Darnley, famous for being handsome – and murdered


Hans Eworth, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, 1555 © National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Some people in History are famous for their violent deaths. Some are famous for having married an important personality. And some are celebrities because of a magnificent portrait painting. Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, cumulates all these three.

His portrait in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery shows a blond boy of nine or ten, dressed in an expensive dark doublet trimmed with gold ornaments. The fashionable sword at his side is an early rapier, a gilded weapon probably worn at court as a symbol of his status. Descending from both english and scottish royalty, Henry Stuart is well aware of his value, and so are his parents. He surely had a good education, which for a noble boy in the 16th century means fencing, riding, maybe jousting, dancing, singing, and composing poetry or theatre. The magnificence of Henry’s clothes, his white skin and proud presence are greatly enhanced by the skills of Hans Ewouts. The Netherlandish painter born around 1515 and trained in Antwerp, had come with his brother Nicolas to England, were his flemish family name was anglicized into Eworth. By 1553 he was working at the court of queen Mary I Tudor, who’s austere wedding portrait he painted a year later. The Earl of Lennox and Margaret Douglas, Henry Stuart’s parents, by chosing the painter of the Queen of England for the portrait of their second son, made a clear statement towards England and the catholic faith. But all his parent’s gold, his privileged life, a splendid portrait at only ten and his prestigious birth did not succed in making him a valuable person.

In 1565, Henry Stuart came to Scotland and met his cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. His education – mostly his dancing – and his pretty face helped seducing the young queen, and Mary decided to marry the boy, three years younger than herself. But very soon after the wedding, Henry was showing a less pretty face : immature, selfish, vain, unreliable, jealous and even violent are the terms most used to describe his behaviour. Henry’s involvement in the murder of Mary’s secretary David Riccio in 1566, in the presence of his pregnant wife and queen, is the dark counterpart to the blond boy of the Eworth painting. On his second portrait, also held in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Henry Stuart is dressed in white instead of the fashionable black of his childhood :

Henry Stuart, lord Darnley. NPG

Unknown painter, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, about 1564 © National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But all the unknown painter’s skills and the gorgeous clothing of the young man cannot hide the vain stare of Henry Stuart, who lost his childish naïvety of the Eworth portrait. The following year, Lord Darnley was murdered at Kirk o’Field in Edinburgh.

Bibliography : Roy Strong, ‘Hans Eworth: A Tudor Artist and his Circle’ and ‘Hans Eworth Reconsidered’ The Tudor and Stuart Monarch Pageantry, Painting, Iconography I. Tudor, The Boydell Press, 1995, pp.135-145 and pp.147-152

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