English School , Late Sixteenth Century
Edward Wotton had a remarkably long career, living to the age of seventy-eight under the rule of six monarchs, from Edward VI through to Charles I...
The identity of the subject in this late-Elizabethan panel portrait was until recently unknown, however recent research has confirmed the sitter as Edward Wotton, 1st Baron Wotton, a diplomat and administrator to Elizabeth I.
The identification of Wotton as the subject is confirmed by comparison with a half-length portrait of the same sitter in a private collection, which uses the same head-type seen here. Another half-length portrait, bearing a remarkable stylistic similarity to the aforementioned work, is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and is thought to depict Wotton’s wife, Hester Pickering (or Puckering), who died in 1592.
Edward Wotton had a remarkably long career, living to the age of seventy-eight under the rule of six monarchs, from Edward VI through to Charles I. He was the eldest surviving son of Thomas Wotton and his first wife Elizabeth Rudston, members of a prominent Kentish family during the sixteenth century. During his youth he showed an aptitude for languages, mastering French, Italian and Spanish, and later in 1577 was sent by Sir Francis Walsingham to escort Charles Philippe de Croye, marquis d’Havre to London, to talk with Elizabeth I on the Dutch crisis. He was also asked to greet the newly elected emperor Rudolf II in Prague with Philip Sidney, and was appointed special envoy to Portugal in 1579 to give the queen’s compliments to the new king, Henrique II.
In 1575 Wotton married Hester Pickering, the illegitimate daughter of Sir William Pickering of Osbaldkirk in Yorkshire and together the couple had three sons and two daughters. In 1584 he entered parliament as a knight of the shire of Kent and the following year was made ambassador to Scotland. By 1586 he was in Paris having been sent to present Henri III with evidence of Mary Queen of Scots complicity in the Babington plot, and three years later in 1589 was appointed gentleman of the privy chamber.
By 1601 Wotton had joined the committee responsible for dispatching troops to defend London in response to the earl of Essex’s staged coup, and the following year was made comptroller of the household for Elizabeth I, for which he was highly praised. In May 1603 he was created, by the new king James I, Baron Wotton of Marley. Following the Main Plot in 1603, which planned to execute the king and put his cousin Arabella Stuart on the throne, Wotton was involved in the trials of Henry Brooke, Sir Walter Raleigh and Baron Cobham. Cobham and Raleigh were both consequently imprisoned in the Tower of London.
As a wealthy landowner, Wotton was made lord lieutenant of Kent in April 1604, a role which he held for sixteen years, and in 1610 he travelled to Paris as ambassador-extraordinary to give Marie de’ Medici King James’ condolences after the death of her husband Henry IV of France. It was said that after impressing the young King Louis XIII and his regent mother, Wotton was given a jewel worth 4500 crowns. In 1616 he resigned as comptroller of the household and became treasurer, although later resigned from this position in 1618.
Surprisingly, after a long and prosperous career, it was during Wotton’s final years that he challenged everything he had worked for. He began practising as a Catholic, obtaining a sealed document from the pope stating that he would be absolved of all sin at the time of his death. He also managed to conceal his absence at church for six years. However, in 1624, at the age of seventy-six, he was summoned to the Maidstone assizes, charged with recusancy. Instead of claiming that he had deteriorating health which prevented him from attending services, Wotton admitted he was a Catholic and reminded the court of his loyalty to the crown. Out of respect, the court refused to rule and he was discharged, though at the ascension of Charles I in 1625 he was advised not to take the oath as a privy councillor.
Edward Wotton died at his home at Boughton Malherbe in early 1626 at the age off seventy-eight and was buried at the church that he had refused to attend. Five years after his death, his widow, his second wife Margaret Wharton, arranged without the church’s consent, to move Wotton’s Catholic font closer to his tomb and insert a stone that read ‘Lord Edward Wotton, Baron of Marley, a Catholic.’ For this his widow was fined £500 by the court of high commission.
 We are grateful to Dr Edward Town, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Yale Center for British Art, for his assistance in identifying this sitter.