This monumental portrait is a commanding depiction of one of the Tudor era’s most dominant figures. In an age remembered for its lethal political struggles, factional feuds, and religious upheavals, William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke (1506-1570), managed not only to ascend to power but also, in a feat of political agility, to retain his influence – and ultimately survive – through four of the most turbulent reigns in English history. At the time of his death, when Elizabeth I was on the throne, he was one of the most prominent noblemen in the land.
Pembroke was the son of Richard Herbert (d. 1510), of Ewyas, in Wales, the illegitimate son of the 1st Earl of Pembroke of the first creation, and to Margaret, the daughter of Sir Matthew Cradock, of Swansea. He was probably introduced to Henry VIII’s court by his kinsman Charles Somerset, 1st Earl of Worcester. Over the course of Henry’s reign, Pembroke progressed steadily in the hierarchy of the king’s household. However, his rise to prominence underwent a dramatic acceleration when his sister-in-law Katherine Parr became Henry VIII’s sixth and last queen. This royal connection led to many honours being bestowed upon him: knighted in 1544, he was made a gentleman of the Privy Chamber in 1546. In addition to enviable titles and positions, the king’s favour also expressed itself in terms of material advancement: Pembroke was one of the principal beneficiaries of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and became one of the greatest landowners in the realm, acquiring notably the significant estate of Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire which became his principal seat. He further purchased considerable land in South Wales and Western England. Pembroke was an executor of the king’s will, and one of Edward VI’s new Privy Council.
During Edward’s short reign, Pembroke became increasingly involved in the actual business of government and took on a significant military role, while also playing a pivotal part in the factional struggles that marked these years. Pembroke’s support of John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and later Duke of Northumberland, in his quarrel with Lord Protector Somerset was decisive in securing the latter’s demise, and he was rewarded with the grant of an earldom in 1551 and his appointment as Lord President to the Council in the Marches of Wales. A strong Protestant, Pembroke was involved in the aborted attempt to bring Lady Jane Grey to the throne following Edward VI’s premature death. However, when it became clear that the Catholic Mary would overpower Jane Grey, he quickly shifted his support, a politically expedient move.
Although his belated support elicited suspicions about his loyalty at the onset of Mary’s reign, his wealth, power, administrative experience and military ability made him indispensable to Mary’s government. He was closely involved with the celebrations surrounding Mary’s wedding to Philip II of Spain, welcoming the king upon his arrival to England. He gained Philip’s confidence and became one of only a handful of English noblemen to receive an Imperial pension. Pembroke’s principal service to Mary’s government was military: in 1554 he successfully led the army as the Queen’s ‘Cheyfe capten and generall’, crushing Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion; he was involved in the defence of England’s remaining Continental territories and Philip II’s war with France, playing a distinguished role in the capture of St. Quentin in 1557. However, at the end of the reign, the fall of Calais, England’s last Continental foothold, tarnished his reputation.
Upon Elizabeth’s accession, Pembroke managed to retain his strong influence at court and worked actively towards a Protestant revival. On Mary’s death, he was one of the first to visit the New Queen at Hatfield and he attended her first Privy Council. Although he enjoyed the Queen’s favour at the outset of her reign, in the 1560s he became embroiled in the complicated politics surrounding the royal succession and temporarily fell from grace for supporting the plan of marrying Mary Queen of Scots to the Duke of Norfolk, a strategy Elizabeth bitterly opposed. The Duke of Norfolk was eventually to be executed for treason, and for a while Pembroke was put under house arrest and interrogated but he successfully pleaded his innocence. Pembroke was able to demonstrate his loyalty to the crown by quelling the Northern rebellion that followed in December 1569. Pembroke died at Hampton Court on 17 March 1570, and was later buried beside his first wife in a lavish tomb at St. Paul’s on 18 April.
Pembroke’s elevated position at court manifested itself in a penchant for magnificent display: from the early 1550s, there are references to the scale and splendour of his retinue and way of life. This taste for magnificence is reflected in this remarkable portrait in which he is shown lavishly attired in an elegant black doublet decorated with intricate gold embroidery. His black cape is richly adorned with gold buttons set with rubies. The collar of the Order of the Garter, of which he had been created a knight in 1549, hangs from his neck while the garter itself is visible below his knee. The extraordinary sword at his side alludes to his military prowess. Reference to his martial valour is made in other portraits, such as a half-length in Cardiff National Museum depicting Pembroke in full armour. In the present work, the sword’s gilded and enamelled handle bears, at its centre, a depiction of the goddess of just war Pallas Athena – an apt iconography for such military apparel – as well as nude figures, satyrs and grotesque decoration. It may have been one of the earl’s two best swords, which are mentioned in his will from 1567, and which he bequeathed to his political allies Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester and William Parr, 1st Marquess of Northampton. In his right arm, Pembroke firmly holds a large wand of office, a staff that functioned as an emblem and a warrant of the authority held by a select number of high court officials. In 1568, Pembroke was appointed Lord Steward of the Household and in such a prominent position he would have been awarded a white baton of office. The wand in the portrait, dated from 1567, could refer to Pembroke’s impending appointment or to another, unidentified position he held at court. At his feet is a lap dog. This inclusion seems to be more than a mere convention of aristocratic portraiture, for Pembroke’s affection for his small companion was famously related by John Aubrey in his Brief Lives from 1669-1696: ‘This William […] had a little cur-dog which loved him, and the Earl loved the dog. When the earle dyed the dog would not leave his goe from his master’s dead body, but pined away, and dyed under the hearse; the picture of which dog is under his picture, in the Gallery at Wilton’.
The portrait referred to by Aubrey in this passage is the only other known full-length version of this composition (today still in the collection of the Earl of Pembroke, Wilton House). The Wilton picture though was not part of the original Tudor portraits at the house; these were all destroyed in a fire in 1647. Instead it was acquired about 1650 from the collection of John Lord Lumley (A Catalogue of the Paintings & Drawings in the Collection at Wilton House, op. cit., pp. 54-55). Another variant of the composition exists in the form of a bust-length, oval portrait, with an erroneous inscription identifying the sitter as the 5th Earl of Shrewsbury (Ingestre Hall). Since Pembroke had become, through his second marriage, the son-in-law of George Talbot, 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, it is understandable that the Talbots would own a version of his portrait. The early provenance of the present picture, on the other hand, unfortunately remains unclear. It might be identifiable as one of the ‘Two pictures of the Lo: Pembroke with curtaines’ recorded at Kenilworth Castle on 13 October 1588 in the collection of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (Longleat, DP XI, fol. 21r; cited in E. Goldring, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the World of Elizabethan Art, New Haven and London, 2014, p. 257, nos. K9-K10). The Dudleys and the Herberts had close ties stretching back to the reign of Edward IV. Efforts to trace the fate of these portraits during the posthumous dispersal of Leicester’s collection at Kenilworth have been hampered by the fact that the castle changed hands several times in the early seventeenth-century before being sacked during the Civil War. The first certain record of the portrait occurs in a 1824 inventory of the collection of the Dukes of Leeds at Hornby Castle, Yorkshire (fig. 1), where it hung in pride of place in the Great Hall. The panel was extended on all four sides; these additions appear to be old but it is impossible to assess exactly when they were made.