Monday, March 23, 2015
I've just finished the latest book in C.J. Sansom's incredible series of Matthew Shardlake novels, in which the hero, a hunchbacked lawyer detective in Tudor England, meets (for the second time) the Lady Elizabeth. At the time, her stepmother Catherine Parr, Henry VIII's final wife, orchestrated a reconciliation of Henry and his daughters. Elizabeth, however, the daughter of executed Ann Boleyn, was always said to be his least favorite.
This portrait by William Scrots was painted when Elizabeth was 13 years old, and was intended to convey several strong messages about her. As one of the few types of mass media in its day, Tudor portraiture was heavily symbolic. The little book in her hands is most likely intended to be a New Testament. The large book on the stand is often said to be the Old Testament, but the pages are blank. Some have opined that it was meant to convey that Elizabeth's story was not yet written. The painting also showcases pearls, representing virginity (she would be painted with pearls in nearly every portrait). The most striking symbol in the picture is often overlooked, however - Elizabeth is standing in front of a bed. This is subtle today, but would not have been subtle to her contemporaries. The bed is a strong advertisement for her marriageability (a status she would wield as a tool of statecraft for the rest of her life).
This is one of my favorite portraits of Elizabeth. Her contemporaries said she was a serious child, as intelligent and articulate as many adults. Her studious nature is hinted at in the books, but it's also evident in her face. Portraiture in the late period of Henry's reign stressed realism (the work of Holbien, much favored by Henry, is a perfect example). There's good reason to believe this is a very accurate likeness, and if so, there can be no doubting the beauty of the young princess (though at the time this was painted, she was barred from the succession and was known as the Lady Elizabeth). Later written accounts show that Elizabeth was very proud of her hands and long, shapely fingers. The emphasis on this in the portrait, even at such a young age, lends the air of truth to those accounts.
Henry died not long after this portrait was completed. Elizabeth went to live with her stepmother, Catherine Parr, and her new husband, Thomas Seymour, uncle to the young King Edward. As it turns out, Seymour was an incredible jackass who spent the next year sexually abusing the 14-year-old Elizabeth and hatching a hare-brained plot that landed him on the headman's block. Even with the relatively permissive attitude to such abuse in those times, Seymour's behavior was considered shameful and scandalous. However, it is also said that Seymour was incredibly good-looking, and that the young Elizabeth may herself have been a willing, if confused, participant. I find it more likely that Seymour's sexual abuse of the young princess is one of the main things that led her to resist ever being dominated by any man for the rest of her life, and, as there is evidence to suggest she may not have been able to conceive (for she was certainly not a Virgin Queen), she possibly even suffered a permanent injury of some kind.