One of the most beautiful portraits of Elizabeth I is the so-called Peace Portrait, and it has long been associated with the Earl of Leicester. The queen, symbolizing the goddess of peace, Pax, holds an olive branch and stands on top of the sword of justice. The noted antiquarian and topographer, David Lysons, wrote in his Environs of London (1796) that the buildings seen in the picture’s background were part of the gardens of the old Wanstead Hall, the Essex house bought by Leicester in 1577, but replaced by a Palladian monstrosity in the early 18th century.
The portrait is known by its signature and style to be the work of Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, a Flemish Protestant master who sought temporary refuge in England, but was resident in Antwerp between 1577 and 1586. However, he was back in London by August 1586, when he stood godfather to a child of his wife’s uncle, the merchant-intellectual Emanuel van Meteren. By the costumes, the Peace portrait has been dated to around 1580–1585; but it could have been painted later.
Elizabeth I sat for portraits only on rare occasions, and most of her images were based on existing prototypes. It is believed that she did not sit for the Peace Portrait, which if executed during Gheeraerts’ time in Antwerp, may have been commissioned by the Earl of Leicester: “Some portraits of the Queen were painted by accomplished artists abroad and imported back into England by specific courtiers.”1
Leicester was himself in the northern part of the Low Countries from December 1585 until December 1586, and again from June 1587 until November 1587. Antwerp was by then enemy territory, but of course as Governor-General of the United Provinces he had contacts to people from both sides of the divide. More intriguingly, he was an old acquaintance of Emanuel van Meteren, chairman of the Flemish merchants in London and a longtime resident in England. Like Leicester and many others of his circle, he was a convinced Protestant and, as mentioned, the uncle of Susanna de Critz, Marcus Gheeraerts’ second wife.
So, wherever the portrait was painted, it may well have been commissioned by Leicester and the figures in the background may depict him and two female members of his family, resident at Wanstead. This would arguably have been his wife Lettice and one of her daughters. Lettice had to vanish from the scene whenever Elizabeth visited one of Leicester’s houses (which she did with more frequency since the earl’s remarriage), and he constantly tried to work his wife’s rehabilitation, though unsuccessfully. Leicester and his wife would have welcomed every opportunity to make things appear “normal”. A state portrait of the queen with himself and his new family in the background in his new garden would be just fine.
As for peace, from the start of his mission in the Netherlands Leicester suspected double-dealing behind his back, and indeed the week he sailed Elizabeth and Cecil started secret peace talks with Spain. Still, Leicester was always prepared to initiate peace talks between the Dutch and Spain if Elizabeth wished him to do so, as during his last months in Holland she did. He had been a great skeptic during his earlier stay (“I would creep upon the ground as far as my hands and knees would bear me, to have a good peace for her majesty, but my care is to have a peace indeed, and not a show of it”2); but he also knew Elizabeth and acknowledged her peaceful inclinations: The irony of the peace allegory in her portrait would not have been lost on Leicester.
Next to the sword of justice a lap-dog is seen in the picture, an animal occuring very rarely in depictions of Elizabeth, Federico Zuccaro’s masterful drawing of the queen in 1575 being the only other coming to mind. This sketch is known to have been commissioned by Leicester, alongside a companion piece of his own figure in tilting armour. Both drawings, taken from life, were the basis for portraits in oil, now lost, but exhibited at the earl’s grand festivities at Kenilworth in 1575.
A little dog in a painting commissioned by Robert Dudley would certainly make sense. It might have alluded to an incident between the queen and Leicester, witnessed by the French ambassador de Foix in 1566: Catherine de Medici had heard that the English earl would like to make a voyage through France, and since she hoped for his support in thwarting a Habsburg match for Elizabeth she sent him a gracious invitation. De Foix delivered the letter in Elizabeth’s presence, assuming she knew about Leicester’s travelling wishes. Of course, Leicester had not dared to tell her, nor was Elizabeth thrilled at the prospect of having to forbear his company. Her reply to her favourite was sharp: “I cannot live without seeing you every day. You are like my little dog. As soon as he is seen anywhere, people know that I am coming, and when you are seen, they say I am not far off.”3
1 Bolland and Cooper 2014 pp. 149 – 151
2 Leycester Correspondence p. 253
3 Jenkins 2002 p. 129
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.
Bolland, Charlotte and Cooper, Tarnya (2014): The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered. National Portrait Gallery.
Haynes, Alan (1987): The White Bear: The Elizabethan Earl of Leicester. Peter Owen.
Hearn, Karen (ed.) (1995): Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530–1630. Rizzoli.
Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.
Morris, R. K. (2010): Kenilworth Castle. English Heritage.
Strong, R. C. and van Dorsten, J. A. (1964): Leicester’s Triumph. Oxford University Press.
Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.