Ela of Salisbury, ‘the venerable Ela’

By Expert Contributor, Sharon Bennett Connolly

While writing Ladies of Magna Carta I came across the stories of many incredible women, one of the most remarkable was Ela of Salisbury, an heiress who was countess in her own right, was only the second ever female sheriff in England, and a respected abbess who once founded two religious houses in one day!

Ela was born at Amesbury in Wiltshire in 1187. She was the only surviving child – and sole heir – of William FitzPatrick, earl of Salisbury, and his wife, Eleanor de Vitré. Her father was a descendant of Walter, an ally of William the Conqueror, who had rewarded his support at Hastings with great estates which eventually passed to Ela. Her grandfather, Patrick of Salisbury, was killed by the dastardly Lusignans in an ambush from which Eleanor of Aquitaine barely escaped and which saw Patrick’s young nephew, the famous William Marshal, captured.

When her father died in 1196, Ela became Countess of Salisbury in her own right, and the most prized heiress in England. There is a story that little Ela, only 9 years old at the time of her father’s death, was kidnapped by her uncle and hidden away in a castle in Normandy; in order that he could gain control of the vast Salisbury inheritance. Another theory suggests the kidnapping was instigated by Ela’s own mother, to prevent the young heiress being married off to an unscrupulous lord who wanted her only for her lands. The tale goes, that an English knight, named William Talbot, toured the Norman castles in search of poor Ela, he would sing ballads beneath castle windows in the hope that the little Countess would hear him and join in with his singing. Whether a romantic legend or a true story, who can tell?

Whether she was rescued, or never kidnapped in the first place, we do not know. However, what we do know is that, on her father’s death, Ela’s wardship passed into the hands of the king himself, Richard I, the Lionheart. The king saw Ela as the opportunity to reward his loyal yet illegitimate, brother, William Longspée (or Longsword), by offering him her hand in marriage. The Salisbury lands and titles were certainly a suitable reward for a king’s brother, especially one born out of wedlock. At the time of his marriage to Ela, Longspée was in his early-to-mid-20’s, while his bride was not yet 10 years old, although she would not have been expected to consummate the marriage until she was reached 14 or 15.

William Longspée was the son of Henry II by Ida de Tosney, wife of Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, from a relationship she had with the king before her marriage. For many years, it was thought that Longspée was the son of a common harlot, named Ikenai, and a full brother of another of Henry’s illegitimate sons, Geoffrey, Archbishop of York. There were also theories that his mother was Rosamund Clifford, famed in ballads as ‘the Fair Rosamund’. However, Longspée himself has put it beyond doubt that his mother was, in fact, Ida de Tosney, with a charter in the cartulary of Bradenstoke Priory, made by William Longspée, in which he identifies his mother as the Countess Ida. This is supported by a prisoner roll from after the Battle of Bouvines, in which William Longspée is listed as the brother of Ralph Bigod.

Despite the misunderstandings over his mother, the identity of William Longspée’s father was never in doubt. He was Henry II’s son and served two of his half-brothers; Richard I and King John. William (I) Longspée had an impressive career during the reigns of his half-brothers; he served in Normandy with Richard between 1196 and 1198, and took part in John’s coronation in May 1199. In 1213 he destroyed the French fleet off the Flemish coast and in 1214 commanded an army in northern France for John. In July of the same year, he was captured at the Battle of Bouvines, after being clubbed on the head by the Bishop of Beauvais. Longspée was held for ransom and eventually exchanged, in March 1215, for Robert of Dreux, who had been held prisoner in England since being captured at Nantes in 1214.

Longspée returned to England shortly afterwards and was one of the signatories of Magna Carta in 1215. Longspée was still supporting John when Louis, the French Dauphin, invaded England and took London; however, after Winchester fell to the French, in June 1216, Longspée defected to the Dauphin. Less than 6  months after King John’s death in October 1216, Longspée came back into the royal fold, swearing loyalty to his 9-year-old nephew, King Henry III, in March 1217. He was part of William Marshal’s army at the Battle of Lincoln Fair, when Lincoln Castle and its formidable castellan, Nicholaa de la Haye, were finally relieved from a 3-month siege by the French under the Comte de Perche.

Although we know little-to-nothing of Longspée and Ela’s married life, it appears to have been happy. The couple had at least 8 children together, if not more; at least 4 boys and 4 girls survived to adulthood. Of their younger boys, Richard became a canon at the newly built Salisbury Cathedral, while Nicholas eventually rose to be Bishop of Salisbury; Stephen became Seneschal of Gascony and Justiciar of Ireland. The oldest son, William (II) Longspée, 4th Earl of Salisbury, was married to Idonea, granddaughter and sole heiress of the formidable Nicholaa de la Haye, who held Lincoln Castle against the French in 1217. Longspée and Nicholaa de la Haye would spend several years in legal disputes over the inheritance of Nicholaa’s Lincolnshire holdings.

William (II) Longspée went on Crusade with Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in 1240-1 and later led the English contingent in the Seventh Crusade, led by Louis IX of France. His company formed part of the doomed vanguard, which was overwhelmed at Mansourah in Egypt, on 8th February 1250. William’s body was buried in Acre, but his effigy lies atop an empty tomb in Salisbury Cathedral. His mother is said to have experienced a vision of her son’s last moments at the time of his death.

Of the couple’s 4 daughters, Petronilla died unmarried, possibly having become a nun. Isabella married William de Vescy, Lord of Alnwick and had children before her death in 1244. Named after her mother, Ela married, firstly Thomas de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick and, secondly, Phillip Basset; sadly, she had no children by either husband. A fourth daughter, Ida, married Walter FitzRobert; her second marriage was to William de Beauchamp, Baron Bedford, by whom she had 6 children.

As a couple, William Longspée and Ela were great patrons of the church, laying the 4th and 5th foundation stones, respectively, for the new Salisbury Cathedral in 1220. In 1225 Longspée was shipwrecked off the coast of Brittany and a rumour spread that he was dead. While he spent months recovering at an island monastery in France, Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent and husband of Isabel of Gloucester, proposed a marriage between Ela and his nephew, Reimund. Ela, however, would not even consider it, insisting that she knew William was alive and that, even were he dead, she would never consider marrying so far below her status, a right enshrined in clause 6 of Magna Carta; ‘Heirs shall be given in marriage without disparagement…’. It has been suggested that Ela used the clause 8 of Magna Carta to support her rejection of the offer; “No widow is to be distrained to marry while she wishes to live without a husband…”

As it turned out, William Longspée was still alive and eventually returned to his wife. However, he never seems to have recovered fully from his injuries and died at the royal castle at Salisbury shortly after his return home, on 7 March 1226. He was buried in a splendid tomb in Salisbury Cathedral.

Ela did not marry again. On her husband’s death, she was forced to relinquish her custody of Salisbury Castle (although she did eventually buy it back), but was allowed to take over her husband’s role as Sheriff of Wiltshire, which he had held 3 times, holding the office continuously from 1213 until his death in 1226. Ela acted as Sheriff until 1228. She was known as a great patron of religious houses; she and her husband had co-founded Salisbury Cathedral and Ela herself founded 2 Augustinian religious houses. She managed to lay the foundation stones of both, at Hinton and Lacock, 16 miles apart, on the same day. The abbey at Hinton, Somerset, was endowed for monks, in memory of her husband, after they had found the original house at Hathorp, founded by Longspée, unsuitable.

Lacock Abbey

Lacock Priory was established in 1230 as a house for Augustinian canonesses at the village of Lacock in Wiltshire. Ela herself entered this priory in 1237 and became the first abbess when it was upgraded to an Abbey in 1239. As abbess, Ela was able to secure many rights and privileges for the abbey and its village. She obtained a copy of the 1225 issue of Magna Carta, which had been given to her husband for him to distribute around Wiltshire. She held the position of abbess for 20 years, resigning in 1259; she remained at the abbey, however, and died there on 24 August 1261.

Ela of Salisbury outlived both her eldest son and grandson. She was succeeded as Countess of Salisbury by her great-granddaughter, Margaret, who was the daughter of William (III) Longspée.

Salisbury Cathedral

Ela, 3rd Countess of Salisbury, was described in the Register of St Osmund as ‘a woman indeed worthy of praise because she was filled with the fear of the Lord.’1 Linda Elizabeth Mitchell describes her as ‘one of the two towering female figures of the mid-thirteenth century.’2 Ela was not buried alongside her husband in Salisbury Cathedral, but within the Abbey that she had founded and ruled – and had called her home for the last 24 years of her life. Her tombstone demonstrates the high esteem in which she was held and records the words; ‘Below lie buried the bones of the venerable Ela, who gave this sacred house as a home for the nuns. She also had lived her as holy abbess and Countess of Salisbury, full of good works.’3


1Ela, suo jure Countess of Salisbury, Jennifer C WardOxforddnb.com, October 2009

2Ela, Countess of Salisbury, medievalwomen.org

3Ela of Salisbury stanfordmagnacarta.worpress.com

Author bio:

Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – http://www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated, concentrating on medieval women. Her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, released in May 2020, is her third non-fiction book. She is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?

Blog: https://historytheinterestingbits.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Thehistorybits/

Twitter: @Thehistorybits

Amazon: viewauthor.at/SharonBennettConnolly

#MistressMondays Presents: Harriette Wilson

“Be careful, I’ll put you in my memoir.”

~Harriette Wilson, probably

Lovers of history and juicy scandals, celebrate! The inaugural #MistressMonday has arrived and we are starting off with a BANG! This series will discuss the women (and sometimes men) who have made their mark on history by playing it smart on the streets and in the sheets. From medieval side chicks whose children later founded dynasties, to women who gained unprecedented political power as a result of wild love affairs, no stone will go unturned. You know them, you love them…and so do I.

Our first famous mistress may be unfamiliar to you but her level of petty was so epic, she deserves our attention! London-born Harriette Wilson was born in 1786 to a clock-maker and his wife who ran a strict, conservative household and a little shop in Mayfair. At the age of fifteen, Harriette saw a chance to escape her overbearing parents and took her first lover, William the 1st Earl of Craven. They moved to Brighton where Lord Craven spent his time painting pictures of cocoa trees, sailing boats, and apparently wore a quaint but “ugly” cotton nightcap – an accessory his young, rebellious mistress found disenchanting. It’s hard to believe any teenager would be interested in any of those activities and by Harriette’s own admission her new life was a “dead bore.” Thankfully, it took no time at all for Harriette to realize Lord Craven wasn’t the only man who found her irresistibly beautiful.

The Lord’s small, but elite group of friends would shamelessly flirt with Harriette, some even begged her to leave her Lord and become their mistress—so relatable, right? Eventually, the adoration and attention went to Harriette’s head and she wondered if Lords and Dukes were really the best she could get. With the gumption of a headstrong teen dying to test the limits of her wiles, Harriette composed a letter to the Prince of Wales (later King George IV). It read:

“I am told that I am very beautiful, so perhaps you would like to see me… so, if you pity me, and believe you could make me in love with you, write to me…”

When the Prince replied he would very much like to have an “interview” with Harriette at his London residence, she responded that she was too beautiful to travel to see him when plenty of suitors would come to her. She then presented the Prince with a challenge:

“So, if you can do anything better in the way of pleasing a lady than ordinary men, write directly: if not, adieu, Monsieur le Prince.”

Are you obsessed yet? This Regency-era thirst trap was just the beginning of Harriette Wilson’s whirlwind career as a mistress to Britain’s elite men that spanned nearly 20 years! The Prince of Wales is never identified as one of Harriette’s intimate affairs but her later, more public affairs were with highly ranked politicians and military-men such as George Campbell the 6th Duke of Argyle and Arthur Wellesley the 1st Duke of Wellington. In the instances of her later affairs, her role as a mistress was in a more official capacity, meaning there were elements of privacy and even financial arrangements associated with her role as “mistress.”

  Harriette added one powerful name after another to her “list” and it was clear she had a good mind for securing financial support from her lovers-turned-exes. When her high-profile affairs ended, she secured gifts and financial contributions in exchange for her silence on matters of romance. However, when her efforts to blackmail eventually failed and her lovers refused to pay her, Harriette did what any scorned woman would do; she wrote her memoirs. Tired of dealing with his former mistress, Arthur Wellesley 1st Duke of Wellington famously exclaimed, “Publish and be damn’d!” when he learned Harriette planned to put their secrets in print.

The stories of Harriette’s affairs, glamorous friendships, and letters to and from Regency-era elites filled two volumes and were published in 1825. The memoirs were scandalous, to say the least, and readers went wild for the book. Print copies were in such high demand that the volumes required 30 editions in the first year of print and were illegally copied and sold by other publishers eager to cash in on Harriette’s tell-all. Her ability to recall conversations with such precision brought her stories to life. Harriette was clearly pleased with herself and took joy in recounting affairs and conversations centered on her beauty and wit.

Ultimately, Harriette got the last laugh when she married a man by the name of Colonel Rochfort and moved to Paris, leaving the destruction of her social bombshell behind for all her lovers to sort out. Not much is known about Harriette’s private life after 1825 but, at some point, she returned to London where she died in 1849. Here’s to hoping she died on a big, warm pile of money- you go, girl!

Christine Morgan for History Lair

All quotes are sourced from the free, digitized version of The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson

**Know of a mistress who should be featured on #MistressMonday? Let us know in the comments below or by messaging Christine directly on Twitter: @mschristinemo or on Instagram: @mschristinemo

Two Abbesses, Two Synods: The Story of Hild and Ælfflæd.

Here at HISTORY LAIR we are super excited to host our very first Book Tour! Today we introduce to you an amazing new book by our very own Expert Contributor, Annie Whitehead, and it’s called Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Here is a wonderful article by Annie to give you a brief glimpse into the world of her book. Annie’s book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was published by Pen & Sword Books in June 2020. It can be purchased from P&S (https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Women-of-Power-in-Anglo-Saxon-England-Hardback/p/17769) and online (http://mybook.to/WomeninPower) Annie is an author and historian and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society and has won awards and prizes for her fiction and nonfiction. Let’s turn it over to Annie to tell us more! —

Written by Annie Whitehead The oft-quoted ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ seems to suggest that in such an establishment there will be piety, chastity, and quiet contemplation. All these are true, but perhaps our idea of a nunnery is of a slightly austere building or buildings, where holy sisters spend their days in prayer and hard work. This is also true, but in the seventh century there was much more going on at the nunneries than one might imagine.

In fact, at first glance, it seems to have been very different indeed. An Irish abbot of Iona visited Coldingham Abbey where, according to Bede, he found the members of the community, men and women alike, sunk in slothful slumbers or else ‘they remained awake for the purposes of sin. The cells which were built for praying and for reading were haunts of feasting, drinking, gossip, and other delights; even the virgins who were dedicated to God put aside all respect for their profession and, whenever they had leisure, spent their time weaving elaborate garments with which to adorn themselves as if they were brides.’ Gosh!

Hilda of Whitby

Perhaps it should first be explained that there was nothing unusual about there being men and women at Coldingham as it was one of a number of ‘Double Houses’. Contact between the two sexes in the double monasteries probably varied widely. We know, for example, that the two houses at Wimborne in Dorset were separated by high walls, while at Coldingham, it seems, conditions were relaxed to the point where it created scandal. Evidence suggests that at Whitby, there was a ‘bigger minster’ with other buildings and outlying areas which might equate to the later granges. It is probable that in fact the earlier princess-abbesses all ruled double houses, rather than all-female communities.

And princess-abbesses is almost exclusively what they were. Abbesses were royal, they were powerful, and they were influential. Two in particular attended major synods and influenced policy. They were related, too, and were members of the ruling house of Northumbria.

One of the most famous, and indeed one of the earliest, of those abbesses was Hild. Whitby was her monastery, and it was into her care that the infant Ælfflæd, daughter of King Oswiu and his wife, Eanflæd, was given when she was promised to the Church after a major battle in which her father was victorious.

Hild’s mother was said to have had a dream in which she was searching for her missing husband, but could find no trace of him. In the middle of her search, however, she found a necklace under her garment and, as she looked at it, the necklace spread a blaze of light and the dream, Bede concluded, ‘was truly fulfilled in her daughter Hild; for her life was an example of the works of light, blessed not only to herself but to many who desired to live uprightly.’


Hild’s path to the religious life was originally to have taken her abroad, where her sister had gone to be a nun, but she was persuaded by Bishop Aidan to found the monastery at Hartlepool. In this she broke the tradition of English noblewomen going abroad to fulfil their religious vocations. It was at Hartlepool that she took custody of the infant Ælfflæd, but two years later Hild founded the monastery of Streaneshealh on land which King Oswiu had gifted to the Church. It has usually been identified as Whitby.

We learn much about Hild from Bede, including the fact that she was so beloved by all that they called her ‘mother’, but not whether she was ever married before taking the veil. He says that she was thirty-three when she became a nun. He does not call her a virgin, but then neither does he tell us of any husband. What we are told, however, is that she was highly educated and influential. No fewer than five future bishops are said to have been educated by her and the likelihood is that she assembled a vast library at Whitby. Styli and book-clasps found during excavations show that a great deal of writing was undertaken there. Excavation at Whitby also revealed that far from being a small site, consisting of a few cells, it was in fact a major settlement and it was the venue for the synod in 664 which decided once and for all which of the Christian traditions would take precedence and settled the calculation method for the date of Easter.

Whitby Abbey #1 by David Satterthwaite

The synod was convened and presided over by King Oswiu. Also in the Roman camp were Wilfrid, the bishop who had been sponsored by Queen Eanflæd and educated by Hild, and Queen Eanflæd, who sent her chaplain, Romanus, as her representative. Oddly, Hild was in the other camp, along with Colman, the bishop of Lindisfarne, despite her having been brought up in the Roman tradition, and she was particularly hostile towards Bishop Wilfrid, apparently attacking him with ‘venomous hatred’. There might, of course, have been some personal animosity which went unrecorded. Wilfrid certainly had the ability to rub people up the wrong way.

Hild survived for many years after the synod but was struck down ten years later by the illness which eventually killed her. Bede tells us that she died at the age of sixty-six – having been in pain for several years – so she spent exactly half her life as a nun.

She was also known for her encouragement of Cædmon the poet. Despite having received no formal training he was able to compose religious songs and poems. One night while he was tending the cattle he dreamed that someone was standing by him, telling him to sing, which he did, in praise of God. The next day he told his master the reeve of the gift he had received, and together they went to Abbess Hild who received him into the holy community. In the earliest days of the conversion process it is perhaps astonishing that it was Hild, a woman, who was responsible for the education of bishops. Her sympathetic encouragement of Cædmon and her reputation as ‘mother’ to all who knew her reveal a learned yet gentle woman. Her attendance at the synod of Whitby, however, shows a woman also of determination.

Ælfflæd, like her predecessor and relative Hild – they were second cousins – was also a powerful abbess and politically influential too.

Ælfflæd had been entrusted to Hild’s care when she was still a tiny infant, moving with her from Hartlepool to Whitby. By the time she succeeded as abbess, her brother Ecgfrith was king of Northumbria.

We know that she was an educated woman. A letter survives in which she wrote to the abbess of the monastery at Pfalzel near Trier in Germany commending a nun who was on pilgrimage with the words, ‘We commend to your highest holiness and customary piety, strenuously with all diligence, N, the devoted handmaid of God and religious abbess’, evidence that she was competent in Latin and that she had contacts on the Continent.

Ælfflæd also had close associations with St Cuthbert. Bede relates how she was seriously ill and at the point of death. ‘How I wish I had something belonging to my dear Cuthbert’ she said, believing that she would then be healed. Not long afterwards, someone arrived with a linen cincture (girdle) sent by Cuthbert. She wore it and, two days later, she was completely well.

In 684 she summoned Cuthbert to discuss the possibility of his becoming a bishop. At the meeting she asked him how long her childless brother, Ecgfrith, would remain on the throne, and who should rule after him. Cuthbert replied that she knew the identity of his successor who lived over the sea on an island. She realised that he was referring to Aldfrith, her illegitimate half-brother. The following year, in 685, Ecgfrith died and was indeed succeeded by Aldfrith.

At first glance it seems hard to argue that Ælfflæd was in any way flexing her political muscles here, because it was she who asked Cuthbert about the succession, and it was Cuthbert who hinted at Aldfrith’s name. However, it has been argued that in asking the question, the abbess was testing Cuthbert’s loyalty to her family. She certainly had political ‘clout’: after the battle at Nechtanesmere in which Ecgfrith was defeated by the Picts, the former bishop of the Picts, Trumwine, was expelled and lived under Ælfflæd’s command at Whitby. Cuthbert remained a friend and, sensing that his end was near, he made a tour of his diocese and visited ‘that most noble and holy virgin Ælfflæd’.

Like Hild before her, she had been hostile to Bishop Wilfrid and her influence was such that when Aldfrith also fell out with Wilfrid, the archbishop of Canterbury, a champion of Wilfrid’s, urged peace to be made between the two men, and wrote not only to the king, but to the abbess, too.

Her influence was felt at the end of Aldfrith’s reign, too. Aldfrith’s son and eventual successor, Osred, was only about eight years old when his father died. Aldfrith was initially succeeded by a man named Eadwulf who, according to one chronicler, ‘plotted to obtain the kingship.’

In 705 at the synod of the River Nidd, Ælfflæd’s testimony was of paramount importance. At the synod Ælfflæd, having clearly had a change of heart about Wilfrid, testified in his favour, saying that on his deathbed, Aldfrith had urged that his successor should come to terms with Wilfrid. An agreement was reached, with the archbishop giving his advice while ‘Abbess Ælfflæd gave them hers.’

Whilst the main focus of the synod was the settling of the affairs of Wilfrid, the author of the Life of Wilfrid said that Osred was able to rule because of the support of, inter alia, Abbess Ælfflæd. It is clear that she was in a position of huge influence and her presence at Aldfrith’s deathbed indicates a strong relationship between the two members of the royal family. She is mentioned in both the Lives of Cuthbert and Wilfrid, but obviously had secular as well as religious power.

Generally, the abbesses began to lose something of their power and status with the decline of the double houses. The last specific reference to such an establishment was in a letter of 796 and monasteries gradually began to be ruled by priests. Possibly it was the priests attached to the monasteries who had greater direct roles in pastoral care. Later abbesses came into direct conflict with the Church which sought to lessen their wealth and influence. But it should not be forgotten that in the early days, it was women who were entrusted with managing these huge estates and who were responsible for the spiritual welfare of their human flocks. — Annie Whitehead Author Bio: Annie’s book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was published by Pen & Sword Books in June 2020. It can be purchased from P&S (https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Women-of-Power-in-Anglo-Saxon-England-Hardback/p/17769) and online (http://mybook.to/WomeninPower) Annie is an author and historian and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society and has won awards and prizes for her fiction and nonfiction. Published works include Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) and novels and stories set in Anglo-Saxon England, including To Be A Queen, the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, longlisted for HNS Book of the Year 2016. She was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition in 2017. You can connect with Annie through her Website (https://anniewhiteheadauthor.co.uk/) on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/anniewhiteheadauthor/), Twitter (https://twitter.com/AnnieWHistory) and on her Blog (https://anniewhitehead2.blogspot.com/) and Amazon Author Page (http://viewauthor.at/Annie-Whitehead)

Philippa of Hainault

by Heather R. Darsie

Please note this article originally appeared on MaidensAndManuscripts.com.

Philippa Avesnes von Hennegau und Holland, or Philippa of Hainault as she is known to English speakers, was Queen Consort of England from 24 January 1328 to 15 August 1369. It is speculated that she was born on 24 June sometime between 1310 and 1315. Her exact date of birth is unknown, though some estimates put her year of birth as 1313. She was the third of nine children and third daughter born to William I, Count of Hainault and Joan of Valois. Only six of the couple’s children lived past the age of three years.

Hainault itself was a very rich area.  Hainault and the areas controlled by her family in the Low Countries rapidly developed into trade centers during Philippa’s lifetime, making her a bride who would bring a lot of money to any marriage. Philippa had a taste for the exotic fabrics and foods which past through her parents’ court.

Coronation of Philippa of Hainault.

Philippa grew up in Salle-le-Comte and Beaumont, where her mother Jeanne Valois introduced Philippa and the court to French literature. Philippa was described as being, “sensibly brought up by her mother.” Philippa possibly had instruction about numbers, or at least was gifted with a good head for numbers. Philippa’s relatives favored both romances and illuminated books. Philippa gifted Edward with a book for their betrothal, which featured an assortment of texts in French and Latin. As queen, Philippa hired an illuminator. Philippa owned a couple illuminated psalters. As a couple, Philippa and Edward had upwards of 160 books between them. Queen’s College, Oxford is named in honor of Philippa and was founded in 1341.

Philippa married Edward III of England at York Minster on 30 January 1328, when she was fifteen to eighteen years old. Edward was born in 1312, making him close in age to Philippa. Her arrival and wedding were overshadowed by the death and funeral of Edward II, who was buried a mere four days before Philippa set foot in England. The building in which her wedding took place was leaking, too. As Queen Consort of England, Philippa was described by her personal secretary Jean Froissart as being of, “..a very good and charming person who exceeded most ladies for sweetness of nature and virtuous disposition” and a, “…most gentle Queen, most liberal, and most courteous that ever was Queen in her days.” Philippa gave birth to a heroic number of children, thirteen in all, between 1330 and 1355, when Philippa was forty to forty-five years old.

Edward III in the Bruges Garter Book, ordered by William Bruges (1327-1377), Garter King of Arms, via Wikimedia Commons.

Eight of those children survived to adulthood and married. These included her oldest son and oldest child, Edward, who was known as the Black Prince. He was born in 1330 and died in 1376. Edward’s son became Richard II of England. Her other well-known son was John of Gaunt, whose son became Henry IV of England.

The Black Prince in the Bruges Garter Book, via Wikimedia Commons.

The first few years of Philippa’s time in England were largely spent under the thumb of her mother-in-law, Isabella. Her coronation was delayed by several years, largely due to Isabella not wanting to give up control. During that time, Philippa gave birth to several of her children and developed her characteristic figure, which is depicted both in Philippa’s effigy in Westminster and in the Black Book of the Garter, commissioned by Henry VIII in 1534. Lucas Horenbolte was the illuminator, and he likely used the effigies of both Philippa and Edward as models when creating the full role of Knights of the Garter from its inception between 1344 and 1348, and during the reign of Henry VII.

Edward III’s and Philippa of Hainault’s effigies in Westminster (L) and an illumination of Philippa as Lady of the Garter in the Black Book of the Garter (R).

Philippa gave birth to most of her children during the years of 1332 to 1337, at a time when Edward III was at odds with his brother-in-law, King David of Scotland. Philippa accompanied her husband in 1332 when he went to face the Scots. During this time, Philippa’s lodging was attacked. She was later rescued by Edward.

Philippa took great interest in managing her accounts and lands efficiently. To that end, she was not afraid to go after those illegal hunting or felling trees on her lands. She launched a series of lawsuits to recover the value of these offenses in 1337 and 1347. She was known to collect rents on her lands promptly. The queen was constantly short of money during her reign because of her contributions to Edward, who himself was in great debt from the run-up to the Hundred Years War. The situation was so desperate that Edward  pawned his crown whilst Philippa’s was held as security for 5,500 florins by a Cologne merchant.

Philippa also found herself caught up in an international struggle with her sisters over who had right to her parents’ lands in Hainault, a result of the recent Salic Law which only allowed males to inherit. During a visit by the English royal family to the Continent, the French attempted to seize Hainault in 1340, but were thwarted by the English; a truce was established nine months later. Philippa spent most of the 1340s travelling about England, and to France and other areas on the Continent. She worked hard to secure advantageous matches for her daughters. Philippa acted as regent in 1346 whilst Edward III was fighting on the Continent, and famously intervened on behalf of six Burghers of Calais in 1347. Edward besieged Calais for eleven months but the French king refused to give in, leading to starvation in Calais. Edward stated he would stop his siege if six burghers would give themselves up, with execution to follow. The pregnant Philippa intervened, worried that it would be an evil omen for Edward to execute innocent men whilst she was with child. Edward spared the burghers. Sadly, Philippa’s infant and two of his siblings died of the Black Plague in 1348.

Sculpture of the Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin; image via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1350, Philippa watched as her oldest son Edward, the Black Prince besieged the Spanish in a naval attack to reclaim ships which the Spaniards took earlier. Philippa and her ladies were staying at a convent in Winchelsea, where they had full view of the battle. The Black Prince was aboard a galleon called the Cog Thomas. During the vicious fight, several ships were broadsided and the Cog Thomas sank, but not before the Black Prince made a daring escape. Philippa watched as the Black Prince’s household galley, La Salle du Roi, was almost overtaken by a Spanish vessel before a Flemish squire who had sneaked aboard the enemy ship cut the Spanish ship’s rigging, allowing La Salle du Roi to sail away safely.

Philippa had her last child in 1355. She named this child Thomas. Two years after his birth, Philippa, now in her forties, dislocated her shoulder. Beyond that and the strain of numerous child births, Philippa was rather healthy and active until she suffered from dropsy in 1367. She fell ill at some point in 1369, and succumbed to her illness and fatigue on 15 August 1369. Her husband Edward and youngest on Thomas were with Philippa at Windsor when she passed away.

Philippa’s secretary, Jean Froissart, outlived her and gave the following lengthy description of her death and reactions of her loved ones:

“When the good Lady perceived her end approaching, she called to the King and extending her hand from under the bedclothes, put it into the right hand of the King, who was very sorrowful at heart, and thus spoke. ‘We have enjoyed our union in happiness, peace, and prosperity , I entreat therefore of you on our separation that you will grant me three requests.’ The King with sighs and tears replied, ‘My Lady ask, whatever you request shall be granted.’ ‘My Lord, I beg you will acquit me of whatever engagements I have entered into with merchants for their wares as well on this as on the other side of the sea. I beseech you also to fulfil whatever gifts or legacies I may have left to churches here or on the continent where I have paid my devotions as well as what I may have left to those of both sexes who have been in my service. Thirdly, I entreat that when it shall please God to call you hence you will not choose any other sepulcher than mine and will lie by my side in the sepulcher in Westminster.’ The good King in tears replied, ‘Lady, I grant them!’ Soon after the good Lady made the sign of the Cross on her breast and having recommended to God the King and her youngest son Thomas, who was present, gave up her spirit, which I firmly believe was caught by the Holy Angels and carried to glory in Heaven, for she had never done anything by thought or deed which could endanger her losing it.”

So ended the interesting life of Philippa of Hainault, who was buried on 9 January 1370.

Love learning about the Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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Heather R Darsie

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Heather R Darsie focuses on Medieval and Early Modern history, particularly Germany under Charles V. She is the author of “Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister” and her second book is set for release next year.

Website: MaidensandManuscripts.com


Written by Expert Contributor, Dr Linda Porter

Less familiar than the fall of the Bastille and the coup against Robespierre on 9th Thermidor, Year II (26 July, 1794), the Revolution of August 10,1792 was, nevertheless, a pivotal point in the French Revolution.  From that date onwards Louis XVI and his family, Marie Antoinette, their children, Marie-Thérèse and Louis Charles and the king’s sister, Madame Élisabeth, were effectively prisoners, though their formal incarceration did not begin for several days.  The hawkish government of the Girondin faction, which had rashly gone to war with Austria and Prussia (though not, at this stage, Great Britain) was in disarray and the Legislative Assembly, the seat of French government, which they had tried to dominate, was falling apart.

None of this could have been unexpected.  It had been a long summer of rising discontent and fear, not just in Paris but throughout France, as the threat of foreign invasion came ever closer.  Could the king and his ministers have averted the bloody outcome of the attack on the Tuileries Palace on 10 August and salvaged the constitution of 1791, which Louis XVI had unenthusiastically accepted?  The answer, given the king’s own view of his role, as well as the confusion of his advisers in the face of growing opposition from a determined, vocal minority of deputies soon to be known as the Mountain because of where they sat in the Assembly, is almost certainly no.  Yet the extent of bloodshed on 10th August might certainly have been minimised if Louis had acted with more firmness.  Decisiveness, however, had never been his strong point, as his increasingly desperate wife knew only too well.

The first serious sign of the violence that would follow occurred when an angry crowd of Parisians invaded the Tuileries at four in the afternoon of 20 June.  This act did not come out of the blue.  Tension between the king and his Girondin ministers had been growing since he was pushed by them into declaring war on the Austrians on 20 April.  He had reluctantly appeared in the Legislative Assembly to declare war on his wife’s homeland in ‘a flat, faltering voice.’

 The early months of the war were disastrous for France as its ill-disciplined soldiers, led by generals whose commitment was ambiguous, failed miserably against the oncoming Austrian forces on the Belgian border.  General Dillon was murdered by his troops in Lille and Lafayette, the hero of the American Revolution, compelled to retreat.  Panic seized Paris as a decree on 18 May placed all foreigners under surveillance.  Blaming failure on a supposed ‘Austrian Committee’ at the Tuileries (a scarcely-veiled threat against Marie Antoinette), the Girondins propelled the king towards the edge of a precipice of their own making by further decrees against refractory clergy (those who had refused to take the oath to the 1791 constitution), disbanding his personal guard and bringing up from the provinces 20,000 National Guards who would be camped outside Paris to celebrate the feast of the Federation on 14 July.  Conspicuous among these were the Marseillais, who had marched north singing the famous song that bears their name and is still the national anthem of France, though it was actually composed by Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg.

Backed into a corner, the king showed some spirit by informing his ministers that he would veto both decrees.  This was the confrontation the Girondins had wanted, and three ministers, Roland, Servan and Clavière resigned, forcing a political crisis that was intensified by the reception of a letter from Lafayette demanding that the political clubs of Paris, regarded as the fomenters of discontent in the capital, be suppressed.  He also laid out his case for the king’s tattered authority to be restored.  Despite the support of a substantial number of deputies in the Assembly, his intervention merely served to enflame an already volatile situation.  Would Lafayette, once so admired, lead a royalist coup d’état that would undo the Revolution?  So the Girondins and many in Paris feared.  Their response was a calculated escalation of tension.  They would organise a mass demonstration for 20 June.

The invasion of the Tuileries on that day was a dress rehearsal for what took place on August 10, though the politicians who hoped to turn it to their advantage would find that unleashing the crowd set a very dangerous precedent, one that would turn disastrously against them as the year 1792 wore on and others, more adept at manipulating public opinion, began to use it to even more disruptive effect.  The intention was certainly to create sufficient disorder to bring ditherers in the Assembly to heel and ensure that royal power was effectively at an end.  This did not mean, however, that the Girondins were plotting to be rid of the monarchy altogether; they just did not want a king who interfered with their programme.

This Louis XVI knew perfectly well.  A sensitive and intelligent man, he feared the worse, telling his confessor the previous day: ‘I have finished with men; I look to Heaven. Great misfortunes are expected tomorrow; I shall have courage.’  Often racked with depression, which merely added to his inability to make timely decisions, he did indeed behave with remarkable courage and equanimity when a furious mob, unhindered by the National Guard, broke into the palace with a cannon in tow.  Having rampaged through the upper rooms, they found the king unguarded momentarily, with only his sister, Madame Elisabeth, to defend him by throwing herself across his body.  Since they were both considerably overweight this must have been something of an achievement.  The queen and her children, meanwhile, had taken refuge behind a barricade of upturned furniture hastily erected by a few loyal courtiers and a handful of grenadiers who had remained to defend the king.

Louis was the main target of the mob and he and his family were faced with a torrent of abuse with just a table separating them from the invaders.  Unperturbed, he put on the red cap of liberty pushed towards him at the end of a pike, drank the nation’s health as demanded, but calmly refused to withdraw his vetos or reappoint his ministers.  This stand-off continued until six in the evening until the mayor of Paris, Jerome Pétion, a Girondin ally, felt it might behove him to put in an appearance.  He affected astonishment and claimed he had only just been informed of the king’s situation.  Louis replied, with admirable restraint: ‘That is very surprising, since this has been going on for at least two hours.’  Seven weeks later, in an even more deadly situation, Pétion would quietly slip away from the Tuileries palace on the night of August 9-10, leaving the royal family in the lurch once again.  On this occasion, he remained and the fury of the mob began to dissipate.  By eight o’clock, they had drifted away, leaving the royal family to fester in a palace they had always disliked as the heat of the Parisian summer grew.


Any citizens of Paris who had gone to bed early on the oppressively sultry night of 9-10 August, 1792 would have been woken before midnight by the tocsin – the ringing of bells in the churches – and commotion in the streets.  Jean-Baptiste Cléry, valet to the king’s eight-year-old son, had been out in the city in the evening and gave his own account of the first phase of the uprising: ‘At about 11pm I returned to the palace by the king’s apartments…I passed to the dauphin’s room , which I had scarcely entered when I heard the tocsin ringing and drums beating to arms in every quarter of the town.’  Little Louis Charles was sound asleep but most other residents of the palace were still up and about, unable to rest because of the heat and a growing sense of concern.  A number of local politicians and government ministers were in the Tuileries with Louis XVI, including Pétion, the mayor, and Pierre-Louis Roederer, the procureur, or chief lawyer, of the departement of Paris.  Their presence and the fact that the palace was not ill-prepared to counter an attack, (there were around 4000 defenders) meant that the situation was not yet hopeless.  But the sense of dread inside the Tuileries was palpable.  Pétion had already proved himself unreliable back in June and he had recently presented a petition to the Assembly calling for a decision to be made on whether the king should be deposed.  Louis XVI slept briefly while the queen and her sister-in-law, surrounded by their anxious ladies, tried in vain to get some rest on sofas rather than retiring to their own apartments.  By four in the morning they had given up, and while the king was still absent, preferring to pray with his confessor, Madame Élisabeth called the queen to the windows to see the first signs of dawn in the sky.  The dramatic claims of some writers that this was the last time Marie Antoinette would see the sun are unlikely to be true.  The royal family were allowed outside for exercise during their subsequent imprisonment.  It was, though, very likely that she never saw the sun rise again.


Outside the situation was becoming more threatening by the hour and the queen was left to take counsel with the politicians as to how best to deal with it.  By now a new Commune, the municipal body of Paris, had taken over during the night and its leaders were far more determined than the dithering deputies in the Assembly, or the confused and disheartened advisers in the Tuileries.  Their ire was aimed as much at the legislators whose self-serving squabbles had weakened France, leading to the imminent danger of an onslaught by the Prussian army under the duke of Brunswick, which had advanced to within 100 miles of Paris.  Well organised and with the support of a majority of citizens of varying social backgrounds in the capital, as well as the fédérés, the soldiers from all over France who had arrived outside Paris in recent weeks, a force of about 20,000 men was converging on the Tuileries.

At six in the morning, in an ill-conceived attempt to rally the palace’s defenders, the king went outside to address the troops who were to defend the exterior of the Tuileries.  This was a major error of judgement, for Louis was uniquely unsuited to such public performances and notably lacking in charisma.  Soon some members of the National Guard, whose loyalty was fraying, began to heckle the monarch.  ‘My God,’ exclaimed one of the ministers watching from inside the palace, ‘they are booing the king! What the devil is he doing down there.  Let’s go and fetch him quickly.’

Two and half hours later, with the Legislative Assembly already sitting in the nearby former riding-school, the Manège, and Pétion having conveniently slipped out of the palace during the hours of darkness, it fell to Roederer, a lawyer rather than politician, to take the lead in saving the royal family from being caught up in the violent assault on the palace that looked likely to come at any moment.  He advised that they should leave without any further delay and take refuge in the Assembly.  When Marie Antoinette, exhausted and frightened, but still more decisive than the king, challenged this judgement, Roederer told her bluntly that he could not answer for the safety of the royal family if they did not depart and that any harm that came to them if they stayed would be on her own head.  The queen coloured but did not demur.  Her cheeks were stained with tears and she knew that all was lost.


Accompanied by Roederer, the ministers who had remained, the queen’s lady-in-waiting, the Princesse de Lamballe and the children’s governess, Madame de Tourzel, protected by a small detachment of soldiers, the royal family made their way through the grounds of the Tuileries.  The heat and dryness of the summer had already brought down many of the leaves on the trees and the dauphin, too young to understand the enormity of what was happening, kicked up the piles of them as he went along.  ‘The leaves are falling early this year’, remarked the king., in his oddly detached manner.  It remains a powerful and touching metaphor for the condition of the Bourbon monarchy itself and for the demise of the defenders of the palace, many of whose lives might have been saved if the king had not first told them to fire on their attackers and then to desist, leaving them to be slaughtered by the furious invaders of the Tuileries, who believed they had been lured into a trap.  The Swiss Guard, in particular, having tried to defend the main staircase of the palace, were cut down as the withdrew through the gardens.  Only a handful got away.  A monument to their bravery can be seen in the Swiss city of Luzern, a fitting tribute to these little-known victims of the second revolution.

Inside the cramped box normally reserved for the press, the royal family sat through the continuous session of the floundering Legislative Assembly until two the next morning.  ‘ I have come here,’ said Louis XVI, ‘ in order to avoid a great crime that might be committed, and I believe myself in safety – I, my family and my children – when I am among the representatives of the Nation  I will stay here with my Ministers until calm is established.’  It soon became apparent that his confidence, if it was anything more than a front, was entirely misplaced.  Marie Antoinette had understood more clearly than her husband the implications of throwing herself on the mercy of a body whose authority lay in tatters.  The exhausted royal family were initially transferred to slightly larger but still restrictive accommodation in the nearby Convent of the Feuillants.  Having fled in only the clothes they stood up in, they were thankful to be supplied with fresh linen by the wife of the British ambassador.  On 13 August they were moved again to the former royal palace known as the Temple because it had once belonged to the Knights Templar.  Here, their incarceration would steadily become much grimmer.  From the whirlwind of revolutionary France that overtook them on that hot August night, only the king’s daughter, Marie Thérèse, would emerge alive.

Dr Linda Porter

Expert Contributor

I was born in Exeter, brought up in Kent and am a graduate of the University of York, from which I hold a BA and D. Phil in History. In a varied career, I have lived in Paris and New York, worked as a university lecturer and spent over twenty years in the corporate world. I’ve written five books, all published to critical acclaim. The latest, ‘Mistresses, sex and scandal at the court of Charles II’, came out in April 2020. My specialization is the 16th -18th centuries, with particular emphasis on the Tudors, the Stuarts and the French Revolution. I am a regular reviewer for the Literary Review and BBC History Magazine and have spoken at many literary festivals.

Sybil Ludington: The Female Paul Revere

Guest Article by Allison Ferguson

Thank you to Allison Ferguson for giving us our first article on USA history!

If one recalls memories of grade school the famous, yet wholly inaccurate, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, Paul Revere’s Ride comes to mind. Revere no doubt was a brave patriot, but what about the stories of lesser known patriots? The similar story of Sybil Ludington has been scarcely  told since she was honored for her ride in 1777.  This teenage girl braved the dangers of a rainy night in Revolutionary era America to gather the Kent and Patterson area militia in order to drive off British advances. Her valiant effort stirred the men of her fathers militia in time to defend the town.

Statue of Sybil Ludington by Anna Hyatt Huntington

Sybil Ludington was born in what was known in her time as Fredericksburg, New York in April 1761. Today it is known as Ludingtonville, a small section of Kent, New York. Born the eldest of twelve children to Colonel Henry Ludington and Abigail Knowles. Her father was a farmer and gristmill owner in addition to his impressive service in the Royal Army in the French and Indian War. In 1773, after over sixty years of faithful service, Henry Ludington left the Redcoats to become a patriot.

Colonel Ludington was a respected militia leader who commanded the 7th Regiment of the Dutchess County Milita and latter became an aide to none other than General George Washington. This regiment consisted of a volunteer basis from the local men. The area he controlled between Connecticut and the Long Island Sound was vulnerable to attack from the British.

On April 25, 1777, only 20 days after her 16th birthday, British General Tryon landed six warships and twenty transports in Fairfield, Connecticut. He had a force of 2000 men with him that he marched eight miles inland to camp before heading north the following day to Danbury.  General Tryon ordered his troops to search  Danbury for supply stores to the Continental Army. Before dusk set in that  very day several of these store houses of the Continental Army, and even three private homes, were engulfed in flames. Lost supplies included food such as flour, meat, sugar, molasses, coffee, rice, wheat, corn, and vast amounts of wine and rum. Medical supplies such as sick cots, tents, clothing, shoes, and assorted kitchen utensils. These storehouses were poorly guarded due to the recent move from Peekskill to Danbury and they were thought to be safe. Medication, fortunately, was stored out of town in New Milford, Connecticut, and managed to avoid the flames. Instead of destroying the rum, British soldiers consumed it. Drunken red coats now ran around Danbury sparking more fires. While military discipline and command were deteriorating from the invading British, messengers were sent out to alert of their arrival and raids.Sybil Ludington – Lostpine

Miniature believed to depict Sybil Ludington, artist unknown

Said messenger reached the home of Colonel Ludington at roughly 9 PM. At this time he controlled 400 militia men, all of whom had been scattered about in their respectable homes for the planting season on their farms. The poor messenger was weary and unfamiliar with the area, and soon after learning of the attack Sybil left to gather her father’s militia. There is a great amount of confusion on if Sybil herself volunteered for the mission or her father assigned it to her.

Sybil’s journey consisted of anywhere between a 20 and 40 mile round trip south to Mahopac and north to Stormville. If the hour being late and weather rainy was not enough, Sybil had to dodge several dangers. The two biggest was British soldiers and loyalists. “Skinners” were also something to be wary of. These were outlaws who held no stance for the Patriots or British. The troops she managed to gather did not make it in time to save Danbury, but they were able to push the British back out of the area. Sybil collected personal thanks from General George Washington and French General Rochambeau. Colonel Ludington received a letter of thanks from Alexander Hamilton as well.

Sybil’s grave

Shortly after the wars end in 1783, Sybil married at age 23 in 1784 to Edward Ogden. They lived in Catskill, New York and had one son named Henry. In 1799, her husband died of yellow fever. Less than a decade later she purchased a tavern and ran it while helping her son become a lawyer. Things were looking up when she sold the tavern for three times what she paid for it. She used these earnings to buy a home for her son and family to reside in. Tragedy struck in 1838 when her son Henry died. After being denied a Revolutionary War pension for her husbands service, Sybil Ludington herself died at the age of 77 in poverty.

Sources and Extra Reading:

  1. Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
  2. Dacquino, V.T. “New York Patriot.” New York Archives. Spring 2007. Accessed January 20, 2015. http://www.archives.nysed.gov/apt/magazine/archivesmag_spring07.pdf
  3. Hunt, Paula D. “Sybil Ludington, the Female Paul Revere: The Making of a Revolutionary War Heroine.” The New England Quarterly 88, no. 2 (June 2015): 187-222.
  4. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Sybil Ludington.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 29 Mar. 2018, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Sybil-Ludington.
  5. Michals, Debra.  “Sybil Ludington.” National Women’s History Museum. 2017. http://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sybil-ludington.
  6. “Sybil Ludington.” Historic Patterson, New York, The Town of Patterson, NY, 2017, http://www.historicpatterson.org/Exhibits/ExhSybilLudington.php.
  7. “Sybil Ludington.” The American Revolutionary War, 2014, http://www.revolutionary-war.net/sybil-ludington.html.
  8. The History Chicks. “Episode 48A: Sybil Ludington.” The History Chicks, The History Chicks, 5 Mar. 2018, thehistorychicks.com/minicastsybil-ludington/.

The Romanovs in Red Cross uniforms

Written by Expert Contributor Gareth Russell

Nicholas II’s daughters, all slaughtered together in a cellar on one dreadful morning in 1918, have acquired a totemic significance in the century since their murder. For many conservatives and monarchists, the posthumous importance of the grand duchesses is obvious and inescapable as proof both of the unhinged viciousness of Communism and of the nostalgic appeal of the monarchy itself. For many others, the four girls are divorced from politics to stand in for the victims of totalitarianism everywhere. Their deaths in 1918 were part of a policy of terror, in which violence was, in and of itself, the goal. There was, after all, no firm political justification for executing the girls alongside their parents and little brother. None of the four sisters had ever held political office nor, under the rules of the Russian monarchy itself as instituted by the Emperor Paul in 1797, could they ever have done so. Keen to prevent a coup the likes of which had brought his mother to power and the expense of his father, Tsar Paul had instituted Salic Law in Russia whereby the throne could never again be held by a female Romanov nor by her direct descendants.[1] It could only, so he decreed, pass through the male line, which meant that even if the monarchy had been restored after 1917, as the Communists feared, by its own rules Nicholas II’s daughters, or any children they might have had, would be ineligible to wear the restored crown. As Trotsky himself later admitted, killing the last Tsar’s daughters was not because of any tangible political goal, but rather to shock Communism’s supporters and enemies into knowing that there was no going back.[2] This Rubicon would in part be flooded by the blood of the butchered princesses – who had once gazed out as icons of curated perfection in the family photographs printed by the monarchy for its subjects.

I often think that the Romanov grand duchesses are caught somewhere between those photographs and the horror of that cellar, where they huddled together in a terror which still brings a lump to my throat when I think of it. Yet, that tragedy has somewhat frozen the girls, trapping them like flies in amber, because we tend to think of them as homogenous girls in white dresses, bound by tragedy and almost indistinguishable from one another. However, by the time of their deaths, the three eldest sisters were no longer children and the eldest two had come-out as debutantes into Russian high society in the years before the Great War. They had adult lives, briefly, and they had even helped serve the Russian war effort between 1914 and 1916, which I would like to discuss here in the hope of shining a light on their personalities and achievements.

The four girls were born roughly two years apart, apiece. Olga, the most intellectual and religious of the four sisters, was born in 1895 – a charming photograph of her, glowering as only a disgruntled baby can, was taken visiting at Balmoral with her British great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. She was joined in 1897 by Tatiana, a dazzling beauty with an elegance and poise that never left her, to the point that even as the deposed royals were being jeered by a crowd, an observing socialist felt moved to congratulate Tatiana on her patrician dignity. Maria, born in 1899, was so well-behaved as a child that her Irish nanny joked that she must have had the smallest trace of Original Sin imaginable, something which could not be said of the rambunctious Anastasia, who arrived in June 1901, developing a flair for practical jokes, mimicry, and horseplay.[3] Her father used to sneak her cigarettes and she entertained the family by dressing up in his Jaeger pyjamas to perform skits.

A debutante’s “coming out” in a ball, with her hair worn up and her first floor-length gown, was a rite of passage for Edwardian daughters of the upper classes. Olga’s was held at the Imperial Family’s summer palace in the Crimea in 1911, while Tatiana’s was hosted in 1913 at the Anitchkov Palace in St. Petersburg by their grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie, since their mother Alexandra considered the Petersburg elite to be self-absorbed, extravagant, and mind-numbingly dull. After this, the two eldest Grand Duchesses were considered adults, they began to be treated as such, and had some access to what we might now call their trust funds. Olga, in particular, proved a diligent philanthropist, discreetly paying the medical bills for disabled children she viewed on her journeys into the city. She was a passionate Russian patriot and regarded the prospect of marrying abroad as distressing. There were talks of Serbian, Romanian, and even British matches for the girls, but all of that came to nothing when the world tipped on its side with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

With the war upon them, the Tsarina was determined to be useful and she contacted the Red Cross with the request that they train her as a student nurse. Alexandra also financed the building of a military hospital in the grounds of Tsarskoe Selo, the Imperial Family’s private compound outside St. Petersburg. She did not want to delegate her work, however, and both her eldest daughters joined their mother to train as nurses. When they passed, Alexandra wrote happily to her sister, the Marchioness of Milford Haven (Lord Mountbatten’s mother), “We passed our exams and received the Red Cross on our aprons and got our certificates of sisters of the war time. It was an emotion, putting them on, and appearing with other sisters”.[4]

Often, in life, I find that those we expect to excel at certain things do not. Life tests us by surprises. Olga, with her more practical nature, had always been less enamoured with the glitter of high society than was her chic sister, Tatiana, and in light of that and her charitable enterprises, Olga was expected to prove the better caregiver of the two. Surprisingly, however, it was Tatiana who proved to be a hardier nurse. In fact, she proved tougher and more useful in the operating theatres than either her mother or elder sister. With the Tsarina Alexandra, it should be noted that the empress had suffered for years from heart palpitations and sciatica, which obviously meant that her usefulness in the hospitals was limited. After a year or so of exhausting work in the hospital, Tsar Nicholas had to intervene to force his wife to cut her hours. Olga, too, was let down by her body rather than her indomitable spirits – the poor Grand Duchess found herself retching, vomiting, and even fainting at the operations. In light of this, it made sense that Tatiana was trained to assist the surgeons, while Olga worked tirelessly in the wards, talking to the soldiers, and helping the other nurses wherever she could. The two sisters were on a shift together when a wounded soldier died in front of them. “All behaved well,” Alexandra wrote in one of her letters, “none lost their head and the girls were brave – they …  had never seen a death. But he died in an instant – it made us all sad as you can imagine – how near death is always is.”[5]

One soldier in the hospital had suffered a cerebral contusion. Every day, when the Tsarina came by his bedside, he would initially confuse her with his mother, who had recently passed away. Alexandra would sit by his bed and talk to him –  “he stares,” she told her husband, “then recognises me, clasps my hands to his breast, says he now feels warm and happy.”[6]  Alexandra was famously prudish, but as a nurse she changed the soldiers’ bandages without complaints, shaved around their wounds, helped the doctors with amputations, sterilised medical equipment, and she stayed late to cradle the wounded in her arms when they began to scream or cry out in their sleep. “One’s heart bleeds for them,” she wrote to her husband, “I won’t describe any more details as it’s so sad but being a wife and mother I feel for them quite particularly”.[7]

With Tatiana busier in the operating theatre, Alexandra and Olga befriended a young soldier who had been wounded in an attack on the Austrian lines. He was in the hospital for four months, but sadly without much sign of improvement. The patient spoke to them about his life at home, his service on the Front, and his family. Alexandra called in to see him when she began work at nine o’clock in the morning and she spent an hour or so with him in the afternoon. She and the other nurses eventually realised that the young man was going to die, so she decided that she did not want him to die on his own, hence the length and frequency of her visits to his bedside.

After a few months, she wrote to the Tsar at the Front, “My poor wounded friend has gone. God has taken him quietly and peacefully to Himself. I was as usual with him in the morning and more than an hour in the afternoon”.[8] To her intense distress, Alexandra was not there when the young man passed away. Earlier in the day, he had told one of the nurses that he was a little bit uncomfortable. Ten minutes later, the same nurse came back and said he took a few deep breaths and then gently passed away. “Olga and I went to see him,” Alexandra wrote that night. “He lay there so peacefully covered under my flowers I daily brought him, with his lovely peaceful smile – the forehead yet quite warm. I came home with tears… Never did he complain, never asked for anything, sweetness itself – all loved him and that shining smile… I felt God let me bring him a little sunshine in his loneliness. Such is life. Another brave soul left this world to be added to the shining stars above.”[9] She was distraught and, as grief often does, it rattled her to the point where she could not stop writing about it at length to Nicholas: “It must not make you sad, what I wrote,” she apologised, “only I could not bear it any longer.”

Both Maria and Anastasia were considered too young to join their mother and sisters as Red Cross nurses. In 1915, Maria technically had her debut into high society but, in light of the war, the Imperial Family declined to hold a ball to mark the occasion. Instead, she borrowed a gown from Tatiana to make her first appearance as an adult at a dinner held to celebrate Romania joining the First World War on the same side as Russia. She slipped as she entered, but eased any awkwardness by laughing at herself, which put the guests and servants at ease.[10]

Despite being too young to train, the Tsarina encouraged “the Little Pair” to visit the hospital regularly, in order that they could visit the wounded, talk with them, and cheer them up with conversation. One of the soldiers seems to have fallen in love with Tatiana and he later died fighting for the monarchists in the civil war which swept through Russia after the Romanov monarchy had been toppled first by a republic, which in its turn fell quickly to Communism. The Grand Duchesses, in their time helping the war effort, be it as nurses or visitors, left a vivid impression of capable, intelligent, and well-meaning young women who, I believe, might have done even more good over many more years had history and totalitarianism not intervened with such devastating cruelty to end their lives in July 1918.

About the Author:Gareth Russell is the author of several works of non-fiction, including “Young and Damned and Fair”, about Queen Catherine Howard; “The Ship of Dreams”, an account of the Titanic disaster which was named a Book of the Year by The Times, and “The Emperors: How Europe’s Rulers were destroyed by the First World War.”

[1] Known subsequently as the Pauline Laws, they replaced the Petrine succession protocols installed by Emperor Peter the Great earlier in the 18th century. Under the latter, an emperor or empress could designate their own successor, regardless of gender, something which had facilitated the succession of the empresses Catherine I, Anna, and Elisabeth, and the coup of Catherine II. The Pauline Laws were upheld by subsequent Romanov tsars, with Nicholas II incorporating some of them into the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire at the time of the 1905-06 constitutional reforms. This meant that, as late as 1906, their own father had installed or upheld legislation which meant that the grand duchesses could never have succeeded to the throne or passed a similar claim to their children.

[2] Orlando Figes, “A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891 – 1924” (London, 1996), p. 641; Gareth Russell, “The Emperors: How Europe’s Rulers were Destroyed by the First World War” (Stroud, 2014), pp. 190-1.

[3] Margaretta Eager, “Six Years at the Russian Court” (Reprint, Bowmanville, 2011), p. 52. 

[4] Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, “Memories of the Russian Court” (New York, 1923), pp. 105-6.

[5] Sir Bernard Pares (intro. and ed.), “The Letters of the Tsaritsa to the Tsar, 1914-1916” (Reprint, London, 1987), p. 41.

[6] Buxhoeveden, p. 193.  

[7] Pares, p. 41.  

[8] Pares, “Letters,” p. 53.  

[9] Ibid.

[10]  Russell, “The Emperors,” p. 115.

Gareth Russell

Expert Contributor

Educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University, Belfast, Gareth Russell is a historian, novelist, and playwright. He is the author of The Ship of Dreams, Young and Damned and Fair, The Emperors, and An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors. He lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Drop Dead Gorgeous: 19th Century Beauty Tips for the Aspiring Consumptive


Written by Expert Contributor, Jessica Cale

Picture the ideal nineteenth century English beauty: pale, almost translucent skin, rosy cheeks, crimson lips, white teeth, and sparkling eyes. She’s waspishly thin with elegant collarbones. Perhaps she’s prone to fainting.

It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine; numerous depictions survive to this day, and the image is still held up as the gold standard for Caucasian women. At this point, it’s so embedded in the Western psyche as beauty that it doesn’t occur to us to question it. Of course that’s beautiful. Why wouldn’t it be?

By the nineteenth century, beauty standards in Britain had come a long way from the plucked hairlines of the late Middle Ages and the heavy ceruse of the Stuart period. Fashionable women wanted slimmer figures because physical fragility had become associated with intelligence and refinement. Flushed cheeks, bright eyes, and red lips had always been popular, particularly among sex workers (they suggested arousal), and women had been using cosmetics like belladonna, carmine, and Spanish leather for years to produce those effects when they didn’t occur organically.

Bright eyes, flushed cheeks, and red lips were also signs of tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis—known at the time as consumption, phthisis, hectic fever, and graveyard cough—was an epidemic that affected all classes and genders without prejudice. Today, an estimated 1.9 billion people are infected with it, and it causes about two million deaths each year. At the time, it was mainly associated with respectable women (although there are no few depictions of sex workers dying of it*) and thought to be triggered by mental exertion or too much dancing.** Attractive women were viewed as more susceptible to it because tuberculosis enhanced their best features. It was noted to cause pale skin, silky hair, weight loss, and a feverish tinge to the face (along with less desirable symptoms including weakness, coughing up blood, GI upset, and organ failure), and it was treated with little to no effect with bleeding, diet, red wine, and opium.

Although having an active (rather than latent) case of consumption was all but a death sentence, it didn’t inspire the revulsion of other less attractive diseases until the end of the 19th century when its causes were better understood.

In 1833, The London Medical and Surgical Journal described it in almost affectionate terms: “Consumption, neither effacing the lines of personal beauty, nor damaging the intellectual functions, tends to exalt the moral habits, and develop the amiable qualities of the patient.”

John Keats. Joseph Severn, 1819.

Of course it didn’t only affect women. The notion that it was caused by mental exertion—along with the high number of artists and intellectuals who lost their lives to it—also led to its association with poets. John Keats died of it at 26. His friend Percy Shelley—also infected—wrote tributes to Keats that attempted to explain consumption not as a disease, but as death by passion. Bizarrely, a symptom that is unique to consumption is spes phthisica, a euphoric state that can result in intense bursts of creativity.*** Keats’ prolific final year of life has been attributed to his consumption, and spes phthisica was viewed by some as necessary for artistic genius.

As Alexandre Dumas (fils) wrote in 1852: “It was the fashion to suffer from the lungs; everybody was consumptive, poets especially; it was good form to spit blood after any emotion that was at all sensational, and to die before reaching the age of thirty.”

Because of its association with young women and poets, the disease itself came to represent beauty, romantic passion, and hyper sexuality. As far as illnesses went, it was considered to be rather glamorous, and in a culture half in love with death, it inspired its fair share of tributes. There are numerous romantic depictions of young women wasting away in death beds at the height of their beauty. Women with consumption were regularly praised for the ethereal loveliness that came from being exceptionally thin and nearly transparent.

Picture that ideal nineteenth century beauty again: that complexion is almost a pallor, and you can see her veins through it. Those lips, eyes, and cheeks are all indicative of a constant low-grade fever. Her teeth are so white they’re almost as translucent as her skin. And her figure? She’s emaciated due to the illness and the chronic diarrhea that comes with it. If she faints, it’s more to do with the lack of oxygen in her blood than the tension of her corset. The sicker she gets, the more beautiful she becomes, until she’s gone; the beauty is all the more poignant because of its impermanence. This beauty can’t last, and it’s as deadly as it is contagious.

Only a fool would wish for it, so what’s a healthy girl to do?

If you didn’t have consumption but wanted the look, there were two things you could do: wait (at its peak between 1780 and 1850, it is estimated to have caused a quarter of all deaths in Europe. Statistically, you would have had a fair chance of getting it), or fake it. Corsets could be made to narrow the waist and encourage a stooped posture, and necklines were designed to show off prominent collar bones. As for the rest, people could try:


Arsenic Complexion Wafers

Although arsenic was known to be toxic, it was used throughout the nineteenth century in everything from dye to medication. Eating small amounts of arsenic regularly was said to produce a clear, ghostly pale complexion. Lola Montez reported that some women in Bohemia frequently drank the water from arsenic springs to whiten their skin.

Stop Eating

In The Ugly-Girl Papers, S.D. Powers offers her own advice for achieving consumptive skin: “The fairest skins belong to people in the earliest stages of consumption, or those of a scrofulous nature. This miraculous clearness and brilliance is due to the constant purgation which wastes the consumptive, or to the issue which relieves the system of impurities by one outlet. We must secure purity of the blood by less exhaustive methods. The diet should be regulated according to the habit of the person. If stout, she should eat as little as will satisfy her appetite.”

How little? Writing in the third person, she uses herself as an example: “Breakfast was usually a small saucer of strawberries and one Graham cracker, and was not infrequently dispensed with altogether. Lunch was half an orange—for the burden of eating the other half was not to be thought of; and at six o’clock a handful of cherries formed a plentiful dinner. Once a week she did crave something like beef-steak of soup, and took it.”


For “fair and innocent” skin that mimics the effects of consumption, The Ugly-Girl Papers offers the following recipe: “Mix one spoonful of the best tar in a pint of pure olive oil or almond oil, by heating the two together in a tin cup set in boiling water. Stir till completely mixed and smooth, putting in more oil if the compound is too thick to run easily. Rub this on the face when going to bed, and lay patches of soft old cloth on the cheeks and forehead to keep the tar from rubbing off. The bed linen must be protected by old sheets folded and thrown over the pillows. The odor, when mixed with oil, is not strong enough to be unpleasant—some people fancy its suggestion of aromatic pine breath—and the black, unpleasant mask washes off easily with warm water and soap. The skin comes out, after several applications, soft, moist, and tinted like a baby’s. The French have long used turpentine to efface the marks of age, but olive-tar is pleasanter.”

White Lead

Madame X. John Singer Sargent, 1883-4

Lead had been used as the primary ingredient for ceruse and other forms of foundation and powder for centuries. It was known to cause skin problems over time (and, you know, lead poisoning). In the nineteenth century, it was still used for the same purpose and appeared in paints and skin enamels in Europe and the United States.

Lavender Powder

If the pallor of consumption didn’t occur naturally or with the aid of arsenic, it could be imitated with the use of lavender colored powder. Usually applied over ceruse or other foundation made from white lead, it gave the skin a bluish, porcelain shade. Perhaps the best known example of this is John Singer Sargent’s Madame X. The model, Virginie Gautreau, was known to use lavender powder to create her dramatically pale complexion. She was said to be a master of drawing fake veins on with indigo, and she painted her ears with rouge to add to the illusion of translucence.


Commonly sold and sometimes made at home, rouge was everywhere. Made from toxic bismuth or vermilion, or carmine from cochineal beetles, it was applied to cheeks, lips, ears, and sometimes even nostrils to make them appear transparent. It came in liquid, cream, and powder forms, and Napoleon’s Empress Josephine is said to have spent a fortune on it. The Ugly-Girl Papers offers this recipe for Milk of Roses, which sounds rather nice:

“(Mix) four ounces of oil of almonds, forty drops of oil of tarter, and half a pint of rose-water with carmine to the proper shade. This is very soothing to the skin. Different tinges may be given to the rouge by adding a few flakes of indigo for the deep black-rose crimson, or mixing a little pale yellow with less carmine for the soft Greuze tints.”


The Ugly-Girl Papers recommends ammonia for use as both a hair rinse and, worryingly, a depilatory. For healthy hair, Powers recommends scrubbing it nightly with a brush in a basin of water with three tablespoons of ammonia added. Hair should then be combed and left to air dry without a night cap.

Lemon Juice and Eyeliner

To achieve the ideal feverish “sparkling eyes,” some women still used belladonna (which could cause blindness) while others resorted to putting lemon juice or other irritants in their eyes to make them water. Eyes, eyelashes, and eyebrows could also be defined. Powers advises: “All preparations for darkening the eyebrows, eyelashes, etc., must be put on with a small hair-pencil. The “dirty-finger” effect is not good. A fine line of black round the rim of the eyelid, when properly done, should not be detected, and its effect in softening and enlarging the eyes is well known by all amateur players.”


Day, Carolyn. Consumptive Chic: A History of Beauty, Fashion, and Disease. (2017)

Dumas, Alexandre (fils). La Dame Aux Camélias. (1852)

Klebs, Arnold. Tuberculosis: A Treatise by American Authors on its Etiology, Pathology, Frequency, Semeiology, Diagnosis, Prognosis, Prevention, and Treatment. (1909)

Meier, Allison. How Tuberculosis Symptoms Became Ideals of Beauty in the 19th Century. Hyperallergic. January 2nd, 2018.

Montez, Lola. The Arts of Beauty: or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet. (1858)

Morens, David M. At the Deathbed of Consumptive Art. Emerging Infectious Diseases, Volume 8, Number 11. November 2002.

Mullin, Emily. How Tuberculosis Shaped Victorian Fashion. Smithsonian.com, May 10th, 2016.

Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty: A History and Practical Guide to Perfumes and Cosmetics. (2005)

Powers, S. D. The Ugly-Girl Papers, or Hints for the Toilet. (1874)

Zarrelli, Natalie. The Poisonous Beauty Advice Columns of Victorian England. Atlas Obscura, December 17th, 2015.


*Depictions of sex workers dying of tuberculosis: La Traviata, Les Misérables, La Bohème, and now Moulin Rouge, etc. In the 19th century, consumption was portrayed as a kind of romantic redemption for sex workers through the physical sacrifice of the body.

**Although dancing itself wouldn’t have done it, the disease was so contagious that it could be contracted anywhere people would be at close quarters—dancing at balls with multiple partners could have reasonably been high-risk behavior.

***You know what else does that? Tertiary syphilis. How do you know which one you have? If you’re coughing blood, it’s consumption. If your skin is falling off, it’s syphilis. Either way, you’re going to want to call a doctor.

Jessica Cale

Expert Contributor

Educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University, Belfast, Jessica Cale is a historian, editor, and award-winning historical romance author. She earned her BA in Ancient and Medieval History and MFA in Creative and Media Writing at Swansea University in Wales. Jessica was a regular writer for BBC History Magazine during university, and now she edits the popular history blog Dirty, Sexy History. Watch for her as a guest historian in Lost Pirate Kingdom, out this year on Netflix.

The Origins of the Tudor Portrait Miniature

Written by Resident Art Historian, Melanie V Taylor

For those not familiar with the genre of the portrait miniature, let us first consider why and when these first became popular in England, and the various artists creating these images for the Tudor court.

The half millennium saw a marked change from the religious themes of the medieval period to secular subjects inspired by the humanist teachings of classical texts.  This change included the new idea of portraying people in stand-alone portraits.   Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) was the first artistic genius to use his own image both to record how he looked at significant times in his life, and to promote his talents as an artist. When Dürer painted his third self-portrait early in 1500, anyone seeing it would have understood that the artist was not committing the sin of hubris which we might well think today, but that he was paying tribute to the Divine for the gift of his (Dürer’s) supreme talent. 

Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528) Self-portrait. 1500 Munich.

If you are interested in this artist, his link will take you to my 2018 article on Dürer. https://melanievtaylor.co.uk/2018/07/06/albrecht-durer-the-master-of-self-promotion/

As the century progressed, the portrait became popular not only with the aristocracy, but all those who were keen to be remembered for posterity and could afford to pay the price.  The cost of a large (table) portrait depended on how much of the person was revealed.  That is to say, was it just to be of the sitter’s head and shoulders, or was the artist asked to incorporate arms, legs, torso or even full length as in the portrait of Henry VIII that Holbein painted on the wall of the king’s private apartments in Whitehall.  Today we know this portrait from the original cartoon that survived the fire of 1698.

Henry VIII cartoon. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543). NPG Ref 4027, London.

and a copy of the whole mural made by Remgius van Leemput (d1675) prior to the fire (RCIN405750)  that now hangs in the Great Watching Chamber of Hampton Court.    The finished portraits of the Tudors were more often than not, painted on wood panel and in northern Europe the wood of choice was Baltic oak due to the straightness of grain and durability.  When van Leemput was painting in the 17th century, canvas had become the preferred surface of choice.

Having your portrait painted ‘in large’ was a public statement that you had reached a certain level in society.  If you commissioned a leading artist of the day, such as Hans Holbein the Younger (c1497 – 1543), this added to the allure for those privileged enough to be invited into the room in which the painting hung.  The original Holbein full length portrait of Henry VIII painted c1537 the now hangs in the Walker Gallery, Liverpool and is based on the Whitehall cartoon,  https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/artifact/henry-viii (this is a copy of the lost original), was described by David Starkey as the first portrait of a fat man.  Clearly painted after Henry had dined unwisely and far too well too often, Holbein was faced with the daunting task of portraying the portly king as a majestic figure.  Holbein’s answer to this conundrum? Put the king in his best clothes, with all the trappings of wealth and status, get him to stand with his legs apart and hands of hips and looking straight at us, the viewer.  Brilliant!  We, as humble bystanders, are awed by the power and majesty exuding from this image.  When it came to a smaller, but more intense portrayal of the king, Holbein gives us a close-up view of the king’s facial features.

Henry VIII 1537. Hans Holbein the Younger, (1497 – 1543). Thyssen Bornemisz Museum, Spain.

This much smaller half-length portrait now hangs in the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum in Spain.  There is yet another splendid set of clothes, with blackwork embroidery, gold tissue and sumptuous firs, but the slight lift of the king’s eyebrow over those piggy eyes, and the set of the tight lips gives the king a disdainful expression.  The Walker Gallery portrait measures 239 cm x 134.5 cms unframed (94 x 53.3 inches), while the portrait in Spain is a mere 28 x 20 cms (11 x 7.8 inches).  The former is life size, while the latter can almost be classed as a miniature.  While not quite small enough to hold in your hand, it was definitely not intended to show the king’s image to a large audience.

Miniature portraits were less expensive than portraits that hung on walls.  While the larger portraits were usually hidden behind a curtain that was drawn back when someone was invited to view it, the function of a miniature portrait was the polar opposite to that of the table portrait. It was small enough to hold in your hand and painted in watercolour on vellum  To ensure the tiny work of art laid flat it was mounted on to a playing card or sometimes, just plain card.  To protect it, it might have been wrapped in tissue, or if funds allowed, in a locket.  Looking at both of the last two paintings of Henry VIII we see he wears a locket around his neck.  Since these two portraits were executed in c1537 we can only speculate whether or not this held an image of Queen Jane.  If so, did Holbein paint this? If so, then it has been lost.  

Dr Strong suggests the portrait miniature did not reach England Louise de Savoie, then Regent of France, apparently sent Henry VIII a locket with the portraits of her two grandsons with a plea to use his influence with Emperor Charles VI to release the two boys who were being held as hostages.[i]  Her son, Francis I, had been taken prisoner by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, at the battle of Pavia in February 1525.  Francis signed the Treaty of Madrid in January 1526 and was released in March of the same year.   However, there is visual evidence that portrait miniatures of the English king were being used in the decoration of illuminated manuscripts and as stand-alone portraits long before the battle of Pavia. 

An illuminated patent dated 28th April, 1524, contains a miniature portrait of Henry VIII granting various properties in the Parish of St Michael, Cornhill, London to Thomas Forster (d1528), embroiderer by Henry VIII.[ii]

Illuminated H on patent granted to Thomas Forster (d1528), 1524. Ref. V&A collection, London.

 The portrait roundel measure 49mm x 47mm, which is just under two inches. This link will take you to the V&A page for this manuscript. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1396866/letters-patent-of-henry-viii-manuscripts/ 

The National Portrait Gallery holds a miniature portrait (ref NPG 6453 Princes Mary aged nine ) painted on the occasion of her engagement to her cousin, Charles V.

Princess Mary, aged nine. Horenbout workshop, c1524/5 (Julian calendar). NPG, London.

This is the earliest portrayal of Princess Mary and she has clearly inherited the Tudor red hair. The portrait measures 35mm (13/8 inches). If Mary were nine when this portrait was created, this means the miniature, as well as the illuminated patent, were both painted a full year prior to the battle of Pavia.  Clearly the portrait miniature was already known in England at least a year prior to the battle of Pavia (25th February 1525). This being the case, the next question is who was capable of painting these exquisite images?

Gerard Horenbout, a leading Flemish illuminator previously holding an official position as court artist and valet de chamber at the court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, brought his family to England prior to the battle of Pavia.  The reason for the move is not clear, but we know from the royal accounts that his son Lucas entered the employ of Henry VIII check auerbach and it is thought he was very ably assisted by his sister, Susannah.  Both Horenbout children had been taught by their father.  In a time when women were rarely credited with having any form of talent, a condescending accolade regarding Susannah’s talents was made by Albrecht Dürer in 1521 when he visited the Horenbout workshop in Bruges, and bought her image of Christ as Saviour of the World for a guilder – the same price he would have paid had it been painted by a master artist.  Thanks to the talent of the Horenbout siblings, we have some candid small portraits of Henry VIII, Katharine of Aragon and their daughter Princess Mary in the happy times before the infamous divorce.  

Lucas’s name regularly appears in the royal accounts, and the illuminations of manuscripts, such as the Liber Niger, being Henry VIII’s commission for a new book for the Order of the Garter to replace the Bruges Garter Book, British library Ref. Stowe Ms 594 created in the 1430s.[iii]  This illumination was painted by an unknown artist and shows the patron saint of the Order, St George, and his dragon while a knight kneels before him. It is thought this is William Bruges who commissioned this armorial. Bruges appears to be wearing the uniform of a heraldand St George has three ostrich feathers in his cap, similar to those worn by the Prince of Wales. The banner is blank, but the artist may have planned to include some words. Likewise, the very recognisable leather garters do not include the motto of the order. Perhaps the artist intended some wise words in the banner, and to write the motto on the two garters in gold, but forgot. This type of omission drives art historians mad.

folio 7 of the Bruges Garter Book, 1430. Anon. Stowe Ms 594, British Library, London.

There were Ladies of the Garter, but it was not until 1987 that any woman (other than a queen regnant) was made a Companion who was Lady Thatcher, the first woman prime minister of England.  Henry VII (1447 – 1509) dropped the practice of having Ladies of the Order in 1488, when the last woman to be created a Lady of the Order was his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort.  The next woman to be appointed as such was Queen Alexandra (1844 – 1925) consort of Edward VII, in the early 20th century.  Therefore, the woman being the inspiration of the Order in Horenbout’s illumination is more likely to be Queen Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III or, knowing the Tudor love of medieval chivalric tales, the Duchess of Salisbury who is said to have lost her garter during a court celebration.  The story of the duchess losing her garter and the king retrieving it with the words ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (shame on him who thinks evil of it) did not appear in writing until the 1460s, some one hundred and twenty years or so after the Order was founded.  Horenbout’s document of the 1530s depicting a single female has had the suggestion that this is a ‘lost’ portrait of Anne Boleyn.  However, there is no credible argument based on solid academic research of original documents and this claim appears to be a case of someone wishing it were the case as opposed to being a genuine find. 

Scholars who have researched the history of the Order demonstrate that Edward III founded a group of twenty-five knights at Windsor in 1348. The Complete Peerage states that this group of the king’s companions had its beginning some four years earlier in 1344, and lists the original 25 Companions knighted by Edward III.[iv]  The group of loyal knights was formed just at the time when Edward III’s claim to the French throne was at its height, therefore rather than some romantic tale of a woman’s garter slipping to the floor, the reference to a garter is more likely to be to the leather straps used to attach the various bits of armour to the wearer and the group’s loyalty to the king for his claim to the throne of France.  The document dating from the 1530s has been the subject of much academic research and, while the enthusiasm for the claim this included a portrait of Henry VIII’s second wife has to be admired, it will require a great deal more research to convince scholars of English illuminated documents of this period.

An illuminated letter containing the narrative of Henry VIII seated on his throne surrounded by his advisors, appears at the beginning of the Valor Ecclesiasticus (National Archives reference E344/22), the valuation of the monastic lands undertaken in the 1530s.  Stylistically this illuminated letter is similar to the various vignettes included in the Liber Niger.  Like the images in the second book of statutes of the Knights of the Garter, the rendition of each of the faces surrounding Henry VIII on his throne are only millimetres across.

E344/22. Horenbout atelier 1530s. National Archives, Kew, London.

What little we do know about the personal details of Lucas is that he married a woman called Margaret Houselwyther, the daughter of a goldsmith.  Lucas received a patent for life from the king on 22nd June 1534, approximately ten years after arriving in England, and took out denization papers the same year.[v]  We know he was allowed to have four journeymen in his service and lived in the Parish of St Margaret’s Westminster, so was near the royal palace.  Susan James has identified a Jacomyne Horenbout as being Lucas’s daughter and that she also practised as a portrait miniaturist.  Her mother, Margaret Houselwyther, is listed in the queen’s royal accounts as being paid for paintings ‘in little’ during the time Katharine Parr was married to Henry VIII.[vi] Whether or not Houselwyther was an artist in her own right is not proven. The single reference in the accounts might have been a payment for work done by her daughter, Jacomyne.

When it comes to any possible illumination carried out by Gerard we are even less able to identify works from his brush.  The name ‘Gerard’ appears in the accounts of Thomas Cromwell for the expenses of Cardinal Wolsey’s college at Oxford, but equally the name could be a reference to a scrivener who is mentioned in a subsidy roll of the same period.[vii]  It is more likely that another reference to a Gerard, who was paid 16s & 8d, is the illuminator Gerard Horenbout, as this was a large sum of money.  The names of father and son first appear in the treasurer of the chamber accounts of 1528.  The artist(s) behind Wolsey manuscripts are hotly debated, but they are the treasures of Christchurch and Magdalen colleges, Oxford. They are well worth a closer look and this link will take you to them. http://www.wolseymanuscripts.ac.uk/manuscripts This is the level and type of work that Gerard was known for, 16s & 8d was not sufficient to pay for the illumination of either of these manuscripts.

The patents for Cardinal College, Oxford of both May 1526 and May 1529 show Henry VIII seated on his throne in a similar way as the monarch is portrayed on the front of the various front sheets of the Coram Rege rolls, these being the record of the proceedings of the King’s Bench.  Surviving patents are beautifully executed and a similar one exists for Cardinal College, Ipswich also dated May 1529. These complex monochrome illuminated letters demonstrate the importance of the patents, but being black and white and only a small part of the first page of the document, they would not have been as expensive as the Wolsey manuscripts. All these documents add another important name to the list of those who patronised the royal limners – that of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a man of humble origins who appreciated the finer things in life.

 The illumination of patents as well as legal documents, breviaries and books of hours is the sort of work that would be carried out by an illuminator of the calibre of the Horenbout family of artists.  In addition, the surviving patent for Thomas Forster demonstrates that the Horenbouts were sought after by, and took on work from those outside immediate royal circle.[viii] As an embroiderer employed by the king, Forster was of a similar social position to Lucas and the goldsmith, Houselwyther, father of Lucas’s wife, Margaret. 

Gerard Horenbout returned to Bruges in 1531, two years after the death of his wife.  His name does not appear in English accounts again, but Lucas’s name continues to appear being paid a monthly salary of 55s 6d from 1528 until his death in March 1544.[ix] This is an equivalent labour value of today of £19,090.00 per month, thus demonstrating the high value placed on his work.[x]  In the Book of the Court of Augmentations, where the grant to Lucas is recorded, there is the following passage (translated from the Latin) “For a long time I have been acquainted not only by reports from others but also from personal knowledge with the science and experience in the pictorial art of Lucas Harnbolte [Horenbout] and I nominate, constitute, and declare him by these present letters patent to be my painter.[xi] This is the voice of the king and evidence that Henry VIII held Lucas in high esteem.  Furthermore, it is the only patent granted to an artist of this period that contains such a glowing account of their work.  

While Lucas is identified as the King’s Pictor in written records, Susannah’s does not appear at all, therefore we are unable to either confirm, or deny whether or not his sister collaborated on the illumination of any of the official manuscripts.  What we do know is that her talents were admired by fellow artists such as Durer.

Susannah married twice, both times to minor members of the royal household.  In 1539, a mere three weeks after her second marriage to John Gwilim, Thomas Cromwell required her to be part of the entourage to go to the Duchy of Cleves and escort Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anna, Duchess of Cleves, back to England.  The royal accounts reveal Susannah was given £40 to spend on clothes so she would be suitably attired as a lady-in-waiting to the new queen of England.[xii]  Whether this appointment was for her artistic talents or because Cromwell wanted to have a spy in her household is unknown, but both are possible.  Whether Susannah spoke the German dialect spoken by Duchess Anna is also unknown.[xiii]  

We do know that Susannah remained in post until the royal marriage was annulled six months later in 1540.  The same year Susannah gave birth to a son, Henry (1540 -1593), named after his godfather the king, and therefore it is possible she could have retired to rear her family, but continued to work after her children grew past infancy.[xiv] If so, then it is likely that any money would have been paid to her husband, John Gwilim, who was a Gentleman Pensioner, so also part of the royal entourage.  Perhaps a future researcher would undertake the task of trawling through the dusty membranes of annual accounts looking for the name Gwilim and analysing whether or not the amounts, if any, fluctuate from his fixed pension as a gentleman pensioner, which might indicate he was receiving money for work completed by his wife. 

A portrait known as the Yale miniature is clearly from the Horenbout atelier.[xv]  The sitter has been variously identified as being of Princess Elizabeth, Princess Mary and Lady Jane Grey. It is more likely the sitter was Amy Robsart who married Robert Dudley in 1550 when she was aged eighteen. 

The Yale Miniature c 1550. Horenbout atelier. Yale University.

This portrait has also been attributed to Levina Teerlinc (née Bening) (1520 – 1576), but this is clearly not the case.  From my extensive study of Teerlinc’s work, it is apparent her style is significantly different to this and more reminiscent of the Horenbout workshop, plus Teerlinc does not use any lettering on her stand alone portraits.  

The Dudley family had been at court since the time of Henry VII. The likelihood of Dudley wanting a portrait of his new bride, or bride to be, is quite likely.  Dudley would later commission further miniatures of himself, and later the Goldsmith archives have a record of him commissioning a book of miniatures during the early career of Nicholas Hilliard.[xvi]  Having grown up and been at court since a boy, Dudley would have known of Susannah’s talents.  The Yale miniature is shown to be of someone aged 18 years old and while I have the utmost respect for Dr Starkey, I do not agree with his attribution that this is of Jane Grey as her dates are 1537 – 1554 and she did not reach the age of eighteen, or that the artist is Teerlinc.  Carved cameo gems were in good supply to the jewellery trade, cowslips were a traditional Norfolk flower symbolising an engagement.  This link Amy Robsart – Possibly  will take you to my 2017 article on this specific miniature where you can read more about why I believe it is a portrait of Amy Robsart and that Susannah Horenbout was the artist.   William Cecil had doubts about the Dudley/Robsart marriage from the start, describing it as ‘carnal’, but that is another story for another time.

With the appointment of this prestigious family of illuminators to the royal workshops, Henry VIII now had serious artistic talent at his disposal to rival the artists employed at the courts of Francis I of France and the Regent of the Hapsburg Netherlands. The number of surviving miniature portraits stand testament to the popularity of this emerging genre in both aristocratic circles and by the aspiring middle classes.  Something that the German artist, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543) was quick to take advantage on his return to England in 1531.

Holbein had first worked in England in 1526 until 1528 when he was obliged to return to his native Basel.  On his return to England in 1531 he then worked as King’s Painter and it is after this date that we see him creating miniature portraits.  There is a husband and wife pair of portraits in Vienna dated 1534 possibly by Holbein, that are thought to be portraits of Susannah Horenbout and her first husband, John Parker (c1493/4-1537) wearing his livery of Gentleman Pensioner to Henry VIII.  

Susannah Horenbout (?) (1506 – 1554) c1534. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543), Vienna.

We are given the age of this lady as being 28, therefore if it is a portrait of Susannah, then she was born in 1506.  More interestingly we now know what she may have looked like.  But why did her brother not paint this pair of portraits?  Perhaps these images were a present from the great German maestro as a thank you for teaching him the art of mixing pigments for use on vellum, a highly specialised technique, or even as a wedding present – we can only speculate.  

Susannah remains a shadowy figure as an artist, unlike her brother who died in March 1544.  She is more visible as a member of the household of Anna of Cleves, and prior to this Susannah had served Jane Seymour. It is arguable that she created the various portraits of Katharine of Aragon and the nine year old Princess Mary because Susannah would not have required a chaperone and being a gentlewoman at court had access to the queen and princess.  This would have allowed her to sketch them at any time and since preparatory sketches are vital when creating portraits.   

Queen Katharine of Aragon, his wife. Horenbout atelier. Mid 1520s. (Source: Wikipedia).

This rectangular portrait of Henry VIII below is also a Horenbout masterpiece on an illuminated document in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, but which Horenbout sibling painted it is unknown. Henry and Katherine’s initials are entwined at the top and bottom, and angels hold the strings of the cord that forms a love knot between the H and K.

Henry VIII in 1525.  Fizwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.

Lucas and Holbein would have required there be others present in order to preserve the ladies’ honour and we know from the 1598 draft treatise by Elizbeth I’s favourite miniature portrait painter, Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1619), that too many onlookers giving well meaning, but unnecessary artistic advice was an annoying distraction for the artist.  Hilliard also tells us that he paints ad vivum (from life) in order to capture the liveliness of a sitter’s expression.  The survival of so many preliminary sketches made by Holbein, now in the Royal Collection at Windsor, demonstrates that Hilliard’s painting from life was his innovation.  To have such a wealth of preliminary sketches by an artist is rare and the Holbein collection is accessible online via the Royal Collection website.

Thanks to the Horenbout siblings and Hans Holbein the Younger, we have the most exquisite examples of miniature portraits bringing various people of the 1520s and 1530s who would have otherwise remained faceless names in dusty documents. 

Holbein died in November 1543 and Lucas in March 1544, possibly of the sweating sickness, but what it was that killed them is irrelevant.  Their demise left Susannah as the sole practioner of the genre, but she was married with a young and growing family, therefore the hunt was on to find and appoint replacements for both artists.

Prior to moving his family to England, Gerard Horenbout had collaborated with Simon Bening and by the 1540s, Simon Bening (1483 – 1561), was the last of the great illuminators living and was practising in Bruges.  Bening’s clientele list was of the majority of the great and the good of Europe: the emperor, kings, princes, dukes, duchesses, earls, counts, princes of the Catholic church, abbots, abbesses, priors, prioresses and wealthy merchants  – Bening’s reputation stretched from Sweden to the tip of Spain.[xvii]  There is no actual proof, but there is circumstantial evidence that an approach was made to the great man.  An artist of Bening’s status was just the sort of talent Henry VIII would have desired to replace Lucas, but with a client list such as this, would you give up a thriving business to go and work in England for an aging king with much ambition, but little real status on the world stage?  

Like Lucas and Susannah Horenbout, Bening was the second generation of a leading family of illuminators. Alexander Bening (d1519) had married either the sister, or niece (no-one has yet decided which) of Hugo van der Goes (1430/40 – 1482) one of the most original artists of the latter half of the 15th century.  The Grimani Breviary contains portraits of Alexander and a young Simon Bening in the full-page illumination of the arrival of the queen of Sheba.

Simon & his father, Alexander Bening (left to right) discovered by Eric Drighsdal 2000.

Bening sired six daughters, one went on to become a very successful book dealer, but it was his daughter Levina who would fill the empty position.  Levina came to England after her marriage to George Teerlinc of Blankenberg sometime in early 1545.  Her contemporary, Ludovico Guicciardini (1521 – 1589) described her skills in painting portraits in miniature as being every bit as good as her father’s.[xviii]  

When George and Levina arrived in England in either March 1545 at the behest of Katharine Parr, or perhaps in 1546 at the direct invitation of Henry VIII.  George Teerlinc was made a gentleman pensioner and as well as her position as king’s paintrix, Levina became a gentlewoman to the queen.  Henry granted her an annuity of 40per annum ‘at his pleasure’ to be paid unto her husband.  Very much later in 1559, Elizabeth I changed the terms of this annuity to be for life in recognition of Levina’s loyal service to the Crown.  The annual sum was far greater than that paid to either Lucas Horenbout or Hans Holbein the Younger, even taking into account the inflation of the times.   

Like that of Susannah, a clear collection of Levina’s work is hard to determine, but her career spanned four Tudor monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, plus she also knew Queen Katharine Parr (1512 – 1548) and Anna, Duchess of Cleves (1515 – 1557), as well as all the great families such as the Seymours, the Greys and importantly, the Dudleys. There are various surviving examples of portraits dating between 1545 and the emergence of England’s first home grown artist, Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1619) in 1572, when he painted his first portrait of Elizabeth (NPG).  These unsigned portraits of the period 1546 – 1572 are often attributed to Teerlinc, as are various illuminations in documents and other manuscripts, but there is so much difference in the styles of these examples it is difficult to define a complete set of works by her.  

One of the first tasks set for her would have been illuminating the front page of the Peace of Address, 1546, now one of the treasures of the Biblioteque de France.

Illuminated front page of The Peace of Address, 1546. Teerlinc (1520 – 1572). BnF, Paris.

Teerlinc’s arrival coincides with the use of Renaissance motifs in the illumination of treaties, the illuminated Ps on the front of the Coram Rege rolls, and a new eye for the portrayal of the great of the good in miniature portraits. If you wish to know more about Teerlinc, this link will take you to a dedicated article of a 1572 Hilliard miniature of her. https://melanievtaylor.co.uk/2017/10/18/is-this-levina-teerlinc/

By 1558, the portrait miniature was much in fashion.  Katharine Parr had been a great fan of the genre and perhaps had influenced the Princess Elizabeth to develop a love of this small and intimate way of having an image of a cherished person to keep, especially if it were of a lover, but the canny Virgin Queen also commissioned many portraits of herself to give to diplomats. 

If you were lucky enough to be invited to view such a portrait, it became an intimate experience between you and the person inviting you to view it. One of the best examples of how this type of image was used for diplomatic reasons was when the 1564 negotiations of a possible marriage were underway and Robert Dudley, who had recently been created Earl of Leicester to make him of a more suitable rank for marriage to a queen, was proposed as a possible husband for Mary Queen of Scots. In the memoirs of the Scottish ambassador, Sir James Melville (1535-1617), we learn how Elizabeth I invited him to her private cabinet where she showed him a portrait miniature of Dudley in a private tête-à-tête.  The description of the intimacy of Melville’s viewing this portrait miniature is best told in Melville’s own words:

“She [Elizabeth] took me to her Bed-chamber, and opened a little Cabinet, wherein were divers little pictures wrapped within Paper, and their Names written with her own hand upon the Papers. Upon the first that she took up was written, My Lord’s Picture. I held the Candle, and pressed to see that picture so named, she appeared loath to let me see it, yet my impor­tunity prevailed for a sight thereof, and found it to be the Earl of Leicester’s picture. I desired that I might have it to carry home to my Queen, which she refused, alledging that she had but that one picture of his. I said, your Majesty hath here the Original, for I perceived him at the farthest part of the Chamber, speaking with Secretary Ci­cil. Then she took out the Queens picture and kissed it, and I adven­tured to kiss her hand, for the great love therein evidenced to my Mistress. Se shewed me also a fair Ruby, as great as a Tenis Ball, I desired that she would either send it, or my Lord of Leicester’s picture, as a Token unto the Queen. She said, if the Queen would follow her counsel, that she would in process of time get all she had; that in the mean time she was resolved in a Token to send her with me a fair Diamond. . .”[xix]

In case you are wondering who painted this treasured miniature of the adult Dudley, it could have only been the court illuminator, Levina Teerlinc, because when Holbein and Lucas Horenbout died Robert Dudley was just a teenager.  There is a miniature of Dudley in his prime that is held in the private collection of the Duke of Buccleuch and may be the one that Elizabeth showed Melville.  

As Elizabeth’s reign progressed, the notoriously parsimonious the queen would give small portraits of herself created by Teerlinc’s successor, Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1610), as a token of her esteem.  Known for his ability to capture a true likeness, as the queen aged, Hilliard was diplomatic enough to ensure the focus of his portraits of the queen was her jewels and fabulous wardrobe. 

These two portraits of Elizabeth I & her favourite, Robert Dudley. They measure 15mm high and were probably originally kept in a hinged ring. Sold at auction some 12 years ago.

The gossips said that Hilliard had created so many of these royal portraits that he was able to render her likeness ‘in but four lines‘.  Clearly this lovely bit of gossip was encouraged to enhance Hilliard’s reputation, and he repeats it in his draft treatise of 1598. Even if he did not use ‘but four lines’ to create Elizabeth’s portraits, he was a master of the art of illusion.   Using the symbols associated with the virgin goddesses, Astraea and Cynthaea, he perpetuated the visual propaganda first promulgated by William Cecil in a draft proclamation of 1563 to regulate images of the queen. Even though the proclamation was never made, the evidence that there must have been a discussion about what symbols were to be used in official portraits are still before us in the Phoenix and Pelican portraits, the use of the crescent moons of the virgin goddess Cynthaea seen in the miniatures of the 1580s known as the Mask of Youth series.  These images focused on the ageing queen’s fabulous wardrobe and he used dots of coloured resin dropped on to burnished silver leaf to mimic her jewellery. Thanks to Hilliard’s skill, Elizabeth I became a glittering statement of majesty and power and it is this image that immediately springs to mind when anyone mentions portraits of England’s Virgin Queen. This portrait of Elizabeth has recently been restored to its original condition so the faux gems now glitter in artificial light once more.

Elizabeth I c 1595. Mask of Youth series. Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1619). Royal Collection Trust. (Much enlarged so you can see the jewels)

Teerlinc was steeped in knowledge of visual medieval symbolism and as Hilliard’s probable teacher she taught him. Art historians are divided as to whether she was his teacher, but after years of researching her works, for me there is clear evidence that she was. [xx]

While Teerlinc introduced early Renaissance motifs into document illumination, Hilliard’s later style embraces a combination of late Renaissance motifs together with elements of the queen’s personal symbols representing her as a wise virgin goddess as seen in the illuminated E (below) for the founding charter of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, commissioned by Sir Walter Mildmay in 1584.

Illuminated letter E from the founding charter of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Image source: Wikipedia.


The individual miniature portraits were considerably cheaper than a large portrait and by the late 16th century the average price of a portrait in miniature was £2 – £3, which equates to approximately £2,000 in today’s money.  Ironically, this is roughly what a leading 21st century portrait painter in miniature would charge today, so prices have kept pace with inflation.  

After the death of Elizabeth I in March of 1603, Hilliard went on to serve James I and died in January 1619 at the age of 72.

James I of England, VI of Scotland. Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1519) Royal Collection Trust.

What the royal accounts and surviving portraits demonstrate is that the art of the illuminator was highly regarded by the court, with specific artists being in close contact with the royal family.  

While the various ancient European royal dynasties may have regarded the Tudors as newcomers in comparison to the length of rule by the ruling houses of Europe, Henry VIII’s desire to compete at their level on the artistic stage meant he hired the first official woman artist to any court, Levina Teerlinc (née Bening).  

Henry VIII’s artistic legacy includes work by two of the most highly regarded women artists in Europe at the time; Susannah Horenbout (twice married to Englishmen) and Levina Teerlinc.  As gentlewomen to the various English queens, Susannah and Levina had access to their various private quarters at all times and did not require chaperoning should any one of them wish to avail themselves of the talents of these two artists, either as artists or even as a confidante.  The idea that a male artist might require a chaperone could be considered a minor detail by today’s liberal society, but in the 16th century it was important and is something that has been disregarded by art historians ever since the history of art became a serious academic subject in the 1800s.  That too is not surprising since the subject was at that time only studied by privileged, rich white men whose attitude to women artists was to ignore their existence.  


[i] Roy Strong, Artists of the Tudor Court: V&A. 1983.

[ii] Museum reference no. MSL/1999/6. Currently in storage (March 2020).

[iii] The Liber Niger is held in the Chapel of St George, Windsor Castle.

[iv] The Complete Peerage was first published in eight volumes between 1887 – 1898 by George E. Cockayne and has been revised several times since.

[v] Auerbach; Tudor Artists p171

[vi] James: Feminist Dynamic p

[vii] Auerbach; Tudor Artists p 42-43.

[viii] The proper name for an illuminator is a limner and the original name for portrait miniatures was limning.

[ix] Auerbach: Tudor Artists p50-51 

[x] Calculated using the website www.measuringworth.com which gives different values for project, labour, economic, purchasing and real wages or wealth.  In this instance it is the labour earnings value that is quoted.

[xi] Auberbach, Tudor Artists p50.

[xii] Check reference in royal accounts.

[xiii] My grateful thanks to Heather Darsie for her time discussing whether or not Anna’s linguistic skills would have been sufficient to converse with Susannah or vica versa.

[xiv] Since this book is not about Susannah Horenbout, I have not trawled the parish registers of Sheen, Surrey to establish whether or not this was the case. Reference to Susannah’s being pregnant in 1540 is made Kat Emerson’s Who’s Who of Tudor Women.  

[xv] James & Franco article 2000.

[xvi] Edmund, Mary; Hilliard & Oliver

[xvii] Personal as yet unpublished research.

[xviii] Guicciardini, Descrittione di Tutti i Paesi Bassi 1567; p100 (accessed via University of Bologna)

[xix] Melvil of Halhil, Sir James; Memoires; ed George Scott gent; printed by E. H. for Robert Boulter at the Turks Head in Cornhill against the Royal Exchange, 1683 p49 

[xx] Again, as yet personal unpublished personal research.  


Primary Sources

Various royal accounts, legal documents and patent rolls in The National Archives, Kew.

Archives of The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths

Guicciardini Ludovico; Descrittione di Tutti i Paesi Bassi; 1567.

Hilliard, Nicholas; draft treatise of 1598; Edinburgh University

Melvil of Halhil, Sir James; Memoires; ed George Scott gent; printed by E. H. for Robert Boulter at the Turks Head in Cornhill against the Royal Exchange, 1683

Selected Secondary Sources

Personal unpublished research into Life and Works of Levina Teerlinc, University of Kent, 2006.

Auerbach, Erna; Tudor Artists: A Study of Painters in the Royal Service and of Portraiture on Illuminated Documents from the Accession of Henry VIII to the Death of Elizabeth I, Athlone, 1954

            Nicholas Hilliard; Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961.

Darsie, Heather; Anna Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister; Amberley, 2019.

Edmund, Mary; Hilliard & Oliver; Robert Hale, Ltd., London 1983.

Goldring; Elizabeth; Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the World of Elizabethan Art: Painting and Patronage at the Court of Elizabeth I; Yale University Press; 2014.

            Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist; Yale University Press; 2019.

James, Susan; The Feminist Dynamic 1450; Ashgate Press 2009.

Strong, Roy; Artists of the Tudor Court: Portrait Miniature Rediscovered; V&A Museum, London, 1983, and other publication on Tudor & Jacobean portraiture.

Melanie V Taylor

Resident Art Historian

Mell Taylor lives in the U.K. and has a Bachelor’s degree in the History of Art, Architecture & Design and a Master of Arts degree in Medieval & Tudor Studies. As a freelance lecturer she has delivered courses on the exchange of ideas between the artists of the Northern and Southern Renaissance; Hans Holbein The Younger; the Life and Work of Nicholas Hilliard; The Tudor Portrait miniature; Giotto & Van Eyck to Michelangelo & Hans Holbein the Younger; The Italian High Renaissance & Mannerism 1500 – 1600; The Normans in Europe; The Albigensian Crusade; The Rise of the Venetian Republic; The Reconquest of Spain; the Marketing of Monarchy, Elizabeth I – The Making of Gloriana; Symbolism in 17th century Dutch Art and the finally, the 19th century Impressionist paintings as evidence of social change.

She is also commissioned to research artists, subject matter and where possible provenance of paintings. In addition, Mell has presented papers at academic conferences on the visual evidence of trade in illuminated manuscripts of between 12th and 16th centuries.

Website: https://melanievtaylor.co.uk/

Happy Birthday, Anna of Cleves and Henry VIII!

by Expert Contributor Heather R. Darsie

On this day of 28 June in 1515, a little baby girl was born in the Holy Roman Empire whose life would be dramatically shaped by international politics. The baby was christened, “Anna,” after her paternal aunt. “Anna” was a family name on her maternal side, as well. Anna of Cleves’ great-grandmother through Maria of Juelich-Berg was Anna of Saxony. Anna of Saxony, who died in 1512, was the wife of Elector Albrecht Achilles of Brandenburg. Anna von der Mark, known to English speakers as Anne of Cleves, was born into a powerfully connected family in the Holy Roman Empire.

The marriage of little Anna’s parents created a unified powerhouse in Germany that would later threaten the Empire’s hold on the area. After defeat, the United Duchies of Juelich-Cleves-Berg would become wealthy in land holdings and remain stable during the long reign of Anna’s brother Wilhelm V, known as Wilhelm the Rich. Far from being an almost random German bride for the powerful Henry VIII of England, Anna was valuable for her family’s landholdings and connections within the Empire. For Anna, it all started on 28 June 1515, her future husband’s 24th birthday.

Anna of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1539. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Henry VIII was King of England for a little over six years by the time Anna was born. Henry’s first wife, Katharine of Aragon, had so far birthed four children, who were either stillborn or died after only a few days. In the summer of 1515, sometime after Anna of Cleves and Henry VIII’s birthday, Katharine announced another pregnancy. This pregnancy resulted in the birth of Mary I in February 1516, making Anna a mere eight months older than her future stepdaughter. 

Please note that the remainder of this article was posted on History of Royal Women

When I first began researching Anna, I questioned whether her name was indeed “Anne,” which would have a similar pronunciation in German to “Anna,” or if her name was Anna. After sorting out that Anna’s true name was indeed Anna, I wanted to learn from where her September 21 or 22, 1515 or 1516 date of birth came. I looked at several English secondary sources, and not one source for Anna’s date of birth was cited. Around this same time, I became aware of Die Chronik des Johann Wassenberch, or, The Chronicle of Johann WassenberchDie Chronik was a contemporary chronicle written in Duisburg, which was part of the Duchy of Cleves. It spans from the late 15th century, then abruptly ends in 1517. It is thought that Johann Wassenberch died of plague.

I purchased the book and later forgotten that I had so done until Die Chronik came in the mail. It was around 19:00 on 27 June 2017. I skimmed through the book and was happy to see that the dates of Anna’s parents’ wedding, birth of her sister Sybylla, and birth of Wilhelm were all correct and properly listed, amongst other important dates. I knew Amalia was born a few days after Die Chronik ended, so I was not surprised that her birthdate was not in Die Chronik.

When I leafed to September 1515, there was no mention of Anna. I checked September 1516, then 1513 and 1514, and still nothing. I thought that perhaps her birth was not listed because she was a second child and second daughter. I was disappointed, but still happy to have the valuable resource.

A couple hours later, I was still skimming through the book and starting preliminary translation when I received a huge surprise: Anna’s date of birth was recorded, and it was given as 28 June 1515! Though I am not one who believes in fate, I looked at the clock and noted that in Germany at that moment it was the early morning of 28 June 2017, Anna’s 502d birthday. I could not believe it! Chills went down my spine. This also meant that Anna was exactly twenty-four years younger than Henry VIII, making him exactly twice her age when they married.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein, c. 1540.

After conducting more research into German sources and critically thinking about the births of Anna and her brother, a June 1515 or possibly very early July 1515 birthdate seemed to make more sense than a September 1515 birthdate. Following please find an excerpt from my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, discussing my argument for Anna’s true date of birth being 28 June 1515.

“This year [of 1515], on [28 June,] the day before Saints Peter and Paul, a second daughter was born to the eldest son of Duke John II of Cleves, Duke Johann III of Jülich and Berg…. The child was baptized in the name of Anna….”

As far back as 1844 in English sources, Anna’s date of birth has been given as 21 or 22 September in either 1515 or 1516. Agnes Strickland gave Anna’s date of birth as 22 September 1516 in Volume II of her Lives of the Queens of England, published in the mid-1800s, citing Part I of the Royal Genealogies by James Anderson, D. D., and published in 1732. Anderson simply gives Anna’s date of birth as being in 1516, with no citation…Strickland also relies on Maur-François Dantine’s L’Art de Vérifier les Dates, published in Paris in the early 18th century. It gives…Anna’s birth as 22 September 1515 with no citation to any source.

The archives in Germany do not possess any documentation about the birth of Anna. It is possible that the documents showing it have been lost…. [The] one primary source that does exist, Die Chronik des Johann Wassenberch, or Chronicle of Johann Wassenberch, is recognised as a contemporary source for events in the Lower Rhine region between 1492 and 1517….A review of other dates pertinent to Anna’s family, such as the marriage of her parents, and births of her older sister Sybylla and brother Wilhelm, correctly correspond with other known dates in the Chronicle of Johann Wassenberch.

…When taking into consideration the primary source, births of Anna’s siblings, Catholic tradition, and German secondary sources, there is ample support for Anna’s true date of birth being earlier than September 1515, on 28 June 1515 at the earliest and 1 July 1515 at the latest.”

Select excerpt from Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, pp. 17-20.

Love learning about the Reformation or Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Darsie, Heather R. Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’. Stroud: Amberley (2019).
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