Heraldic motifs in late Elizabethan and Jacobean costume – Gheeraerts

Lately I have been having a very interesting conversation with John Matthews about the possible identity of a 1619 portrait by Cornelius Jonson in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art, the portrait of a lady formerly called Lady Alatheia Talbot Countess of Arundel. The ability to exchange ideas like this is, as he says, one of the enchantments of the internet. It was interesting to learn that both of Yale’s Jonsons had originally been in the collection at Northwick Park.

One point was the significance of the heraldic ermine on the lady’s dress, which might well relate to the sitter’s family arms or the arms. There seems to have been a sort of neo-medieval revival in heraldic patterned dress at this period. In the Tate’s portrait of Mary Rogers Lady Harington painted in 1592 by Marcus Gheeraerts, the sitter is holding a thread of pearls in the form of a Harington knot, and her dress echoes in reverse the Harrington arms sable a fret argent. Karen Hearn suggests that the portrait’s motto non faceam nec frangam – ‘I may neither make it nor break it’ – might refer to the Harrington knot, as if the strength and lineage of the family who bear it in their arms is without beginning and without end. The motif is repeated in the Harington motto nodo firmior, ‘stronger in a knot’.

Portrait of Mary Rogers, Lady Harington 1592 by Marcus Gheeraerts II 1561 or 2-1636

(c) Tate Britain

Lady Harington’s husband Sir John Harington (1561 – 1612) was Queen Elizabeth I’s godson; a poet and wit, best-known to posterity as the inventor of the flushing lavatory. His memoirs contains some of the best eyewitness accounts of Queen Elizabeth I and her Court. Sir John Harington was a friend of the Earl of Essex and was with the Earl in Ireland. In the reign of King James I he was appointed tutor to Henry Prince of Wales, and died shortly after the Prince in 1612.

From memory Sir John was one of the Knights created by Essex on campaign, against the Queen’s orders. Elizabeth commanded them to give up their new titles, but Cecil persuaded her to let them keep them; so many had been too afraid to tell their wives they were plain Mrs again!

I noticed yesterday that another Gheeraerts in the Tate features a costume with heraldic motifs, the late pregnancy portrait of a lady in red, believed to be Anne Roper wife of Sir Philip Constable 1st Bt. She is wearing a lace ruff worked with little figures of heraldic ermine. This is dated 1620, so contemporary with the 1619 portrait by Jonson at Yale.

Portrait of a Woman in Red 1620 by Marcus Gheeraerts II 1561 or 2-1636(

(c) Tate Britain

I don’t know yet whether the arms of the extended Roper and Constable families feature ermine, but it is an intriguing possibility, and something for me to look up tomorrow.


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