Illuminating the global in Tudor and early Stuart portraits
- Look for evidence of global exchange, migration, and the beginnings of empire in portraits.
- Learn to ask new questions about these artworks and others.
- Think critically about the dynamics of global production and exchange that informed their creation.
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Setting the scene
An island nation, divided by the Reformation, struggles to articulate its identity. As a new dynasty, the Tudors seek to demonstrate their authority and legitimacy at home and abroad.
The question of Englishness was feverishly debated among powerful people in society. Was England part of Europe? A cosmopolitan nation in its own right? How would it govern the many individuals, ranging from religious refugees to Africans living in merchant households, who came into the realm from other shores? And how would English identity change because of maritime exploration and colonisation? These questions and ambitions have left ongoing and deeply fraught legacies today.
As Tudor Britain began engaging with travel, trade and expansion to a degree never seen before, glimpses of the nation’s global ambitions manifested themselves in portraiture. Even as the Tudors sought to promote their power and distinct identity, they relied on migrant artists and foreign commodities to do so.
Like the gold flecks enlivening these paintings’ jewels, these global elements, once seen, cannot be unseen. We encourage you to look for more!
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The crown that Queen Elizabeth I is wearing in 'The Coronation portrait' differs from medieval crowns, which were open at the top. It is called an imperial crown.
- What message do you think this crown is giving to the viewer?
Wooden conduits to golden worlds
There are many ways of ‘reading’ a portrait and looking for evidence of the portrait as an object, and not just an image, is one way to start. Most portraits from the 1500s in the National Portrait Gallery are painted on wooden panels. If you approach a Tudor portrait, chances are you’ll notice evidence of its life as a tree.
Artists often used oak from the Baltic region for Tudor paintings, as this was higher-quality wood than English oak and more suitable to cut down into regular-sized boards for painting.
Like portraiture, trade and exploration blossomed in the Tudor and Stuart era, and wood played an important part in making this possible. Wooden ships, and the objects and people they carried, connected the nation to other parts of the world.
For more information on what wood tells us about paintings:
Watch the Gallery’s dendrochronology film (at the bottom of the page).
Born in France, the Protestant Isaac Oliver moved to London to escape the French wars of religion. His paintings were influenced by the styles and techniques of Italian and Flemish artists.
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by Isaac Oliver
watercolour on vellum, circa 1590
2 1/2 in. x 2 in. (64 mm x 51 mm) oval
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Choose a range of Tudor and early Stuart portraits.
- Who painted them? Which of them were painted by English artists?
- Does it surprise you to see that most of the iconic images that we associate with English royalty were painted by migrants?
- Many painters at the English court, as well as silversmiths, silk weavers, goldsmiths, physicians, and botanists, were religious refugees.
Find out more via the Runnymede Trust’s resource ‘Our Migration Stories’
London’s taste for foreign wares
Behind these images is a vibrant world of commerce and migration, where people and goods circulated. Tudor and early Stuart London was a bustling port city, full of crosscurrents of exchange. Access to goods relied on vast trading networks involving foreign merchants and go-betweens. The portraits at the National Portrait Gallery indicate the rise of consumerism in Elizabethan England. The inclusion of merchants in the Tudor galleries demonstrates the rising status of these individuals, who showed their wealth through forms of representation previously used mainly by aristocrats.
A port record from the 1560s documents some of the goods that came into London at this time – mostly via Venice in Italy:
- Ambergris, whale secretion used for perfume, sourced in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans
- Beaver skins, North America
- Brazilwood, wood from a Brazilian tree, used as a dye
- Glass beads, Italy
- Sugar in large, crystalised pieces, Morocco and the Levant (Western Asia)
- Cochineal, insects from Mexico, used to produce a scarlet dye
- Fustian fabric, Italy
- Drinking glasses, Italy
- Pepper, West Africa
- Raisins, Spain
- Turmeric for dye and medicine, East Indies (islands in Southeast Asia)
- Wine, Italy and France
- Cheese, Holland
In the 1600s, following the establishment of trading companies like the East India Company and Virginia Company, port records begin to document larger quantities of Chinese porcelain, Indian textiles, spices, silks, ivory and tobacco. The trade of such goods involved the movement of people too. Explorers and merchants brought Africans and Indigenous men and women to England to serve as interpreters, guides and servants. Some Africans worked as sailors on board European ships. English traders were frequently vulnerable when they were establishing trade with other powers, and relied on the abilities of those who helped them along the way.
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Portraits like this one of Sir Thomas Gresham may not seem particularly extravagant. However, the abundant gold hints at Gresham’s immense wealth, as does the deep colour of his clothes. Gresham founded the Royal Exchange, a fashionable place for merchants to sell their wares from abroad.
Global colour networks: sourcing pigments
Pigment case study: cochineal
Cochineal was a red dye used in some paints, clothes and cosmetics. It was made by drying and grinding insects found on cactuses in Central America. Various shades of red feature prominently in Tudor and early Stuart portraits. The paintings in this gallery do not contain known traces of cochineal, but they depict fabrics and textiles perhaps made with cochineal dye.
This rare English manuscript from the 1600s includes this detailed description of how Indigenous Americans sourced cochineal in Guatemala and Mexico. Though some pigments were cheaply and widely produced, this source encourages us to think more about the human labour required to source the costlier pigments found in this gallery.
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‘The cochineal is an insect bred in a fruit. [They] would rot in their husks … did not the Indians … spread under the branches of the [cactus] tree a large linen cloth, and then with sticks shake the branches, and so disturb the poor insects that they take wing to be gone, till the heat of the sun so disorders them that they fall down dead on the cloth, where the Indians leave them under they are thoroughly dry. When they fly [the beetles] are red, when they fall they are black, and when first they are dry they are white, though the colour changes a little after. These make the rich scarlet colour.’
Do we, like Elizabethans, consume beetles? Cochineal extract is still found in certain foods and cosmetics, including some lipsticks. Starbucks once used it as a colorant for their strawberry Frappuccinos.
What can Katherine of Aragon tell us about cross-cultural encounters in Tudor Britain?
Tudor women played an important part in bringing families and dynasties together – through marriage. They were often required to leave their homes and settle in new countries. Stories about the early life of Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, are often overlooked in favour of the drama and intrigue of her later life – her divorce from Henry, his interest in Anne Boleyn, and England’s break from the Catholic Church in Rome. By following Katherine’s journey, we can discover how women connected the Tudor court to the world beyond.
Katherine was born near Madrid. Her parents were Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile – the royal couple who sponsored Christopher Columbus’s voyages to ‘India’, which eventually led him to the Americas in 1492. Growing up, Katherine travelled with her family through large parts of Spain at a time when the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were at war against the Muslim rulers of Granada.
The portrait of Katherine is often purely considered to be a companion to Henry VIII’s portrait (see NPG L246 and NPG 4690). But her sumptuous clothing and steady gaze present Katherine as powerful in her own right: a woman who brought prestige and wealth to the Tudors through her connections to the Spanish Empire and its vast trade networks. Another surviving portrait of Katherine includes a monkey, a symbol of exoticism, and a means of showcasing Spanish access to global goods.
Behind the power and wealth, there were many unseen individuals, such as those who dyed fabrics, crafted clothes, and attended to and dressed the monarch. Katherine’s royal entourage would have included Spanish attendants and peoples who had been captured during the Spanish campaigns to reconquer parts of Muslim-ruled Spain. One such woman was Katherine’s attendant and bed-maker, Catalina of Motril. ‘Catalina’ was the name given to her after her conversion, so her real name is unknown. The councillor Thomas More also noted a group of ‘Ethiopians’ who were part of Katherine’s retinue. Suddenly, our understanding of the Tudor court becomes more complex – non-European peoples including ‘Moors’ (Muslim North Africans) and ‘blackamoors’ (Africans) were present in private chambers and public ceremonies, even if they are not visible in these portraits.
The Tudors increasingly established contact with Eastern empires, including the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey), Persian Empire (Iran), and Mughal Empire (India). Until merchants, ambassadors and other travellers set up more direct exchanges, people accessed global goods via Venice, a bustling multicultural city that had long had (and benefitted from) contact with the Middle East and Asia.
After the Reformation, English monarchs rejected the pope’s ban on conducting trade and diplomatic relations with Islamic rulers. The fashion for the ‘Orient’ can be found in Tudor and Jacobean portraits, in the appearance of Ottoman and Persian-made carpets, and silk garments, the product of merchant access to eastern trade, and diplomatic gift-giving.
- Who contributed to the knowledge gained by English merchants, ambassadors, and other travellers when they established trading relationships with non-European countries?
- How was this knowledge acquired?
- Who do you encounter or rely on for help or information when you travel to new places?
A multicultural court: the Moroccan ambassador
The Tudor court was multilingual and multicultural: several of Henry VIII’s wives were European; Mary I married Philip II of Spain; and ambassadors and diplomats came from Venice and France, among other countries. Africans and ‘Indians’ (individuals from the Americas or India) lived in the households of merchants and courtiers. Also, Elizabeth I’s personal physician, Roderigo Lopez, was a Portuguese converso (Christian convert) with Jewish ancestry.
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University of Birmingham Shakespeare Institute © Wikicommons
In 1600, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud (pictured) visited the Elizabethan court as a Moroccan ambassador to explore the possibility of a military alliance between English and African forces against Spain. He spent six months at court, where he would have brought a large retinue of his own servants and attendants and observed his own religious practices. Whilst in England, the group attended the November 1600 festivities that marked the anniversary of Elizabeth I’s coronation.
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by Wenceslaus Hollar
3 1/4 in. x 2 1/2 in. (81 mm x 62 mm) plate size; 3 1/2 in. x 3 in. (90 mm x 77 mm) paper size
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Hollar was born in Prague and lived in London at various points in his life. The inscription on the engraving states that the portrait was made from life in 1637.
Elite society was fascinated by Persia and its empire. James I’s silkworm expert praised the Colony of Virginia in North America for being ‘in the same latitude that Persia is’. A similar climate would be beneficial to establishing a silk industry, just as ‘silks are the sinews of the Persian state’.
Have you noticed the high heels that men wear in portraits of the late 1590s and early 1600s? Persian military men wore heels for practical reasons, and the popularity of heels at European courts may have been the result of a Persian diplomatic mission to Europe in 1598. In the early 1600s, the adventurer Sir Robert Shirley (pictured) befriended Shah Abbas and claimed to have helped train the Persian Safavid army. When he returned to England, Shirley continued to wear a turban and silk coat (qaba).
- Why do you think Protestant England made diplomatic alliances with Islamic powers?
Clothing: global threads
What does the fashion for heels, earrings, feathers, bracelets and certain colours tell us about how men and women styled themselves in this period? Think about the body parts we choose to emphasize through our clothing. Men’s legs took centre stage at the court of James I, while Elizabeth I was particularly pleased with her pale, slender hands. This striking image of Elizabeth depicts her in a rather masculine, military-style doublet.
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In the 1500s and 1600s, colours had different associations than they do today. Pink was considered a variant of red, suitable for both women and men (though some of the pink colours in Tudor portraits may be faded reds). Elizabeth favoured the combination of white and black.
In today’s society, studies have revealed a marketing trick known as the ‘pink tax' whereby women pay more than men for the same product if it is pink. Pink razors, for example, are more expensive than similar razors for men, in grey or blue. Yet as portraits show us, associations between colours and genders are not fixed over time.
Silk threads and imported textiles show how Tudor and early Stuart self-presentation was influenced by global connections. Chances are, the clothes you are wearing were not made locally. Look at the tags on your clothes or bags.
- Where do your clothes come from? Who do you think made them?
- How do our clothes reflect the influence of other countries and styles?
- Can you think of certain fashions (hairstyles, patterns) that have been debated recently in popular media?
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When he ascended the throne, James I sought to end the many decades of armed conflict between England and Spain. This portrait shows leading councillors from Spain and the Spanish Netherlands (left) and England (right) debating the terms of peace at Somerset House in 1604.
James’s Secretary of State, Robert Cecil (bottom right), was an influential courtier who fought to ensure that the terms of peace granted England greater freedom to pursue their Atlantic ambitions.
Whereas English monarchs styled themselves as rulers of ‘England, Scotland, Ireland and France’, Philip III styled himself king of a vast range of territories, including Castile, Sicily, Jerusalem, Portugal, Guinea, the East and West Indies, and ‘the islands and terra firma of the Ocean Sea’.
- The dimensions of this painting are 205 cm x 268 cm. Why do you think it is so large?
- Why might producing such a large painting have been seen as a political act in England?
- Think about the composition. What effect does the way the scene is painted have on us, as viewers? Do you feel like you are in the room?
- What signs of authority can be seen?
- What is the significance of the paper, ink, and pen, and the large carpet on the table?
Ruffs in Jamestown?
Jamestown, Virginia, was the first successful English colony in America, founded in 1607. The colonisation of Bermuda, New England, Newfoundland and parts of the Caribbean followed.
Understanding the importance of fashion in Tudor and Stuart portraiture gives us an indication of ideas of power and status in the early colonies. Archaeologists at Jamestown in Virginia have found five ‘goffering irons’ – the tools that Jacobeans used to stiffen and arrange their ruffs.
Prince Henry died while still a teenager, but supporters hailed him as Europe’s ‘military prince’. Henry was very invested in colonisation. He funded voyages to seek a ‘Northwest Passage’ and instructed captains in Virginia to write to him with news.
John Smith was a soldier rather than a member of the nobility. What do you think is the significance of his portrait appearing so prominently on this early map of the North American coastline?
- Why do you think maintaining appearances was so important to gentlemen, even when it was impractical to do so in humid colonial climates?
- What might the combination of ruffs and armour in portraits tell us about how gentlemen wished to present themselves?
- What role did violence have to play in English colonialism, first in Ireland and then the Americas?
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This portrait shows Matoaka, or Pocahontas, when she visited England. She died in Gravesend in 1617, about 25 miles from the National Portrait Gallery. Here, she holds an ostrich feather fan, prized by courtiers. As an Algonquian, Pocahontas came from Indigenous societies that valued other feathers, such as those of turkeys.
- How were feathers brought to England from around the world?
- What other animal parts can you find in these portraits, such as leather or furs? Where might these have been sourced?
Pearls are so pervasive in Tudor and Stuart portraits that they can become almost invisible. These were highly prized as luminous gems with potent mythological associations with the sea. They were deeply implicated in the maritime empire and brought to England both legally and in illicit ways – in pockets and boxes, sewn into clothes or turned into earrings.
Pearls had long been sourced in Asia. By the 1500s, the Tudors also relied on enslaved African and Native American divers in the Atlantic, where the Spanish had established large fisheries. The valuable skills of pearl divers were used in other contexts too. When the English warship the Mary Rose sank in 1545, Henry VIII employed an expert West African diver, Jacques Francis, to recover sunken goods.
Observe the range of different-sized pearls and the ways that they were worn, on clothing by men and women alike.
- What is the significance of the size of Ralegh’s pearl earring?
- Where else can pearls be seen in this portrait?
- Does thinking about the human labour that went into such goods influence how you view portraits of Elizabethans and Jacobeans? In what ways?
The African presence
Elizabethan explorers including John Hawkins and Francis Drake profited from trafficking enslaved people in Africa and transporting them to Spanish plantations in America. Records also indicate that there were hundreds of Africans living in England in the Tudor and Stuart eras. Some were performers and household attendants, while others were sailors or interpreters. For example, a London parish record from 1611 notes a:
‘Dederj Iaquoah about the age of 20 years, the sonne [son] of Caddi-bian King of the river of Cetras … in the Country of Guinea, who was sent out of his country by his father in an English ship.’
European ideas about Blackness were constructed over time, through a variety of influences that included cross-cultural contact as well as a range of conflicting ideas and prejudices transmitted through print, travel narratives and plays. English uncertainties about how to categorise Africans began to escalate in the mid-1600s. There was a growing need to justify the human labour required to produce the vast quantities of tobacco and sugar that sustained English plantations in Virginia and the Caribbean. This marked the beginning of institutional slavery in British society and fuelled racism against Black people.
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- Drake’s hand rests on the Southern Hemisphere (the globe is upside down to present-day western eyes). Why do you think that is?
- This is a large-scale painting. What is Drake saying about himself and his achievements?
Sub-Saharan Africans in Tudor and Stuart England were often termed ‘blackamoors’, while region-specific words like ‘Ethiope’ were also sometimes used.
Read this short essay on ‘blackamoors’ in England:
- As a class, discuss how this word encompassed many different people from a vast range of places, and why such a term is too broad to fully understand the diversity of Black people’s experiences in England.
- Discuss the role of trade and expansion in how ideas of Blackness were constructed during this time. You can also use this resource as a starting point to further explore Black lives in Tudor Britain.
Historian Onyeka Nubia has suggested that Africans may have chosen to use or reclaim certain terms to convey ‘a Black sense of self’. This invites us to contemplate how Black Elizabethans may have viewed themselves, rather than how others categorised them.
It is unfortunately very difficult to obtain the direct voices of Black people in early modern England. Their words were always mediated by those who wrote these accounts down. These records, however, hint at the variety of African lives in Tudor and early Stuart England.
- Richard Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, 1599
‘We also among us in England have blacke Moors, Ethiopians, out of all parts of the Torrid Zones.’
- Draft proclamation of Elizabeth I, 1601
‘Whereas the Queen’s majesty…is highly discontented to understand the great number of…blackamoors which (as she is informed) are carried into this realm since the troubles between her highness and the King of Spain; who are fostered and relieved here.’
This proclamation calls for the deportation of ‘blackamoors’ in England. It is only a draft, meaning it was never actually legislated. However, it suggests that there was a significant number of people of African descent in Elizabeth London, and that some English people did not welcome their presence.
- Westminster, London, 1602
Burial of Fortunatus, black servant in the household of Robert Cecil (for a portrait of Cecil, see NPG 107 and NPG 665).
- London, 1610s
A South African man, ‘Coree the Saldanian’ of the Khoekhoe people, lived in the household of Sir Thomas Smith after being captured when boarding an East India Company ship. Coree used his growing knowledge of the English language to express his desire to return home. He did return to Africa, where he died in 1627.
Explore resources about migrants from diverse backgrounds:
The limits of representation
These portraits are highly unusual in that they depict an African girl and boy not in the act of serving or attending to another person but as individuals in their own right.
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Attitudes to Africans shifted in the Stuart era. This image, composed some forty years after those above, depicts the Duchess of Portsmouth with a Black attendant, who is included to enhance the duchess’s status. The girl may have been a court attendant, or perhaps reflected the presence of Africans at court without depicting a specific person.
There are many portraits of aristocratic men and women with unidentified Africans dating from the 1600s. These are highly stylised. Often, the Black individual, quite literally, gestures towards the elite sitter’s access to global goods. In the image of the duchess, the girl offers up coral and a shell brimming with pearls.
- Research other Stuart portraits that include Africans, such as those of Anne of Denmark or Prince Rupert. Compare their gestures and clothes. How realistic do you think these portrayals are?
- Explore ways of thinking about the experience of these individuals beyond what the portraits seem to say about them.
Were women colonisers?
Women did not lead journeys of exploration in the same way that Drake or Ralegh did, and their travels were more restricted than those of men. Yet they did express an interest in colonisation. ‘Virginia’ was so called because Elizabeth I styled herself as the ‘virgin queen’. Ralegh wrote several letters to James I’s wife, Anne of Denmark, about Virginia and Guiana, and Anne met with Pocahontas in London. From the 1610s and 1620s, larger numbers of women began travelling to fledgling English colonies in the Americas, including Virginia, New England and Bermuda.
Prestige and wealth in portraits were increasingly demonstrated through the proliferation of global commodities – ivory, pearls, emeralds and silk. For example, hundreds of pearls can be seen in Elizabeth’s necklace, hair jewels, and dress in this portrait.
Women contributed funds towards provisioning ships and setting up schools abroad. A few invested in the Virginia Company. They grew and smoked tobacco, cooked with spices and sugar obtained from other countries, and wrote letters to merchants and agents, asking for ’India gowns’, rare plants, shells, and feathers.
Hints of these global interests begin to become more visible in portraits of the 1600s. Parrots and monkeys appear as ‘exotic’ companions. Pineapples and tulips feature in still life paintings and were engraved on cases in which miniatures were kept. Increasingly, the demand for plantation goods led to the mass importation of enslaved peoples to English colonies.
Who is missing?
It is important to consider why some people might not be represented. It is probably a mixture of several reasons, but it is impossible to be certain.
It could be that only a very small number of people in Tudor Britain had the wealth or status to have their portrait painted. Or that artists and historians in the past often focussed on influential British white men in telling the story of Britain. It is also possible that portraits were made but were simply lost.
Widening the frame
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Watch the short 'Black to Life' films by Akinola Davies on BBC Stories:
- Research a Tudor or early Stuart individual who was not represented in any artistic medium.
- Imagine what their portrait might have looked like if they had been allowed to depict themselves the way they wanted.
- As forms of political propaganda, what do the materials and objects in portraits tell us about the imperial ambitions of the Tudors and early Stuarts?
- Based on some of the points raised in this resource, what do you think are the limitations of portraits? Who is being left out of them? Is there a way to integrate these stories to gain a fuller sense of Englishness in this period?
- Respond creatively to some of the ideas in this resource, and to your favourite Tudor or early Stuart portrait.
a) Design a piece of jewellery that reflects your own background and heritage, choosing specific symbols, mottos, inscriptions, and colours that speak to this.
b) Reflect on your own background and beliefs. How would you express your sense of self through a portrait? What elements would be most important for you to convey to the viewer?
c) Write a story that charts the experience of an object as it travels from its place of origin to a Tudor or Stuart portrait.
Has it begun to fade over time, as some pigments have done? Does being crushed into a brilliant pigment feel painful or liberating? What was it like for the spun silk of a silkworm to be transported across Asia and the Levant by a Venetian merchant, be woven into cloth, then sewn into a courtier’s jacket by an English tailor?
- Research the travel writings of courtiers and explorers like Walter Ralegh’s 'A Discovery of Guiana' (1596) or 'The World Encompassed' by Sir Francis Drake (1628), an account of Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe from 1577 to 1580.
In these sources, what are explorers looking for? Who do they encounter along the way?
This resource was written by Dr Lauren Working, Lecturer in Early Modern Literature at the University of York. This research began during her time as researcher on the TIDE project at the University of Oxford.