A Breech-less Brute

The students in my Elizabethan class had quite a lot to say about Marcus Gheerhaerts’ 1594 portrait of Captain Thomas Lee yesterday: it is indeed a provocative portrait and he was indeed a provocative man. A poor relation of Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s Champion and Master of the Armouries, Thomas’s career is characterized by his long “service” in Ireland, from the mid 1570s until the late 1590s, after which he was implicated in the Essex Rebellion of 1601 and executed for treason. In his pursuit of the conquest of Ireland and his own personal gain, Captain Lee murdered, blinded, stole, and conspired. When he was not “serving”, he engaged in highway robbery and was imprisoned for debt. He was not a happy outlaw, however, and the Gheerhaerts portrait, along with his two essays, A brief declaration of the government of Ireland  (1594) and The discovery and recovery of Ireland with the author’s apology (1599), are attempts to repair his reputation. Too little too late–though his arrest and execution at Tyburn in February of 1601 were consequences of his involvement in the Essex plot rather than any of his actions in Ireland, which were supposedly on behalf of the Queen.

Captain_Thomas_Lee_by_Marcus_Gheeraerts Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee by Marcus Gheeraerts II, 1594, Tate Britain.

Well of course this personal history does not explain why Captain Lee is not wearing pants (or breeches, or hose). Clearly that is the defining feature of this portrait, commonly known as “the man with the bare legs”. There’s something vaguely classical about the painting, with its pastoral background and Latin inscription on the right: Facere et pati Fortia, “To act and suffer bravely”, a quotation from Livy’s history of the Roman commander Caius Mucius Scaevola, who defeated Etruscan rebels by penetrating their camp and living among them, so he could know the enemy. He was recognized for his bravery and rewarded handsomely by the Roman government for his efforts and thus represented a useful example for Lee, who perhaps saw himself as performing a similar service for the Queen among the “wild” Irish. Despite its fanciful fabric, Lee’s outfit is actually a bit more pragmatic: he is fully-armed and wears some semblance of the “uniform” of an Irish foot-soldier, or “wood-kerne”, bare-legged to better accommodate the boggy terrain of the Emerald Isle. So Lee is presenting himself as Irish: he has “gone native” in the (sacrificial) service of the Queen. The true measure of his claimed “sacrifice” can only be grasped through a realization of just how “wilde”, barbaric, and brutal the English perceived and presented the Irish to be: John Derrick’s Image of Irelande (1581) is a good source for this, as is a book by another man who was constantly currying favor with the Queen, Edmund Spenser’s thoroughly racist View of the Present State of Ireland (c. 1596).

Lee Discovery Folger


Lee’s discoverye and recoverye of Ireland with the authors apologie, ca. 1600. Folger Shakespeare Library: John Derrick, The Image of Irelande, with a Discoverie of Woodkarne, 1581, Edinburgh University Library.






5 responses to “A Breech-less Brute

  • Roger

    “Lee is presenting himself as Irish: he has “gone native” in the (sacrificial) service of the Queen. ”

    He was in a more complicated position than that, though: he was married to an Irish widow and so had an interest in her land and was in a dubious position in the feuds and quarrels of the native Irish, the Anglo-Irish and the English invaders.He must often have seemed to be in service to the Queen when it was convenient to him.

  • learnearnandreturn

    What a fascinating image. I went in search of Albrecht Durer’s sketch of Irish warriors from 1521 – http://www.wikiart.org/en/albrecht-durer/irish-soldiers-and-peasants – Durer would have had no political agenda, as a German, and the men he sketches look pretty wild too, but they definitely cover their legs! Lee’s pose is odd in other ways too – his shirt is open almost to the waist, his chest is hairless, and one hand is oddly flaccid. Could there be a homosexual subtext?

    • daseger

      You know I looked up the image too–so interesting that it is so very different!. Yet the English images all have these short-skirted, bare-legged Irish warriors. The “oddly-flaccid” hand provoked much discussion among my students as well!

  • Ellen Hawley

    Fascinating post. Thanks. That hand, though. Forget any homosexual subtext (and the belief that there’s a link between gay men and limp wrists may well be an anachronism anyway). What’s interesting is that it bends in ways that bones don’t allow.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: