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The portraits

Robert Peake the Elder Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia c1610 and Prince of Wales c1610, National Portrait Gallery, London. Click on the image for a larger version.

Henry

Henry was made Prince of Wales in January 1610, aged 16. This portrait was probably made in the same year, as it features several symbols indicating his new status. These include the spray of white ostrich feathers – insignia of the Princes of Wales to this day – pinned to his hat with a diamond-encrusted jewel spelling ‘HP’ (Henricus Principus) and the feather-motif embroidery on the tablecloth.

Henry’s leg garter is an attribute of the Knights of the Order of the Garter, the oldest and most exclusive chivalric order in England. It bears the motto Honi soit qui mal y pense (Anglo-Norman for ‘shame on he who thinks evil of it’), hinting at the combination of honour and gallantry that the order represents. Around Henry’s neck is the ‘Lesser George’ medallion (named after Saint George, the chivalric patron saint of England), worn by knights of the order on non-ceremonial occasions.

Despite these signs of status, Henry is not in ceremonial dress or a specifically regal setting. Rather, this portrait emphasises the splendour of his clothing and surroundings, portraying a man of good taste and erudition. Henry’s fashionable garb reflects his Italianate tastes while the view behind him may represent the grounds of Richmond Palace, where he planned to lay out elaborate Italian-style gardens. Sadly, few of Henry’s grand plans were realised. In 1612, this popular king-in-waiting died suddenly from fever, aged 18. He became England’s venerated lost prince.

Elizabeth

Princess Elizabeth, goddaughter of Queen Elizabeth I, was about 14 years old when this portrait was made. Elizabeth’s childish figure reflects her youth, yet her solemn face has a mature demeanour. Peake depicts her with a sense of worldliness, confidence and grace befitting a young princess whose chief value was as a potential bride.

Elizabeth wears a French farthingale – the drum-shaped skirt favoured by her mother, Anne of Denmark and Queen Elizabeth I before her. Her embroidered silk dress is complemented with a box-chain of diamonds draped across her torso, a girdle of rubies around her waist and a large hair ornament of rubies, pearls and diamonds. The mounted knight depicted on her brooch may refer to her brother’s position as a Knight of the Order of the Garter. Pearls, alluding to purity and virginity, are abundant – as seen in the halo-like diadem encircling her high-coiffed hair. The exotic Islamic carpet, brocaded chair and shimmering drapes provide a suitably rich setting for the princess, and this assortment of patterned surfaces is typical of Jacobean painting.

Peake emphasises Elizabeth’s wealth, status and beauty – attributes that her father, the king, would have actively promoted to her suitors. In 1612, she married Frederick V of the Palatine, forming a diplomatic alliance between England and a fellow Protestant nation. Frederick and Elizabeth briefly ruled Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in 1619–20, but mounting religious tensions in the region forced them into exile. Their short reign earned them the title of ‘the winter king and queen.’ Elizabeth returned to England only in the final year of her life, where she was finally buried, according to her wishes, next to her beloved brother Henry.

Questions and activities

  • Look at each portrait and discuss what you see. Describe what Henry and Elizabeth are wearing, where they are standing and the objects around them, and how these are significant parts of the storytelling.
  • After looking at the portraits, read the story of Henry and Elizabeth. How has your perception of these royal children changed? Discuss.
  • Research the fashion of the early 1600s. Are these royals on trend? Paint a portrait of yourself in this era. How comfortable would this fashion be to wear?
  • Create a humorous video documentary about Henry and/or Elizabeth at the time these portraits were made. Interview ‘the royals’ and include questions based on real facts of the time. Make posters for your documentary to display at school and hold an official screening of your work.