The Holbein Code

Part 1 - The Errors of Eric Ives and the Lost City of Lavaur
By Kathleen McGowan and Philip Coppens

German master Hans Holbein’s epic painting, The Ambassadors, is prominently on display in the National Gallery in London as one of the world’s most celebrated portraits. In their official guide to the painting, the Gallery refers to it as an “elaborately meaningful” masterpiece. That The Ambassadors holds the key to unlocking a completely unknown dimension of Anne Boleyn has remained essentially unexplored. Thousands of pages and dozens of books have been devoted to The Ambassadors, but when we look at what is written by Boleyn researchers, there is hardly any trace of it. And while some prominent Boleyn biographers appear to have an inkling that the painting matters in Anne’s history, they have botched any attempt to uncover the depth of its true meaning through some shocking and careless mistakes.

Professor Eric Ives is easily the most respected Boleyn scholar living today, if imitation and acknowledgement by his academic peers is used as a barometer. A Tudor historian from the University of Birmingham and the author of the thorough and popular biography The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, the Ives name is ubiquitous in the footnotes and bibliographies of virtually all modern Tudor historians. He is such a daunting force in Boleyn scholarship that subsequent historians have all but apologized for having a differing viewpoint – and even for publishing about Anne at all. In the introduction to her book, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, University of Arizona professor Retha Warnicke writes, regarding Eric Ives’ celebrated tome, “its appearance would seem to call for a justification of this [my] book.”

The Ives biography is certainly a laudable piece of work that belongs on the bookshelves of all who care to understand Anne Boleyn’s life and times. But it is a narrow perspective to assume that one man has written the sole, definitive account of such a historically critical and complex character. To imply that all other books which follow Ives will require justification for their very existence is a worrisome attitude indeed.

When we first discovered glaring errors in the Ives biography, we knew we would encounter stiff opposition in the world of Boleyn scholarship, and even popular opinion, if we dared to point them out. But point them out we must, as they represent significant evidence in our case against the existing portraits of the maligned, misunderstood and misrepresented Anne Boleyn.

Eric Ives’ biography is the most comprehensive and generally neutral of the modern accounts of Anne’s life. He doesn’t appear to have an agenda consisting of pet theories, unlike Alison Weir or G. W. Bernard who are clearly committed to advancing their perspectives on Anne Boleyn as a nefarious schemer and debased, sex-crazed adulteress. Yet as praise-worthy as the Ives book may be, it is not without significant errors and unfortunate assumptions. When addressing the potential importance of Hans Holbein’s masterpiece of portraiture, Professor Ives displays significant flaws in his research.

On page 234 of the 2009 American edition of The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, and then again in the Index of same, Eric Ives identifies the character depicted on the right in the Holbein masterpiece as “Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Latour.” He gives no further information on why that location would matter, or any hint as to where Latour may be, other than it is somewhere in the wide expanse of France.

Perhaps Professor Ives is unable to expand upon the importance of Georges de Selve’s location because there is no bishopric of Latour in France, nor did one exist in the sixteenth century – or ever. Therefore there has never been a Bishop of Latour.

Georges de Selve was, in fact, the Bishop of Lavaur.

While this may seem like a minor mistake to some, it is a shocking error from someone as meticulous as Ives is reputed to be. Compounding the error is the fact that every single one of the sources Eric Ives cites in his footnotes, including the National Gallery portrait number for the Holbein masterpiece, identifies the bishop correctly and provides us with his bishopric as Lavaur.

The only thing Eric Ives had to do to properly identify Georges de Selve as the Bishop of Lavaur was read any one of the multiple sources he referenced in his own footnotes.

Even the identification plate adjacent to the painting in the National Gallery carries the proper identification. So what does this tell us about the Ives research? Is it possible that Eric Ives never bothered to read the most basic National Gallery guide on the Holbein masterpiece, much less actually go to see the painting in London, where the information is publicly displayed? And if this is the case, what conclusions can we derive about Ives’ credibility in other areas of his research? Given that his words are considered the unimpeachable source material for everyone else writing commentary on Anne Boleyn today, it is critical to determine just how reliable that source is. And as much as we hate to point this out, a basic Google search – even the dreaded Wikipedia – identifies Georges de Selve correctly as the Bishop of Lavaur.

So how, exactly, Professor Ives missed all of the correct references presented in his own footnoted sources while inventing the fictional bishopric of Latour is a mystery, but it is also one that appears to be perpetuating amongst his peers. In Alison Weir’s 2010 biography of Anne, The Lady in the Tower, she repeats the Ives error on page 38 of the American edition by stating as a fact (sans footnote) that Georges de Selves was “the bishop of Latour.” This is a key example of how history is manufactured: historians and authors quote each other in a neat little circle, and in the case of Tudor history, it is a surprisingly small and incestuous group. This particular Ives error – perpetuated by Weir and others – is sadly not an isolated incident.

But why does the Ives error matter so much? Is the bishopric of Georges de Selve even relevant to the life of Anne Boleyn? Yes, it is highly relevant for a number of reasons. Misidentification of de Selve’s bishopric leads us away from some very important information about the world Anne came from. At issue here is not simply an unfortunate and sloppy error in several acclaimed biographies, but the fact that the town of Lavaur changes the context and meaning of both the subjects and the painting. It adds an entire layer of intrigue – and possibly even heresy – to the Holbein masterpiece, and potentially to Anne’s story.

The Cathedral of Saint Alain in Lavaur

Lavaur was the site of the largest en masse burning of heretics in European history, and even in the 16th century was known to be “The Seat of the Cathar Church.” A version of Catharism, evolved from the persecuted sect of Gnostic Christians, was still alive in Lavaur in the 16th century; its influence on the growing Reformation movement in France cannot and should not be ignored. The Bishop of Lavaur was expected to be a diplomat as much as a clergyman, a type of ambassador for the reformist Christians who cherished their separation from Roman authority.

In our own research journeys to Lavaur and the surrounding countryside, we found multiple references to that town as the last and strongest bastion of Cathar sympathies and heretical/separatist Christian beliefs in France. Inexplicably, whereas the rest of the Languedoc region was decimated during the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century and never really recovered, the Cathar church was quickly restored in Lavaur. Like the phoenix rising literally from the ashes of executed heretics, the Cathar Church was reinstated in Lavaur and heretical sympathies were allowed to flourish there in peace for centuries as the town once again became a hub of reform. Most significantly, we discovered while reading through the annals of Lavaur in the Cathedral of Saint Alain that Cardinal Giulio de Medici (Jules de Medicis in French) became the bishop of Lavaur in 1516.

Page from the records found in Lavaur Cathedral shows Giulio (Jules) de Medici
was bishop of Lavaur prior to becoming Pope Clement VII. Note George de Selve follows
shortly thereafter. Photographed in Lavaur in May 2010.

Cardinal Giulio de Medici was the nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the foster brother and inseparable confidante of Pope Leo X. Giulio de Medici spent significant time in Lavaur before returning to Italy to become Pope Clement VII. Tudor history buffs will recognize that name. Clement VII is the pope who became instrumental to, if not the ultimate cause of, the English Reformation when he refused to grant the divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Lavaur was neither a politically significant nor wealthy region of France, so it is imperative to question why it was so instrumental in the high-powered career path of two “princes” from important European families. The pope – particularly a Medici pope with enormous ambition for his family name – would not put his closest family member out to pasture in a backwater like Lavaur when he was in his prime – and being groomed to inherit Vatican power. Nor would the president of the French parliament fight for special dispensation from the King, against some of the most powerful and wealthy families in France, to secure his son’s position in Lavaur when there were other, far more valuable and prestigious diplomatic positions available to him throughout Europe.

The Medici family crest, found in the Cathedral of St. Alain in Lavaur

There is only one explanation that makes sense of the Medici and de Selve families’ determination to secure this Languedoc backwater: Lavaur was a power point in Europe for potentially explosive reasons that no one has adequately explored. That power had everything to do with threats to the traditional Roman Catholic Church, and the centuries of commitment to reform. Nourished by the blood legacy of martyrs and supported by the noble families of France and Italy, Lavaur was a seat of secret power in Europe in the Middle Ages.

Now the Eric Ives mistake, resulting in the complete loss of the important Lavaur angle on history, shows itself as highly significant. To our knowledge, no Tudor biography to date explores any of these connections, or how the early history of Giulio de Medici is intimately tied to both Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – long before he becomes the pope who changes the face of religion in Europe. What we have uncovered in this search is both exciting in its conclusions and shocking in that it has not been explored by previous Tudor historians in any way. But as we have observed, a simple oversight or even a silly spelling error can all too easily result in the loss of critical information, and perhaps even the re-writing of history.

Holbein’s Ambassadors is the only known portrait
of Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur

As Bishop of Lavaur, Georges de Selve devoted his life to making peace between traditional Catholics and the reforming church in Europe. His writings show a man of faith, extreme intelligence, and an extraordinary Humanist education in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, one worthy of the greatest Renaissance prince. He was a man who was actively involved with bridging Christian groups in peace rather than halting or slowing the Reformation. In his teen years he was a canon to the historically and religiously important Chartres Cathedral and he became a bishop at the age of eighteen by special dispensation. He acted as ambassador for both the King of France and the pope during his illustrious diplomatic career. It appears that he was being groomed for a high-ranking position in the Church before his untimely death in his early thirties. What George de Selve would have accomplished had he survived, and who he might have become, is a matter of sad speculation. Perhaps his devotion to bridging the reformers and Rome in peace might have halted the terrible bloodshed that was still to come as Europe faced the Reformation.

Further to Eric Ives’ errors regarding Holbein’s Ambassadors is his tendency to state his opinions as definitive even when they are very obviously not thoroughly researched. When discussing the relationship between the depicted ambassadors, Jean Dinteville and Georges de Selve, Professor Ives asserts, “There is no previous evidence that the two men knew each other well.” Note he does not say “I did not find evidence” he says: there is no evidence. This is definitive, leaving no room for possibility outside of his statement, which is an unfortunate characteristic of the Ives book. How thoroughly did Eric Ives research this piece of history before making that absolute assertion? Given that we have already seen how careless he was when reading his National Gallery guide, one has to question just how deeply he delved into the possible relationship of Dinteville and de Selve.

There is evidence that the two men knew each other well. Strong evidence. And a fair amount of it. A letter from the Dinteville family archives from the mid-seventeenth century that describes Holbein’s Ambassadors says that Georges de Selve was “an intimate friend” not only of Jean Dinteville, but of his entire family. Further, documents exist in which Jean Dinteville discusses what he knows of Georges de Selve’s “fondest wish” and “greatest desire” – certainly not statements one would make of a stranger.

These letters have long been translated from their original French into English and are available in a number of art history books, so translation issues cannot be used as an excuse. We easily found two versions in our basic Holbein collections on our home bookshelves, even before doing the serious digging into the rare and antique books and sources – and without the resources of the University of Birmingham and a team of students at our daily disposal!

Even prior to investigating the documentary evidence of a de Selve and Dinteville friendship, common sense requires the most rudimentary researcher to ask this question: if Dinteville did not know de Selve prior to his visit to England, why would the French ambassador commission Holbein – at great expense and tremendous effort – to paint a nearly life-sized portrait of himself standing with the Bishop of Lavaur? It is important to note that there is no definitive understanding of who actually did commission the portrait, and it has been theorized that either Henry, Anne, or both may have been the patrons behind the masterpiece; this is a subject we deal with in depth in our forthcoming book but is outside of the scope of this introduction. Suffice it to say here that such an enormous and expensive endeavour, and one that involves kings, queens, ambassadors and bishops, is not a random act or something accomplished on a whim. Neither would Holbein have taken such meticulous care to include the elaborate quantity of symbols, some of them highly controversial (like a Lutheran hymnal depicted next to a Catholic bishop) and the astonishing, anamorphic skull which demands that we view the painting from certain angles, if he did not have a very specific intention for the painting and his noble/royal patron(s).

Portraiture is not photography; it doesn’t happen in an instant or by accident, particularly not with a master as precise as Holbein. It required many hours of sitting for the painter. Further, why would this finished portrait hang in the highest place of honor in the Chateau de Polisy, the Dinteville home in France, for several generations if Jean Dinteville didn’t even know Georges de Selve? This line of thinking is illogical to the point of ridiculous. So either the explanation is that Dinteville and de Selve did know each other well or that de Selve’s position as Bishop of Lavaur was somehow important to the Dinteville family and to the King of England and his new Queen. It is our conclusion that both of these scenarios are correct, and both are significant to the understanding of Holbein’s greatest portrait.

The discovery of these errors and assertions within The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn caused us to scrutinize the Ives material in a new and more meticulous manner. Not surprisingly, Eric Ives is guilty of any number of sweeping generalizations which do not hold up under cross-examination. We will elaborate on more of them on this site and within the pages of our books, as we challenge these perceptions.

That Anne Boleyn may have had a political or personal relationship with the Bishop of Lavaur gives us potentially critical insight into her spiritual leanings and/or to what she was exposed to during her years in France. Key to this understanding is the ancient nature of the heresy and the reform that defined Lavaur for hundreds of years. Whereas much discussion occurs in Tudor biography about how influenced Anne Boleyn was or was not by Lutheranism, very little attention is paid to the fact that there was a powerful underground reform movement in France for centuries. This heretical reform movement was supported among French royal families, specifically the women of the court in which Anne Boleyn spent her formative years (including the King’s mother and sister).

There are multiple layers to Anne’s religious training in Europe – critical details which have never been analyzed in any depth in the last five hundred years. Proving Anne’s exposure – and devotion – to the reform movement during her historically “lost” years in France is the focal point of our forthcoming book, Avenging Anne Boleyn.

COMING SOON: Part II of the Holbein Code: Of Symbols and Skulls


Excerpted and edited for the web from the forthcoming book, Avenging Anne Boleyn.
© 2010 Kathleen McGowan and Philip Coppens, all rights reserved