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.
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’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.