Rare portrait discovered of ’England’s Lost Queen’ – a cousin of Elizabeth I and a threat to her throne

Rare portrait discovered of ’England’s Lost Queen’ - a cousin of Elizabeth I and a threat to her throne.

A previously unknown portrait of a noblewoman known as ’England’s lost queen’ has been discovered by art historians Elizabeth Goldring, of the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, and Emma Rutherford.

The portrait, which is in a private collection, depicts 16 century noblewoman Lady Arbella Stuart, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I, and a potential heir to her throne. She is shown wearing lavish court dress and standing in a garden at Greenwich Palace.

Painted in 1592 by Elizabethan master Nicholas Hilliard, the portrait is a cabinet miniature, measuring only 21.1cm by 17.6cm. Fewer than ten cabinet miniatures by Hilliard are known to survive; this is the only completed one which depicts a female sitter.

Although unsigned, the work’s style and execution leave no doubt that it is by Hilliard, a specialist in miniature painting (also known as limning) and the first native-born English artist to have achieved international fame in his own lifetime.

Unlike traditional, hand-held miniatures - often intended for insertion in a piece of jewellery - cabinet miniatures like this newly discovered one were designed for display in cases or to be hung on the wall.

Born in 1575, Lady Arbella Stuart lived a rebellious life. A descendant of Henry VII, she was viewed in the 1590s as a successor to the childless and aging Elizabeth, to whom she bears a striking resemblance in this newly discovered cabinet miniature by Hilliard.

In 1610, Lady Arbella defied King James I to marry her choice of husband, William Seymour, another claimant to the English throne.

Seymour was imprisoned and Lady Arbella placed under house arrest. During a failed attempt to escape England, she was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where she died five years later, in 1615, at the age of thirty-nine, after refusing to eat.

This cabinet miniature, which depicts Lady Arbella in 1592 at the age of sixteen - a time when many viewed her as a probable future Queen of England - was identified by Warwick’s Elizabeth Goldring, author of Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist (Yale, 2019), and Emma Rutherford, Director of the Limner Company, and an expert on portrait miniatures.

Dr Elizabeth Goldring, of the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick, said: "Emma and I are thrilled to have made this discovery. Hilliard’s cabinet miniature of Arbella enriches our understanding not just of his artistic output, but also of the complex political landscape and visual culture of late Elizabethan England."

Emma Rutherford added: "Arbella’s life was steeped in intrigue and political strategy. Hilliard’s portrayal of Arbella captures her regal stature and potential as a future queen, offering a glimpse into the world of Elizabethan court politics."

Nicholas Hilliard was the first English-born artist to acquire a reputation for excellence both at home and overseas. Royal limner to both Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, King James I, Hilliard counted the Medici, the Valois, the Bourbons and the Habsburgs among his many admirers on the Continent.