Elizabeth, Jane, Amy? The Riddle of the Yale Miniature

Portrait miniature of an unknown lady, c.1550. She might be Amy Robsart at the time of her wedding to Robert Dudley.

Who is the young lady on the right? Catalogued decades ago by Roy Strong as a youthful Princess Elizabeth, David Starkey created great media attention in March 2007 when he pronounced this c.1550 portrait miniature from the collections of Yale University to be the only extant likeness of Lady Jane Grey. Although Starkey was “90% sure”1 he had hit upon the ill-fated Nine Days Queen, his identification was soon contested. A principal obstacle to it is the sitter’s age, which is given as 17 or 18 on the miniature itself. While Jane Grey’s exact birth date is unknown, she was most probably born in the spring of 1537 and cannot have been born more than a few months earlier.2 Thus she would have been only 15 or 16 during the spring and summer of 1553, the months she would have sat for a portrait connected with her marriage.

The Yale miniature’s spray of flowers, acorns, and oak leaves around a gold brooch mounted with a black classical head

The lady in the Yale miniature ‟wears a gold brooch mounted with a black classical head and behind it a bunch of acorns and a spray of yellow flowers“.3 As pointed out by Starkey, an inventory of Jane’s possessions as queen lists two gold brooches with a face cut in agate. However as J. S. Edwards has remarked, ‟these particular carved-stone faces are so vaguely described, … that they cannot reliably be associated with the one depicted in the miniature. Further, such ‘faces in agate’ were both highly prized and fairly common in the Tudor period.“4 David Starkey has seen the flowers as gillyflowers of the kind seen in the Tower of London carving associated with the five imprisoned Dudley brothers, where they represent Guildford Dudley. Guildford being Lady Jane Grey’s husband, Starkey has interpreted the flowers in the miniature as symbols of their union. Both Eric Ives and J. S. Edwards have argued though that they are not of the Tower variant and cannot be determined precisely – they could as well be cowslips. Most importantly, however, the acorns of the miniature remain unexplained in Starkey’s theory.5

Princess Elizabeth, c.1546. Her headdress and jewellery are much more ornate and costly than those in the Yale miniature.

To make sense of them Leanda de Lisle has argued in her book The Sisters Who Would Be Queen that the miniature might have been a posthumous portrait of Lady Jane Grey, made in the early 1560s in support of Lady Katherine Grey’s claim to the throne.6 According to this theory the acorns – symbols used by Robert Dudley in his youth – would have been added to appeal to the powerful favourite, who was of course also Jane’s former brother-in-law. Lady Jane as a Protestant martyr surely was the subject of posthumous copies from earlier portraits, as indeed was the Duke of Somerset, Edward Seymour, another hero of the Protestant cause. Nicholas Hilliard’s 1560 miniature of the duke is however clearly marked as a memorial: an unaltered, earlier likeness surrounded by an inscription of the duke’s name and title in classical style, in imitation of a medal. Significantly the year given in the miniature is 1560, not the year the copied original had been made.7

Memorial portrait miniature of Edward Seymour, with the year it was painted

Memorial portrait miniature of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset

Why then should a memorial picture of Jane Grey lack an inscription of her name? The possible argument that it would have been politically unwise to draw attention to her is defeated by the numerous writings appearing just at the time the Teerlinc miniature would have been made: John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs being the most prominent example, as de Lisle points out there was also a ballad ‟in which Jane laments her fate and that of Guildford, as covictims of their ambitious fathers“.8 Why, in de Lisle’s scenario, the depiction of the Duke of Northumberland as the villain of the piece should have served to gain the patronage of his son remains unclear, though; during Robert Dudley’s pre-eminence, the great Elizabethan chroniclers were careful not to emphasize his father’s role – or supposed role – in the events of 1553.9

Detail of Princess Mary’s 1544 portrait, showing the typical style of jewellery worn by high-ranking ladies

The identification of the Yale miniature as Elizabeth Tudor in 1983 by Roy Strong rested on the fact that the princess indeed sat for a picture by Levina Teerlinc in 1551, the year Elizabeth turned 18. Teerlinc, the daughter of the famous Flemish illuminator Simon Bening, worked for English court circles from 1545 until her death in 1576. Her client would thus have moved in the highest circles, yet for a royal princess the sitter’s dress seems uncharacteristically plain; on a closer look, the jewellery as well appears much more modest than in the known portraits of the Tudor queens and princesses of the 1540s and 1550s. Importantly, in none of these the sitter wears an application of flowers attached to her jewel. Also, at least the most high-ranking ladies typically display two major pieces of jewellery on their breast instead of just one, as in the Yale picture. There is some facial resemblance of the Yale miniature with known likenesses of Elizabeth; however, a striking difference is the sitter’s pronounced snub nose.

The copy of a 1550s painting, believed to show Lady Jane Grey. The jewellery is much more impressive than in the Yale miniature.

Gillyflowers served as a general symbol of marriage and fidelity.10 The flowers in the Yale miniature are ‟impaled“, that is arranged to symbolize ‟a marriage between a man whose badge was an oak and a woman whose badge was a flower.“11 A 1550 wedding celebrated in court circles, indeed in the presence of King Edward VI, was that of Robert Dudley and Amy Robsart. The bridal couple were almost the same age, just days away from their 18th birthday. Acorns and the oak were used by Robert Dudley in a carving in the Tower of London as a personal symbol or ‟device“, the pun deriving from the similarity of his name, Robert, to the Latin word for ‟oak“, robur.12 The age of the sitter fitting, and the plant symbolism making sense, Amy Dudley née Robsart has been suggested as a possible candidate by Eric Ives, an idea taken up by Chris Skidmore and also Leanda de Lisle.13

Through her marriage Amy Robsart became the daughter-in-law of England’s chief minister and would have been a likely client of the court painter Levina Teerlinc, while her more modest dress and jewellery would indicate her, comparatively, low status.

1 The Telegraph
2 Ives 2009 pp. 36, 299
3 Ives 2009 p. 15
4 Edwards 2007
5 Ives 2009 pp. 15–16; Edwards 2007
6 de Lisle 2009 pp. 207, 317
7 Hearn 2005 pp. 28–29
8 de Lisle 2009 p. 207
9 Alford 2002 pp. 9–11; Beer 1998 pp. 110–112
10 Skidmore 2010 p. 21
11 Edwards 2007
12 Skidmore 2010 p. 21
13 Ives 2009 pp. 295, 15–16; Skidmore 2010 p. 21; de Lisle Lecture of 5 March 2010

Alford, Stephen (2002): Kingship and Politics in the Reign of Edward VI. Cambridge University Press.

Beer, B. L. (1998): Tudor England Observed: The World of John Stow. Sutton Publishing.

Edwards, J. S. (2007): ‟The Yale Miniature Portrait‟. http://www.somegreymatter.com/starkeyminiature.htm

de Lisle, Leanda (2009): The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey. A Tudor Tragedy. Ballantine Books.

de Lisle, Leanda: “Death Becomes Her: The Life and Afterlife of Lady Jane Grey”. Lecture at the National Gallery, London. 5 March 2010. http://ladyjanegreyref.livejournal.com/42763.html

Hearn, Karen (2005): Nicholas Hilliard. Unicorn Press.

Ives, Eric (2009): Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. Wiley-Blackwell.

Skidmore, Chris (2010): Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

‟The true beauty of Lady Jane Grey“. The Telegraph. 5 March 2007.

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 www.allthingsrobertdudley.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Amy Robsart, Elizabeth I, paintings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Elizabeth, Jane, Amy? The Riddle of the Yale Miniature

  1. boswellbaxter says:

    I think Amy makes a more likely subject than the other women. Great post!

  2. Victoria says:

    Couldn’t both Robert & Robsart both use the oak “robur” as a device? Do oak trees have flowers? Could the flowers be oak tree flowers representing Amy Robsart & the acorns represent Robert Dudley?

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