Sunday, 19 July 2015

Cats of the Tower of London: Trixie and the Earl of Southampton

Do you love cats and history? Then this post is for you.

Our history concerns the gentleman in the portrait with a fine head of hair. He is no lesser person than a Tudor aristocrat, Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton. This dashing looking fellow was notorious for a number of reasons, not least being that he was Shakespeare’s patron and rumoured to have romantic attachments to the great bard.
But our tale concerns his political machinations, and the inspiration behind the portrait. So look closely and what do you see?

A well-dressed nobleman with bows on his cuffs. A wood-panelled chamber. A black and white cat perched on a window ledge. But look again. Did you spot behind Wriothesley’s left shoulder the painting of the Tower of London?

Wriothesley did indeed spend time imprisoned in the Tower. He chose his friends poorly, and fell in with a group of noblemen who in 1601 rebelled against the elderly Queen Elizabeth I.
Queen Elizabeth I

The aim of their insurrection was to force the Queen to name, her cousin’s son, James VI of Scotland, as her heir. They feared if she did not, there would be civil war when the Queen died. However Elizabeth believed naming a successor would number her own days – after all she had ordered the execution of James’ mother, Mary Queen of Scots.

James VI of Scotland,
in younger life

The rebels were led the Earl of Sussex, Sir Robert Devereux, and the Earl of Southampton. But their attempts to rouse London’s inhabitants one Sunday failed miserably. They had fatally underestimated the lethargy thought prosperity induced. They were captured and Essex executed.

However, Wriothesley was left to think on the folly of his actions whilst incarcerated in the Tower. His mother and wife pleaded with Elizabeth for clemency and to not execute him. For her part Elizabeth had lost her appetite for blood and agreed to let him keep his life but languish in the Tower of London at her pleasure.

Wriothesley in 1594

And this is where the cat comes in. Apparently, bereft of company and comfort, Wriothesley was pretty miserable and had an unhappy time of his imprisonment. Legend has it that Wriothesley missed his favourite cat, Trixie. In turn, she missed her master and contrived break into the prison by climbing down the chimney.
“After he [Wriothesley) had been confined there [The Tower of London] a small time, he was surprised by a visit from his favourite cat, which had found its way to the Tower.”
Thomas Pennant, 1793 “Some Account of London”.

However, a less romantic explanation exists as to how Trixie came to be there. It was muttered that Wriothesley’s wife brought the cat along on a visit.

And finally, the portrait is hugely interesting in its own right. It was painted in a rush shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth I in March, 1603. The painting was completed in just six days and nights, and then rushed to Edinburgh for James to see. It is rich with code and appealed for the new King of England to set him free.

The code hidden within the picture includes:
·          He is wearing black, a sign of mourning for the Earl of Essex (and a hero to James).
·         A pane of glass is smashed, a reminder of the violent nature of Essex’s death.
·         His hair is shown loose around his shoulders, much like a brides – as if inviting James to become his sovereign lord.
·         The exact date of the start of his sentence is recorded on the portrait, but the date of release is left open, as if inviting James to set him free.

The new king of England was mightily impressed:

“The great and honest affection borne to us by the Earl of Southampton…we have written to the Lieutenant of the Tower to deliver him out of prison presently.”  James VI of Scotland, James I of England


  1. Wonderful post. I do love the grumpy expression the cat wears. Almost as if she doesn't approve of what Queen Elizabeth I did to her master.

    1. It is rather a striking expression - and you're so right - I'm sure Trixie is expressing disapproval.
      Thank you for visiting, Lindsay.
      G x

  2. Life in the tower was tolerable if you had the right pedigree and a political following. Northumberland got his library transported and a bowling alley built. Do we know what happened toTrixie?

    1. You are a woman after my own heart; wondering what happened to Trixie. I don't know and couldn't find out but the optimist in me says the Mrs W came and took Trixie home. :-)
      G x

  3. Sort of interesting that in one portrait the gent has blue eyes, in the other brown... Nice post!

    1. Very astute! How fascinating.
      Both pictures are Wriothesley- and the angle of the brow, length of the nose, small mouth, long face and pointy chin are the same. Perhaps there's code in his eyes being dark with regret in the Tower portrait!
      Thanks so much for visiting.
      G x

  4. Loved this - cats and history, the perfect combination!

    1. Why Sue, you are obviously of person of great taste :-)
      G x

  5. Most enjoyable!!...and I'll be looking for secret codes in pictures from now on!!....and of course cats!! Many thanks.

  6. Superior article. I love history almost as much as I love cats.

  7. Grace,

    Thank you for this fascinating post. I was especially interested in your point about the Southampton portrait being sent up to Scotland to the new king, James I. I would like to learn more about this topic. Was Southampton's mother involved in the commissioning the painting? Any sources or background you could provide would be much appreciated.



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