A New Portrait of Mary Rogers, Lady Harington

An article I wrote in 2011 and that was first published in The British Art Journal, XII:2 (Autumn 2011), pp. 54–57.
Mary Rogers, Lady Harington
(formerly called Elizabeth I when a princess)
by English School, ca. 1585-1590
Oil on wood panel
29.5 in. x 24.5 in.
Private collection

In an article published in 2005, Sir Roy Strong, former director of the National Portrait Gallery, lamented the breaking up of local collections of portraits as English stately homes faced re-purposing or destruction throughout the twentieth century. Those dissolved collections of portraits depict ‘the people of local history, the men and women whose lives were rooted in a particular region of the country.’ Such locally prominent men and women frequently exerted disproportionately greater influence over local affairs than did leaders in the central government, especially in the early modern period. Portraits of these regionally-active men and women, Strong argued, thus constitute a form of local record or historical document, important to us today if we hope to achieve the fullest possible understanding of English history at both the regional and national levels. Yet as Strong noted, many of those same portraits are now ‘dispersed to the four winds’ and have thus lost their local context.[1]

What Strong failed to mention explicitly in his article is that too many of those same portraits have also lost their identity, having been relabeled over the years – sometimes rather arbitrarily – to suit the demands of a new context. Re-establishing the authentic identity of the sitters depicted is often complicated, or even prohibited, by loss of the original context. This is doubly true concerning portraits of women, which are less likely to contain within the painted image many of the types of clues sometimes used to identify male sitters, such as chains and staffs of office or other ephemera of the public life from which women were barred. Instead, historians often identify women depicted in de-contextualized portraits either through interpretation of heraldic coats of arms inscribed upon the image or through comparison of the jewels worn to extant personal inventories of known individuals.[2] Yet both of these methods have limitations. In the former, heraldic devices were too often added to portraits well after their creation and in error, while in the latter, surviving jewel inventories are few in number and often too descriptively non-specific. Occasionally, however, a de-contextualized and misidentified portrait can be reliably re-identified through a combination of documented provenance and reference to non-heraldic emblems and symbols displayed within the original painted image. One such portrait is detailed here, an important but previously unknown portrait of Mary Rogers, Lady Harington (or Harrington), wife of the courtier, inventor, and author Sir John Harington of Kelston Hall, Somerset.

The portrait was until World War II owned by the descendants of Sir John Harington, though as early as the beginning of the eighteenth century the family had come to identify the lady as Elizabeth I when a princess. The Haringtons removed the portrait from the ancestral home at Kelston when that property was sold in 1759. The picture remained in the family thereafter, but declining fortunes forced successive generations to relocate several times to ever more modest abodes. By the 1930s, final dispersal of the collection began through a series of brokered private sales to buyers that included Lord Deramore and the collector Eric Bullivant. The remnants of the collection were eventually liquidated by sale at public auction in July 1942 following the death of John E. Musgrave Harrington. The picture of Mary Rogers Harington was sold as ‘Portrait of a lady (said to be a portrait of Queen Elizabeth)’ and was purchased by Fearon Galleries of New York, who removed it to the United States.[3] The painting then made its way west through a series of owners, so that by the 1970s it was in a private collection in Los Angeles.

The Haringtons had long believed the portrait to be a depiction of Elizabeth I when a princess. Harington family tradition, supported by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiquarian texts, held that Sir John received Queen Elizabeth I as a visitor to Kelston in 1592 while she was en route from Bath to Oxford during a royal progress.[4] The queen reportedly gave the portrait to Sir John in commemoration of her stay at Kelston.[5] Recent research on the queen’s progresses has demonstrated that no such visit to Kelston occurred in 1592, however, nor in any other year, casting doubt on the veracity of the family tradition and the lady’s identity.[6]

The date inscription, ‘AÑO DÑ 1533’, was added or altered well after the painting was created, probably in order to support the spurious identification as Elizabeth I (below, bottom). It was rendered by a different hand than the inscription indicating the lady’s age (below, top), which is itself original to the larger work. The date inscription lacks the black bordering visible in the inscription of age, which imparts a three-dimensional effect to the lettering. Thus unlike the age inscription, that indicating the date appears flat and two-dimensional. There is also a discernible tonal difference in the gold pigment used, the date inscription appearing less yellow in hue. Further, the date inscription is marked by fine incised lines above and below the entire inscription. These lines, absent from the age inscription, were probably guides for the letterer and can have been cut only after the original paint was fully cured. Lastly, the numerals in the date inscription are irregularly spaced, especially in comparison to the letters, and the area underlying and around the first ‘3’ of 1533 appears to have been deliberately gouged out and re-painted, leaving a sharply delineated depression in the planar surface of the paintwork.

The text ‘AÑO DÑ 1533’ is itself highly problematic. Since the Latin phrase ‘anno domini’ ordinarily indicates the year in which a work was executed, any viewer would assume that the portrait dates to 1533. Yet in the context of Elizabeth Tudor, 1533 can refer only to the year of her birth. One possible explanation for this irregularity might be that the letterer simply did not know the correct meaning of ‘anno domini’ and instead understood it to denote the year in which a person had been born. Alternatively, in light of the depression in the surface of the painting beneath the first ‘3’, that single numeral may have been altered even after this second inscription was added, with the change undertaken deliberately to increase the relevance of that inscription to Elizabeth. The Harington family interpreted the inscription early on to indicate that the painting depicted Elizabeth at age 20 in 1553, twenty years after her birth in 1533 and when she was still a princess. Yet the costume worn by the lady is entirely inconsistent with English fashion of 1553, when Elizabeth was 20 years old. Neither is it plausible that Elizabeth would have given to John Harington in 1592 a portrait that was already forty years old. We must conclude that the identification of the sitter as Elizabeth I as she appeared in 1553 is entirely false.

The true identity of the lady in this portrait is indicated by the small pendant jewel suspended from her hat (below). The upper portion of the jewel includes a crouching rabbit or hare in finely detailed three-dimensional white enamel-work. It is suspended from the rest of the jewel by means of a small bale and a single link of chain, au tremblant, intended to make the hare a mobile element within the larger jewel. Immediately beneath the hare lies a small red flower constructed of worked gold set with five tiny red stones and a single central seed pearl. Behind and partially hidden by the flower can be discerned a bulbous cylinder enameled black, distinguished by curved horizontal lines of white pigment denoting light reflecting off the higher surfaces (not to be confused with the white enamel scrolls on either side of and supporting the cylinder). The cylinder represents a tun, a wooden barrel or cask used for storing wine and ale.

The Harington family of Kelston is known to have engaged with the Tudor-era fondness for visual and verbal punning and to have used three carefully chosen items combined as a single rebus badge: a hare, a ring, and a tun.[7] The jewel clearly incorporates both the Harington hare and the tun, while the ‘ring’ is represented by the bale from which the hare is suspended. Because the jewel can easily be associated with the Haringtons of Kelston, it follows that the woman depicted in this portrait is a member of that Harington family.

The mistress of Kelston Hall in the period between 1585 and 1590, when this painting was most likely created, was Lady Mary Rogers Harington.[8] She was a relatively young woman, having married John Harington as her first husband in 1583. Her date of birth is unknown, but she could easily have been aged 20 years at any point in the second half of the 1580s. There were no other Harington women of that age then residing at Kelston.[9] Further, the lengthy neck chain in this portrait exactly matches in every respect a chain worn by Mary Rogers Harington in an authenticated portrait of her, together with her husband, painted at about the same time (below, top).[10] In that painting, she again wears a very large ruff and a grey linen or cloth-of-silver chemise with blackwork embroidery depicting Tudor roses, like that seen here. As the wife of one of Queen Elizabeth’s godsons, Lady Mary was in a position to receive gifts of clothing from the queen, and we may be seeing those hand-me-downs in these portraits, displayed specifically in order to highlight the wearer’s social proximity to the Queen.

That the lady is specifically Mary Rogers Harington rather than some other female of that extensive family is further indicated by the design on the sleeves of her gown. The pattern may represent the chevron included in the escutcheon of the heraldic achievement of the Rogers of Cannington, Mary’s natal family.[11] The use in costume of patterns drawn from a family’s coat of arms has previously been noted in the specific context of Lady Mary. Curators at the Tate Britain re-identified as Mary Rogers Harington a portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts that was originally thought to depict Lady Mary Howard (above, bottom).

That re-identification was based in part on comparison of the geometric overlay of the lady’s gown to a similar geometric design seen in the Harington arms.[12] In like manner, the chevrons on the sleeves of the sitter in this portrait may indicate a direct relationship to a family whose arms included chevrons. Among documented women marrying into the Harington family between 1560 and 1620, only Mary Rogers’s family arms included a chevron.[13] Further, those Harington women marrying out did not join families whose arms included a chevron.

Following her marriage to Sir John Harington in 1583, Mary Rogers became a member of one of the more colorful families of the Tudor period, a family that was involved in both local and national government. Harington’s father, also named John, had taken as his first wife in 1547 Ethelreda (or Esther) Malte, daughter of John Malte, Henry VIII’s tailor. Malte had become wealthy in the 1530s through a series of land grants from the king. Because of the unusual nature of the grants, it has often been speculated, both then and now, that Ethelreda was actually the king’s own natural daughter planted in the Malte household to conceal her existence.[14] The elder John Harington became a member of Parliament in 1547, but was soon implicated in 1549 for his knowledge of Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour’s relationship with Elizabeth Tudor, as well as for his own part in attempting to bring about a marriage between King Edward VI and Lady Jane Grey.[15] He was imprisoned in the Tower without charge or trial until the spring of 1550. Rehabilitated, he was appointed Constable of Caernarfon Castle in Wales in 1551. Following the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558, Harington became the Exchequer’s Receiver-General for lands in Somerset and Dorset, a highly lucrative position.[16] His second wife, Isabella Markham, became a lady of the queen’s privy chamber and served in that capacity until her death.[17]

Sir John Harington, Mary Roger’s husband, was born in early August 1560 in London, and Elizabeth I stood as his godmother. John Harington wed Mary Rogers, daughter of George Rogers of Cannington, in 1583. The Harington and Rogers families had probably become acquainted initially through their mutual connections at court. George Rogers’ own father was Sir Edward Rogers, Elizabeth’s Vice-Chamberlain, Comptroller of the Royal Household, and captain of the guard from the first days of the reign, as well as a privy councilor. With his wife’s share in the Rogers’s wealth added to his own, the younger Harington was able to complete construction of the ostentatious house on the family’s manor of Kelston, begun by his father in about 1570.[18] Upon its completion around 1590, it was said to be the largest and grandest house in the county of Somerset.

Harington is remembered today in part for his English translation of the Italian fantastical epic romance poem Orlando Furioso of Ludovico Ariosto.[19] Though that work was popular and remains a subject of study among literary scholars, Harington is perhaps better known for his New discourse of a stale subject, called the metamorphosis of Ajax. The title is a play on that of the ancient Greek epic poem by Ovid, ‘The Metamorphosis of Ajax.’ The ‘stale subject’ of Harington’s title is, however, the privy or toilet, known in Elizabethan England as ‘a jakes’. Harington illustrated his text with a woodcut rendering of his own invention, one of the earliest versions of a ‘water closet’ or flushing toilet. Models were later installed not only at Kelston but also at the queen’s Palace of Richmond and in Robert Cecil’s house at Theobalds.[20] Apparently they did not operate as efficiently as intended since they did not become widely popular.[21]

Woodcut illustration of the first functioning ‘water closet’ in Sir John Harington’s A new discourse of a stale subject, called the metamorphosis of Ajax (London: Richard Field, 1596).

Harington’s marriage to Mary Rogers, whom he called ‘Mall,’ seems to have been a love-match, and theirs is one of the better documented marital relationships of the period, providing historians of the family with unique insight into the internal workings of early modern marriages.[22] He wrote poems, sonnets, and epigrams to her regularly, many of which were eventually published. In return, Mary gave her husband as many as fifteen children. Her first son was born at Kelston in 1589. He was christened John after his father and grandfather.[23] Three of as many as six additional sons of Sir John and Lady Mary Harington survived to adulthood, as did four daughters.[24]

Sir John Harington was appointed High Sheriff of Somerset in 1591.[25] He also served as a Justice of the Peace for Somerset and was instrumental in efforts to restore the Priory in nearby Bath (now Bath Abbey).[26] The remainder of the 1590s were spent writing and seeking patronage, though Harington did go to Ireland in 1599. He served there as a commander in the forces of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and was knighted by Devereux during the expedition. Upon his return to England, Harington faced the queen’s wrath for having accepted the knighthood, though the queen’s fit of pique was largely misdirected anger over Devereux’s unauthorized early return from Ireland. Harington at least had the good sense not to become involved in Devereux’s subsequent rebellion of early 1602, instead becoming a strong supporter of James VI of Scotland to replace Elizabeth upon her death.

Following the accession of James VI & I in 1603, Harington suffered brief imprisonment, the result of having stood guarantor for his maternal uncle. The debt amounted to £4000, and Harington spent the remainder of his life searching for ways to make money, especially through appointment to high office. He sought a number of different jobs in the Jacobean administration in the way that most men sought office during the era: he wrote treatises and published works outlining his solutions to various problems facing the government of the day, especially the question of Ireland. He is reported, for example, to have sought the job of Lord Chancellor of Ireland as well as that of Archbishop of Dublin (despite a complete lack of religious training!). Sir John Harington died on 20 November 1612 at the age of 52 and was buried at Kelston in St Nicholas Parish Church. His much beloved wife, Lady Mary Rogers Harington, survived him by more than two decades, dying in 1634, and was interred next to her husband.[27]

The artist who created this portrait cannot be readily identified, though he was perhaps based in London. The extended Harington family patronized many noteworthy artists of the day, including Marcus Gheeraerts, Hieronymus Custodis, and Robert Peake the Elder.[28] The style and technique of this portrait are inconsistent with those of Gheeraerts and Custodis, while the calligraphic style of the age inscription does not match that of Peake.[29] The artist was perhaps an apprentice to one of these, entrusted to produce an image of the wife of the master’s patron. It is also possible that this portrait was originally created as a companion to a slightly smaller portrait of Sir John Harington now in the National Portrait Gallery, even though the two are clearly by different artists.[30]

Though some viewers might perceive a slight difference in the appearance of Mary Rogers as seen here when compared to the portrait by Gheeraerts, the resemblance to the lady in the double portrait is more pronounced. Gheeraerts was a more accomplished artist, well known for rendering his subjects with a high degree of verisimilitude, whereas the representation here is somewhat more iconographic. The inclusion within the portrait of the rebus so often used by specifically the Haringtons of Kelston makes it all but certain, however, that this sitter is indeed Mary Rogers Harington of Kelston Hall, Somerset.


J. Stephan Edwards, PhD
October 2011



  1. Sir Roy Strong, ‘Forgotten faces: Regional history and regional portraiture,’ Historical Research vol 78, no. 199 (February 2005), 43-57.
  2. See, for example, Portrait of an unknown lady by Hans Eworth, ca.1565-8, Oil on oak panel, 100 x 62 cm, Tate Britain, London. Formerly called Margaret Clifford, Lady Stanley, based on the arms in the upper left corner, but re-identified when it was determined that the arms were added more than a century after the portrait was created. For an example of identifying a sitter through comparison of jewels to extant inventories, see Susan James, ‘Lady Jane Grey or Queen Kateryn Parr?’, The Burlington Magazine vol 138, no.114 (January 1996), pp20-24.
  3. Sotheby’s, London, Catalogue of Drawings and Paintings, comprising … the Harrington Portraits, 29 July 1942 (Lot 90).
  4. John Nichols, The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, 3 vols. (London: Nichols, 1823), III: 250; Ian Grimble, The Harington Family (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1958), 121.
  5. Descriptive catalogue of the Harrington loan pictures originally, with a few exceptions, at Kelston House, near Bath, exhibition catalogue, Victoria Gallery, Bath, Item 17; Grimble, Harington, 121.
  6. Mary Hill Cole, The Portable Queen: Elizabeth I and the politics of ceremony (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), Appendix 2: Chronology of royal visits and progresses, 180-202.
  7. Grimble, Harington, 125. The Haringtons displayed the hare, ring, and tun rebus most prominently atop the massive fountain in the courtyard at Kelston. See Bath Central Library, Image 11705, Fountain of the Haringtons at Kelweston (Kelston) Court, 1567, engraved, 11 x 15 cm.
  8. The portrait can be dated by reference to the costume. The large closed ruff was most popular in the late 1580s, while ruffs after about 1590 began to be worn open at the front. The style of the lady’s jacket is likewise consistent with the period between about 1585 and 1595.
  9. Sir John Harington was one of at least six children, two of whom were girls. Half-sister Hester died young. Sister Elizabeth was born about 1559 and was thus age 20 in about 1579, before the probable date of this portrait. Daughters of Sir John or of his one surviving sister were all born after 1580, too late to be this sitter. Sir John’s cousin John Harington, 1st Baron Exton, often spent time at Kelston, and numerous portraits of that branch of the family remained in the Harington collection until it was sold in 1942. Baron Exton’s wife Anne Keilwey was born in about 1554, and was thus twenty years of age in about 1574, at least a decade before this portrait was painted. The Baron’s eldest daughter Lucy was born in 1581 and was thus too young to be this lady. Further, Lucy married in 1594 at age 13, becoming a Russell rather than a Harington, well before her twentieth year. Baron Exton had as many as six sisters. Theodosia, Elizabeth, Mabel, Mary, and Sarah were each married into other families before 1585 and before age 20, while sister Anne was born in the 1580s. It would have been unusual for any of the baron’s married sisters to have been portrayed after marriage wearing an emblem of only their natal family. All of their many daughters were born with surnames other than Harington, making the jewel less meaningful to each of those daughters.
  10. Now in a private collection, it is reproduced in Roy Strong, The English Icon: Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture (London: Routledge and K. Paul for the Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, 1969), 203 and fig. 161.
  11. Rogers of Cannington: Argent, a chevron between three bucks courant, sable. Mary Rogers Harington was granted her own individual arms following the death of her mother in 1594: Argent, a chevron between three bucks passant sable. See Francis J. Poynton, Memoranda, historical and genealogical, relating to the parish of Kelston in the county of Somerset, Part II (London: Mitchell and Hughes, 1879), 6.
  12. Portrait of Mary Rogers, Lady Harington by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1592, Oil on wood panel, 113 x 85 cm., Tate Britain, London, T01872. The portrait was purchased from the Haringtons via Leggatt Brothers in January 1931 by the collector Eric Bullivant, from whose estate the Tate acquired it in 1974. See Sotheby’s London, Fine Old Master Paintings, 8 May 1974 ( Lot 12).
  13. Frances, the only brother of Sir John of Kelston known to have married, for example, wed Joan or Jane Baylie in November 1606. Many variants of the Baylie arms are known, none with chevrons. The arms of the family of Anne Keilway/Kelway, who before 1570 married John Harington, 1st Baron Exton, include a bar and a cross saltire but no chevrons. Baron Exton’s brother Henry married twice: first to Cecilia Agard in the early 1580s, secondly to Ruth Pilkington in about 1592. Neither woman’s family arms included a chevron. Baron Exton’s brother James married Frances Sapcote, whose family arms consisted of three dovecotes on a shield.
  14. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. ‘Harington, John (c1517-1582)’; Grimble, Harington, 90. NB: Assuming Ethelreda was about twenty years old when she wed, she was born at about the time that Henry VIII first took interest in Anne Boleyn, i.e., ca.1526. Tradition states that Ethelreda’s mother was Joan Dyngley (or Dingley/Dingly), a laundress in the royal household.
  15. ODNB, s.v. ‘Harington, John (c1517-1582).’ Harington’s signed testimony in relation to those infamous scandals survives among the manuscripts of the Marquess of Salisbury at Hatfield House.
  16. Grimble, Harington, 101.
  17. See note 14.
  18. History, Kelston Park, Bath, England, Record ID:1889 at Parks and Gardens.ac.uk, created 27 July 2007, accessed 10 April 2009.
  19. The poem was exceptionally popular during the period and is thought to have influenced Edmund Spenser’s The fairie queene and William Shakespeare’s Much ado about nothing, both of which first appeared before the public at the same time as Harington’s translation, ca.1590.
  20. ODNB, s.v. ‘Harington, Sir John (bap.1560, d.1612).’
  21. The Kohler Company, manufacturer of premium bath fixtures, today markets a model of toilet known as the Kelston Comfort Height.
  22. John Harington, Nugæ antiquæ: being a miscellaneous collection of original papers in prose and verse, edited by Henry Harington (Bath: W. Frederick , 1769), 77.
  23. Francis Poynton, Memoranda, historical and genealogical, relating to the parish of Kelston in the county of Somerset, Part III (London: Mitchell and Hughes, 1879), 33. Poynton overlooked the fourth surviving son, as well as several daughters.
  24. Ibid., 19 and 21.
  25. Grimble, Harington, 121.
  26. Gerard Kilroy, ed., The epigrams of Sir John Harington (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 12-14.
  27. ODNB , s.v. ‘Harington, John (1588/9-1654).’
  28. See notes 9 and 11 above; Sir John Harington by Hieronymus Custodis, ca.1590-1595, Oil on wood panel, 57 x 46 cm., National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 3121; Sir John Harington, probably Studio of Hieronymus Custodis, undated, Oil on panel, 91 x 71cm., Ampleforth College, Yorkshire; Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, with Sir John Harington, in the Hunting Field by Robert Peake the Elder, 1603, Oil on canvas, 202 x 147 cm., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, MMA 44.27. The Ampleforth portrait was long thought to depict Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, but was re-identified in the 1980s.
  29. Roy Strong, ‘Elizabeth Painting: An Approach through Inscriptions – I: Robert Peake the Elder,’ The Burlington Magazine 105, no. 719 (February 1963), 53-57.
  30. See note 28 for NPG 3121.



Lady Jane Grey’s Prayer Book

The prayer book that Lady Jane Grey carried with her to the scaffold on the day of her execution on 12 February 1554, now part of the British Library’s collection as Harley Manuscript 2342.