In July 1584 the Prince of Orange was murdered. A year later Antwerp fell to the Spaniards; the Protestant cause was seriously in danger, and an English intervention in the Netherlands seemed inescapable, even to the reluctant Elizabeth. There was no real question that Leicester would lead the expedition; he had hoped for this opportunity for nearly a decade, during which he had become very popular in the Low Countries and had built a special relationship with William the Silent. In December 1585 he landed at Flushing and was entertained with spectacular festivities in every town he visited on the following progress. As he approached Amsterdam on the river,
he was received with sundry sorts of great fishes as whales and other of great highness, which so soon as they met his Excellency took guard of him, environing his ship about while he came to the market place where his Lordship landed so artificially that nothing could be seen but monstrous fishes swimming.1
In the first months of his abode in the States the new “père de la patrie” made a very favourable impression, “so humbly” demeaning himself,2 although “everybody [was] wondering at the great magnificence of his clothes.”3
The Dutch expected their English general to receive, and wield, “absolute power and authority”4 — the governor of one town even had informed Francis Walsingham that Queen Elizabeth was about to “bring back to life the late Prince of Orange in the person of the Earl of Leicester, on whose coming men have fixed their eyes”.5
They had no greater desire than to become the queen’s subjects, if only Elizabeth would accept their submission: Having arrived at The Hague, Leicester on 1 January 1586 was approached by a delegation who petitioned him to accept the title of governor-general by the States General of the United Provinces. Crucially, in this position Leicester would remain Elizabeth’s subject, while the States, in a way, would become his. He wrote to Burghley and Walsingham to explain why he believed the Dutch importunities should be answered favourably, and after a week of elaborate negotiations resigned himself to his elevation — having not yet received any communications from England due to constant adverse winds.
Although the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of August 1585 had envisioned him in a similar position, Elizabeth in her instructions to Leicester had forbidden that he accept anything like it. Still, she had demanded of the States to follow the “advice” of her lieutenant-general in matters of government: Her problem was not so much that Dudley should have power, but that it would look like her actively supporting a rebellious population, the States, against their natural liege lord, King Philip. Indeed, after many weeks of fury and indecision over his misdemeanour, she finally agreed to a formula which maintained that his office had been bestowed not by any sovereign, but by the States General (and thus by the people of the United Provinces). The idea of a Dutch republic was about to take shape.
Accordingly, in what can be regarded as the official state portrait of the governor-general, he fittingly has laid down his Garter chain (a distinctly English attribute) on a table beside him. It is the only portrait of Leicester in which he does not display his “George” on his breast. Judging from earlier portraits, he seems to have worn this particular chain from around 1575 onwards. At one occasion it needed to be repaired, his excellency having broken it while dismounting his horse between Leiden and The Hague. In the painting, Leicester rests his right hand on an arquebus, while the helmet on the table and the piece of armour he wears round his neck over his courtier’s outfit stress his combined civil and military role as governor-general.
Of course the image of the new stadholder needed to be promulgated: for the common people there were made prints from engravings; for a more exquisite public beautiful medals were issued. The great artist Hendrik Goltzius, still in his twenties, made an engraving based on a gold medal of the earl. This “medallic portrait” is certainly among the finest of Leicester’s likenesses. The popular prints underline his military function, showing him in armour with a baton of command, with his helmet, coat of arms, and coronet at his feet. Some people also got a chance to see his excellency face to face, such as the “poor man who had a great cold at Arnhem” and was given two shillings by Leicester.6
It has been suggested that the grand state portrait of the earl was commissioned after Leicester’s final return from the Netherlands in December 1587; Lisa Jardine contends that
the so-called Parham portrait … painted … after he had relinquished the title of governor general, … shows him with his hand covering the muzzle of his up-ended wheel-lock gun. Faced with loss of face and the queen’s displeasure, there is no mistaking the symbolic acknowledgment of lost virility and manhood brought low.7
The basic problems with such an interpretation are that not only Leicester — long reconciled to Elizabeth — looks “most prince-like”,8 but the portrait’s costume strongly indicates that it was painted well before 1588. During this last year of his life, the earl had himself portrayed once again in full-length; striking features of this new type of picture are the changed male fashion and Leicester’s white wand of office: On his return to England he had become Lord Steward of the Royal Household.
1 Strong and van Dorsten p. 66
2 Strong and van Dorsten pp. 54, 35
3 Richardson p. 34
4 Strong and van Dorsten p. 53
5 Strong and van Dorsten pp. 35
6 Adams p. 350
7 Jardine p. 90
8 Strong and van Dorsten p. 69
Adams, Simon (1995): Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586. Cambridge University Press.
Jardine, Lisa (2005): The Awful End of Prince William the Silent: The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun. Harper Collins.
Richardson, Aubrey (1907): The Lover of Queen Elizabeth: Being the Life and Character of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. T. Werner Laurie.
Strong, R.C. and van Dorsten, J.A. (1964): Leicester’s Triumph. Oxford University Press.