03 / 2022

The intriguing history of ‘A Lady of Rank’

In her most recent article, Clemmie de la Poer Beresford, Cultural Historian and Writer, deciphers the history behind the portrait ‘A Lady of Rank’, which hangs in the Great Hall.

“The paintings at Parham House hold many mysteries. One of the most intriguing and compelling
surrounds the identity of a woman who stands before an opulent red velvet background, dressed in
courtly finery, bearing a crown of pearls and clasping a white feathered fan. Undoubtedly, she is of
noble status, but could she be more? Could she be a queen of England?

The lady is sumptuously and splendidly attired in lavish and ostentatious garments that proclaim
her status and rank. She wears a gown of silver silk, its style unmistakably late Elizabethan or early
Jacobean. Her bodice is ornately decorated with pearls, black table-cut diamonds and rubies, as well as
an intricately embroidered scrolling pattern. She dons voluminous gigot (or leg of mutton) sleeves;
and on them, strands of silver and white thread come together to form animate silkworms, which
add movement and vitality to her otherwise rigid appearance. On her lower body, she wears a full
skirt decorated with a pattern of Mulberry leaves over a vast drum farthingale. Adorning her gown
is an array of magnificent jewels. Framing her bodice are no less than eight strings of pearls and on
her left sleeve is an aigrette made of black diamonds, set in gold, with a pear-shaped pearl
suspended from the bottom. Jewels also festoon the woman’s person. She wears a splendid pearl and
ruby necklace, two jewelled bracelets and pear-drop pearls in her hair. On her head is a coronet of
pearls which sits on top of a dark cap, itself bedecked with hanging pearls. A marvellous open ruff,
constructed of at least four layers of starched lace frames her face, making her appearance even
more resplendent.

Such magnificent attire might seem more at home in the royal wardrobe than in the linen chest of
an English peeress. The historian, T. B. Pugh thinks so, arguing that the sumptuousness of the
lady’s attire reveals she is not just a lady of rank, but a queen of England. Pugh is not the first
to identify the lady as an English queen. In her catalogue of the pictures at Parham (1794),
Katherine Annabella Bishop identified the sitter as Elizabeth I. Whether Katherine was informed by
a now lost catalogue or piece of evidence is unknown; but given that Parham is reputed to have entertained Elizabeth to a lavish banquet in August 1591, it would seem fitting that the house’s later caretakers would seek to acquire a portrait of it’s famous royal visitor, perhaps in order to complement the queen’s coat of arms and motto ‘Semper Eadem’ in the plasterwork of the Great Hall. In the 20th century, the portrait was publicly recognised as a depiction of the queen, displayed as part of the Kings &
Queens Exhibition held in honour of King George V’s jubilee.

More recently, art historian Roy Strong has cast doubt on the notion that sitter is Elizabeth. It has
been discovered that a portrait in The MET portrays the same lady, who scholars have argued is
not the last Tudor queen. Strong points out that both portraits lack emblems which were so often
ubiquitous in portraits of Elizabeth, such as globes, pelicans, phoenixes and moons. Although the
woman at Parham wears a crown, it is an open circlet rather than the closed imperial crown that
Elizabeth wore as empress of Great Britain. Pearled crowns are manifest in other portraits of the
queen, including the Armada Portrait, but they are always closed. Moreover, although pearls were
synonymous with Elizabeth at the time, symbolic of her virginity, they were not a royal preserve;
many women of rank donned them to associate themselves with the queen and demonstrate their
awareness of the latest fashions.

If the lady at Parham is not Elizabeth, might she be another English queen? Pugh thinks so,
positing that she is Anna of Denmark, queen consort to Elizabeth’s successor, James VI and I. For
Pugh, it is the Mulberry leaves that are revealing. Famously, James planted thousands of Mulberry
trees in the hope that they would attract silk worms, and so enable England to have a sericulture
industry that would rival the silk industries of Europe. Yet, although James introduced Mulberry
planting on a large scale, the trees appeared in country house gardens before 1603. Their berries
were associated with wealth and luxury, and so growing and harvesting them for the table became a
status symbol. For Pugh, the lady’s aigrette is also telling. A jewel of such opulence, he maintains,
could only have been owned by Anna. A detailed look at the remarkable inventory of Anna’s
jewellery which survives in the National Archives might be helpful here, but Pugh does not mention
it, suggesting it may not make an appearance. Moreover, Anna does not seem to have been the only
woman to wear such jewels, with her daughter Princess Elizabeth Stuart, as well as other ladies of
rank, wearing them in portraiture.

What can we take away from this discussion? It seems unlikely that the sitter is either Elizabeth I or
Anna of Denmark. More probably, she is a woman of high-rank whose great wealth and status
enabled her to own such splendid attire. Given that there were arguably only few women who held
such power and wealth in this period, lets hope that art historians will soon discover her identity. It
would no doubt help if the artist were known. Zuccharo has been suggested, although Strong casts
doubt on this attribution. For now, that remains another question, adding another layer to the
mystery just waiting to be solved.”

‘A Lady of Rank’ was written by Clemmie de la Poer Beresford, Cultural Historian and Writer, and ‘@_the_history_gal‘ on Instagram.