Attici Amoris Ergo, Nicholas Hilliard, V&A Museum

Today we have a guest article from author Melanie Tayor. Melanie is an art historian and novelist whose first novel, The Truth of the Line, is based on research she did into the life of miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard and images from the Ps of the Coram Rege rolls between 1553 and 1565.

The miniature portrait of an Unknown Young Man with the motto “Attici Amoris Ergo”, has fascinated me since childhood. Who is he, why the apparently gibberish motto and the date – 1588, coincidentally the same as the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The portrait was painted by Elizabeth I’s painter ‘in little’, Nicholas Hilliard.

Nicholas Hilliard was born in Exeter in or about the year 1547 and in 1555 he is sent to Europe with the Bodley family eventually ending up in Geneva with various other English Protestant exiles. The Bodley family returned to England in 1559 after the accession of Elizabeth I, but it is not known whether Hilliard returned to his family in Exeter or remained. First trained as a goldsmith in London, we do not know for certain who trained him in the art of painting in watercolour on vellum, but the most likely candidate is the woman artist, Levina Teerlinc, who was first recruited by Henry VIII.

Hilliard’s talent for portrait painting is more famous than his goldsmithing and he most probably designed and made the lockets for many of his portraits.

In 1572 Hilliard paints his first known miniature portrait of Elizabeth I. His ability for capturing his sitter’s likeness make him famous, and these miniature portraits are an ideal love token. Many carry hidden messages whose meanings are only known by the given, recipient and in some instances, the artist.

What do we know about the Unknown Young Man who clasps an unseen lady’s hand that comes from a cloud? Absolutely nothing except what we can take from the portrait itself. The young man appears to be in his twenties, has sandy hair and beard, is dressed in a jacket made of expensive black fabric with a white lace collar, wears a grey hat trimmed with a white feather and he holds a lady’s hand that comes from a cloud. The words Attici Amoris Ergo are written between him and the unknown woman’s hand as if to underline the connection between him, her and Atticus and on the other side are the words Anno Domini 1588, which indicates that the date is important, but unlike other portraits there is no indication of the age of the young man.

The pose is carefully constructed and our young man clasps a feminine hand whose lace on her cuffs is coloured black and white. Is the hand that of a married lover which is why she is hidden behind a cloud? If it is of his lover, why is she not responding to his touch as her fingers appear to rest inert within his? The only other clue to our sitter’s identity is the apparently incomprehensible motto, Attici Amoris Ergo, which translates literally as ‘Therefore by, with, from, through, or of the love of Atticus’.

During my researches into the life and work of Levina Teerlinc I researched the various Ps on the front sheet of the Coram Rege rolls which were the recording of the proceedings of the Queen’s Bench and always showed an image of the monarch as God’s purveyor of justice and mercy. For the Michaelmas Law term of 1560, the anonymous illuminator has taken the trouble to show the Queen’s expression. She appears concerned and perhaps worried. It appears the illuminator is portraying the state of mind of the monarch at this crisis. The Michaelmas Law term runs from October to December, which in 1560 is the term where the very monarchy is threatened by the scandal of Lady Dudley’s death and the international gossip regarding Elizabeth and Dudley’s scandalous behaviour.

Detail of Michaelmas 1560 ‘P’

Over the centuries the debate about a possible royal bastard has continued and it seems unbelievable that the Queen of England might have hidden a pregnancy from the Court. During 1561 it was observed Elizabeth suffered from dropsy and swelled and was evidently unwell during this year. Elizabeth was recorded as suffering from all sorts of complaints which, for me, conflicts with other observations of her being a good and enthusiastic horsewoman who enjoyed the hunt as demonstrated in the woodcuts illustrating a book on hunting showing the queen being at a kill.

The next law term was the Hilary term starting in January 1561 and here Elizabeth’s image changes from what it had been since the beginning of her reign. No longer is she shown as the Virgin Queen with her hair flowing over her shoulders, but with her hair now hidden as if she were a married woman. Her expression is concerned, but no longer worried.

Hilary Term ‘P’

Why has her hair style changed to that of a married woman? If so, is it because the queen is pregnant as opposed to married?

If Elizabeth were pregnant, there is no better place to make such a statement. Perhaps it was even ordered that the event be recorded here. Lord Burghley would both have known about the Coram Rege Rolls and the image of the sovereign in these Ps, knowing that the content rather than the formulaic front sheet would be the main interest to those who consulted them, it is highly unlikely that these images would ever be looked at during Elizabeth’s reign.

There is precedence for this type of image change. A similar device is used in the Michaelmas term of 1554 when Mary I marries Philip II of Spain.

Marriage of Mary I to Philip of Spain ‘P’

A virginal Mary sits on a throne next to her husband. In the next P for the Hilary Term of 1555 Mary is shown with her hair hidden under her familiar head-dress. In the November of 1554 Mary had announced she was pregnant.

Hilary Term 1555 ‘P’

What better way to declare that the first English queen regnant is carrying an heir than to portray her as no longer a virgin by the way she wears her hair? There was no precedence as to how to show this, so perhaps the illuminator used the device of how a married woman was portrayed as a way of recording the forthcoming event. Since Elizabeth never married why change her image on the front of these documents and why portray specific expressions on her face?

Let us return to our portrait and the Latin motto – Attici Amoris Ergo. Why put apparent Latin gibberish on an expensive portrait miniature? Perhaps it was a code between the youth and his lady and by inclusion of the name, the code must therefore relate to the Roman citizen, Atticus. Perhaps the young man and the lady shared a friendship in a similar way to that between Cicero and Atticus as declared in Cicero’s famous writing on friendship? If so, why hide the woman’s identity and it still does not explain why their relationship is “therefore, by, with, from, through” or “of” this friendship.
Perhaps the meaning is metaphorical rather than a literal translation?

Atticus was a Roman citizen holding the rank of an equestrian knight. Here we might re-examine the meaning for another interpretation that this young man is through or a result of the love of a man who is of equestrian rank.

At this point we return to 1558 Elizabeth appointed Robert Dudley her Master of Horse. Is our young man making a statement of who his parents are in an arcane and subtle way?

What of the lady’s hand from the cloud? Is the black and white lace a clue as to her identity? Is the hidden woman his mother as opposed to a lover?

And what about the date of 1588? A young man calling himself Arthur Dudley was arrested in Santander after being shipwrecked on Spain’s northern Coast. It appears that Philip II believed his story and paid Arthur a stipend to remain at the Spanish Court; in effect, this Arthur was a prisoner. In the autumn of 1588 Walsingham is told by his spies in Madrid that this young man, Arthur, dies. For the full story of this evidence you need to read The Secret Life of Elizabeth I by Dr Doherty where he cites all his sources at the end of each chapter.

In early September 1588 we know that Elizabeth was celebrating the defeat of the Spanish Armada when she received the news that her beloved Dudley had died on his way to Buxton. We know that she locked herself in her room consumed with inconsolable grief until the door was forced. This is pure conjecture, but what if there had also been news from Spain that the young man calling himself Arthur Dudley was also dead? How could she have functioned having lost both her adored Robin and her child; a child the world did not know existed. A child who perhaps was supposed to rise from the ashes of her death, like a phoenix (another of Elizabeth’s emblems) and claim the English throne to become King Arthur, who, according to legend, will be England’s once and future king – Rex Quondam, Rex Futuris. It was a legend that was already linked with the Tudor dynasty and one that Elizabeth loved.

Unknown man, Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley

I only suggest an identity for Hilliard’s Unknown Young Man; you will have to examine these three portraits for family resemblances, study the evidence, consider my theory regarding the meaning behind the Latin motto and draw your own conclusions.

The Truth of the Line

Melanie is the author of The Truth of the Line, an historical novel, and you can read my review of it over on our book review site – click here.

You can read more about Melanie, her research and theories on her website

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