The Mare’s Nest: A History of Provenance
Captain Thomas Lee

Please note this history is a work of fiction by the artist Rory Macbeth. See the Tate collection for information about the artwork.

Marcus Gheeraerts II, ‘Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee’ 1594
Marcus Gheeraerts II
Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee 1594

At first glance this picture seems to be a typically grand Elizabethan portrait of a gentleman in his prime, like others in this gallery. It is painted by Marcus Gheeraerts, a fashionable London-based Flemish painter in 1594, and depicts Captain Thomas Lee, a soldier engaged in Ireland, controlling the rebellious Catholics of Ulster. This much is fairly straightforward. What is hidden is that this man was not only a secret Catholic, but a possible pretender to the Papacy, as well as the model for one of literature’s most famous heroes.

The first glaringly odd thing about this work is that he has no trousers or hose… why should a gentleman want to be depicted for all posterity bare-legged? It was certainly not a trend in the Elizabethan court, or anywhere else for that matter. It gives him a comic or faintly ridiculous air, especially compared to the fine quality of his shirt and doublet. Yet it is this ridiculousness, along with a couple of false provenances that has saved the painting for posterity.

Thomas Lee was a soldier, but one with much greater and very different ambitions than his rank and career might imply. He was also a soldier of the Church. The problem was, it was the Catholic Church, and he was living in the recently reformed England which had rejected Catholicism.

It was out of the question to be openly Catholic, but under the veneer of acceptance of Protestantism, there was a strong underground society of Catholics determined to re-convert the state. Lee was one of these, and specifically in the pay of Rome as a kind of spy. It was therefore a strange irony that he was put in charge of quashing the Catholic revolts in Ulster. It was something that he was to turn to his and the Catholic Church’s advantage, bolstering a strong Catholic power base, while sending back increasingly flamboyant claims about his military successes to Elizabeth I.

And it is in one of these dispatches that we have the first clue as to why he is featured bare-legged. He notes the inclement weather and boggy terrain in Ireland, and that the only practical way for he and his soldiers to deal with this is to do what the indigenous rebels do, to go bare-legged. Here he is clearly trying to mythologise himself, and let the powers that be in England see him as the captain who beats the Irish at their own game.

Like all Elizabethan portraits, this uses complicated symbolic and literary allusions that back up its intent. He stands under the protection of an oak, which would have been immediately recognised as symbolic of England. A Latin inscription reads ‘to do and endure valiantly’ – a quote from Livy, which refers to the Roman soldier, Scaevola, who infiltrated the Etruscan rebel camp dressed as an Etruscan, and when captured, secured peace by thrusting his hand in a fire to prove his bravery. Lee’s adoption of Irish dress, and the scar on his left hand also allude to this worthy comparison. He was clearly not shy of blowing his own trumpet.

So the picture clearly shows a confident man proud of his accomplishments, a successful man in control who had dispatched his duties admirably. And through this portrait, he was making his importance felt to the Queen and the Law-Lords of England in order to secure some kind of promotion.

Yet, while this is the overt meaning of the painting, its symbolism has a double life as complicated as Lee’s own. While English Protestants would have read the work in the way we have just outlined, Catholics would have seen these symbols very differently.

The oak was certainly an emblem of England, but Lee has his back (and tellingly his shield) to it. Behind the oak are concealed some armed characters, probably a reference to a notorious Spanish sortee into Cornwall that year, where 400 Spanish troops landed, burned some towns and, significantly, held a mass before escaping. Lee triumphantly gesticulates across the boughs of an ash with a pole, ash being the very wood that St Patrick used in legend to banish snakes from Ireland. Lee, it infers, will thus banish Protestantism from Ireland, England and Europe.

The quotation from Livy, emblazoned across the ash, is a shortened version of a longer phrase ‘to do and endure valiantly is the Roman way.’ This is a veiled acknowledgment of Rome as the seat of the true Church. Yet what is truly startling about the quotation from Livy, is that it appears in a document attributed to the 12th-century Bishop of Armagh, St Malachy, in which a series of Latin mottos are claimed to predict the identity of future Popes. Two centuries worth of ‘predictions’ are suitably accurate, and match the various intervening Popes, up until the then present Clement Vlll. The next prediction is the same cropped Livy quotation.

Suspiciously the first mention of the Archbishop’s predictions were when they were published by one Arnold de Wyen, in London as ‘The Prophecy of the Popes’, the year after Lee’s painting was completed. De Wyen was Flemish, and would certainly have moved in the small Flemish community that thrived in the arts around the edges of court. The ‘Prophecies’ are almost certainly fake (attributed at one point to Nostradamus), and are clearly an attempt to force the hand of the Catholic Church to accept a northern or possibly even English Pope, and thus addressing the English Protestant problems by means of challenging the present Pope with an anti-pope. The publisher and painter seem to be involved in a sophisticated clandestine publicity campaign to help engineer this change of Pope.

Could Lee be this prospective anti-pope? As a soldier, certainly not. But among the huge secret Catholic subculture, he may well have had a high-ranking Catholic appointment. There is no direct evidence of this, as all documents pertaining to this underground Catholicism are understandably rare, often coded, and mention no names directly. They do, however, infer that the whole Catholic hierarchy is still alive and well in England. Documents from the National Library archives in Rome make it clear that this anti-pope had chosen the name John (after John the Baptist), indicating that he was on the brink of being declared. They also indicate a grave awareness of the need to bring England back into the Catholic fold. Indeed these documents cite this as the central reason for putting forward an anti-pope in the place of Clement VIII, who was doing nothing to hasten the re-conversion of England.

Can the painting itself shed any more light on this? That the papal prediction motto from Livy was inscribed on the painting a year before the prophecies were published, and that the original mottos were claimed to have been written by an Archbishop in the very area of Ireland that Lee was defending at the time, is tantalising. And in conjunction with this, the ash and the oak can be read as clear pro-catholic symbolism. But all these, even the inscription, could indicate only that he was a firm supporter of the anti-pope, or at most a key player in paving the way for an anti-pope.

But it is his pose that has created such excitement in post-war scholarship about the painting. It is certainly unusual to be bare-legged, but it is equally rare for a nobleman to be shown clutching a spear. This was very much a non-ranking soldier’s weapon. Though used occasionally by leaders, they were never portrayed holding such a base implement. A sword or pistol were much more apt symbols of authority and sophistication. And yet Lee has fine examples of both here. So why the spear?

Within the iconography of western art there is only one figure who consistently replicates this pose: St John the Baptist.

St John The Baptist montage for Art Now Live Work Rory Macbeth ficticious histories tour

St John The Baptist montage
for Art Now Live Work Rory Macbeth ficticious histories tour

Traditionally portrayed in rude garments, often an animal pelt, and usually exposing his flesh, (especially his legs, as one who baptises others in rivers), and holding a staff, often topped with a crude cross, this is the exact pose that Thomas Lee adopts. Tellingly, what we assume to be his spear disappears off the canvas. Is it topped with a point or a cross? Behind him lies a lake, again alluding to baptism. He is very pointedly referring to himself as John, the adopted name of the anti-pope to be.

Unless documents actually naming him are found, there is no way of knowing for sure what was intended for Thomas Lee. What is known is that the English authorities very suddenly convicted him on trumped up charges at very short notice, and had him hung at Tyburn. Certainly being exposed as an active Catholic spy would have resulted in just such a fate. But the Elizabethans were also keen on making a long and painful public spectacle of such a traitor.

However the embarrassment of potentially having an English Pope might have just been too much. Certainly a very swift and unremarkable execution for a trumped-up lesser crime would have been a more expedient answer to what could potentially have been playing into Catholic hands. To publicly try and condemn an Englishman for being a contender for the Papacy would have made him an immediate and popular martyr, which might have just been able to tip the balance of public opinion, and allowed the Catholic underground to re-surface, and with the help of Rome and other interested Catholic countries, to potentially re-instate Catholicism in England. Indeed as we speak, this relatively new information on Lee has prompted lobbyists within the Vatican to declare him a martyr and, like Thomas a Beckett, Charles l, make him an English Catholic Saint.

So under these circumstances, how did such a painting survive? This was, after all, the height of the reformation, where zealots such as Francis Prynne ensured that up to ninety-five percent of any suspect art got destroyed, (his zeal was such that he even accused the Earl of Arundel, a major art collector, of keeping a secret nunnery, in order to muddy his name). Surely, irrespective of whether any hidden symbolism had been noticed, Elizabeth I would have been keen to erase any trace of a man who was potentially such a threat to her government.

The painting, however, was in Ireland. Unsuccessful in his bid for promotion, Captain Lee returned to Ulster with his portrait, a journey made much easier by a new innovation from Italy – canvas, a method pioneered by Venetian artists such as Titian, whose international reputation blossomed by the ease with which he could transport large commissions. Up to this point paintings were done on wood. Here we have one of the first in England to have been done on canvas.

Its transportability got it out of harm’s way, but the stories that arose around this strange work, made sure it was kept as a curio, and complete with a new, harmless and slightly ridiculous provenance, ensured its survival, and even fame. Word got around that Lee had been so keen to use this latest Italian technique in his portrait, that he gave up his leggings and cape in place of the canvas which had not arrived on time from Italy. While this is clearly a nonsense, it was an anecdote that stuck with the work, rendering the sitter a harmless eccentric.

It was while it was in Ireland that its comic provenance and appearance had its most profound effect on the arts. As a Catholic country waging a direct war on England, Ulster had the backing of many Catholic powers, and Lee himself would have served an important role in these negotiations. Foremost among contributors was Philip II of Spain, whose country was indebted to the Catholics of Ireland when a large portion of what remained of the Spanish Armada was crushed by heavy storms off the north west coast of Ireland. Many survivors from the wrecks were sheltered from the English authorities and given a safe passage home.

Among the many purchasing agents employed to fund the Armada was a tax official called Miguel de Cervantes. After the Armada disaster, he was requisitioned to secure and deliver funds to encourage others to attack England. Ulster was one of these, and on at least two occasions (1598 and 1600) Cervantes was sent to Ireland to deliver cash and equipment to various rebels. He may well have met Lee on one of these trips, though it is not (unsurprisingly) documented. However Cervantes does mention in a letter a most unusual portrait he saw, of a bare-legged nobleman, who he describes in some detail. And it is the comic effect of this image that he honed for all posterity as the famous Don Quixote, published four years after his last recorded visit to Ireland.

In his first adventure in the book, Don Quixote finds himself at an inn, which he believes to be a castle. The amused innkeeper and serving wenches try to help him off with his armor, but only manage to remove his leg-plates and chains, as the breast-plate and helmet are stuck due to rust and ill-repair. Quixote maintains his decorum, and spends the evening at the inn in this state… a bare-legged knight-errant, proudly clutching a lance. Illustrators of the book from Dore and Daumier through to Picasso and Peake have drawn on this image to make one of the most instantly recognisable heroes in literature. In fact Peake knew of the picture and its connection to Cervantes, and uses the Lee portrait as a direct reference in his version. And is it chance, then, that in the book, Don Quixote associates himself with the Knights of St John, and that he enters Barcelona in triumph on St John the Baptist’s day?