Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of the Duke of Monmouth 1685c.

Studio of Willem Wissing c.1656-1687

Portrait of the Duke of Monmouth, Studio of Willem Wissing
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50 x 40 inches, 127 x 101.2 cm
James Capel Hanbury (b.1853), Ponty-Y-Pool Park, County Monmouth; Private Collection USA by late 20th Century.
James, Duke of Monmouth was one of the seventeenth century’s most colourful and engaging figures. As Charles II’s eldest, though illegitimate, son Monmouth was assured a life of favour and wealth. The King treated him as his favourite, and showered him with high office and honour. But from an early age, Monmouth felt burdened by the inevitable disqualification of his illegitimacy. The frustration born out of it ultimately caused his downfall and execution in 1685. This portrait, from the studio of Willem Wissing, shows him at the height of his success in the 1670s.

Monmouth was born in Rotterdam in 1649, shortly after Charles II and his surviving Royalists arrived in Holland to begin over a decade in exile. Monmouth’s mother, Lucy Walters, appears to have been Charles’ first mistress-in-exile. But was she also Charles’ wife? Rumours persisted from an early date that Lucy and Charles had secretly married. The evidence, a marriage contract, was said to be hidden in a ‘black box’. Although historical opinion has tended to dismiss the claim, for Monmouth the implication that he might be legitimate greatly affected his life.

Monmouth was always officially recognised as the King’s natural son. He was raised to a Dukedom in 1662, installed as a Knight of the Garter a year later, and even granted use of the King’s coat of arms. But he was not entitled to any part of his father’s inheritance, and never officially placed in succession to the throne. By nature petulant and obstreperous, the possibility that Monmouth might one day be king only encouraged his occasionally reckless arrogance. His father therefore gave him a number of roles designed in part to keep him away from the danger of conspiracy. He spent much of his father’s reign in useful employment abroad, such as service in the French army in the 1660s, or the Royal Navy in its war against the Dutch in the 1670s.

In one respect we can hardly blame Monmouth for what became a perpetual state of frustration. Even from the 1660s it seemed possible that the King might legitimise him, and thus make Monmouth Prince of Wales. Samuel Pepys tells us of a rumour in 1662 that “young Crofts is lawful son to the king, the king being married to his mother” (27 Oct 1662). And the great hatred leveled against Catholics, such as Charles’ brother James, Duke of York, made the search for a protestant heir all the more urgent. When York was forced to surrender the office of lord high admiral in 1673, Monmouth was ostentatiously made an Admiralty commissioner. In 1679, after his successful leadership of the King’s army against rebellious Scottish Covenanters, he seemed to be the nation’s military hero. He inevitably became the obvious rival candidate for the succession. But when yet more plots began to revolve around Monmouth, Charles reverted to that curious, and constant, attachment to his brother James, and publicly reiterated his brother’s right to the throne. Monmouth was sent into exile. From that moment the Catholic succession was assured, and Monmouth became its most obvious challenger.

At Charles’s death in 1685 Monmouth made the mistake of believing too much in his own claims to the throne. From his exile in the Netherlands Monmouth overestimated the body of support on which he could rely in England. In June he landed in Dorset. His invasion force contained just eighty-three men, and the attempt to raise the West of England in a rising against James II was doomed to failure. Although James had always been unpopular at court – Nell Gwynn gave him the name ‘dismal Jimmy’ – he was at first a popular King in the country at large, which, as ever, took a more relaxed view of religious doctrinism than the governing class. Monmouth was defeated at the Battle of Sedgmoor and brought in supplication to his uncle. James, who had always been immune to the famous Monmouth charm, had little hesitation in ordering his execution. In an unusual step for a beheaded traitor, Monmouth’s head was sewn back onto his body before internment on Tower Hill. Monmouth’s defeat and downfall was, in 1685, inevitable. But it was surely one of history’s greatest ironies that within three years James II was himself deposed, in a frenzy of unpopularity, by a foreigner, William of Orange, whose invasion force fired not a single shot. Monmouth had simply lacked patience.

This portrait was painted in the studio of Willem Wissing, in the mid 1670s. Of the many painters who had studied in the studio of Sir Peter Lely, and who began to emerge as independent portraitists in the period following his death in 1680, Willem Wissing is without doubt one of the most accomplished and original. This picture derives from Wissing’s first full-length of Monmouth [Earls of Clarendon collection], in which he is placed in a similar pose, but accompanied by an astrologer pointing to a globe. Two other three-quarter length versions [Chequers Trust, and the Duke of Buccleuch] show Monmouth standing on his own, but with either a naval or land battle in the background as a fitting accompaniment to his military record. In this example, however, Monmouth is shown with a peaceful landscape background, devoid of any action. Portraits of Monmouth were a popular means of demonstrating loyalty to the Protestant Stuart cause. He remains to this day a symbol of the religious and factional political turmoil of the seventeenth century.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.