Death by Paintbrush

The Assassination of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

In the final years of Henry VIII, a bitter struggle was underway for the job of Protector. Henry’s son was far too young to rule, and would need someone to guide him until he was of age… so whoever became Protector would rule the realm, and most likely merge their family with the House of Tudor – or even replace it! In generations there had never been more at stake.

The leading contenders were Charles Brandon and Edward Seymour for those wanting Reform and no return to Rome – and the Earl of Surrey for those determined to undo everything Henry had done, and restore Catholicism. It was a life or death battle, and my protagonist, the innocent seeming court artist Willem Scrots, was one of the foremost players. ‘Scrots’ was an alias, though. He had infiltrated many European courts in the past, posing sometimes as Paris Bordone, other times as Joos van Cleve, others as Bernard van Orley… and now he was firmly ensconced in the English Court under this new name.

Having seen the horrors first hand, he was determined to unite every possible force to defeat the atrocities the Spanish were committing in the Americas, along with their intention to dominate all of Europe, and to transport millions of enslaved Africans to the New World. And that meant he had to assassinate Surrey – a Catholic Protector would be catastrophic.

The following excerpt tells the tale: it is based on actual events, but  the conversation – naturally – is fiction (except for some passages from the trial). History cannot be honestly told without the passions it aroused at the time, and so some such elaboration is vital for the storyteller to bring it to life. The passage is taken from the new book ‘Aly, Michelangelo’s Son’, and we begin as Aly contemplates how to bring Surrey to his knees…

“What if the assassin were someone powerful enough to take Surrey by force, someone so strong they need not fear the law or reprisals? Who could be that strong? Only the strongest in the land was that strong. I realized the term ‘blame’ contains with it the false presupposition that someone would have to be blamed. But what if the person who killed Surrey were so powerful they were above the law… what if they were the law? Such a person would need to answer to no one. It had been tried on me… I had been charged with heresy, and Margaret could have had me burned at the stake.

This was the missing stepping stone. Once I had it, I could cross the river. It was the missing stitch in Ariadne’s thread. The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, both were in sight, the four faces of Janus accounted for, and I elaborated a plan far more deadly and far more certain even than that of knife or poison. I knew how to get the most deadly assassin of all to do it for me.

Surrey fell in love with the idea of the portrait, placing his head within every noose that threaded my tale…

“If you approve, it will be done in Italian style,” I told him, “embellished with princely architecture, and boldly adorned with your family’s glorious coats of arms. If you feel it appropriate, I will place you in the centre, standing beneath a triumphal arch, resolute and dynamic, as if in dramatic movement towards the viewer, your cape asway.” I showed him a sketch, and saw his eyebrows rise, and a smile spread across his face.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey by Willem Scrots, 1546

“Either side I would display statues of your mother and father bearing the family arms, but I left spaces for these, my Lord, since I was unsure which to include. Which do you think would be the most illustrious and appropriate arms for me to display here? I understand you may be the future Protector of Edward when one day he becomes King, so they need to be chosen to match someone with the powers almost of a King… and I know you are descended from Kings, on both sides of your family, but I could not presume to make that choice for you, my Lord.”

I knew from this point his ambition and hubris would do the work I needed done.

“Indeed, Master Scrots, you are correct. On my father’s side I am descended from Edward I, and on my mother’s from Edward III.”

“And so these coats of arms have been in your family for generations.”

“Most certainly they have.”

“I can think of no better arms to include then, my Lord… There is just one thing, though.”

He looked at me, curious. “Master Scrots?”

“The first King Edward had many sons, and your line comes from his sixth, and noblest son Thomas, the one who acted through his entire life as the able and devoted supporter of his father’s successor, King Edward III. Indeed, he was the one who helped remove the unfortunate King Edward II from his much-abused throne. As the equally devoted supporter of our King Henry’s son, the future King Edward VI, the arms of Thomas might be a possible choice also, do you think – as you have in your own coat of arms, and thus also proclaiming your family’s history of supporting the Crown?”

Surrey gazed long at me and then said, “I can see why you were appointed court painter, Master Scrots. Your thoroughness is exemplary.”

“Thank you my Lord,” I replied, “but I am here only to suggest alternatives for the portrait, it is for you to command how it should be done.”

And so the die was cast, and Surrey couldn’t wait for me to begin…

Secretly as always, though, the painting told far more than immediately met the eye. Between his legs I began with text declaring the location and date that Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey’s undoing commenced: ‘Hampton Court, 3 August 1545’… and then I proceeded to undo him.

The cape I quietly labelled ‘York’ (since both his grandfather and great grandfather had fought for Richard III against Henry Tudor); and I depicted a gold chain around his neck in which an interlocking ‘HH’ emblem (his name ‘Henry Howard’), alternated with the red rose of Lancaster. The background to the Rose I altered a little, though, to make it resemble a ‘P’ for ‘Plantagenet’. I had him rest his right arm on a broken column that I labelled ‘Tudor’, and I mounted the column itself on a plinth labelled with his family motto ‘Enough remains’. This imagery alone, I knew, could kill the man.

Most dangerous of all, either side of the central archway were his paternal and maternal ancestors, depicted as grey statues, and bearing the arms of his royal antecedents. Standing out in glorious and bold colour against the drab grey of the statues holding them, one’s eye was arrested by the heraldic devices of King Edward III, and the son of King Edward I emblazoned on the portrait as if they were Henry Howard’s very own.

As if this were not enough, the statues either side were daringly supported beneath by matching gargoyles looking left and right, gargoyles that anyone could see depicted King Henry. By one interpretation one could say Surrey had the King depicted as a fool, by another that the king was laughing at Surrey’s imprudence and pretension, his recklessness in displaying such exalted strength. Such display, after all, hid within its hubristic shadow Surrey’s most deadly weakness…

He was displaying arms that strictly speaking only King Henry was allowed to bear, and by seeing Surrey stress his ancestry in this audacious way, Henry would become alarmed, and with judicious words in the right ears, this alarm would be transformed into panic. Henry’s tyranny would then be brought into play, just as I had mobilised Surrey’s hubris before.

There was another player in this plot, too: Mary Howard. She was Surrey’s sister, and had been married to Henry’s bastard, Henry Fitzroy, until he had died in 1536. Ten years later, Bishop Gardiner was angling to remove the Reformist Queen Katherine Parre, and supplant her with this same Mary Howard. Surrey accordingly pressured her to seduce the aged Henry, her father-in-law, and become his mistress. In this way, he said, she could wield as much influence on him as ‘Madame Étampes did over the French King’. Mary was outraged, and said she would rather cut her throat than consent to such villainy.

Becoming the seventh wife of a most unhealthy tyrant who by then might have killed three of her predecessors did not appeal to her at all. She stood to lose her head whether Katherine Parre lost or won the battle, and she would never forgive Surrey for putting her life in such peril. All this fear and fury then needed was a hint that Surrey was about to be accused of treason for this ‘villainy’, and she would save herself by confirming all the King most feared.

With the portrait completed, I set it within an oblong gilded frame that emphasized its grandeur, and delivered it. Now all that remained to make the paths of the participants converge was to give the work a name. Its frame spoke eloquently of its importance, but I needed something else to reveal its significance: a rubric, a cognomen, a title. I could not name it myself, though, for I was posing as but a lowly painter, loyal to my client, and the name ‘Treason’ was best given it by someone more in the King’s esteem.

So, to launch the rumours into the wind, how better to do it than to mention the portrait to Suffolk? Far better to provide the cook with the ingredients and let him bake the cake himself, no? He would surely have no problem in calling it what it looked like. And so we met in Guildford in mid-August that year, and the Duke duly expressed the greatest of concern. Yes, he said, it looked like treason. Alas for him, though, before he got to take the matter to the King, Bishop Gardiner heard of his intentions, and Suffolk died of poison but days later, on the 22nd August. I laid low. Did Gardiner know of my involvement? Even if he did, I still had one more string to my bow.

Surrey’s fiercest opponent still lived: Edward Seymour, the only other surviving contender for the post of Protector. If he could not bring Surrey low, I knew not who would. The Seymours hated the Howard family even more than Suffolk had, and of all the Howards, they hated none more than Henry, Earl of Surrey. My painting was yet tastier bait for him… it offered the best opportunity of a lifetime to bring him low, and to decisively advance the Seymours over their bitter rivals. Edward Seymour, though, was across the Channel in Boulogne, and not easily accessible. I had to complete the dies for Henry’s new coinage before daring to absent myself from England.

So, some nine months later, when I was at last on the way to Fontainebleu, I met Seymour in Boulogne. Once pleasantries were complete, I encouraged him to sit for a portrait, talking glowingly of my work for Surrey. I spoke of the Italian architecture, the marble statues and the dramatic pose, but then I raised a red flag.

“I was rather concerned, though, my Lord,” I said, drawing him close and lowering my voice almost to a whisper, “about his using two royal coats of arms as if they were his own…”

Royal Coats of Arms!?” Seymour said, gasping.

“I was concerned for fear that this might be misinterpreted, but Surrey was adamant. He said the arms had been in his family for five hundred years, and that he and his father had always supported the king. He thought the idea that some might see it as treasonous was utterly preposterous. But my Lord Edward, do I see in your face a worry about that? Should I warn him?”

Seymour realized instantly that the grand portrait was the greatest of artistic treasures, and he could not wait to have the King see it for himself. Henry Tudor too could not wait, and had it brought before him. There, brazenly staring out at His Majesty, as the cover was removed and the grandly framed image was exposed, was Surrey, surrounded by the very arms that only King Henry himself thought he had a right to display. And to compound the treason, Surrey’s arm clearly rested on a broken pillar. I felt sure, I had informed Seymour, that Surrey would not have intended this pillar to refer to the Tudor dynasty, but to his own, since it had Surrey’s family motto ‘Enough remains’ written boldly around its base. Henry, though, was as unimpressed by this argument as I knew he would be.

“Whether the pillar is Plantagenet or Tudor, it has the same meaning,” the King shouted at Seymour, stamping his foot, and then groaning in pain. He had forgotten he had a bad infection in it… and then, hopping around for a moment huffing and puffing, his ranting resumed with added strength: “It’s right there staring at us, and he is the very one that ordered it to be included, look… around its base! Look, Seymour. Look! Look! Look!” and he jabbed repeatedly at the column with his fat, stubby finger. “Whether ‘Enough remains’ refers to ridding himself of my son and the Tudor dynasty, or to his repairing the Plantagenet one, it means the same thing! He wants to usurp the throne… ‘Enough remains’! ‘Enough remains indeed’! How did he have the cheek!! Enough remains of the Plantagenets to commit treason, I warrant him that!!!” It was all the proof Henry needed.

“That is not all, Majesty,” Seymour continued, “if you talk with Mary Howard, you will find that her brother, Surrey, plotted to have Gardiner bring charges of heresy against Queen Katherine, and have Mary try to seduce you and replace the Queen in your marriage bed. Had she not been a virtuous lady and had she not refused to have anything to do with this treachery, I fear he might have done just that and then had you poisoned…”

It had taken a year for the arrow to reach its target, but by late 1546 the effect of the poison was irrevocable. Surrey was arrested and interrogated… and his father too, ‘for having known of his plans, but having said nothing to the King’.

“If you did not, Surrey, seeing the king was old,” interrogator Catchpole demanded, “intend to plant Mary Howard in his bed to poison him, and then to take the throne from the intended heir, why did you have royal arms portrayed either side of yourself in your portrait?”

“The arms have been in my family for five hundred years,” Surrey replied, exactly as I had predicted. “I am the descendant on my father’s side of Edward I, and on my mother’s of Edward III. Given the service provided to the King by my father and myself, I was entitled to show my heritage, and so I will do until it is recognized.”

“Until it is recognized? Everyone who matters already knows of your ancestry, so it must surely be more than just your ‘ancestry’ that you want “recognized”? Indeed, on the arms of Edward I we can see the Three Pointed Bar of the Heir Apparent! Why add that if you did not intend treason? Is it not as ‘Heir Apparent’ that you want to be ‘recognized’?”

“Those were the arms of Thomas Brotherton, the 1st Earl of Norfolk, son of Edward I, from whom I am descended. After the abdication of Edward II, he became Heir Apparent.”

“Why not then show the arms of Edward I, without the Heir Apparent bar? Why draw attention to the idea of the Heir Apparent, if the first Edward was your ancestor too?”

Surrey was silent. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

“And, if you were so proud of it, why did you cover the painting when our men arrived to take you prisoner?” Catchpole barely paused before launching into the rest of his accusation, not wanting any reply from Surrey…

“And the broken column on which you rest your arm in the painting – is that not intended to denote the Tudor dynasty that you would overthrow, or is it what you say the Tudors did to the House of Plantagenet? Which is it, Surrey? And why is your motto written there audaciously for all to see: “Sat Super Est”: “Enough remains”. Enough remains… for a Plantagenet to become King again?”

“So long as the King appoints mean creatures like you to his Council,” Surrey snarled, “there will be no justice in this realm.”

The interrogators did not comment on the grotesque masks supporting the plinths, but I have no doubt Henry recognized himself. Nor did they notice the goats’ skulls next to them labelled ‘Cabral’, Surrey’s true father. Nor did they see, on the codpiece (even though the Earl was pointing directly at it), the letters spelling ‘Eyck’. I could not let the opportunity pass to say once again that back in March or April 1515, when Surrey’s ‘father’ the Duke of Norfolk was away, his wife, Lady Elizabeth Stafford was swept off her feet by the charming and powerful Duke of Alba, Pedro Alvares Cabral. In short, the arms of the heir apparent of Edward I had no place in the picture at all – they were a fiction, but a very convenient fiction, one that helped Surrey lose his head the very next day, one frosty morning back in January 1547.

The door to the throne had for years been locked, but now we had the key. It was at last safe to open it, and make young Prince Edward King…

There are more excerpts on Aly’s website:

The Other Secret of the Virgin Queen – part 2

Composite of images in post

There is another famous portrait of Bess Hardwicke I must tell you about, one dated nearly ten years after the last, and like the first, it is inscribed with silent secrets. Listen closely, though, and the whispers can just be heard…

Rowland Lockey 'Bess of Hardwicke, Countess Shrewsbury' 1592

Rowland Lockey ‘Bess of Hardwicke, Countess of Shrewsbury’ 1592

It was by a little known artist called Rowland Lockey, who (Wikipedia says) from 1581 to 1590 was apprenticed to the Queen’s miniaturist and goldsmith, Nicholas Hilliard. By 1600 he had made a name for himself, and had been made a master of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. Rowland worked mainly as a copyist of famous paintings of the period destined for the long galleries of aristocratic homes, among which were copies of paintings Hans Holbein made of St Thomas More’s family, including the one that included the son of King Edward V, standing in a doorway.

Rowland Lockey 'Sir Thomas More and Family' c1595

Rowland Lockey ‘Sir Thomas More and Family’ c1595

He also produced a number of splendid portraits, but most odd of all in this potted history, is that this supposedly lowly copyist painted a highly accomplished portrait of King James VI of Scotland in 1574, when James was still a boy. And what is most odd about that is that this was seven years before Wikipedia tells us Rowland started his apprenticeship. He then painted one of Claude de Guise in 1577, another of François de Guise in 1578, one of their close relative Mary Queen of Scots the same year; and one of the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1580, all before art history tells us his apprenticeship began. Apart from the curious date of his alleged apprenticeship, the oft quoted date for his birth (1565) is also rather unlikely, given that he would have been only 9 years old when he painted King James. (A date of birth in the 1550s is more reasonable, and an apprenticeship some ten years earlier, too.)

So what else is there about Rowland, this shadowy figure of muddled dates? There is a clue provided in the Dictionary of National Biography, which says that he was commended (along with his fellow apprentice Isaac Oliver) in the preface to the translation of Lomazzo’s ‘Art of Painting’ 1598. Lomazzo was one of the great art historians of his age, so this was praise indeed, but more significant here is that although conventional art history has whitewashed him, all one needs to do is look at his likeness in contemporary medals and portraits, and one can see he was clearly of African origin:

Composite images of Portraits of Paris Bordone's son Salai, also known as Lomazzo

Composite images of Paris Bordone’s son, Salai, also known as Lomazzo

Returning to the portrait of Bess, though, one of Rowland’s most famous portraits… I have to tell you that it is not at all what it first seems to be.

Rowland Lockey 'Bess of Hardwicke' 1592 Detail

Rowland Lockey ‘Bess of Hardwicke’ 1592 Detail

Rowland structures the locks of her hair to tell us that the portrait is in fact not of that Bess. It appears it is instead an informal portrait of the Queen, and he repeats the claim in various places on her dress. But he goes much further than that.

Rowland Lockey 'Bess of Hardwicke' 1592, detail of sleeve.

Rowland Lockey ‘Bess of Hardwicke’ 1592, detail of sleeve.

Rowland Lockey then says that this ‘Bess’ was his mother, and if we darken the area and increase the tonal contrast we can see he also repeats this claim too, in both Italian and in English on her forehead. Although only a few letters are easy to see, he goes on to say that his real name was Robert Tudor, the name we found on the earlier painting, and that he was the son of Elizabeth and Ali.

Rowland Lockey 'Bess of Hardwicke' 1592. Detail on top left corner.

Rowland Lockey ‘Bess of Hardwicke’ 1592. Detail on top left corner.

That is to say, Rowland Lockey was the nom-de-plume of Robert Tudor, the child that Elizabeth had with Michelangelo’s half-African son, in 1557. And Robert/Rowland goes on to make another important point, this time using a technique also found in the work of Paris Bordone, that of distant edge camouflage – stenciling in half the message on one side of the painting, and the rest on the opposite side, so it could only be read by cutting the picture down the middle and reassembling it with the far edges joined:

Rowland Lockey 'Bess of Harwick' showing distant edge camouflage.

Rowland Lockey ‘Bess of Harwick’ showing distant edge camouflage.

‘Papa Paris Bordone Papa’ he says, using the same letters for two purposes in places… and calling out to his father Ali: ‘Schiavi Neri Liberatevi’: ‘Black Slaves Free Yourselves’.

It seems that Robert did not spend his entire youth in exile on the Continent: at some point – if anything of the conventional story is to be believed – he was apparently ‘adopted’ by a crossbow maker based in Fleet Street, a man by the name of Leonard Lockey, and contrary to all expectations for the son of a crossbow maker, we are to understand that he was then taken on by the Queen’s miniaturist… at the age of 24, and taught to paint, even though he had already been painting royalty back in 1574, at the age of 16 or 17.

But what did he look like, this Robert Tudor? We have but two reliable likenesses of him:

Details from Bartolomeo Passarotti 'Domenico Giuliani and his Servant', and Raffaello Schiamiossi 'Don Antonio Manuele de Funta'

Robert Tudor, aka Rowland Lockey: details from Bartolomeo Passarotti’s ‘Domenico Giuliani and his Servant’, and Raffaello Schiamiossi’s ‘Don Antonio Manuele de Funta’

Rowland Lockey was not the only apprentice of Nicholas Hilliard, though. He had another student also, by the name of Isaac Oliver (although he spelt it ‘Ollivier’), and the interesting thing is that when we look at a portrait of Isaac, he looks vaguely familiar.

Isaac Oliver 'Portrait of a Young Gentleman', and a self portrait.

Isaac Oliver ‘Portrait of a Young Gentleman’, and a self portrait.

We saw him before, in the painting of ‘Domenico Giuliani and his Servant’.

Domenico Giuliani and His Servant, Bartolomeo Passarotti, 1572

Domenico Giuliani and His Servant, Bartolomeo Passarotti, 1572

Domenico was the younger man on the left, and the servant the one on the right, counter-intuitively for all those who assumed the darker guy must be the servant. No, the guy with the darker complexion was the prince. The fellow on the right is the servant, and he identified himself in the painting as Bartolomeo Passarotti, the artist who painted it.

Bartolomeo Passarotti 'Domenico Giuliani and his Servant': detail of servant's face.

Bartolomeo Passarotti ‘Domenico Giuliani and his Servant’: detail of servant’s face.

Now the thing is, when we put the two likenesses we have of Isaac Oliver together with the one of Bartolomeo Passarotti, they look remarkably alike. And that is not surprising, because they are one and the same person… Isaac Oliver has the name ‘Passarotti’ written across his forehead. In England he was Isaac Oliver, in Italy… Bartolomeo Passarotti.

Passarotti and Isaac Oliver together.

Passarotti and Isaac Oliver compared.

And so Domenico Giuliani and his ‘servant’ were the two ‘apprentices’ of Nicholas Hilliard, miniaturist to Queen Elizabeth I, and they could not have been better connected. Rowland Lockey had access to Mary Queen of Scots, and the Earl and Duchess of Shrewsbury, because he was the son of Queen Elizabeth 1, and the nephew of Bess of Hardwicke.

What then of the clue provided by their mention in Lomazzo’s great book on art history? Michelangelo’s slave-born son Ali, that is to say Paris Bordone, fathered both Lomazzo and Robert Tudor/Roland Lockey. Lomazzo was Rowland Lockey’s brother, and Bartolomeo Passarotti/Isaac Oliver was Lomazzo’s son. No wonder they both got a mention!

But of course we haven’t stopped to look at who Nicholas Hilliard was, have we?

Nicholas Hilliard Self Portrait at age 30.

Nicholas Hilliard Self Portrait at age 30.

[To be continued]

The Virgin Queen’s Other Secret


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First published two years ago, but just in case you missed it first time round…

In the last half of 16thC England there were to be found two ladies of immense wealth. Both had auburn hair they styled in similar ways, both had a long aquiline nose, both had a lower lip a little stronger than her upper, both had a passion for pearls, and both were called Elizabeth. Put all their portraits together and it is hard to tell one from the other.

A collection of portraits of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth of Hardwick

A collection of portraits of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth of Hardwick

One lady needs no introduction – she was the Virgin Queen. The other was Bess of Hardwicke, born around 1527, and raised by a family of minor gentry in Derbyshire. Her early history is undocumented, and what is known of her family’s history before she was born dates solely to evidence provided by her brother in 1569, when he was providing reasons for his right to bear arms.

What is known is that she married four times: the first, undocumented, was to the 13 year old heir to a neighbouring estate. She married him most likely in 1543, but he died the following year. Then on 20 August, 1547, nine months after the death of King Henry VIII, she was married – remarkably well above her station – to the illustrious Sir William Cavendish, Treasurer of the King’s Chamber, who had made a fortune as an official of the Court during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Sir William Cavindish, possibly by John Bettes, 1544

Sir William Cavendish, possibly by John Bettes, 1544

In 1553, with the death of Edward VI, Cavendish’s means of acquiring his wealth came under scrutiny, and having been closely associated with the Seymours, and with Lady Jane Grey (who got her head chopped off for claiming the throne after Edward VI’s death), he lost his position at court, and was accused of embezzlement. He had tried to stay the right side of Edward’s staunchly Catholic successor, Mary I, but given such unfortunate associations, he was no longer in favour. He and Bess had eight children together, though, before he died on October 25th 1557, just one month after the startling birth of Robert Tudor.

On Mary’s death in 1558, the new Queen Elizabeth restored Bess Hardwick to Court, and again – rather remarkably – made her a key Lady of her Bedchamber. Soon after, Bess fell in love with Sir William St Loe, a good friend of the new Queen who had aided her when her life had been in danger, and who she had made Captain of the Guard, and Butler to the Royal Household – key positions ensuring her personal security.

Sir William St Loe

Sir William St Loe

The two were married in 1559, but in 1561, a serious problem emerged. Bess was the friend of Frances Brandon, the mother of Lady Jane Grey who had been executed by Mary for claiming the throne in 1553. According to the will of Henry VIII, on Lady Jane Grey’s death, her sister Catherine had become second in line to the throne, next after Elizabeth herself. Elizabeth wanted her to remain a spinster, thereby reducing any threat to her rule, but in total defiance of the Queen’s wishes Catherine secretly married into the powerful Seymour family. Bess distanced herself from the marriage, but hid the news from the Queen, who, when she found out, flew into a rage, and sent her to the Tower.

Lady Catherine Grey

Lady Catherine Grey

After seven months Elizabeth relented, and let her go home, but Bess and Sir William had no children together, and soon after, in 1565, he died under very suspicious circumstances. Bess thus became one of the wealthiest women in the country, with an annual income equivalent to around £14 million in present day terms. The Queen forgave her at this point, and she returned to court once more, only to find that the tutor to her sons had been spreading slanderous rumours about her. The nature of the slander was suppressed, and the Queen was so upset by what he had been saying that she ordered him to suffer public corporal punishment, a most vindictive punishment for someone of his rank. His slander must have been serious indeed.

In 1567 Bess again married, and again inexplicably far above herself, to the Earl of Shrewsbury, the richest nobleman in England.

Rowland Lockey 'The Earl of Shrewsbury' 1580

Rowland Lockey ‘The Earl of Shrewsbury’ 1580

On the 2 May, 1568, Mary Queen of Scots fled from Scotland and sought refuge in England, to the consternation of the Queen. Mary had a claim not only to Scotland, but to the English throne as well, and could not easily be disposed of, being a Queen in her own right. Elizabeth summoned the Shrewsburies to court, and entrusted them with one of the most important roles she delegated to anyone in her entire reign: that of keeping Mary Queen of Scots prisoner, and preventing her from conspiring against her. This the Shrewsburies loyally did for the next sixteen years, until 1584, moving home to another of their estates each time a plot to rescue Mary was discovered.

Rowland Lockey 'Mary, Queen of Scots' 158

Rowland Lockey ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ 1585

In 1574/5 a serious situation developed involving Bess’s daughter, Elizabeth. The girl met, fell in love with, got pregnant by, and then married Charles Stuart, the brother of Mary Queen of Scots’ former husband, Lord Darnley. Like Darnley, Charles was the son of the Countess of Lennox, who herself was the daughter of Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland – and daughter of King Henry VII of England. Bess had married her daughter into the Royal families of both England and Scotland without the knowledge or permission of the Queen, and she and the Countess of Lennox were both promptly consigned to the care of the Tower of London.

Lady ARabella STuart, c.1590

Lady Arabella Stuart, c.1590

By January 1575 she was back home, though. Her daughter Elizabeth and Charles Stuart were expecting their first and only child, Arabella, and under the terms of succession, Bess felt Arabella had a good chance to succeed Elizabeth on her death. To that purpose, she began casting about for a suitable husband, and after a while came up with the infant Lord Denbigh, the son of the Earl of Leicester and the widowed Countess of Essex… She could hardly have contrived to upset the Queen more: the Earl of Leicester, after all, was the Queen’s former love, Robert Dudley… and so summoned to London by the Queen, Bess was likely invited to consider a third stay in the Tower. Judiciously, she assured the Queen of her loyalty, and took no further part in trying to arrange a marriage for Arabella, whose future the Queen took under her own wing, and the infant Lord Denbigh promptly died, pruning any future growth to that disconcerting branch of the family tree.

Bess turned instead to the construction of a home worthy of a future Queen of England… Hardwicke Hall… and thus came to be known as Bess of Hardwicke. In the meantime, though, another problem had emerged: Bess became concerned at the amount of time Mary Queen of Scots and her husband were spending together, and tried to resolve the matter by becoming Mary’s constant companion, spending months on end together with her, engaging in talk and much needlepoint.

After a while, though, Bess became aware that her husband was being unfaithful with one of her serving wenches, indeed, catching him in flagrante delecto. Rumours began circulating that the serving maid was not the only object of Shrewsbury’s attention, and that Mary Queen of Scots had not only taken his eye, but that she had already secretly borne two children by him.

The Queen was horrified, and Bess was summoned to Court, and swore on her knees that the news of Mary’s inappropriate children was totally untrue, and signed a declaration to that effect. Elizabeth seemingly accepted this, but the Earl of Shrewsbury blamed Bess, and the two separated, never to be reconciled. Mary, Queen of Scots was removed from Shrewsbury’s protection, and executed after the Babington Plot in February 1587, and Shrewsbury died in 1590, making Bess – most improbably, considering her apparently humble origins – the richest woman in England after the Queen. And still, even by 1590 she remained the double of the Queen, with the same red hair, the same nose, the same lips, and the same love for pearls… as this portrait dated 1583 tells:

The Countess of Shrewsbury

The Countess of Shrewsbury, Bess of Hardwicke, c.1580

But there is far more here than readily meets the eye. If we progressively darken her face and increase the tonal contrast, we find a bombshell written in the faintest of brushstrokes. In just one sentence, the painter explains all the many inexplicabilities of Bess of Hardwicke’s life.

Detail of Bess's face, from the 1580 portrait of her

Detail of Bess’s face, from the 1580 portrait of her

‘Sesso 25’ he says across her forehead, then on her temple ‘nata 26’: …sex in 1525, born in 1526. And from her other temple beneath her eye, the traditional declaration that she was the ‘Figlia de’… The artist is writing in Italian, and about to tell us who her parents were.

Detail of Bass's face, showing her true family origins

Detail of Bess’s face, showing her true family origins: click on the picture to enlarge it.

‘Sesso 25, nata 26, figlia de’, he continues… ‘Henry VIII’ and ‘Anne Boleyn’. Bess of Hardwicke was the first daughter of Henry VIII and Anne, back in the early days when she first joined the court as lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon. Bess of Hardwicke, named after Henry’s mother, was the elder sister of Queen Elizabeth I.

That is why she could come from obscurity to the court of Edward VI, and how she came to marry the Treasurer of the King’s Chamber, Sir William Cavendish. That is why she fell from grace under the reign of Mary I in 1553, and why in 1558 Elizabeth chose her as a key Lady in Waiting. Bess could be trusted. This was how it was she could marry the Captain of Elizabeth’s guard, Sir William St Loe, and how it was she could meddle in the dynastic politics of Elizabeth’s court and not only survive but be forgiven and then return to court. It was how she could marry the richest nobleman in the Realm, the Earl of Shrewsbury, and how he could be trusted to keep Mary Queen of Scots safely captive for 16 years. It explains, too, how she could then again meddle  with the line of succession by marrying her daughter into the English and Scottish royal families – and once again survive and be forgiven. It explains too why she was the spitting image of the rather the illustrious Virgin Queen.

But how could a mere artist know all this? Well, he signed that portrait of Bess Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury. He signed it on her ruff, using the name ‘Robert Tudor’. The artist was Elizabeth’s son, and the Countess of Shrewsbury’s nephew. He would have known, for sure, what his mum and aunty were up to.

But our story is not yet done… This was not the only portrait of Robert’s aunt that art history considers significant: there is another painting we must look at, too, one holding yet another surprise…

(to be continued)

An Unplanned Child


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Dudley goes too far…

At Christmas 1562, something altogether untoward happened in Elizabeth’s court. Robert Dudley was back in favour after the highly suspicious death of his wife, Amy Robsart, and so much so that when in 1562 Elizabeth fell ill with smallpox, he was named Protector of the Realm, was granted a vast income, and became a Privy Councillor. When Elizabeth recovered, soon after, perhaps he felt that his time had at last come… anyway, he greatly overstepped the mark.

Initially Elizabeth was enraged, and Dudley was out of favour, but then later in 1563, he was suddenly granted vast lands in Wales, and favour after favour. Seen from afar, it would have been hard to tell what was going on, but fortunately there is a painting that tells us. It is of St Catherine’s Marriage, and because of its style, it was attributed to Adriaen Isenbrandt. This was in a way true, because that was indeed Aly’s alias in Bruges, but wrong in that he had dispensed with this alias back in 1551, so historians not only misattributed the painting, they also misdated it, since how could an artist paint a picture after his death? It’s only logical, isn’t it?

The Marriage of St Catherine, attributed to Adriaen Isenbrant, but dated 1563.

The painting is dated down in the bottom right hand corner, and carries annotations that tell us the true nature of the ‘spat’ that happened between the two lovers. Not at all what I was expecting, and I’m sure not at all what you were, either… but I’m going to link you to where you will find the story told. The conversation is fictional but the events described are attested to in the painting of St Catherine above.

Click on the image below for the somewhat startling details!


Layers in the Painting of Life


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Aly, Michelangelo’s Son

AlyEbookLauraCoverSmallOur modern age loves simplicity, and one solitary meaning for everything, but when writing a tale set in the Renaissance, one needs to allow for a wisdom greater by far. In the book Aly, Michelangelo’s Son, the main character loves layers, and how each new one offers something different about any subject of fascination. On completing the novel, I found that I had followed him, not modernity, and that I had incorporated no less than twelve such levels into the book on his life.

Passionate Action!

​There is the surface story of Aly, a tale of passion, outrage, anger, assassination, a tale beset by a panoply of hidden identities and political intrigues. It traces his life from birth as a slave, accepted by Michelangelo, who depicted him secretly on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as his son. The young man went on to accomplishments both in art… and assassination, indeed hiding the details of his exploits in some hundreds of paintings that still exist. His great purpose in life was to stop the terrifying barbarism being perpetrated in the New World and Old, but things never seemed to work out quite as expected.​​

Renaissance and Slavery

Secondly, there is the setting: the Renaissance, in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, England, and Scotland. It covers the first European visits to Brazil, China and Japan, and as a backdrop it addresses corruption in the heart of the Vatican, and the horrors of the Spanish genocide in the Caribbean, and the birth of trans-Atlantic slavery.

Dark Secrets

Various depictions of Herman van Eyck, Jan’s brother, who pursued art in Italy before turning to a more ecclesiastical career.

Third, it exposes vast misconceptions regarding the period’s most famous names, not only in startling revelations about who was related to whom, but also in how they used a variety of aliases, aliases we now take to be different people. In particular it looks at the double lives of the artists Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Durer; the explorers Columbus, Bartolomeo Dias, and Pedro Alvares Cabral; the Pope, Julius II – and various monarchs including Edward V (who survived the Tower). The tale shows how these dark machinations affected the survival of monarchs such as Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I (all of whom were murdered), and reveals that Elizabeth I had a child she called Robert.

What’s Life For?

Trying to speak (as a 72 year-old) for someone who died in his eighties, there is also an exploration of the purpose of life. This takes many forms, including parallels in the world of art: how one adds pigment to create a painting, but chips away at stone to create a sculpture – and how inspiration can be found in chaos.

Counterfeit Universes

​​Fifth, the narrative examines the role of words and stories in creating a second, counterfeit universe, a fiction that masquerades as the world of our experience, distorting our view of life, and leading us to be endlessly deceived. And this leads to the next level:

The future King James I of England painted by Rowland Lockey, (also known as Robert Tudor)

More Mischief of Words

Beyond this duplicity of words, the book also glances at the very structure of language, and how it subverts our understanding of the world. Unashamedly inspired by the work of Sapir and Whorf, this level is deliberately subversive, trying to undermine the rigidity with which grammar rules our thinking. Some nouns and adjectives and about 30 adverbs have been ‘verbed’ to throw new light on the way language intercepts our attempts to make sense of our world. I do this not to prove how clever I am, since I long accepted the bitter truth that I am not, but hoping to draw attention not only to the mischief words engage in, but also the malevolence of the rules by which they are strung together.

The Duplicity of Truth

​This links to another major theme, the seventh, that of the brittleness of certainty, the fraud of faith, and the duplicity of truth, and how one can live in a world where fact and fiction, good and evil, love and barbarism are inextricably mixed, and everything has multiple meanings.

Mantegna’s Allegory on the Expulsion of the Vices, with a second allegory in the clouds

Words of Genius

The eighth level is more playful, and fictional in the sense that where great people have had something very relevant to say on events in the book, I have sometimes included them. I have added well-established quotes from Leonardo and Michelangelo, but you will also find other brief references to people not yet born when Aly was alive – from Cervantes to Ali Smith; Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Roland Barthes to Derek Walcott, Julian Barnes, and Jamie Holmes -and my dear friend Ellen Dissanayake. So as not to disrupt the flow, but equally not to plagiarise them, I Italianized their first names and attributed the saying as if they were Aly’s friends – which I think they would have been!

Metaphor and Symbol

The ninth is a metaphorical and symbolic layer, one of light and shadow, of the wind and ocean; time as seen through the hourglass, candle, sundial and clock, and through the ageing of the human body; of labyrinths, monsters, heroes and scarlet threads; of indulgences, pilgrimages and relics; of leaves, fruit, and stepping stones true and false, and the perilous gaps that lurk between; of camouflage and deception – husks and the seed within, of peel and fruit, bark and the trunk inside, and of swords and their scabbards.


​The tenth is mythological, drawing as Aly would have, not only from Hebrew legend and the Bible, but from that of the Greeks and native Caribbean people, and that too of King Arthur, a famous version of which became a bestseller just seven years before he was born. This is not only to try to conjure up some of the feeling of the time, but because the characters – the Chimera, the Ouroboros, Nemesis, Excalibur, Polyphemus and Medusa all play a vital part, and offer useful mental tools for better understanding our times.

Odysseus (aka ‘Nobody’) and his men putting out Polyphemus’ eye, from a painting by Aly’s son Primaticcio.

Buried Deep

The eleventh? Well, I kept noticing parallels between Aly’s story and the oldest legend we now know, one discovered in recent times written in cuneiform inscriptions on tablets of clay… The story wasn’t known in Aly’s day, but its echoes doubtless had an impact, so I tucked it away where only the most observant and determined will find it.

Number Twelve

​​And the twelfth? The most important of all, but I’ve said enough. That is for you to find when you read the book! One of the purposes of art is to deepen the mystery, after all!

Between Lavender Scented Sheets


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It was Christmas 1556…

…and Princess Elizabeth was in a desperate plight. Her sister was going to marry her off, and push her into exile across the Channel. It would take something completely desperate to save her…

There was, though, an old and trusted friend who knew exactly what to do.

Elizabeth vanished back to Hatfield for almost the entire year, and while Mary had been led to believe the child would be born in December, on 25th September, the Princess gave birth to Robert Tudor, and two months later he was spirited out of the country.

Michelangelo’s Broken Nose



It would seem that a dreadful mistake was made.

Cellini once told the tale of how Michelangelo’s nose came to be broken, a tale he heard from the man who did it – Pietro Torrigiani. Alas, it seems he jumped to a large conclusion… When Torrigiani said he had to flee Florence afterwards for fear of what the ruler, Lorenzo de’ Medici might do to him, Cellini assumed he meant Lorenzo the Magnificent. Alas, no. He meant Lorenzo the Magnificent’s grandson, also called Lorenzo, and also ruler of Florence, but a generation later.

As a result, 500 years of art historians have assumed that the nose was flat from 1492 on, and never thought to look for perfect-nosed Michelangelos between the ages of 17 (his age in 1492), and 41 (his age in 1516, when it really happened). So we missed a great many treats… something that at last can be put right! Here is Michelangelo’s nose, then, in all its glory, both before and after, and both flattened – and flattered!!



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How Leonardo Did It…

Lots of people have asked me how artists hid things in their art.

Well, there were many techniques. Mantegna, Dürer, and Giotto did it in ways you can see on the new website ‘’…, but that intriguing page has now been joined by a new one with an excerpt that reveals a far more subtle way of doing it. Leonardo’s method.

He tells how Botticelli threw a sponge at the wall, and then – in the mess that resulted – pointed out all manner of things hidden away. It was a means of showing his students how to find inspiration even in chaos.

Leonardo here describes how to turn this upside down. He sketches a message into his painting, one that he wants to lurk there unnoticed. To do this he then tells how to hide it from all but the wisest eyes: he explains how to encode a message into the apparent chaos of the background.

The conversation here is fictional, but builds on real quotes by Leonardo to show you how it was done… Click the image below and not only discover the secret that artists kept hidden for centuries, but be one of the first to see the clandestine drawing he himself tucked away in his priceless Mona Lisa!

What Aly Knew


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I mentioned a new website in a previous post, one that provides a vast amount of information gleaned from the hidden inscriptions on the old masters, a perfect background for the new book, Aly, Michelangelo’s Son

Here’s a glimpse at some of the pages: click on any one to go there…

A brief description of the new book, with links to more detailed pages

Reviews of the book – only one so far – early days yet!

The introduction that appears at the start of the book

A brief word on the author, Peter Cane

What to look for in the book – its many layers!

The background to the book, with links to its four main aspects: Likenesses, Family Trees, Timelines, and the Hidden Secrets lurking in the Old Masters…

An example from the Likenesses section, showing Michelangelo from boy to old man. A total of 66 different characters from the book are included!

The second section is of Family Trees, of which there are no less than 15…

The next is of Timelines, showing how different aliases of the same person interweave and dovetail, explaining much that was previously inexplicable. Here we have the timeline for ‘Amerigo Vespucci’, and his other aliases, giving an idea why the continent of America was named after him, and why the last portrait of him shows a man in his eighties, while history books say he died at 58.

And then, to wind up (for now!), there are may examples of hidden material in paintings of the period, just in case you ever hear anyone say this is all the product of a fertile imagination!

And if all you want is to buy the book… just click below for the Kindle ebook version (1000 pages), or for the Paperback (700 pages)! These take you to Amazon USA, but if you are in the UK, go to Both sites have both the ebook and the paperback. For the ebook only try if you are in India, or Amazon,ca for Canada, or in general your own country’s Amazon!

 Kindle: $4.99:                                      Paperback $19.95:  




What is Life For?


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What is Life For?

“Can you tell me?” Aly wrote, “If you can, alas, it’s too late. I’m old, and being tracked by assassins. All that is left for me now is to try to finish this, my story, before they find me. By the time you read it, though, my killers will have done their work, so it is in your actions now that my legacy lies, and it is for you that I’m writing. I’m not the one in danger now – you are, and those you love.”

“If I could warn you of what you are facing in just one sentence, I would. Alas, though, for my terrible warning to make sense, I will have to reveal the most guarded secrets of my life – and those of my family too, a family of artists of the greatest renown, tricksters of outstanding cunning, and assassins of the highest skill, and for all this to be worthwhile – I can hide nothing.”

“I grew up amid great events that you will have heard of, among people of immense fame that you think you know, but what I lived is not what you read, nor what you heard, nor what is written. My family, I am ashamed to say, were the supreme victors of my age, victors not in a way that any but the most evil should emulate, but victors nonetheless. And since they were the victors, they wrote their own history: they were the ones who painted the past we now believe. The tales they led everyone to trust, though, were very far from honest. I know, because they were my family, and because I was there.”

“Here in front of me is a book my younger brother wrote recently, in which he wrote a little of my history. “He is accustomed,” it says, “to live simply and by a certain natural goodness, and knows nothing of subtleties or astuteness in his life.” That is as good a place as any to begin my tale, since it reveals an ailment that many younger brothers suffer from. I am his hero, a god-like being living a charmed and daring life: one that would, I suppose – had it not been shrouded in deception, and fragmented among a dozen aliases – have been as spectacular as any of those whose legendary names echo now down the centuries. But my brother was wrong to believe in heroes. We are all most deeply flawed, and I was not the saintly being he saw me as, which you will very soon see.”

“Nor are younger brothers alone in such self-deception. The fact is that we all live in worlds of our own creation, we all construct grand edifices, palaces (we think) of Truth and Certainty. But they are built using a framework of yarns, of narratives distorted by the retelling, cracked by misunderstanding, and plastered over with stale and ancient lies. We decorate them too, as we navigate our course through life, with pretty fictions to fool ourselves, and mislead others. My tale will reveal just how duplicitous these ‘truths’ really are – not just my brother’s, or mine, but everything that pretends to be the ‘Truth’.”

“The account I offer at first glance seems full of familiar landmarks, but these are mirages and will lead instead to a world like no other: bizarre, incredible, surreal. So beware: entering my world may be like stepping through the frame of one of my grandpa Bosch’s paintings. Except for one thing… once you enter you will never be able to return. Whether you choose to believe what you hear told or not, the question you will discover in its shadows will be for eternity.”

“So if you, like most of us, prefer the comfort and security of the world you think you know, read no further. This book is not for you. If though, you dare to delve beyond the prison walls of your palace, hold tight my hand and read.”