My recent blogpost, on Irish woodkerne, mentioned a curious portrait from 1594 showing an English army captain set in an Irish landscape, unusually with bare legs. The portrait is of Captain Thomas Lee: it was painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636) and is in the Tate Britain.
Lee had been active on English military service in Ireland during a period of great political intrigue, and he was drawn to trouble like a moth to a flame. He was always involved in a conspiracy or convoluted drama of his own making. Although brave and chivalrous at times, he was also accused of terrible cruelty, of theft - even highway robbery - and on many occasions was imprisoned. Although it may look slightly ridiculous to the contemporary viewer, the painting includes complex symbolism which would have been understood by a Renaissance viewer. It was commissioned to show Lee in a good light to Queen Elizabeth I, at a time when he was accused of treason.
Lee (c. 1551 –1601) was of a middling rank and a cousin of Sir Henry Lee, Queen Elizabeth's wealthy champion. In coming to Ireland as an army officer in the 1570s, Thomas Lee’s ultimate aim was to secure vast wealth and lands, and he was prepared to do anything to achieve that: when he did not he complained bitterly and loudly. Initially things went well: through marrying an Irish widow he came into some wealth including Castlemartin Co. Kildare. He proved his usefulness to the Crown and was given the role of Provost Marshall of Connaught. He initially advocated negotiating with the Gaelic side, especially the leader Hugh O’Neill (1550-1616), Earl of Tyrone (pictured left). Lee came to consider O’Neill a ‘friend’ and the charismatic Gaelic leader had a type of hypnotic hold over him. However, in negotiations prior to the outbreak of the Nine Years War (1593 to 1603), he made an enemy of O’Neill and left one meeting lucky to be alive. This dangerous association with O’Neill led to accusations of treason from the English and to restore his reputation Lee later suggested that he assassinate O’Neill (he didn’t).
Through his various outlandish schemes, he made enemies on all sides quickly. On one occasion, he and his wife escaped a burning Castlemartin with just the clothes on their backs, an act he said was sabotage "by the means of lewd servants" possibly paid by his enemies. He spectacularly separated from his wife when she ‘betrayed’ him by informing of his plot to kidnap one of his adversaries. Curiously they remained on good terms and she later testified for him in court. He remarried an English woman in 1595, and he later abandoned her.
Below: The current Castlemartin in Co Kildare. It was rebuilt on the foundations of the old castle that Lee inhabited.
By now he owed the Crown large rents and decried that he was always in poverty, despite risking his life in the service of the Queen. He frequently complained to anyone who listened of being ‘slandered’ by his opponents. He became increasingly violent and was involved in some cruel acts and murders (most notably that of Rice O’Toole) and was even said to have pulled out the eyes of someone who was under his protection. He had Gaelic chieftains beheaded and had their heads sent to Queen Elizabeth personally. He gained a reputation as a successful, if notorious, assassin and mercenary intent on consolidating the English conquest of Ireland.
Pictured left: Sir Henry Lee (1533-1611), a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and the cousin of Thomas Lee. Painted by Anthonis Mor (Antonio Moro) in 1568, National Portrait Gallery, London.
After the resounding Irish victory at the Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598, Lee was imprisoned for treason. After arguing his case, he apologised on his knees before the council and was freed. Myers (1991) sees Lee’s quick release as suspicious: someone at the top seemed to be protecting him. Time and time again Lee landed himself in trouble only to be released or spared.
His feud with his arch enemy the earl of Ormond was his undoing in Ireland, and Lee left the country. By 1601, he was back in London where he again faced charges of treason, this time because of his support for his cousin the earl of Essex, who queen Elizabeth I suspected of treachery.
Prior to this Lee had tried to sway the queen’s opinion of him: he had commissioned the Gheeraerts portrait to show his loyalty and continued to protest his allegiance in letters to her and written documents.
When the queen ignored his pleas, he became desperate and hatched a bizarre plan: he hoped to ‘surprise’ her in her privy chamber at bed time and to ‘pin’ her there until she agreed to sign a warrant absolving the earl of Essex of treason charges (thus helping his own cause). As Lee sweated profusely and watched the door of her chamber in preparation for the assault, he was arrested by her guards who had been informed of his plans by a co-conspirator. In his subsequent trial, he tried to make out that he only meant, "to vex [the Queen] for half an hour, that she might live all the merrier all her life after". It all fell on deaf ears and he was put to death at Tyburn on 14 February 1601.
Decoding the painting:
Lee is depicted in a natural landscape (suggesting truth). Although he wears the visual markers of civilisation, his bare legs are a fantasy evocation of the woodkerne (a type of ‘wild’ Irish soldier renowned for their bare leggedness to facilitate their progress through the damp bogs of Ireland – see previous blogpost). In Renaissance times such nudity was associated with virtue and honesty. The verse on the painting refers to the Roman soldier Gaius Mucius Scaevola, who stayed true to Rome even when among barbarians. Thus, Lee protests, he is true to the Queen despite being acquainted with the barbarous Irish. The painting is currently in the Tate Britain gallery, London.
Myers, J. (1991). "Murdering Heart...Murdering Hand": Captain Thomas Lee of Ireland, Elizabethan Assassin. The Sixteenth Century Journal, 22(1), 47-60. doi:10.2307/2542015