By family tradition this portrait was given by Queen Elizabeth I to the current owner's ancestor, François de Civille (1537-1610), in whose family it has remained until now. F. Aubert de La Chesnaye des Bois, recorded this tradition in his entry for the Civille family in the Dictionnaire de la Noblesse of 1772 (op. cit.), in which he wrote that François de Civille:
'fut connu de la reine Elisabeth, à laquelle il rendit des services importants, en reconnaissance desquels elle lui donna un diamant, & son portrait en grandeur naturelle [italicised in the text], que ses descendans [sic] conservent aujourd'hui au château de Boishéron [sic] en Normandie, au haut duquel il y a l'inscription suivante : 'En reconnoissance [sic] d'un service que FRANCOIS DE CIVILLE a rendu à ELISABETH, Reine d'Angleterre, elle lui a fait l'honneur de lui donner son portrait, l'an 1588'.
[François de Civille 'came to be known by Queen Elisabeth, whom he provided with important services, in recognition of which she gave him a diamond & a lifesize portrait of her, which her descendants conserve today at the castle of Bois-Héroult in Normandy, and at the top of which there is the following inscription: 'In acknowledgment of a service provided by FRANCOIS DE CIVILLE to ELISABETH, Queen of England, she honoured him by giving him her portrait, the year 1588.'']
The tradition that this portrait was a royal gift was reiterated in 1863 by the marquis de Blosseville, who was himself a descendant of François de Civille, in his preface to the Discours des causes pour lesquelles le Sieur de Civille, gentilhomme de Normandie, se dit avoir été mort, enterré, et résuscité, a lively account that François de Civille published of his own adventurous life in 1610. In this colourful text, de Civille recounted how he had cheated death on three separate occasions, having each time been mistakenly left for dead.
François de Civille (1537-1610) was a French Protestant soldier who descended from Alonce de Civille, a Spanish merchant settled in Rouen from the late fifteenth century. He fought in the bloody Wars of Religion that racked late sixteenth-century France. The conflict was precipitated by the massacre of the Huguenots of Vassy in 1562 by the Catholic forces led by the duc de Guise, and was only brought to a conclusion with the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes by King Henri IV in 1598. A citizen of Rouen, de Civille served as a Captain commanding a portion of the ramparts of the city during its siege by the Catholic armies in 1562, which was one of the major engagements in the opening phase of the conflict, and which ended with the Edict of Amboise (1563).
It was in the defence of Rouen that he had two of the close encounters with death of which he later wrote, and for which he is now best known. Hit during the assault on the city by a shot in the face, he was believed to be dead and was undressed and partially buried, when one of his valets, who had attained permission to give him a proper burial, uncovered his body and realised that he was still alive. Not long afterwards, after Catholic forces had taken the city, he was thrown from a window by Catholic soldiers, apparently searching for his brother Jean, but fell on a dung heap which softened his fall, and he was discovered to be alive by a servant who had come to bury him some days later.
De Civille somehow managed to avoid the fate of many of his fellow Huguenots at the time of the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572. In the 1580s, he was apparently in the service of the duchesse de Bouillon and also an informant for Sir Francis Walsingham. In 1584, upon the death of the childless King Henri III's brother and heir, de Civille embraced the legitimate claim to the French throne laid by the king's Protestant cousin Henri de Navarre, who would eventually succeed him as Henri IV in 1589, after converting to Catholicism. De Civille left France for England in 1584 on a mission for the duchesse de Bouillon. He remained there for some time with his wife, and was for a while resident at Rye. While family tradition has it that François de Civille was given this portrait by Queen Elizabeth I in recognition of some form of service, the exact nature of his relationship with the English Court and the reason for the gift of the portrait remains obscure. However, royal records attest to the presence of de Civille at Court and to his being granted an audience with the Queen. According to Blosseville, Elizabeth was curious to meet the hero of such extravagant adventures and asked him to tell her his story. Whatever the exact content of his mission in the British Isles, upon his return in 1589, he seems to have been entrusted by Henri IV with the command of troops that included English soldiers.
The French Wars of Religion inevitably involved England, which attempted to maintain a favourable balance of power in Europe, and in such a complex factional conflict, intelligence was of great importance to all sides. In his Foreign intelligence and information in Elizabethan England: Two English treatises on the state of France, 1580-1584 (Cambridge, 2004), David Potter notes that de Civille was in contact with Walsingham in England from 1582 and, in addition to his military activities, he might well have been a source for some of the information in Richard Cook's Description de tous les provinces de France de toutes les plus illustrés et plus remarquables maisons avec leur qualités et Religion of 1584, which was dedicated to Henry, 4th Earl of Derby (ibid., p. 16, note 59).
This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I would appear to date from circa 1585-1590. Iconographically it represents a fusion of elements from two of the best known portrait types of the Queen: the celebrated 'Ermine' portrait, which is thought originally to have belonged to the Queen's First Minister, Lord Burghley (Hatfield House), and the small full-length of the Queen by the Flemish artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, recorded in the collection of the Dukes of Portland (for both see R. Strong, Gloriana, The Portraits of Elizabeth I, London, 2003, pp. 112-5). As in the latter portrait, the Queen is shown standing in a white dress and silk-lined black mantle similarly decorated with floral motifs, holding a glove and a fan with her left hand, and an olive branch, symbolising peace, in her extended right hand. A Chair of State appears prominently in the background of both works, although in the present portrait it is shown to the right behind the Queen. The presentation of the Queen as the progenitor of peace reiterates a theme which had first been explored earlier in her reign in the allegorical Portrait of the Family of Henry VIII (Cardiff, National Museum and Gallery) in which the Queen is shown leading the figure of Peace with her olive branch. But, as Roy Strong commented, 'By 1585 the allegorical figure has been dispensed with as the Queen actually takes on her identity' (R. Strong, Gloriana, loc. cit., p. 113). Other elements of the portrait are drawn from the Hatfield portrait type: the Queen is shown in a windowed interior, wearing a pearl and jewel studded collar, also seen in portraits of King Henry VIII, from which hangs the most celebrated of royal jewels, 'The Three Brothers', a pendant made up of three huge rubies that once belonged to the Dukes of Burgundy, and with a pearl and jewel headdress of similar design. She is also shown with an ermine wearing a jewel encrusted collar, perched on her left sleeve, which is the most distinctive feature of the Hatfield portrait. Ermines, with their white coats, symbolised purity and, as Dame Frances Yates noted, such an emblem adorned the banner in Petrarch's Triumph of Chastity:
Hyr Vyctoriouse standerde was this:
In a greene felde a whyte armyne is
With a chayne of golde about her necke;
A fayre Topazion therto dyd it decke'
(F.A. Yates, Astraea: the imperial theme in the sixteenth century, London and Boston, 1975.)
This, as Sir Roy Strong commented, 'Reflects the vigour of Petrachian tradition in the 1580s as the cult of the queen moved into its apogee'.
This portrait, which appears to originally have been of full-length format, is believed to have been cut down to its present size during the Second World War, in order to remove it from its frame and hide it as German forces advanced through France.