Holbein, Hans (German, 1497-1543) and others

Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons

Reference Type:
begun c. 1540
The records of the Worshipful Company of Barbers goes back to 1308; it was (and still is) one of the Livery Companies of London, which in medieval times developed as guilds responsible for the regulation of their own trades. At the time barbers assisted monks, who were traditional practitioners of medicine and surgery but as members of religious orders were not permitted to spill blood. Surgeons, who did not have the training of the barbers, began to join the guild, and then in 1368 formed their own; however, the Barbers’ Guild maintained oversight of surgical practices. In 1462 the Barbers’ Guild received a Royal Charter to become a Company. In 1540, they merged with the Surgeons’ Guild to become the Company of Barber-Surgeons. The new group was overseen by two barbers and two surgeons, and there were restrictions on what members could and could not do—surgeons were not permitted to shave or wash patients, and barbers could not do any surgery except tooth extraction. In 1745 the two companies split, and in 1800 the Company of Surgeons became the Royal College of Surgeons. This work was commissioned to commemorate the royal charter granted to the new group in 1462 by Henry VIII, who hands the paper to Thomas Vicary, the first master of the new Company. The second figure to Henry’s right, Dr. William Butts, was famous in his day, a personal friend of the king’s, and included by Shakespeare in Henry VIII. Next to Butts kneels John Chambre, who attended Jane Seymour and was also a priest. Sir John Ayliff, next to Vicary, was surgeon to the king. The Worshipful Company of Barbers today is no longer linked with hairdressers, but retains its connection with surgery, primarily acting as a charitable institution supporting medical and surgical causes. About 30% of its members are surgeons or other medical professionals. Holbein painted the king from existing sketches, and the others from life. Because he died the same year he began the portrait, it is difficult to determine which sections Holbein completed before his death and which were added by others. Holbein’s original cartoon remains, and reflects the substantial changes subsequently made. It has been determined that the inscription was added before the king’s death in 1547, but the men in the second row on the right were added later by an anonymous artist. It was reworked and restored badly in the 17th century after damage by the Great London Fire in 1666. Notes by Mariann Smith
History of Medicine
Royal College of Surgeons of England, London