A Young Man Among Roses

I’m sure that you’ll recognise this picture.   Its custodian, the V&A, says it “is perhaps the most famous of English miniatures. It epitomises the romantic Elizabethan age and is a masterpiece of miniature paintings by its greatest exponent, Nicholas Hilliard. The large elongated oval shape of this miniature was never repeated in Hilliard’s work and must relate to the now unknown purpose of the object. Possibly it was incorporated into an expensive object such as a looking-glass.”

It’s a portrait of young man in fashionable court dress leaning against a tree behind a thicket of roses. What is there one can possibly say about it that isn’t that obvious.  As anyone who’s ever looked closely at paintings of this period will tell you, there’s an awful lot! So here are  some questions. Who is he?  Why is dressed as he is?  Why is he posed in this way? Are the roses significant?  and what does the inscription mean – did you even notice the inscription?

Rather than start immediately explaining  the portrait of the young man I want to start instead with providing some context to why it might have been painted.  To do so we need to go back to this picture of Henry VIII and his family, even though  it has no direct connection with the young man among the roses or its painter. Holbein’s family group is a statement of dynastic power, and the Tudor attempts to root themselves in the national conciousness as the rightful rulers of Britain.  But, as always, you mustn’t take the painting as gospel truth. Only one of Henry’s wives is portrayed – the dead one – Jane Seymour, mother of the future Edward VI who died when he was just a few days old.  The princes’ two half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth are shown almost identically on either side as demure respectful daughters, with no sign of their antagonism. This painting is Henry showing off his three potential heirs,  to the throne to prove the Tudors had staying power.

Of course as we know they didn’t establish themselves long-term. Edward VI died young and unmarried, and Mary died childless too just a few years later so that in 1558 the throne passed to Elizabeth.   Over the course of the next half-century we see a gradual transmutation from  that dynastic ambition to one that  relates very much to the Queen herself and her personal  power, pride & above all self-image.

Let’s look at how portraits of  Elizabeth reflect this.  They start off as typical early 16th century portraits like this one of her in red, painted the year before her father died in 1547. It could for all intents and purposes be one of his wives.

She then lives very quietly through the reign of her fiercely Protestant brother – as the number 3 in line and quite likely to be sidelined completely if he marries and has children. It was better to be safe than sorry.  That continued to be the case, indeed more so, after his death and through   the reign of her ferociously catholic sister. So when she comes to the throne herself, almost unexpectedly in 1558 her first portrait is almost sombre.

The Clopton Portrait, c. 1558–60

Elizabeth is dressed in the the  colours associated with a modest Protestant intellectual: black and white. In the system of heraldry, the tincture of black represents constancy, while the tincture of white/silver represents sincerity.  She’s wearing  pearls and  ermine which both represent purity.   Several versions exist – the first sign of the official  portraiture based on the idea of standard images which Elizabeth was later to embrace wholeheartedly.



This picture is also very early in her reign but you can sense a change in style, and in particular the appearance of the   red and the white roses in her hair.  Portraits like this are  likely  to have been painted to show to prospective suitors and foreign heads of state.

There’s an even bigger change of style in the Hampden portrait from the mid-1560s.   It  shows her at her most official, in front of the royal coat of arms, the cloth of  state and the throne. Sir Roy Strong argues it was painted at a time when Elizabeth’s  image was being tightly controlled, making this  art as state and personal propaganda.

A draft proclamation of 1563  tried to prevent the circulation of unapproved images of the Queen. A face pattern was produced which artist were compelled to use in order to have their portraits approved.

Elizabeth is portrayed in red and white. The colour combination is highly significant and  refers back to the union of the house of Lancaster with the house of York  achieved by the marriage of her grandparents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.  Tudor green is also prominent.

The Hampden  portrait is a feast of symbolism. Many apparently small details would’ve been immediately apparent to the Tudor viewer although not necessarily of course to us.  For example in her right hand she holds a carnation which in Greek  is dianthus meaning the love of God.  The flower was an emblem of the Virgin Mary, and so it is symbolic not only of her role  as Queen but  also as  supreme governor of the Church of England which she had re-established in 1559 when she broke with Catholicism again.

However the most obvious symbolic area of the picture is the background to the right of Elizabeth. This is a prominent reference to her marriage potential.  She chose a decorated tapestry with  flowers such as honeysuckle and with some of the fruits carefully arranged in pairs.  Elsewhere in the tapestry there are ripe open pomegranates and even peas about to burst out of their pods surely designed as symbols of fertility.

Roy Strong says in this portrait  “Elizabeth is caught in that short lived period before what was a recognisable human being became transmuted into a goddess.”

Not content with borrowing the emblems of the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth now uses classical mythology to  illustrate her importance and wisdom.  Two surviving allegorical paintings show  the story of the Judgement of Paris turned on its head, with  Elizabeth about to choose between Juno,  Minerva  and Venus, all of whome are outshone/outdressed  by the Queen with her crown, orb, sceptre and lots of roses.  The story of the Judgement was a very popular one in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Elizabeth returned to it several more times, even when she was much older.

Elizabeth is clearly fond of taking over well-understood imagery and using  it to her own ends.  She also adapted the Holbein family portrait we saw earlier…

to show herself holding the hand of Peace and followed by the figure of Plenty. Her father  passes the sword of justice to his Protestant son Edward the sixth. On the left of Elizabeth’s half sister and Princess Mary and her husband Philip of Spain, with Mars the God of war in the background.   Again the adaptation was reused and updated several times later in her reign.

By the early 1570s the manipulation of the Queen’s image was  a  serious business as she became a public icon.  Likenesses appear on a large number of objects, and were carefully designed and served as tools to mould public perceptions.  As part of this process she sat for very few portraits.

This 1572 portrait by Hilliard was one of the few and may well be the one he describes in his treatise, The Art of Limning. Elizabeth preferred to be painted without shadow so sat  in ‘the open alley of a goodly garden’  to help him create such an effect.










Instead, as these two paintings demonstrate very clearly,   once a design or portrait pattern was established, court approved artists made multiple versions to meet what must have been  significant demands for images of the Queen.  A face pattern was used  for one and then simply reversed for the other, suggesting what was probably been a production line. Scientific analysis has revealed that both of these paintings were done in Hillyard’s  studio on oak boards cut from the same two trees.   Aged about 41 and halfway through her reign Elizabeth  is  treated almost like a religious icon. Her appearance in each is magnificent with  particularly elaborate clothes and jewellery  including  a large pendant – one of  a phoenix, the other a pelican.

The Phoenix symbolises rebirth but also uniqueness – there can only be one Phoenix alive at any given time – and perhaps Elizabeth by adopting it as a symbol in the 1570s is inferring there can only  be one ruler in England.   The sister portrait with her her Pelican jewel shows the bird pecking its own breast to draw blood to feed its chicks, a reference to Elizabeth’s symbolic role as mother of the nation. In both portraits there are roses, including the large rose shaped/coloured fan  cut off at the edge of the Pelican picture. This  is Elizabeth as her spin doctor William Ceciu,  Lord Burghley – and I’m sure the queen herself – would’ve wanted the world to see her.

As she grew older Elizabeth  developed yet another strand in this game of emblems and symbols. She had already adopted the red, white and Tudor roses but now she selected the Eglantyne – a single Briar Rose- for her personal use.

Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil seem to have taken it up with enthusiasm.  Elizabeth visited Theobalds their splendid Herttfordshire seat as many as 11 times in 1590 and was given an “entertainment” which included a speech by a Gardener describing his work. Amongst other tasks he was “commanded to place an arbour all of eglantine… Eglantine I most honour, and it hath been told me that the deeper it is rooted in the ground, the sweeter it smelleth in the flower, making it ever so green that the sun of Spain at the hottest cannot parch it…”

The Eglantyne can also be seen on the Phoenix Jewel which includes it with Tudor roses in a wreath around her profile, as well as in several other prints and book illustrations.

She is also seen in the last years of her reign as Rosa Electa  by William Rogers surrounded again by  branches of both Tudor  and Eglantyne roses.

So to sum up we have an elaborate propaganda machine where Elizabeth surrounds herself with the most elaborate symbolism in her portraiture, pageantry and in the poetry celebrating her place at the head of the nation. And it encouraged, even demanded, a response from her courtiers.

Young Man Among Roses, Nicholas Hilliard c 1585-95 V&A

So after all that what are we to make of Nicolas Hilliard’s Young Man among Roses? Like the portrait of Henry Percy, which I’ve written about previously on here, this picture is more than just a picture. It’s an impressa.  This was described by the Elizabethan chronicler and historian William Camden as  “a device in pictures with his motto or word born by a noble or Learned personage, to notify some particular conceit of their own.” I’d suggest that the “conceit” here revolves around the aspirations of a lovelorn gallant in the language of the Elizabethan court: a visual love poem in miniature.

He is wrapped – or perhaps trapped – in long  sprays of eglantine roses, her personal flower. He stands in a position of pensive or languid melancholy staring at nothing in particular. He’s clearly wealthy. His cloak is black, which was the most expensive colour to produce due to the cost of the mordant, while the rest of his outfit  is black and white, the queen’s personal colours.


Round his head, and easy to miss at first glance is a motto: ‘Dat poenas laudata fides’  which is  a snippet from the Roman poet Lucan. The dramatist Ben Johnson translated it  freely as… “Appraised faith is her own scourge” and the rest of the line is  “when it sustains their states who fortune has depressed.”     Lucan’s lines  refer to the Roman general Pompey the Great who might seem an odd  person for this young man, by inference, to identifying himself with. Yet that’s not the case.  Pompey was one of those famous classical figures included in Plutarch’s Lives. Dating from the 2nd century it included 48 biographies of famous men, arranged in pairs to shed light on their common moral virtues and failings. Plutarch had recently been translated by Sir Thomas North and  was used by Shakespeare as the basis for his Roman plays.  It would have been well-known to the Elizabethan elite.

Pompey was a popular hero and military commander.  North describes how his “had a certaine grace in his looke that won mens good willes before he spake: for his countenaunce was sweete, mixed with gravetie, and being come to mans state, there appeared in his jesture and behaviour, a grave and princely majestie.”. At the same time he notes his “temperance of life, aptnesse to armes, eloquence of tongue, faithfulnes of word, and curtesie in conversation.”   Not a bad role model then for an ambitious young courtier, perhaps with with military ambitions.

Pictures like this speak to us in a lost language, that of Renaissance symbolism.   They were meant to be puzzling unfortunately for us in many ways they still are….but one thing seems clear: the young man is declaring his secret passion for the Queen. Was this merely a romanticised ideal?

I pose the question deliberately because there is  a more challenging – and risky- association a little further on in North’s translation of Pompey’s life.

“It is reported also, that when Flora the curtisan waxed old, she much delighted to talke of the familiaritie which she had with Pompey beinge a younge man : telling that after she had layen with him, she could not possiblie rise from him, but she must needes geve him some sweete quippe or pleasaunt taunte.”:

Is that wishful thinking – does the young man  harbour designs for more than a platonic affair with the queen who was more than 30 years his senior? Am I reading too much into the young man’s motto….maybe that depends on who he is?

In 1976 SirRoy Strong argued that at the time when this portrait was painted only one person at Elizabath’s court fitted all the criteria to be the sitter: Robert Devereux,  Earl  of Essex.

Devereux was politically ambitious, had served in military campaigns and was to become a commander [although rather an unsuccessful one].

The awful thing is that Essex, having become the Queen’s favourite in the late 1580s,  then misjudged her favour and instead of remembering the fate of Pompey, became overbearing, and eventually tried to lead a rebellion which failed miserably. He  was executed for treason in 1601 – a sad end to the young man among the roses.

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