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Scandal, patronage and power at Elizabeth I’s court

— January 2015

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Lord Robert Dudley (later Earl of Leicester), attrib. Steven van der Meulen, c.1560–62. Oil on panel, 91.2 x 71 cm. (By kind permission of the Trustees of The Wallace Collection, London)

Elizabeth Goldring’s fascinating study restores courtier Robert Dudley’s reputation as an important patron, collector and cultural pundit

Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester and the World of Elizabethan Art by Elizabeth Goldring

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was one of the most intriguing courtiers of the Elizabethan era.  While known, in his time, as Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, he is remembered primarily for his failure to win her hand.  What is often forgotten is that Dudley was an extremely influential patron who shaped the national taste and fostered an English discourse on culture – especially the visual arts.  His privileged position at court gave him enormous power and influence, both at home and abroad, which he exploited to acquire an extraordinary collection of art.  This, in turn, he used to promote his image as the royal consort.

Educated, cosmopolitan, liberal and tolerant, Dudley led the moderate Puritan wing at court.  Deftly weaving his intellectual ideals with his economic affairs, he promoted foreign colonies, new trade routes and European cooperation. In this way he kept a check on Catholic power while also fostering his commercial interests in luxury goods.  Renowned throughout Europe for his courtesy to foreigners, Dudley provided refuge to many Protestant Italians fleeing the Inquisition and the Counter Reformation.  And it was through this cosmopolitan company that he introduced many avant-garde ideas of Renaissance Italy into parochial England.

In an era when few Englishmen would have distinguished between a house painter and a portrait painter, when most measured the worth of a portrait by the rank of the sitter rather than the reputation of the artist, Dudley promoted the idea, becoming common in Italy at the time, that painters were fit company for the educated and well born.

Unlike his compatriots, who retained a deep-rooted fear of idolatry, Dudley followed foreign connoisseurs, such as Italy’s Cosimo de Medici, Germany’s Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II and France’s King Henry IV, in seeing art as a worthy subject of debate, concern and support.  A master of propaganda, Dudley was also well aware of the potential of art to promote an agenda – and his agenda was to prove himself a worthy consort to the queen.  By the time of his death in 1588 Dudley had amassed a collection of 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings, etchings and miniatures. This was at a time when even the aristocracy had few works of art and those would have been portraits of family or monarch.  While he, himself, rarely travelled abroad, Dudley commissioned his friends and agents to keep him informed of the latest continental fashions and to procure him the most important works from the most fashionable artists. 

Though Dudley had religious, mythological and genre scenes in his collection, the majority of his paintings were portraits – a safe subject in those puritan times.  While many of these were images of noble or important men, a surprising number were depictions of himself and his ancestors.  When most would have sat to one, or possibly two, portraits in a lifetime, Dudley is estimated to have commissioned at least 20 self-portraits, works that he used to promote himself and his family – much as the Medici used artistic patronage in Florence to fabricate a history of their dynasty and legitimize their rule.  Each time his sovereign heaped a new honour upon him, Dudley would commission a new portrait, or at the very least he would have earlier images retouched to display the emblems of his new status.   In a gesture of supreme confidence, he also commissioned companion portraits of the Queen, both miniature and full-length works, which he would display beside his own image, in the traditional pairing of husband and wife.

Many scholars follow Horace Walpole in dismissing the Elizabethan era as a hiatus in culture and art appreciation, wedged between Henry VIII’s patronage of Holbein and the Jacobean patronage of van Dyke and Rubens.  Others believe that the great 16th-century connoisseurs were inevitably Catholic, thus overlooking the accomplishments of Puritans such as Dudley.  This book challenges both those assumptions.

Ironically, for a man who so carefully crafted and nurtured his own image, after his death Dudley quickly fell into oblivion; his famous collection was widely dispersed and his personal papers were lost.  His life had been tainted by scandal; both his father and grandfather were executed for treason, as was his later stepson and heir.  The convenient death of his first wife led to rumours of murder, as did the equally convenient death of his second wife’s first husband, the Earl of Essex. 

The plethora of slanderous pamphlets circulating during his lifetime, reinforced, soon after his death, by William Camden’s histories of the Elizabethan age, and later by Sir Walter Scott’s romance Kenilworth, created the impression that Robert Dudley was little more than a ruthless and ambitious schemer.  Elizabeth Goldring’s fascinating study restores his reputation as an important patron, collector and cultural pundit.  With its pioneering archival research and its lavish illustrations – many of previously unpublished images, this book will appeal to scholars of Elizabethan culture and interested amateurs alike.

Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester and the World of Elizabethan Art by Elizabeth Goldring is published by Yale, 2014.  380 pp., 100 colour and 111 mono  illus, $75.00. ISBN 978-0-300-19224-7


Katie Campbell
Institute of Humanities, Buckingham University
Garden historian

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