The Earl of Leicester, by William Segar

xth of April. Given the same day by your lordship’s commandment to a poor woman of Leighton xii d.
Given in reward the xiith April by your lordship’s commandment to one Segar, a gardener xl s.

This fairly typical entry in the Earl of Leicester’s disbursement book of 1584 was corrected in his lordship’s own hand, for he struck through the word “gardener”, replacing it with “painter”. The painter thus rewarded was William Segar (1564–1633), a herald of the College of Arms who also functioned as a portraitist. His style was rather “English”; Leicester, who as a collector had a taste for the Venetian school, nevertheless employed him a number of times during the 1580s to paint his likeness. Segar also made at least one picture of the young Earl of Essex, Leicester’s stepson.

On 29 May 1585 the herald again received a reward, the more substantial sum of five pounds; this time he was correctly described as “Segar the picture drawer”. In December 1585 the earl, recently arrived in the Netherlands to fight the Spaniards, found himself in all sorts of practical difficulties (having not even been allowed to take his right hand man and chief secretary, Arthur Atye, with him). On 26 December he wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham:

Lastly, Sir, I beseech send me a pursuivant; he that I appointed, and desired to go, made suit a day before I came away to tarry at home, with twenty excuses, his name is Segar. I pray you, Sir, let someone, and an able body, be appointed with speed. If you call for Clarencius he will name some fit man to you. I have great need of such a one. If he have French, or Dutch, or Latin, it shall suffice.

In the end Segar still had to agree to travel to the Continent, for he served as Master of Ceremonies at the Feast of the Knights of the Garter on 1 May 1586 in the town of Utrecht. This day saw one of the great displays of magnificence Robert Dudley was so good in organizing. It officially ended – or so he hoped – the crisis between him and his sovereign over his acceptance of the governor-generalship which had so infuriated her early in the year: The queen, represented by an empty seat of honour, was served as if she were present.

The earliest of the surviving Segar likenesses of Leicester dates from c.1580–1585, giving him an almost comical appearance (top). Robert Dudley turned grey in his forties, and by his fifties he had white hair. In 1585, when he was 53, the French ambassador described him as a “beau gentilhomme” who had grown rather stout – it should be kept in mind, though, that the diplomat was comparing Elizabeth’s veteran courtiers to their appearances a few decades earlier. The next picture dates from the last year of the earl’s life, when he had finally accepted the post of Lord Steward of the Household in exchange for his cherished position as Master of the Horse: He is holding his white wand of office (centre). Versions of this likeness were used for several prints and book illustrations in the 18th and 19th centuries. A further late portrait of the earl was a full-length one, a version of which is shown below: The newly fashionable “cannions” worn over the traditional stockings destroy the view of his legs’ beautiful shape, which could still be seen in a portrait painted in the Netherlands around 1586 by a Dutch master.

Correspondence of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leycester, during his Government of the Low Countries, in the Years 1585 and 1586. (ed. John Bruce, 1844). Camden Society.
Adams, Simon (1995): Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586. Cambridge University Press.
Adams, Simon (2004): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Hearn, Karen (ed.) (1995): Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530–1630. Rizzoli.

About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at
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