Home » Uncategorized » A Portrait of Bessie Blount (c.1500-1539?)

A Portrait of Bessie Blount (c.1500-1539?)

Elizabeth, or Bessie, Blount is commonly known in Tudor circles for being the first known mistress of King Henry VIII of England (1491-1547). This article sets out plausible evidence that the above portrait could be of this beautiful gentlewoman, notwithstanding arguments advanced by historians that it depicts Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn or Jane Seymour. Readers are encouraged to consider whether or not  my arguments to suggest it portrays Bessie are convincing or not.

Before considering the portrait, a brief biography of Bessie is needed. The daughter of John Blount (1484-1531) and his wife Katherine, daughter of Sir Hugh Peshall (1483-1540), Bessie’s birth date is unknown, but scholars have suggested that it was somewhere between 1498 and 1502. However, evidence of Bessie’s appointment at court as a maid of honour to Queen Katherine of Aragon is instructive in indicating Bessie’s truth date of birth.[1] Apparently because of the Blount family’s links with Prince Arthur’s court at Ludlow some years previously, these links were able to afford Bessie an appointment at court from March 1512. The age of maids of honour differed depending on the court. One historian has written that it was necessary for girls to be aged at least thirteen in order to serve as ‘decorative foils’ to their mistresses on ceremonial occasions.[2] The Emperor Maximilian in the mid-sixteenth century expressed the opinion that a girl should commonly be aged around thirteen or fourteen in order to serve a royal lady in the capacity of her maid of honour.[3] In view of this, it is highly unlikely that Bessie was much younger than twelve or thirteen when she was chosen to become Katherine’s maid in the spring of 1512. Since a way of demonstrating age in the Tudor period was in terms of the years one was in – ie. being in one’s ‘twentieth year’ would mean one was aged nineteen – it is possible that Bessie was either in her thirteenth year at the time of appointment, or she was nearing her thirteenth birthday that year. Either way, she was probably aged twelve or thirteen during the  time of this appointment, and so must have been born in around 1499-1500. Historians who have suggested that she was born later, in around 1502, are clearly shown to be mistaken on this reckoning.

Bessie was supposed to be very beautiful. John Barlow, dean of Westbury, was later on to remark that she was, conventionally, more beautiful than Anne Boleyn, which suggests that Bessie’s physical appearance conformed to conventional ideas about how a woman should look.[4] Alison Weir, a biographer of Mary Boleyn, suggested that Bessie may have been blonde because her family were fair in their appearances, a credible argument in view of contemporary praise of Bessie’s beauty, in a period when blonde women were idealised and brunettes regarded with suspicion.[5] Bessie was also praised for her skills in music and dancing, so it would not seem wild to claim that, in many respects, she was the perfect female courtier at the English court. Famously, Bessie enjoyed an affair with King Henry during her time as maid-of-honour to the queen. Whether or not this relationship began as early as 1514, when he is known to have partnered Bessie in a dance, is unknown. What can be surmised is that the relationship had definitely begun by 1518, for Bessie became pregnant with the king’s son, who was born to her in June 1519, and aptly named Henry Fitzroy. The king evidently took great pride in his son, since it relieved any doubts he may have had that his lack of a legitimate son was because of his own biological faults, but it unfortunately irritated and saddened Katherine. Any dislike she may have felt  towards Bessie is, however, unrecorded. Bessie married Gilbert Tailboys in September that year, and in the words of Murphy this marriage ‘was clearly envisioned by the king as a reward to his former mistress’.[6] When Bessie died is unknown, but must have been between 1539 and 1541, when her second husband was described as being unmarried.

This article will suggest that the above portrait, painted by the court painter Lucas Horenbolte, may depict Bessie Blount. In the words of Roland Hui, this portrait ‘has been the subject of a guessing game since the 18th century’.[7] In the eighteenth century, the portrait was initially identified as depicting Katherine of Aragon, the king’s first queen. However, there are several problems with this (mis)identification. Firstly, the portrait appears to have been painted in the mid-1520s, according to the fashion worn by the sitter. The age of the sitter also represents an issue – she was in her twenty-fifth year at the time she was painted. Katherine of Aragon was aged twenty-five between December 1510 and December 1511, which means that this portrait is far too late to have been a miniature of the queen. The 1510s had favoured a headdress with longer frontlets, as conveyed in authenticated portraits of Queen Katherine, in comparison with the gable hood worn in this painting. Other portraits of women painted  during this period evidences that it cannot have been the queen, who was twenty-five some fifteen years, at least, earlier.

Later on, the portrait was tentatively believed to be of Jane Seymour, after being acquired by the Duke of Buccleuch in the nineteenth century. Another duplicate of the miniature, acquired by the Royal Ontario Museum, also accepted the sitter as Jane. This has probably been aided in part by the tradition that the portrait originally belonged to the Seymour family before being passed onto the Duke. But there is another problem with this identification – the exact opposite of that with Katherine, in fact. Jane’s birth date is unknown, but she was referred to by the Spanish ambassador in early 1536 as being a little over twenty-five, while twenty-nine ladies are noted to have participated in her funeral in November 1537 in marking the late queen’s age. According to this therefore, Jane was in her twenty-ninth year in late 1537, and must therefore have been born in 1508/9, or at the latest 1510. In view of this, Jane was aged twenty-five somewhere between 1533 and 1535, when she was serving Queen Anne Boleyn as a lady in waiting. Firstly, Jane was not important enough in that period to have been painted, since it was only gentlewoman of some distinction who were painted, or who had connections with the painter. There is no evidence that either was applicable to Jane in that period. Secondly, fashion and costume had, once more, evolved by the mid-1530s, with ladies who favoured the gable hood embracing a much smaller fashion, known as the ‘whelk’ or ‘whelk-shell’ which had much shorter frontlets. Other ladies discarded the gable hood completely in favour of the more becoming French hood, popularised by both the queen and Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor. In view of this, the portrait cannot represent Jane.

A more dubious identification was considered by Roy Strong in the late twentieth century, arriving at the conclusion that the portrait actually was of Anne Boleyn, second queen of Henry VIII. There are obvious flaws with this belief. Firstly, the sitter has no physical traits associated with Anne, who was believed to be of medium height, with expressive dark eyes, high cheekbones, a wide mouth and long, dark hair (although whether it was black, dark-brown or light brown is uncertain). Although it is difficult to tell, the lady in this painting is much fairer, with some evidence that her hair is blonde, or at least fair. Strong’s argument that the emblem on the sitter’s brooch is Anne Boleyn’s falcon badge is dubious, since it cannot clearly be seen. Furthermore, the Queen’s age seems to dismiss the possibility that she was the sitter for this portrait. Anne’s birth date is unknown, but it is likely that she was born in 1500 or 1501, and was therefore aged in her twenty-fifth year in 1524-6. For much of this period, Anne may not have been at court – she is popularly believed to have been banished to Hever Castle due to an ill-informed flirtation – and so would not have qualified as a suitable candidate to be painted. The same issue as with Jane Seymour arises. Anne was not prominent in these years and would likely not therefore have been selected to be painted for an exquisite miniature, as a mere gentlewoman at court. Even if one believes that she was born in 1507 and was aged twenty-five in 1532/3, the portrait cannot be of her because fashion had, once more, evolved by then, as discussed in the section about Jane Seymour.

Other historians have, recently, theorised that the portrait depicts Mary Boleyn, Anne’s elder sister. Believed to have been born in around 1499/1500, Mary was aged twenty-five in 1524/5, a time when this portrait was painted. Weir has speculated that Mary may have sat for this miniature because she gave birth to the king’s daughter, Katherine Carey, in the summer of 1524.[8] Apart from the simple facts that neither Katherine’s birth date nor whether she was the king’s daughter is known, this seems to run directly counter to Weir’s insistence that the court, nor the king, ever celebrated or endorsed this relationship, and thus it appears highly questionable why Mary would have sat for this miniature. Hui has postulated that the badge worn by the sitter may represent the Ormonde falcon associated with the Boleyn family, but again, we cannot clearly see the badge so this is a questionable assertion, at best.[9]  Hui has also suggested that this sitter was Mary because, in 1525 (when Mary may have been aged twenty-five), her father was painted, and because of the Boleyn link with Lucas Horenbolte, Mary may also have sat for him in this time. Mary’s son, Henry – again believed by some historians to have been fathered by the king – was actually born in 1526, not earlier as believed, and so Mary cannot have sat for a portrait out of celebration of a royal bastard’s birth (if he even was Henry VIII’s son). I would not dismiss this identification as Mary out of hand – indeed, I believe it to be a more convincing argument than any which favour Katherine, Anne or Jane as the sitter.

However, I believe the portrait may have a stronger chance of depicting Bessie Blount. Having established her date of birth as 1499/1500, Bessie reached the highpoint of her political and social career in the summer of 1525 when she gave birth to the king’s bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, and unlike Mary Boleyn’s children, there is no uncertainty whatsoever regarding whose son he was. Bessie was celebrated at court, before receiving a grand marriage in September of that year. Bessie was aged around twenty-five that year, and drawing on the arguments by Weir that she was blonde and fair, I believe that these two factors, as well as the circumstances at court at this time, present a compelling argument that she was the sitter in this famous portrait. There is no other likeness of her, sadly, to compare it to. However, it seems possible that the king allowed his mistress to be painted by a renowned artist as a reward for her services. Since Bessie was aged 25 in the period this painting was done – the mid-1520s – it seems as reasonable a claim as any that she is the sitter. Certainly, in my view, there is a stronger chance of it being Bessie whose likeness we can see than it being Mary or Anne Boleyn.


[1] Beverley A. Murphy, “Blount Elizabeth (c1500-1539×41)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[2] R. M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Cambridge, 1989).

[3] Cited by G. W. Bernard, Fatal Attractions (Yale, 2010).

[4] Cited by Murphy, ‘Blount Elizabeth.’

[5] Alison Weir, Mary Boleyn: The ‘Great and Infamous Whore’ (London, 2011).

[6] Murphy, ‘Blount Elizabeth’.

[7] Roland Hui, ‘Two New Faces? the Horenbolte Portraits of Mary and Thomas Boleyn?’ (2011).

[8] Weir, Mary Boleyn.

[9] Roland Hui, ‘A Reassessment of Queen Anne Boleyn’s Portraiture’ (2000).


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5 Comments

  1. Very well constructed argument for the being Bessie Blount. The woman in the portrait has something green pinned to the side of her headress, but the image is too small to get a good look at it. Any ideas what it is? It looks to be a type of plant and if we could name the plant that would add additional information. Many plants were used to symbolise particular things, such as love etc.

  2. Roland H. says:

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about whether this lady is Bessie Blount or Mary Boleyn.

    Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading your take on this fascinating portrait. Hopefully, even more research will be done on this miniature.

    • conorbyrnex says:

      Interesting Roland – I do think it might be Mary. A portrait of a young woman, possibly Katherine Howard aged 17, is featuring in my account of her life.

      • Roland H. says:

        If artists back then would only label their portraits – we wouldn’t have these identification problems today – LOL!

        Oh, in your last paragraph, you have Bessie Blount giving birth to Henry Fitzroy in 1525 (as opposed to 1519 as mentioned earlier). 1525 was when Fitzroy was made Duke of Richmond.

  3. […] This is a good article on Bessie Blount as well: A Portrait of Bessie Blount (c.1500-1539?) […]

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