Illustrated companion

Thomas Lee served under the Earl of Essex as a troop commander in Elizabeth's army of conquest in Northern Ireland. He was an extraordinary, swashbuckling character often praised by his military superiors for brave deeds, but often in trouble for acts of banditry and alleged treason. He was eventually executed at Tyburn for plotting against the Queen in support of his patron the Earl of Essex, after the latter's abortive rebellion in 1601. Lee considered himself misunderstood and felt that his work in Ireland was not appreciated by the Queen. He also complained of lack of money and men. This portrait was painted when Lee was in England in 1594 to try to put his case to the Queen and was clearly intended as a personal statement.

Lee is dressed in a beautifully embroidered shirt and carries a fine pistol and helmet, but his legs are bare so that he has the appearance of a common Irish foot soldier, who had to travel bare-legged through the bogs. This seems designed to draw attention to his complaint of poverty. He stands in an Irish landscape with open bogland on the left. In the woods behind him is a stretch of water with a group of armed men just visible by it. This may be a reference to Lee's valour, the previous year, in a battle against superior enemy forces for a ford near Belleek. Lee stands under an oak tree which is a symbol of reliability and constancy, and may also represent the solid protection given him by his influential cousin, Sir Henry Lee. The fact that he is standing in its lee or shelter may be a deliberate pun. In the tree is inscribed the Latin motto 'Facere et pati Fortia' which translates as 'To act and suffer bravely' - a reference to Lee's brave deeds, and also the suffering he felt he had undergone in the Queen's service. There is more to it than this, since the quotation comes from the historian Livy's account of a Roman commander, Caius Mucius Scaevola, who penetrated in disguise the camp of rebel Etruscan forces besieging Rome, in an attempt to assassinate their leader, Porsena. He was captured but behaved so bravely at his trial that the Etruscans, impressed, concluded a peace treaty and Mucius was rewarded by the Roman Senate with a grant of land. This story has parallels with Lee's attempts to negotiate with the rebel Irish leader, the Earl of Tyrone. Lee was convinced he could bring about a settlement and for his reward hoped for a grant of land in Ireland. His use of the quotation, whose words are those of Mucius at his trial, is an attempt to associate himself with the Roman hero.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.16