In our upper hallway, a portrait of a woman hangs. This woman, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Countess of Lincoln, was once thought to be the most beautiful woman in England—even more beautiful than Queen Elizabeth I, herself. This ¾ length portrait depicts Fitzgerald slightly turned to her right. She was painted in a luxurious black gown, which is trimmed in fur and gold embroidery. The arms of her gown are decorated with gold aglets. Her skirt is a brilliant red and is, also, embroidered in gold. Her small ruff and both cuffs are, also, trimmed in gold. She wears a French hood on her head, trimmed in gold and pearls. She wears six rings on her fingers, holds a pair of gray gloves and her waist is adorned with a gold pendant. Her outfit screams wealth.
Her hair and face are made up as was the custom of the day. The hair along her brow is plucked back at least an inch from her natural hair line, creating the very high forehead commonly found on women in this time period. Her pale hands and face, fashionable for the English aristocracy and those at court were probably achieved with a powder made of lead or ground alabaster. Thick face powders were all the rage during Queen Elizabeth’s reign as the Queen was able to use them to easily cover up the pox scars on her face, left over from a bout of the disease in her childhood. While the Queen used the face powder to cover up scars, those in court wanting to emulate her wore the face powder to copy her style. After lightening her face to a frightening shade of pale, a woman of the time would have used ochre powder as blush and lip color. An egg wash would then be applied over her make-up to preserve it. Fitzgerald taking the time, and money, to make herself up in this fashion, again, screams wealth and opulence.
Who was this woman? Elizabeth Fitzgerald (1528?-1589), was the daughter of Gerald Fitzgerald, the 9th Earl of Kildare, an Irish Earl. As there were ongoing political troubles in Ireland, her mother, Lady Elizabeth Grey, a first cousin of Henry VIII, brought her to England when she was about five years old, probably in 1534. Beginning at age 10, Elizabeth spent time with the royal family, in various courts—first with Princess Elizabeth, who was an infant, and then with Queen Catherine Howard. Also, around the age of 10, poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, wrote a sonnet about here— “The Fair Geraldine,” immortalizing her beauty, and, hopefully, increasing her chances for a good marriage. Although rumor has it that Howard wrote this poem as an expression of his love for Elizabeth, the chances of that are slim, seeing how she was, again, only a 10-year-old girl.
In a 1543 wedding ceremony that was attended by both King Henry VIII and Princess Mary, Elizabeth was first married to Sir Anthony Browne, Jr. While she was 16 on her wedding day, he was 60. She became stepmother to eight children, and Browne’s eldest son was the same age as her. While married to Browne, they had two children together, neither of whom survived. Browne died in 1548, leaving Elizabeth a widow at 21. She remarried in 1552 to the Lord High Admiral, Edward Clinton. He became the Earl of Lincoln in 1572 and also served as ambassador to France. He died in 1585, leaving behind his wife of 33 years. They had no children together. Elizabeth passed away in 1590 at 63 years old.
Looking back to the portrait, in the upper left corner, there is a small cartellino. This object, painted to look like a piece of parchment, identifies the subject “Countess of Lincolne daughter to the Earle of Kildare.” This cartellino was easily identified as a Lumley Cartellino. John, Lord Lumley (c.1533-1609), was one of the first great art collectors in England, and this cartellino can be found on many of the paintings held in his collection.
Recent research on the painting has dated it to the late 16th century, not the 1560 date painted on the upper right corner. It is thought that this work is, perhaps, a copy of an earlier painting of Fitzgerald, painted specifically for inclusion in Lumley’s collection.
While Elizabeth Fitzgerald’s life was seemingly mired in controversy—her father was imprisoned on corruption charges and died while he was held in the Tower of London. A half-brother and five uncles were executed by Henry VIII for treason. Her eldest brother helped form the Geraldine League in Ireland, an alliance that ultimately wanted to expel the English from Ireland completely. Yet, somehow, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Countess of Lincoln, the Fair Geraldine, became a close friend and lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I. Come see the likeness of this very interesting woman currently on view upstairs at Agecroft Hall.