I recently visited Hatfield House, built by the 1st Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil, Chief Minister to James I. It is a wonderful Jacobean building, complete with a modern artwork, Renaissance, rather incongruously sited before it. Of course, as a Tudor aficionado, I find the time period prior to Stuarts much more interesting. The earlier building on site, of the Royal Palace of Hatfield, which now has to earn its keep hosting events, was built in 1497, by Henry VII’s minister, John Cardinal Morton.
Fast forwarding, we find that Henry VIII’s children, Edward VI, and Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I) both spent their youth there, as did (for three years) their older half-sister, Mary. A devout Catholic, Mary was forced by her father to be Elizabeth’s lady in waiting for refusing to accept her father’s marriage to Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. Nor was she impressed by his church reforms. We can imagine her chagrin, her irritation, her damaged pride, her immense, deep dislike for this half-sister with whom she had been landed and instructed to serve.
Elizabeth was also not above her father’s wrath. An attractive redhead, she was under house arrest in 1548, aged merely 15, suspected of having agreed to marry Thomas Seymour. She was interrogated but cleverly and with dignity, held her own; Seymour was executed for a number of charges. A dangerous age.
The library at Hatfield contains letters offering incredible insight into the thinking of the time. Letters fascinate, for even formal ones offer an authentic vision into historical personalities. There is a whole archive of letters from Elizabeth’s advisor, William Cecil, hidden away (though they are digitised). A letter on display pertains to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, another about Henry VIII’s displeasure with his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, once he saw her in the flesh.
Also worthy is the artwork. In a house full of portraits, the Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth, painted when she was in her sixties yet looking rather younger (woe betide an artist who made her look old) is stunning. Wearing a cloak of eyes and ears (all seeing, all hearing) while carrying a rainbow which reminds us there is no rainbow without the sun, no natural phenomenon can eclipse this ruler. Gheeraerts, the artist, produced a painting brimming with symbolism for this goddess queen. Art was indeed patronised and politicised. There may be a vast chasm between the public self (as portrayed in the art) and the authentic self (as revealed in letters).
Reminds me of that film Words and Pictures – are words or pictures more important? Now there’s a debate.