Nicholas Hilliard was extraordinarily talented. He was Queen Elizabeth I’s official miniaturist and goldsmith, famous even today for his cameos and portraits of her and her courtiers (especially of the Earl of Leicester). He even painted one of the Queen’s other suitors, the Duc d’Alençon during an extended stay in France, and is credited with producing the famous Drake Jewel.
This was the masterpiece that Elizabeth presented to Sir Francis Drake for his assaults on the Spanish in the Caribbean and Pacific, and for the powerful alliance he had forged with the now largely forgotten Cimarron nation, based around Panama, and consisting of Africans who had freed themselves from Spanish slavery. The alliance with the Cimarrons was bringing in hundreds of thousands of ducats in revenue… and Drake hoped to establish a Cimarron colony in North America, populated by the vast numbers of slaves that he thought would rise against Spanish servitude in the Caribbean, and help him extend English power both there and in South America.
While Hilliard painted the cameo of the Queen in this jewel, though, the sardonyx bas-relief bears the name of one of his co-workers.
It is inscribed with the legend ‘Io, Roberto Rex Feci’ – that is to say ‘I, Robert the King did it’, and he identifies the lady in the jewel as Elizabeth, his mother, and the African by her side as Ali, his father.
It was sculpted by Robert Tudor, who the world of art now knows better as Roland Lockey, and it depicts his parents – the Queen of England, and her lover Ali, the notional King of the Cimarrons.
But who was this Nicholas Hillier, entrusted with the well being of the Queen’s unofficial son? Conventional history tells us that he was the son of one Richard Hilliard (or Hellyer), who became Sheriff of Exeter in 1568. But it was not only Richard who did the raising. Nicholas was attached also to the household of a leading Protestant, John Bodley, father of the man who founded Oxford’s world-famous Bodleian Library. Under the rule of Mary, the Bodleys fled England, and on 8 May, 1557, Nicholas Hilliard was recorded in Geneva, as part of John’s family entourage, at a service presided over by John Knox, one of the leaders of the Reformation.
On Elizabeth’s accession, though, Nicholas was back in England apprenticed to her jeweller, Robert Brandon, and most likely being trained also as an artist by Levina Teerlinc. She arrived in England soon after the death of Hans Holbein, taking his place as Royal Court Painter, and remained painting for the monarch through the reigns of Edward, and then Mary, before becoming a Lady in Waiting and artist to Elizabeth herself.
Nicholas tells us a rather different story of his origins, though, one that explains his otherwise inexplicable presence in Elizabeth’s Court, and the closeness the Queen felt towards him. In a self portrait that he executed at the age of thirty, he tells us not that Levina Teerlinc taught him to paint, which she most likely did, but that she was his mother.
The same story appears on his other portraits also, notably one of him painted in 1588, where he depicts his mother’s face on his cheek.
His father Richard also appears in the painting, his hand reaching down from above to clasp the hand of his son. The mystery is deepened by the legend ‘Attici amoris ergo’… the Latin for: ‘Therefore love the attics’. (The ‘H’ of Richard is hard to make out because there is another word there also, written over the top, in the lace of his dad’s cuff: ‘Eyck’… but that is too huge a story to delve into here).
He clearly loved his dad, but Richard was not Nicholas’ biological father – he was the one who did the hard part of raising and supporting the boy – the real dad. And we know because Richard’s name does not appear on the boy’s face. At first I thought his true father was a Stuart: the name seemed to appear written in his beard in an earlier portrait. The ascription was problematic, though. The ‘A’ of ‘Stuart’ could also have been a ‘P’, or an ‘R’… and there was an unreasonable gap between the ‘R’ and the ‘T’, seemingly with another letter there.
What I had not allowed for was that the annotations in the painting were written – at least in part – in Italian. The word was not a badly written ‘Stuart’, but the word ‘Estupratore’… ‘Rapist’, and it connected with the ‘Levina Teerlinc’ written around his mouth.
Nicholas seemed to be saying that his mother had been raped. Another curiosity was that the word began half way down his beard, leaving a gap from where it started on the left, suggesting that there was where one might find the name of the culprit.
Before we get into that, though, I ought to tell you who Levina really was. You may have noticed there are two names running around Nicholas’ mouth, not one. The other is an Italian one: ‘Elisabetta’, because Levina – although raised in the Low Countries by a surrogate family, was not born there. And this was why Nicholas spoke Italian. Levina, you see was the result of another illicit relationship, one between a famous painter and a noblewoman (the Marquess of Ferrara, no less) while she was married to someone else. The affair was a lifelong one, not some quick and imprudent flirtation. It began in 1511 or before, producing one of the great names of Art History, and continued until the lady’s death decades later. Levina is painted here by her brother, and identified as Teerlinc:
Levina, or Elisabetta as she was born, was removed for her own protection, and to avoid scandal, and raised by very distant family elsewhere, and she was known from that day forth as having always been Flemish.
Nicholas tells us too the name of this illustrious grandfather. ‘Nipote’ he says… ‘grandson…’, and then making use of the otherwise inexplicable ‘M’ inscribed in gold in his cameo, he writes ‘Michelagnolo’.
…and Vasari confirms this extraordinary news:
This was how a lady artist managed not only to get a first rate education as an artist, but then to be selected as court painter to Henry VIII.
Since Elizabeth’s lover, Ali (aka William Scrots, aka Paris Bordone) – as we saw in earlier posts was also Michelangelo’s son (born to a slave lady back in 1492, and documented in innumerable paintings over the next twenty five years), we can now understand why both Ali and Levina should have arrived in Henry’s court at the same time, in 1545. They were brother and sister. And it explains too why Elizabeth took Levina to her heart, and kept her close. She knew she could trust her lover’s sister with her deepest secrets, indeed, with her life.
There was another reason too, though, for such trust. And that brings us back to the space before the word ‘estupratore’. There is indeed a name there, and it is the same name that appears on Nicholas’ cheekbone, the traditional place to write the name of one’s father (‘figlio de’ means ‘son of’), and it is the same name we find on all of his self-portraits. The name is ‘Henry’.
The name is not just any old ‘Henry’, it is ‘Henry VIII’, and that is why, when he painted a miniature cameo of the King long after his death, the artist wrote ‘estupratore’ across his hat, his beard, and very faintly across his forehead. Nicholas was not only the grandson of Michelangelo, he was also the son of King Henry VIII.
There is another word in his ruff, too, apart from the word ‘estupratore’. It is the Italian word that always – in those days – went with the word ‘estupratore’. The dreaded word… ‘vendetta’…
…and in 1547, the year Nicholas was born, Henry died.