unless the bird had been bred for unusual size.
The North American turkey was introduced to England by Sir William Strickland, after — as a youth — he’d accompanied Sebastian Cabot (1483 – 1557) on his American voyages. Strickland is attributed with the first known drawing of a North American turkey. It’s in the College of Arms, when Strickland applied for a coat of arms that included the turkey in his family crest.
So, it was possible for King Henry VIII to dine on a well-fed North American turkey. Without a painting to look at, it’s impossible to decide the best explanation.
(Some people suggest that some portrait might show a rumored, oversized thumb on one of Henry’s hands, not food. Except for one “Straight Dope” comment, I find no references to a defective thumb or a “Tudor thumb.” I’m dismissing that as a possibility. If Henry VIII had a thumb so deformed it could be mistaken for a turkey leg, it’d be a popular topic at Tudor-related forums.)
The problem is, no one can find anything like “turkey leg” portrait, though it seems to be a clear memory for many people.
The turkey leg reference is popular, whether or not the painting exists. For example, in the 15th season of The Simpsons, the Margical History Tour episode closes with a reference to Henry VIII holding the world turkey-leg eating record.
Some people point to the Charles Laughton portrayal of Henry VIII in a movie. I’d never seen it, so I’ve posted the clip below. (If you don’t see the Flash clip, it’s also at Turner Classic Movies.)
Some people seem to think the issue comes from the dining scene, in which actor Charles Laughton devours a chicken with considerable zeal. (That’s a screenshot on the right.)
Maybe that’s true for some people with this memory, but – even if I’d seen the movie as a small child and later forgot it – what I recall was in color, and it wasn’t funny.
The chicken leg in Laughton’s left hand is a match, as is the large goblet, but that’s where the resemblance stops.
If anything, I’d suspect the Laughton movie scene was inspired by the same portrait I recall.
My memory includes a somewhat serious portrait, probably attributed to Holbein the Younger. It showed Henry VIII, full face, looking at the portrait painter. Something like a turkey leg was in Henry’s hand, and I recall a goblet as well. I don’t remember what the table looked like, in front of him. I’m not sure it was visible, but I don’t remember it not being there, either.
I’m about 90% certain I saw this painting in real life, probably “backstage” at the Boston (MA) Museum of Fine Arts, where my aunt co-supervised the verification of paintings, detecting forgeries.
If you remember a painting like this, or can shed fresh, credible light on why so many people seem to recall it, please leave a comment.
I’m still leaning towards the idea that a parody portrait exists, somewhere, and it’s convincingly like the Holbein portaits. So far, I can’t seem to find it.