Mary Neville, Baroness Dacre by Hans Eworth

Mary Neville, Baroness Dacre by Hans Eworth (c.1555-1558)

My Daily Art Display today is a story of three people, the artist the woman who sat for her portrait and the man shown in a picture within the painting.  The featured artist today is the sixteenth century Flemish painter, Hans Eworth (Ewouts), who spent most of his artistic life in England.  The lady in the painting is Mary Fiennes, Baroness Dacre and the young man in a picture within the picture is her late husband, Thomas Fiennes, 9th Baron of Dacre.

Before I tell you the story of the painting let me linger awhile and talk about the artist himself.  Hans Eworth was born in or around Antwerp.  His date of birth is believed to be between 1520 and 1525.  Little is known about his early upbringing but the English art historian and one-time director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, Sir Lionel Cust, in his 1913 essays to the Walpole Society, draws a connection between Hans Eworth and a “Jan Euworts” who was known to have been a member of the Guild of St Luke in Antwerp in 1540.  In Karen Hearn’s short biography of Eworth published in 2000 and  according to Julius Friedrich’s in his book published in 1891, De Secte Der Loisten of Antwerpsche Libertijnen, 1525-1545, a Janne Ewouts and Claes Ewouts, painter and mercer (dealer in textile fabrics and fine cloths) were “expelled” from catholic Antwerp for heresy in the summer of 1544.  They lost their homes and property but were very lucky not to have lost their lives as the punishment in those days for heresy was ane extremely painful execution.

Eworth, like thousands of others fleeing Flanders because of its religious persecution, settled in London.   He continued painting and it is believed that one of his most important patrons was Queen Mary I (Mary Tudor) of whom he did many portraits of the monarch between 1554, the year after she was crowned queen and the year of her death 1558.  He was a prolific portrait painter but only about thirty of his paintings survive.  He was also known for his decorative painting and set designs for masques and pageants at the court of Queen Mary and her successor, Queen Elizabeth I.  He continued his artistic work until his death in London in 1574

The painting featured today is his portrait painting which he completed around 1558, entitled Mary Neville, Baroness Dacre.    She was the daughter of George Nevill, 5th Baron Beragvenny and his third wife Mary.  She married the English aristocrat Thomas Fiennes, and on his father’s death in 1528 became the next in line for his grandfather’s title who was the 8th Baron of Dacre.  He eventually became 9th Baron of Dacre in 1534 on the death of his grandfather and as well as the title,  inherited the family home of Hestmonceux Castle in Sussex.  The couple were married two years later in 1536 and went on to have three children, the eldest, Thomas who died of the plague at the age of 15, Gregory and Margaret.

That is not the end of thestory of their lives but let us now look at Eworth’s portrait of Mary and by doing so we will discover what happened to the family.  In front of us we have Mary sitting up straight in a richly upholstered chair with its red velvet back and arms.  This alone was symbolic of the sitter’s wealth.  She is dressed in a black gown which has a beaver collar and puffed sleeves.  Her dress is of satin and the collar and cuffs of her chemise are ornately embroidered.   It is Blackwork Embroidery, which was popular during the Tudor times.  It was often termed “Spanish work” because it was thought that Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon brought many such embroidered works with her from Spain.

In her right hand she holds a quill pen hovering over the pages of a notebook which lies upon a green-baize covered table.  In her left hand we see a partly opened notebook in which we can see some hand-written words.  On the table we see other implements used in those days for writing, the pot of ink and an ornate golden sand-shaker with a clock motif.   The Tudors dealt with a large black wet inky mistake soaking its way into a thick layer of paper by sprinkling clean sand onto the text to soak up the ink. The inky sand could then be flicked away from the paper, and any residual stain removed by gently scraping it off with a knife.

If you look at the flowers at her breast you will note they are a mix of forget-me-nots, rosemary, violas and pinks.  Forget-me-nots symbolise true love and memories and Rosemary which is often included in funeral wreaths symbolising remembrance and in wedding bouquets as a symbol for fidelity. It’s said that if you touch a lover with a sprig of rosemary, they’ll be faithful!    Violas often symbolise melancholy and pinks are symbolic of marriage.

So why the use of these symbols in the portrait by the artist?  Maybe the answer lies to the background to the left where we see, against a floral tapestry, a framed portrait of her late husband.  The inscription on the top part of the frame is “1540”, the date of the portrait and inscribed on the bottom “ÆTATIS. 2 4”,  which means “at the age of 24”.   So, what does it all mean?  Why did she want the picture of her young husband included in the portrait?  Why was he not with her?

The answer is simple but sad.  On 30 April 1541 Dacre along with a party of gentlemen including his brother-in-law went to poach on the neighbouring estate lands of Sir Nicholas Pelham of Laughton.    During the “adventure” the party were discovered by some of the servants of Sir Nicholas, one of whom was the gamekeeper, John Busbrig.   The meeting of adversaries went from verbal abuse to a fight during which Busbrig was fatally wounded and subsequently Dacre, although he did not strike the fatal blow and in fact was in another part of the estate at the time was held responsible for the death and along with several others was charged with murder.   Dacre originally entered a plea of not guilty but was later persuaded to change it to guilty and throw himself upon the King’s mercy in the hope of a reprieve.  However his strategy failed and he was hanged at Tyburn on 29 June 1541.

An account of the execution was reported in the Hall’s Chronicle, a periodical of the time, simply stating:-

“…….he was led on foot between the two sheriffs of London from the Tower through the city to Tyburn where he was strangled as common murderers are and his body buried in the church of St Sepulchre ….”.

Not only did her husband lose his life but the family lost their hereditary title and had their lands forfeited which left them destitute.  Despite numerous protestations from his widow it was not until ten years later in 1558 when Elizabeth I came to the throne that the hereditary title was restored to the family and Gregory, her second son was made 10th Baron Dacre.

Maybe the sumptuousness of her clothes and the splendour of the backdrop to this portrait suggest that almost ten years have passed since the execution of her husband and the forfeiture of the property and maybe life had become better for the widow.  In fact, in the same year her husband was executed, the widow managed to obtain an Act of Parliament in order to provide a dower for her from out of her late husband's estates.  A dower was a provision accorded by law to a wife for her support in the event that she should survive her husband (i.e., become a widow).  In her case the dower handed down to her by the Act of Parliament stated:

“.....the said Mary for the relief of her and her children &c is contented & pleased that it be enacted by His Highnes with the assent of this present parliament, & by authority of the same, that the said Mary Fynes shall possess & enjoy for the term of her natural life, from Michaelmas last past, the Manors of Burham & Codham co. Kent-of Fromquinton & Belchwell co. Dorset, of Nashall co. Essex, & all their rights & privileges &c. the said attainder....”

Courtesy of


Mary Neville married twice more and had six children by her third husband.