All posts this month will be of an undeniably diabolical nature. Let’s start with a creepy art rumor featuring James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth.
Monmouth was the illegitimate son of Charles II and his mistress, Lucy Walter. One thing that Monmouth seemed to inherit from the Merry Monarch was his affability and vivacity. The public adored Monmouth from the start. Pepys writes of him:
The Duke of Monmouth is the most skittish leaping gallant that ever I saw, always in action, vaulting or leaping, or clambering. 1
By all accounts, Charles adored this pretty youth too and recognized Monmouth as his son, but not his heir. Monmouth became his father’s constant companion and the two “leaped” and “clambered” their way through hunts and royal progresses. In 1643, Charles made Monmouth a duke at the age of 14. Monmouth served in the English fleet two years later and his courage and valor were marked by Duke of York, the Lord High Admiral of the Fleet. Monmouth had everything going for him – military honors, good looks, effortless charm and most importantly, the love of a king. This love afforded Monmouth a glittering life and all the spoils of a royal birth… but not the prestige of a crown.
Perhaps it was this love that also emboldened Monmouth to feel he had every right to the crown after his father's death. He certainly had popular public support and the right religion. Thus, Monmouth might have had a far less ignominious end to his playboy life if the silly twit had not decided to head a protestant rebellion to seize the throne from his uncle, James II. The sometimes tyrannical James just couldn’t have his brother’s bastard children running around causing religious unrest. So Monmouth found himself on the chopping block on July 15th, 1685 with executioner John Ketch’s shiny ax above his head. It took 7 tries to get the job done*
It might have been by stroke 7 that everyone realized they had forgotten something. No one had a portrait of Monmouth. As an artist, I can tell you it is really difficult to capture someone’s likeness from memory. So what do you do when you don’t have your live model? You use a dead one! Rumor has it that the court surgeon got out his sewing kit and stitched poor Monmouth's hacked, bloody head right back on the body so he could pose for his “official” portrait. At least this is the story that the Yeoman of the Guards will tell you on the Tower of London’s official tour.
Should we believe them? The Yeoman live and breathe English history. They are wearing the funny hats, marked with the royal crest and all look like credible witnesses of the past. So it must be true. Right? Let’s first trace this rumor.
The unsettling painting shown here is believed to be the origin of this rumor. Clearly you can see the subject is having a bad day. He might even be missing a head. The painting’s date is unknown. The artist is unknown and even the subject is labeled as an “unknown man.” Stylistically, the painting’s somber, dark shadows mimic the same techniques of Sir Peter Lely, Principal Painter to Charles II.
Although this death portrait is less than flattering, it is important to keep in mind that Monmouth was a real stud. Male beauty was even more revered then female beauty in the 17th century and anyone possessing such godlike features would have had artists knocking at their door. And artists did line up to paint Monmouth. We have several accounts of Monmouth sitting for some of the most popular artists of his day.
Sir Peter Lely painted Monmouth on at least two occasions. One painting depicts James at the sweet age of 15 accompanied by a lamb, but the original is lost. An engraving reproduced by Blooteling can be seen to the right here. Two other engravings taken from Lely paintings can be found at the National Portrait Gallery depicting an older Monmouth. Both engravings portray a young, handsome man in full classical regalia.
Monmouth also sat for the German artist Sir Godfrey Kneller when Monmouth invited him to England in 1674. The painting is dated in 1678…seven years before his death.
According to the NPG records today, Monmouth is associated with at least 35 portraits. All these paintings and not one was done during his life? Highly unlikely. I suspect instead that most of Monmouth’s portraits were destroyed after his death with only copies remaining.
Another reason why I don’t believe this rumor is because I don’t think Charles would really forget to take an official likeness to a son he adored. Remember that Charles had no legitimate heirs. Monmouth was the closest thing to a son that Charles would ever get. All that time father/son bonding over hunting and chasing ladies and Charles never stopped to say, “hey my painter is in town. Why don’t you sit for him.”
And if the court really wanted to remember Monmouth at the time of his death then they would have at least had a death mask made after his execution. A death mask is a plaster, wax or metal casting of the deceased’s face. The molds were used to create an exact likeness of the deceased and could in turn be used to create more molds so everyone could keep an effigy of Monmouth on their mantle. Artists also often used these death masks to create subsequent portraits. An example of a famous, English death mask used in portraiture is of Oliver Cromwell taken just 7 years before Monmouth’s execution (shown here).
Death masks needed to be completed in the first 48 hours after the person’s death or things got a little hairy. When the body decomposes the features start to sag making it difficult for the molding to get a true likeness. So it is possible that during all the ruckus, everyone forgot to get Monmouth’s death mask done in the allotted time. It’s also possible that James did not want to revere the image of a man who one could argue died as a martyr for the Protestant faith.
But why would the Yeoman perpetuate such a ridiculous rumor when there are clearly portraits of Monmouth portraying his likeness before his death and the customs of the time contradict such forgetful actions? History is fascinating enough without these embellishments. I listened to the same Yeoman who told the Monmouth tale also tell a bored 8 year old in the front row that Anne Boleyn had six fingers. He said we knew this for a scientific fact because when her body was dug up they found an… extra digit. This story certainly got the boy’s attention and I hate to be the party wrecker, but this is simply not true. Anne’s body was exhumed in 1877 and she had only 5 lovely fingers.
Now I have nothing against the Yeoman, but if you had to stand around in a tower watching the same darn crows that never leave and telling the same stories over and over again…wouldn’t you start to play with the facts too? With so many tourists coming through those gates I can imagine how this rumor could get legs.
Let’s put an end to it here and let Monmouth and his decapitated head rest in peace.
Stay tuned for more scary posts this month and my artsy critique of the best and the worst death masks throughout history.
* No one really knows what was Ketch’s problem but let’s just say he might have picked the wrong profession.
Sources and Notes:
1: Pepys (p. 329)
Fea, Allan. King Monmouth: Being a History of the Career of James Scott "The Protestant Duke" 1649-1685, J. Lane, 1902.
Maud Reid Nepean, Evelyn. On the Left of a Throne: A Personal Study of James Duke of Monmouth, J. Lane, 1940.
Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, New York, NY: Macmillan, 1905 - can be accessed online in Google Books.