16th Century English School 16th Century
Soon after Elizabeth was crowned queen in 1558, Leicester, who had known her from childhood, was named Master of the Horse – a position that allowed close contact with Elizabeth – and was also elected Knight of the Garter.
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and a prolific patron of the arts. He sat for his portrait several times and his best-known portrait is that now in the collection of the Rothschild Family Trust at Waddesdon Manor. It is from this portrait that the present work derives...
In the Waddesdon portrait Leicester is shown half-length wearing a fine embroidered silk doublet with matching breeches and gold buttons. The portrait is ornate and impressive and shows Leicester at a transformative time in his life when his wealth, status and influence within the court were rapidly growing, and he was fast becoming one of the Queen’s most senior councillors as well as her most trusted friend and confidante.
Soon after Elizabeth was crowned queen in 1558, Leicester, who had known her from childhood, was named Master of the Horse – a position that allowed close contact with Elizabeth – and was also elected Knight of the Garter. Within a year he had been acknowledged as Elizabeth’s favourite and as her most probable choice for husband. Wealth soon followed in the form of tax concessions on the export of wool and cloth and Leicester also received an annuity from the customs of London. By 1563 when the Waddesdon portrait was probably painted, Leicester’s wealth and position at the centre of the Elizabethan court was well established, and as a close ally of the Queen, his likeness would have been in high demand from those wishing to show their allegiance.
There was an eager appetite for portraiture at the Elizabethan court – for both personal and propaganda purposes – and throughout the second half of the seventeenth century many painters travelled to England from the Continent to meet the demand. One of these artists was Steven van der Meulen (fl. 1543-d.1563), who we know was in England by 1561 and is a possible candidate for the artist of the Waddesdon portrait. The artist of our work may well have been connected to the studio of the painter responsible for the Waddesdon portrait, or alternatively they may have been an independent artist working from a template or ‘pattern’ of the portrait in circulation at that date. Several period copies and derivations of the Waddesdon portrait exist in varying scales, including a fine half-length portrait in the collection of the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven and a portrait in the collection at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, showing Leicester in a bust-length format similar to our portrait.
The unknown artist of our work was clearly talented, and they have faithfully reproduced many of the fine details from the original composition, albeit on a reduced scale and cropped format The fine detail of the cap jewel depicting the Roman soldier Marcus Curtius on horseback – alluding to Leicester’s position as Master of the Horse – is rendered with great clarity as is the gold chain worn around his neck from which hangs the Garter George jewel. The links of the chain are heightened by the artist with led-tin-yellow paint which gives them a glimmering appearance and the square-cut diamonds and rubies which decorate the chain are highlighted with white to make them seem to glisten.
Robert Dudley was a younger son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (1504-1553). When still a child, he was brought into the society of King Edward VI (1537-1553) and Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth. Knighted at an early age, Dudley married Amy Robsart (1532-1560) in 1549 and received preferment from the crown. Upon Edward’s death (1553), he aided his father in the plot to place Lady Jane Grey (c. 1537-1554) upon the throne, was sent to the Tower of London, and condemned to death. He was later released, pardoned, and, after military service in France, restored to his rights (perhaps through the intervention of Mary I's husband, Philip II of Spain (1527-1598)). As we have seen, Elizabeth’s accession to the throne in 1558 brought Dudley great preferment, making him one of the most senior figures at court.
His wife's mysterious death in 1560 darkened his reputation, however. He risked his reputation further when in 1561 he proposed to Philip II that, in thanks for endorsing Dudley’s mooted marriage to Elizabeth, Roman Catholicism would be restored to England. By 1563, Elizabeth seems to have realized the impracticality of marriage with Dudley, but her personal feeling toward him did not change, and he remained in a position of influence at court. She offered his hand to Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) and, to facilitate this scheme, created him Earl of Leicester (1564), but the plan was halted by Mary's marriage to Lord Darnley (1545-1567). Anxious to sire an heir, Leicester embarked on an affair with Douglas Sheffield, the dowager Lady Sheffield, which produced a son, Sir Robert Leicester. But, afraid to risk Elizabeth’s anger, he chose not to marry Sheffield. He was right to be fearful. When in 1578 he did eventually marry for a second time, wedding (perhaps bigamously) Lettice Knollys (c.1540-1634), it provoked his temporary estrangement from Elizabeth. From about 1564, Leicester was leader at court of the Puritan party, which desired war with Spain. In 1585 he was named commander of an expedition to help the United Provinces of the Netherlands against Spain. His military efforts were undistinguished, and he enraged Elizabeth by accepting, in 1586, the title of governor of the Netherlands. He was finally recalled in 1587. Upon the approach of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Leicester was appointed captain general of the armies, an office he exercised during the invasion threat. Leicester died of a fever very shortly afterwards, to the Queen's great sadness.
 Goldring, E., (2014), Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester and the World of Elizabethan Art, New Haven & London: Yale University Press for The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, p. 53
 Van der Meulen was recorded in a register of the Dutch Church on 22 June 1561. See The National Archives [TNA SP12/17 FOL. 70R] in Town, E. ‘A Biograohical Dictionary of London Painters 1547-1625’, The Volume of the Walpole Society, 2014, p. 179
 See Strong, R. (1969), Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, Vol.II, p. 195