Wednesday 31 July 2013

New Impressions On The Brandon Wedding Portrait

 The recent sale of the Charles Brandon portrait piqued my curiosity about his famous so-called ‘wedding portrait’. The picture, which exists in two versions (the collection of the Earl of Yarborough, and that of the Duke of Bedford), shows the Duke of Suffolk with his third wife Mary Tudor. 

Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon, by an Unknown Artist. Collection of the Earl of Yarborough

 Their marriage was out of the pages of a fairy tale. Charles, tall and handsome, had long been enamored of Mary, the beautiful sister of his King – and best friend – Henry VIII. But like so many royal princesses, Mary was destined for the foreign marriage market. Her intended was King Louis XII of France. Suffolk, a ‘mere’ Duke, just wouldn’t do.

 Mary, duty bound to her brother and to her country, made ready for France. She did, however, obtain a promise from Henry VIII. Should Louis die, she would be free to choose her next husband herself. Confident that she could have Brandon one day – after all, how long could the 52-year-old Louis (elderly by the standards of the time) last? - Mary set sail for France in September 1514.

 Louis, eager to meet his lovely young bride, waylaid the English entourage on its way to Abbeville, on the pretext of a hunting trip. At their ‘accidental’ meeting, Mary was everything the old King expected. Slender, with a pale complexion, and reddish gold hair, she was indeed the ‘paradise’ men swooned over. What Mary at 19 really thought of Louis - a gent old enough to be her father - she kept to herself. She conducted herself with charm and dignity, and was commended for being ‘extremely courteous and well mannered.’

 The wedding took place on October 9. Louis was evidently pleased with his wife. The morning after, he boasted how he had ‘crossed the river three times.’ If Mary was offended by his crudity, she never showed it.  She played the part of the adoring trophy wife until Louis, exhausted by his nubile young wife some snickered, died on January 1, 1515.

 Free at last, Mary expected Henry VIII to keep his vow to her. However, as a King first and a brother second, Henry had other plans for his newly single sister. She must again fulfill her obligation to England and wed a foreign prince and stranger. Already suspecting her brother would renege on his promise, Mary grew frantic. When Brandon arrived in France in late January to take her home, she desperately begged him to marry her. She would rather ‘be torn in pieces,’ she cried, than to make another loveless match. Unable to resist her tears – he had never seen a woman so weep, Brandon later recalled - and that their chance at a life together might never come again, he wed Mary in secret.

 When all was revealed to Henry VIII, he was furious. His closest friend and his favorite sister had both betrayed him. The former friendship between Brandon and the King was no guarantee, as Suffolk himself lamented, that he would not be ‘put to death, or be put in a prison, and so to be destroyed.’ But as fairy tales have happy endings, Charles and Mary had theirs. They were eventually forgiven and allowed to return to England. There, the couple held a public wedding, and the joyous occasion was even graced by Henry VIII himself. The Suffolks went on to have four children (though only two – Frances, the mother of the tragic Lady Jane Grey, and Eleanor - survived into adulthood) until Mary succumbed to a fatal illness in 1533. Charles, who went on to marry yet again, died twelve years later.

 The ‘wedding portrait’, with an affectionate Charles and Mary holding hands together, celebrates the union of Queen and commoner. Inscribed onto the Yarborough version is a poem:

Cloth of gold, do not despise,
Tho thou art matched to cloth of frize.
Cloth of frize, be not too bold,
Tho thou art matched to cloth of gold.

 Though the verses may have been added later1, they do emphasize the unusual pairing of Charles and Mary. The curious object in Mary’s right hand reinforces the theme. The artichoke from which a caduceus emerges is suggestive of a royal orb, recalling Mary’s former glory as King Louis’ wife. As artichokes were grown in Mediterranean France, the vegetable may have been suggestive of Mary’s former status as its Queen. More likely, it was meant as a symbol of love and fecundity. Artichokes were said to be sacred to the goddess Venus.

Another classical allusion can read in the caduceus. This was the winged staff borne by the god Mercury. According to legend, as a boy, Mercury had chanced upon two battling snakes. Wanting to make peace between them, the youth separated the belligerent pair with a stick. The two serpents then entwined themselves around it in harmony. This uniting of opposites was a fitting representation of the Suffolks’ concord - the merger of ‘cloth of gold’ and ‘cloth of frieze.’2 But lest the caduceus (and the artichoke) appear too ‘pagan,’ the staff on which the snakes are wrapped is in the form of a Christian tau-shaped cross

It would be natural to assume that the double portrait was commissioned shortly after the couple’s marriage in 1515. However, it appears to have been painted much later – about twenty years afterwards, probably after Mary’s death in 1533, by the looks of her clothing. Historians have paid little attention to her costume. Past observations have been limited to the fashionable French attire she wears, and that she was loaded with jewels probably given to her by her late husband King Louis.3 While Mary’s clothes are French in style, they are not of circa 1515, but of the late 1520s to the 1530s.

Mary’s under-sleeves which are partially open at the bottom – allowing segments of her white shift to be pulled out - and fastened at intervals by pieces of goldsmith’s work mounted with diamonds, is similar to those worn by her sister-in-law Katherine of Aragon in a miniature dating from the mid to late 1520s. This style extended into the 1530s as seen in many paintings of Henry VIII's third wife Jane Seymour.

Katherine of Aragon, attributed to Lucas Horenbout. Collection of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury.

Jane Seymour, by Hans Holbein. The Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Mary’s headgear is also of a date later than about 1515. Her cap, with a lower billiment of a row of pearls, and an upper level consisting of diamonds set in gold inter-spaced by double pearls, is comparable to that worn by Anne Boleyn. While ‘French hoods’, as these were called, were worn at the time of Mary’s first marriage, they were not of the shape as seen in the Yarborough and Bedford pictures. The hoods, as worn by maidens in a manuscript celebrating King Francis I’s entry into the city of Lyons in July 1515, are of an earlier form. The caps have no upper and lower billiments, only a rim of decorative metalwork arching the face and extending below the chin. The headdress itself is covered in a rich cloth, usually black, and has a ‘curtain’ or veil in the back, which falls behind the shoulders. Mary, had she have painted in 1515 or shortly afterwards, would have been sporting this variant of the French hood, not the later type as seen her portrait with Charles Brandon.

Anne Boleyn, by an Unknown Artist. Royal Collection.

Les vertus contenues dans le nom du roi François - Entrée de François Ier à Lyon (detail). Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Extr. 86.4.

 So if the portrait was not painted at the time of their marriage, could it have been done in a sitting given in the early 1530s? It seems unlikely that the Duke and Duchess would have waited that long – almost two decades – to finally commission such a work. What may have prompted its creation was Mary’s untimely death in September 1533. The picture was thus a celebration of the marriage, and a memorial to it. If it was indeed painted after Mary’s passing, it was almost certainly derived from two separate portraits of Mary and Charles, now lost. 
So why the portrait then, after his wife was gone? Certainly a commemoration of their love, and perhaps Brandon’s reminder to all, that despite Mary’s death, he was still brother-in-law to the King of England; hence a power to be reckoned with still. Anne Boleyn’s rise had left Brandon in the cold, and the picture may have been his way of reasserting his diminished standing.5 Later, Suffolk did regain the King’s favor after Anne fell; he had the pleasure of attending her trial and execution in 1536.

 When the Yarborough version of the painting was exhibited at the Henry VIII – A European Court in England exhibition in 1991, the curators admitted that ‘it still awaits detailed research.’ 4 Hopefully, more efforts will indeed be made to study the Yarborough and Bedford pictures, particularly their dendrochronology. Whether they were done in circa 1515 or some twenty years afterwards as it is suggested here, can finally be determined. 
 UPDATE - FEB. 21, 2021
This painting has been brought to my attention.
It shows King Francis I with his second wife Eleanor of Austria. In her hand is an artichoke with a caduceus like Mary Tudor's. 

Evidently, this picture was made to celebrate their marriage in 1530 (though an unhappy one; Francis was forced to marry Eleanor by her brother the Emperor Charles V).



1 That the verses appeared in a banner borne by Suffolk himself in a tournament, or that they were uttered by Henry VIII at the public recognition of his sister’s marriage is romantic fiction. 

2 The caduceus was also a device of Louise of Savoy. In a manuscript honoring the accession of her son Francis I to the French throne, she was hailed as Madame Concorde. The caduceus was also associated with Francis as a symbol of kingly eloquence. See: LeCoq, François Ier imaginiare: symbolique & politique à l’aube de la Renaissance française, p. 415 and p. 426.

3 Hayward, Dress At The Court of Henry VIII, p. 172, and Starkey, Henry VIII – A European Court in England, p. 49. While Hayward is correct in assuming that Mary introduced French fashions to the English court upon her return from France, she could not have brought the later variant of the French hood as depicted in the Yarborough and Bedford portraits.

4 Starkey, Henry VIII – A European Court in England, p. 49.

5 I am grateful to Dr. Martin Spies (University of Giessen, Germany) for his suggestion that the Yarborough and Bedford portraits may also have been meant to fully legitimize Charles Brandon's union with Mary Tudor, due to his complicated past marital history. Years later, when Mary I was Queen, there was talk of declaring their granddaughters, Lady Jane Grey and her two sisters, as bastards, and thus incapable of inheriting the throne. This was almost certainly a reference to the validity of the Suffolk marriage. Spies also believes it is possible that the Yarborough/Beford pictures may have been commissioned, not by Charles Brandon, but by his descendants to advance the Suffolk claim to the English throne. Similarly, images of the Duke’s granddaughter Lady Katherine Grey with her son Edward Seymour may have served to further the family’s dynastic ambitions. See: Spies, 'The Portrait of Lady Katherine Grey and her Son: Iconographic Medievalism as a Legitimation Strategy', Early Modern Medievalisms. The Interplay between Scholarly Reflection and Artistic Production, Alicia C. Montoya, Sophie van Romburgh and Wim van Anrooij (eds.), Intersections 15 (Leiden/Boston: 2010), 165-190.



Attributs et symboles dans l’art profane, 1450 -1460, by Guy de Tervarent. Geneva: Librairie E. Droz. 1958.

Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery, by Ad de Vries. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company. 1974.

Dress At The Court of Henry VIII, by Maria Hayward. Leeds: Maney Publishing, 2007.

François Ier imaginiare: symbolique & politique à l’aube de la Renaissance française, by Anne-Marie Lecoq, Paris: Éditions Macula. 1987

Henry VIII – A European Court in England, edited by David Starkey. New York: Cross River Press, 1991.     

Lady Jane Grey and the House of Suffolk, by Alison Plowden. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985.

Rivals in Power, edited by D. Starkey. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

Monday 29 July 2013

The Secret Meeting of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots

My ‘Corgi’ figurines

Friday 19 July 2013

A Night Out With Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

My completed 'Airfix' plastic models

The Three Elizabeths

Left to right: Elizabeth II, Elizabeth I, and ‘Elizabeth R’ (Glenda Jackson).

Tuesday 16 July 2013

An Irish Anne Boleyn

I don't think too many people are aware of this portrait of Anne in 'The National Gallery of Ireland'.

There appears to be a pentimento where the artist did a double row of the pearled billament on her French hood.

Anne Boleyn, by an Unknown Artist. The National Gallery of Ireland.

Thursday 27 June 2013

Can you spare £100,000? Charles Brandon for sale!

A rarely seen portrait of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, by an Unknown Artist. Private Collection.

 The portrait shows Brandon’s resemblance to his brother–in-law and friend Henry VIII, and his virile good looks that so appealed to the King’s sister Mary, whom Brandon married in secret in 1515. 

Sotheby’s has it valued at £100,000 to £150,000. I’ll have to settle for the postcard.

Monday 17 June 2013

Queen Elizabeth’s Napkin

A most curious item from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Treasures of the Royal Courts exhibition is a napkin - of Flemish origin – probably used at the Elizabethan court, perhaps by the Queen herself. 

It is remarkable in two ways - that it has survived so well, and more so, for its design. Upon the linen damask are facing portraits of Elizabeth, along with heraldic images associated with her mother Anne Boleyn.

Elizabeth I's Napkin, Flemish, circa 1558-1580. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Another version of  Elizabeth I's Napkin, Flemish, collection of the City of Kortrijk, (photo by C. von Viràg)

The napkin was made between 1570 and 1600 according to the V&A. But a far earlier date is more likely given the image of Elizabeth. It was almost certainly based on an engraving, attributed to Frans Huys, dated 1559. This was a very early portrait type of the Queen showing her in a black hood and a black gown with a furred collar. Other examples of this kind include the Boughton House Henry VIII and His Family with William Sommers picture, and a likeness in the National Portrait Gallery, London.1

Elizabeth I, engraving attributed to Frans Huys, 1559.

Henry VIII and His Family with William Sommers, by an Unknown Artist. Collection of the Duke of Buccleuch, Boughton House, Northamptonshire.


 Below the repeated likenesses of the young Queen, are Tudor roses, and the coat-of-arms and the white falcon badge of her mother Anne Boleyn. We can only guess at Elizabeth’s feelings towards her controversial mother. But that the napkin was presumably made for use at her court, or gifted to Elizabeth herself, indicates a rehabilitation of Anne’s former notoriety.

 Besides the napkin, Anne Boleyn’s falcon badge has reappeared elsewhere during her daughter’s reign. A set of virginals made for the Queen, bears Anne’s device, as does a banner from a book with Elizabeth’s E.R. initials.  
As well, on New Year's Day 1563, she received a 'fair book of prayers and many other things in it, covered with silver, enameled with the Queen’s and her Majesty’s mother’s arms on both sides of gold, garnished and clasped with gold, set with garnets and turquoises' from William Cecil. Unfortunately, this book is now lost.

The Queen Elizabeth Virginal (detail), made by Giovanni Baffo. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Book Banner with the Elizabeth I's initials.

 All these artifacts, and the Chequers locket ring, suggest that Elizabeth was far more sentimental about her late mother than often supposed.



1 The NPG refers to the picture (NPG 764) as being of an unidentified sitter. However, the similarities between  the young lady to Elizabeth in the Houghton House family portrait, suggest it probably is of her.


Thursday 6 June 2013

Clowning Around – The Portraits of Will Sommers

“Be a clown, be a clown, all the world loves a clown…”

(Cole Porter, 1948)

 Before the term coulrophobia was coined (yes, it’s a real word, look it up), clowns were universally popular. In antiquity, they – as comic actors – were a staple of Greek and Roman theater, and since the medieval era, were employed as jesters for the amusement of royal courts. A fool held a privileged position. He (or even she) had license to speak where others could not. Where criticism of a royal master or of royal policy might have cost a courtier his/her  head, when offered up by a jester, it was generally taken with good humor.

 At the court of Henry VIII, the office of fool was held by one William, or Will as he was more commonly known, Sommers.  For over twenty years, while queens and ministers came and went, Sommers was able to retain the affections of his erratic master. Their only falling out was an incident in 1535, when Sommers (unless it was his predecessor 'Patch the Fool'), in making light of the unpopularity of the King’s second marriage, ridiculed Anne Boleyn as ‘ribald’, and her child Elizabeth as a ‘bastard’. This time, Henry was not amused. Sommers was forced into hiding in fear for his life, it was said, until the King’s anger cooled. Received back at court, Sommers wisely refrained from such divisive remarks, and remained in royal favor till the end of Henry’s reign. As a testament to the King’s affection for him, Sommers was depicted with Henry in two very personal works of art.

 The first, probably a royal commission, was a panel of the King and his family.  Painted in Henry VIII’s old age, he is shown seated in an ornate chamber, with his son Prince Edward at his knee. With them is the boy’s mother, the late Jane Seymour. Katharine Parr, Henry’s current wife, had no place in the picture, having still not provided England with an ‘heir and spare’ Duke of York. Supporting the triumvirate of King, Queen, and Prince were the Princesses or rather ‘Ladies’ Mary and Elizabeth (they were still legally illegitimate thanks to their father’s marital misadventures). Through the arched doorways, two servants can be seen. On the right is Will Sommers with a monkey on his shoulder, and on the left, a woman. Taken in context, she is probably ‘Jane the Fool’, a female jester mentioned in Princess Mary’s household accounts.

The Family of Henry VIII, by an Unknown Artist. The Royal Collection.

 The second work is a psalter, also from the last years of Henry VIII. Here, the King plays a harp with Sommers in attendance. The instrument is an allusion to Henry as King David. Henry’s identification with the Biblical monarch can also be seen in a miniature showing him as a penitential David with his crown set aside. In the psalter, was Henry as David, again lamenting his sins, this time setting them to music? That Sommers was the sole listener, said much about the intimacy of their relationship. 

Henry VIII with William Sommers, from the Psalter of Henry VIII, by Jean Mallard. The British Library.

Henry VIII as King David, from the Psalter of Henry VIII, by Jean Mallard. The British Library.

 The high regard in which Sommers was held continued after his master’s death. He went on to serve the new King, Edward VI, appearing in many courtly entertainments. Sommers was less active in the next reign, but he does appear in an interesting portrait of Queen Mary I pictured with the late Henry VIII.

Henry VIII and Mary I with Will Sommers by an Unknown Artist. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The portrait was almost certainly dynastic than sentimental. Personally, Mary had a difficult relationship with her father (wouldn’t you if you were forced to accept that his marriage to your mother was ‘incestuous’ and you yourself a bastard?), and spiritually, his break with the Roman Catholic Church was abhorrent to her.  Nonetheless, they have been shown together. But here, there is no reference to Henry as a detested schismatic; he is in full Holbeinesque magnificence as King of England. With Mary by his side, the notion that she was indeed legitimate - and rightfully Queen - is reinforced. Sommers’ presence continues the tradition of how cherished he was by the former King.

After his death in around 1560, Sommers’ reputation was well sustained in the long reign of Elizabeth I. In a recently discovered portrait, reminiscent of the one of Mary I and Henry VIII, Sommers again appears with the royal family. This time, Edward VI and the new young Queen, Elizabeth I, have been included.

Henry VIII and His Family with William Sommers, by an Unknown Artist. Collection of the Duke of Buccleuch, Boughton House, Northamptonshire.

 Some thirty years later, the image of Sommers was revived in another dynastic work, a Protestant propaganda piece commonly titled An Allegory of the Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII. Based on an earlier picture (attributed to Lucas de Heere) showing Elizabeth as the bringer of peace and prosperity, and her sister Mary and her husband Philip of Spain as the authors of war and strife, the painting has been updated showing Elizabeth as she was in the later years of her rule. 

An Allegory of the Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII, by an Unknown Artist. The Yale Center for British Art.

An Allegory of the Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII, attributed to Lucas de Heere. Sudeley Castle.

An Allegory of the Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII, by an Unknown Artist. The Yale Center for British Art (detail).

But there has been a further revision. At the far left of the picture is Will Sommers. Positioned at the perimeter of the throne room, and visible only from his chest up, he is barely noticeable at first glance. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the artist to have positioned Sommers next to his master Henry VIII? That the royal fool was put instead next to the god Mars – at the heels of Mary and Philip - is significant. War as personified by Mars was folly, as was Mary’s match with Spain. The King and Queen were blamed for the persecution of their Protestant subjects, and for the loss of Calais, England’s last possession upon the Continent. It was left to Elizabeth, accompanied by Minerva2 (representing Peace) and the personification of Plenty (or the goddess Ceres herself), to restore religious and political stability.

 Mary was long dead when the allegory was painted, but it must have been considered impudent still to openly criticize her. After all, Mary, despite her unpopularity, had been God’s anointed, and Elizabeth's sister. Hence, the symbolic image of Sommers had to suffice. Even the earlier version of the allegory was careful not to condemn Mary outright. The verses (around the edges of the painting) simply described her as ‘a zealous daughter in her kind.’ As to her shortcomings, nothing else needed to be said, as ‘what else the world doth know.’1

By the closing of Elizabeth’s reign, Sommers achieved the 16th century equivalent of pop culture status; remarkable considering that his life and career were spent within the confines of the Tudor court. Still, Sommers’ fame extended beyond the palace walls, and he was embraced by the masses. He appeared in plays, and was even the lead character of one entitled Pleesant Comedie called Summers last Will and Testament (by Thomas Nashe, and first performed in 1592).

William Sommers, by Francis Deleram. The British Museum.

 As a tribute to his continuing popularity, Sommers was even depicted in a mass produced print (the 16th/17th century version of a pin-up) in the reign of James I. Engraved by Francis Deleram, ‘Kinge Heneryes jester’ is shown standing full body against a background of stilt walkers, tumblers, and children at their games. Upon his livery gown are the initials of his master, Henry Rex, and in his hand is a horn. At the bottom are verses with which Sommers introduces himself.

We leave the final say to him:

What though thou thinkst me clad in strange attire
Know I am suited to my own desire
And yet the characters described upon me
May show thee, that a King bestowed them on me

This horn I have, betokens Summers’ game
Which sportive time will bid thee read my name
All with my nature well agreeing too
As both the name, and time, and habit do.



1 A later reworking of the image, an engraving by William Rogers and dedicated to the Archbishop of Canterbury (John Whitgift), was not afraid of openly criticizing Mary however. While Somers is not shown, the verses below vilified the former Queen who ‘with foreign blood she matched and put down truth, which England’s glory suddenly decayed, who brought in war and discord by that deed, which did in commonwealth great sorrow breed.’  

2 The figure can be identified as Minerva/Athena by her aegis (breast plate) bearing a miniaturized head of Medusa.


All the King's Fools, by Suzannah Lipscomb, in History Today, vol. 61, issue: 8, 2011.

Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Sidney Lee, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1898.

Documents Relating to the Revels at Court in the time of Edward VI and Queen Mary, by Albert Feuillerat, Vaduz (Liechtenstein), reprint 1963.

Dynasties: Paintings in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, edited by Karen Hearn, Tate Publishing, London, 1995. 

Privy Purse Expenses of the Princess Mary, edited by Frederick Madden, William Pickering, London. 1914.

Will Sommers’ Suit: Illustration of Early Modern Performance, by John H. Astington, University of Toronto, Canada, published in Popular Entertainment Studies, Vol. 2, Issue 1, pp. 69-78, 2011.