One of the most beautiful portraits of Elizabeth I is the so-called Peace Portrait, and it has long been associated with the Earl of Leicester. The queen, symbolizing the goddess of peace, Pax, holds an olive branch and stands on top of the sword of justice. The noted antiquarian and topographer, David Lysons, wrote in his Environs of London (1796) that the buildings seen in the picture’s background were part of the gardens of the old Wanstead Hall, the Essex house bought by Leicester in 1577, but replaced by a Palladian monstrosity in the early 18th century.Share
The portrait is known by its signature and style to be the work of Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, a Flemish Protestant master who sought temporary refuge in England, but was resident in Antwerp between 1577 and 1586. However, he was back in London by August 1586, when he stood godfather to a child of his wife’s uncle, the merchant-intellectual Emanuel van Meteren. By the costumes, the Peace portrait has been dated to around 1580–1585; but it could have been painted later.
Next to the sword of justice a lap-dog is seen in the picture, an animal occuring very rarely in depictions of Elizabeth, Federico Zuccaro’s masterful drawing of the queen in 1575 being the only other coming to mind. This sketch is known to have been commissioned by Leicester, alongside a companion piece of his own figure in tilting armour. Both drawings, taken from life, were the basis for portraits in oil, now lost, but exhibited at the earl’s grand festivities at Kenilworth in 1575.
A little dog in a painting commissioned by Robert Dudley would certainly make sense. It might have alluded to an incident between the queen and Leicester, witnessed by the French ambassador de Foix in 1566: Catherine de Medici had heard that the English earl would like to make a voyage through France, and since she hoped for his support in thwarting a Habsburg match for Elizabeth she sent him a gracious invitation. De Foix delivered the letter in Elizabeth’s presence, assuming she knew about Leicester’s travelling wishes. Of course, Leicester had not dared to tell her, nor was Elizabeth thrilled at the prospect of having to forbear his company. Her reply to her favourite was sharp: “I cannot live without seeing you every day. You are like my little dog. As soon as he is seen anywhere, people know that I am coming, and when you are seen, they say I am not far off.”3 (Read more.)