It’s fair to say any new acquisition is exciting, but occasionally an item enters the building creating a stir amongst staff; something so good you can’t quite believe you’re lucky enough to get to work alongside it, and so beautiful you can’t wait to tell everyone.
This month that item is a – what I can only describe as somewhat hypnotic – portrait of Susan Bertie, later Countess of Kent.
To the casual observer the enthral may lie in the detail – the wispy threads of silver in her head piece or the look in her eye; her pupils unaligned as though she is aware of a lot more than you realise – or maybe, if you’re anything like me, it’s the Tudor association.
On aesthetic value alone, this portrait contains a lot of information. The sitters’ ornate clothing, adorned with fine jewellery, tells us she was a woman of importance. The fact she even sat for a portrait, a great expense generally reserved for the upper classes, only serves as confirmation. No doubt she was from an important family with money and, given the date of the portrait, serious connections to the Tudor throne. For anyone fascinated by this period of history this is really exciting.
So who was Susan Bertie?
Susan Bertie was the daughter of Catherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk and her second husband Richard Bertie.
The Brandon name is of particular significance to the Tudor period.
Catherine Brandon was the fourth wife of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, brother-in-law and friend of King Henry VIII (the one who chopped the heads off two of his SIX wives!).
Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, was Catherine’s legal guardian during his third marriage to Mary Tudor (King Henry VIII’s sister), but when Mary died in 1533 Suffolk and Catherine wasted no time in getting married. Although Suffolk was forty-nine and Catherine only fourteen, the marriage was a successful one, and they went on to have two sons.
As Henry VIII had made his sisters descendants the next heirs to the throne after his own children, the marriage bought Catherine into the extended royal family. As prominent members of the court The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk officially greeted Anne of Cleves when she arrived in England in 1539 to marry the King, and in 1541 they helped arrange a royal progress for the King and his next Queen, the naughty Catherine Howard.
The Duchess of Suffolk was noted for her wit, sharp tongue, and devotion to learning. In the last years of Henry VIII’s reign she was also an outspoken advocate of the English Reformation. A close friend of Henry’s last queen, Catherine Parr, particularly after the Duke died in 1545, she became a strong influence on the Queen’s religious beliefs. In 1546, as the Queen’s religious views grew controversial and the King ordered her arrest, the Duchess was instrumental in managing to persuade the King to cancel the arrest warrant to save the Queens neck.
Incredibly, there were even rumours that Henry considered marrying Catherine and making her his seventh wife while he was still married to Catherine Parr…thankfully Catherine successfully escaped the executioner’s blade.
So now you know who Susan’s mother was – a piece of the story most definitely worth consideration when you try to understand the woman in the portrait.
Born in 1554, Susan was the first child of her mother’s second marriage to Richard Bertie.
As her parents were Protestant, Susan’s family spent the years of the Catholic Queen Mary’s reign abroad to avoid persecution, only returning in 1559 after Elizabeth I became Queen.
At sixteen years of age, Susan married Reginald Grey of Wrest, who was later restored as the fifth Earl of Kent. Tragically their marriage was short as her husband died the following year. As they were childless the Earldom passed to Reginald Grey’s brother. Presumably unable to continue living in the new Earl of Kent’s inherited residence; it is likely that at she was invited to live at court by invitation of Queen Elizabeth I.
In 1581 Susan remarried to Sir John Wingfield, a nephew of her mother’s friend Bess of Hardwick. They had two sons, Peregrine Wingfield and Robert Wingfield.
The identity of the artist is not known, but several paintings from this period share enough characteristics such as great attention to jewellery, that they are attributed to the same person – referred to as the Master of the Countess of Warwick (active in England 1567-1569).
Susan’s life and family background reads like a who’s who of Tudor celebrity, and she has now rightfully taken her place on The Beaney ‘Wall of Fame’.
The portrait is so beautiful it stands in its own right as a wonderful piece of artwork – it could be of an Unknown Woman and I would still love it. But the fact it’s connected to such prominent historical figures feels like a shining bonus.
How lucky are we to be able to share the former Countess of Kent with the people of Kent?!
So please, I urge you, take some time out of your day and come upstairs to the People & Places gallery and see Susan for yourself.
Plan your visit to The Beaney here