The Ermine Portrait
The secret of the Ermine Portrait (which hangs in Hatfield House) is as wild as Queen Elizabeth really was.
Ermine is referred to as a royal badge and both Princess Elizabeth I (left) and Princess Elizabeth II (right) wore the fur at their coronations. According to the Sumptuary Laws, Statues of Apparel 1574, only Royalty could wear Ermine (the winter white coat of the stoat). Elizabeth asked her lawyers and they assured her that though the law was not written with the intention it did not discriminate between living stoats and a fur coat made of stoat pelts.
She then had the makings for a trap which would soon grow to huge proportions.
Historically in western societies, the fur was considered to be a badge of royalty. Here
Back then only about about 3 out of 100 peasants could read simple English but most knew what ermine fur looked like. Hence, royalty was easily identified when they wore ermine. That is why it is called a badge of Royalty.
Wearing ermine was a method used by criminals to impersonate royalty.
Real Ermines, aka stoats or Mustela erminea are ferocious little monsters.
You may be thinking of Da Vinci's painting 'Lady with the Ermine'. This picture is what inspired Queen Elizabeth to pull this stunt but it is not an Ermine. It's an entirely different animal. Though they were often called by the same name that is really a Ferret, aka polecat or Mustela putorius furo. Ferrets are completely different. They are larger and pesky but manageable as pets. Maybe 'manageable' isn't the right word, let's change 4 letters and say they are 'marginal' as pets. However, they are at least nice and sweet. Ferrets look somewhat like ermines but they are a lot larger and not at all like that nasty animal on the queen's dress in that painting in the Hatfield House art collection.
In fact no one has ever tamed an ermine. A stoat or ermine is four ounces of a mean and fiendishly dangerous 15 times a second biting machine which is not afraid, at all, of humans.They will bite you until you can get away from them. Then they may run after you and attack you again and again and even again until the devil inside them becomes satisfied with your blood.
Their main prey in the wild are rabbits. In the ultimate reversal they are well known to hunt and kill cats for food. Their teeth are long enough to sever the spine of a smallish cat in a tenth of a second. For larger cats and dogs it was more complex. They would do in medium to large cats (and smallish dogs) by severing all the ligaments in the back of the neck until it's head fell forward. Then they would bite into the cat's brain stem about five times until it was hash leaving the cat completely paralyzed and at it's mercy. This entire complex process from beginning to end takes less than 5 seconds.
They are so vicious that even animal rights groups don't like them one bit.
Most groups referred to the inhumane way stoats treated the animals they attacked, and this was seen, in part, as a justification for
less-than-humane treatment of stoats in turn: stoats aren’t humane (Maori); the stoat is a vicious killer, and any way of
controlling it is a good way .Download pdf here
They are smart, ruthless, merciless victimizers that even know the most vulnerable part of a man.
'The ermine is curious by nature and seems relatively unafraid of people, they have been known to attack those who release them from traps and scurry up the pant legs of an unsuspecting person to grab some food. CentralPets.com
Even church magazines have nothing at all good to say about them,
These attractive but vicious little animals will tackle an animal three times their size.
Queen Elizabeth knew the difference between the two animals and found a way to use a stoat for a trap. There was a certain group of women who wanted to take away her crown. They would always start out copying whatever she wore to show that they were exactly the same as her. Then they would point out every perceived fault of the queen. Then it was how they would have done things better and of course it ended up that they should be wearing the crown instead of Queen Elizabeth.
Dozens of husband and sons had been stopped on the road to London. Having been convinced by their wife or mother into thinking that no one liked or supported the queen and that rebellion was actually quite legal they often openly stated to one and all that they had been sent by their mother, sister or wife to get the crown. Court testimony of all these men, before they were sentenced to death, show one thing they all had in common. The woman who caused it all started out wearing exactly the same thing as the queen.
Hopefully the women would decide that being like the queen was much harder than they thought and stop trying to imitate her. The painting was just one facet of the trap. Publicity about her wearing an ermine on her sleeve was released to the public in numerous way. She was invariably compared to Da Vinci's painting 'Lady with an Ermine'. The main reason for the above painting was so that the two paintings would then support and confirm each other's valid nature. Almost everyone knew about the Da Vinci painting but they never saw it since it was in Italy so they never knew it was really about a ferret. There were a few treasonous women who only knew and cared that Queen Elizabeth was wearing ermine so they thought that they should wear one as well. That ermine on her dress was to stop these women before they brainwashed their husbands and sons, then sent them off to be captured and sentenced to death for treason.
It appeared the queen had not only tamed a stoat but from it's position in the painting it appears to actually love her.
A kinship with animals was very important in Queen Elizabeth's court. When you see an animal in a 16th century painting affectionately posed like in this painting of my friend Elizabeth Brydges (who I write more about here) it's an indication that a person loves animals a lot. When that is true then the animals know it and responds with affection like this dog is. It is not necessarily that the dog is a special pet. If that were the case here then the dog would be posed high up, next to her, like on a table or in her arms. (So it's not a good idea to invite these people on a hunt and you might ask if they are vegetarians before having them over after a successful hunt when you have killed, cooked and are serving up Bambi at the feast.)
Anyone who copied her this time was doomed to fail, not once but twice. Once trying to tame a stoat and the other...whoa, I'll get to that in a few minutes.
At least one woman died from bite infections they received while trying to tame a stoat. Another was killed by her own husband when she was jumping around and he was trying to stab the little monster that was biting her neck. Many were bitten and many told others. Dozens of similar events were actually reported to the authorities.
Here is the other reason they were doomed. Queen Elizabeth asked her attorneys and judges and they said that the law against non-royalty wearing ermine, as it was written, applied not only to dead but to also to live ermines as well (though they added that had not been the intent when the law was written and passed).
Those who tried (or somehow managed) to wear a live ermine always showed it off to many people and so they were found out. They were then arrested and tried for breaking the law. Testimony also showed that each woman had usually pestered half a dozen people to get her an ermine. In turn she was warned 'not to try to wear an ermine' by an average of three people but that didn't stop some of them.
Queen Elizabeth wore an ermine off and on at functions where lots of people saw her and did so for a year and a half. There were several great stories about the ermine affair that were so funny they spread like the plague. The queen began to worry about it getting out that it was all a trap before she had a chance to spring it.
Queen Elizabeth decided that for the largest exposure she should first take the ermine to church. She had gotten a stoat that was already sentenced to become part of a fur stole.
That cute little collar the ermine is wearing in the painting was the
first of three straps mounted on a short metal rod which in turn was sewn
solidly to the sleeve on her dress. She
managed to get the opening of a falconers glove over the ermines head
and then held it in place with another even heavier falconers glove
while her falconer strapped the stoat down solidly to the metal in six places. Besides
the collar there were two other thinner body straps that were covered
by the fur, a tail strap and two on it's lower legs.
Now church was a different experience every four times she went. Since it was the main church of England and since she was the head of the church once a month they allowed a different minister to come from the countryside to act as the clergy.
It was these men's moment of fame. About every four months there would be one who would talk until the cows came home if they had been allowed to. Someone had to stop them and of course nobody else dare do so when the queen was there so she had to do it as stated here.
She hated long sermons. If she disapproved of the pace of the sermon, she wasn't above shouting at the speaker from her seat to get a move on. If she didn't like the subject preached, she also yelled for a change. Here
She most often simply hissed to get a rude or otherwise tiresome minister to quit. To make a long story shorter, after the regular priest had just gotten into the sermon the ermine started to hiss. Everyone started wondering who was hissing and what for and when they turned around there was Queen Elizabeth. They would quickly turn away and wonder why she was hissing at the minister since he had not been talking that long and she was known to like him. They would not dare look around a second time and look closer so they didn't realize that it was the ermine on her sleeve that was doing the hissing.
Then the minister started to get really upset and his sermon stalled several times. The ermine would quiet down for awhile and then it would start again. Once the queen made what it thought was a threatening move and it got really angry and it's hissing got so loud it even woke up those who had fallen asleep
She asked her personal guards for a knife to dispatch it with but not one of the men would dare own up to taking a weapon into church. Of course they were all armed to the teeth with concealed weapons. That is why she brought those men to church. She would never had brought them if she thought they didn't have hidden weapons.
So she started considering alternatives. Maybe if she just whacked it once very sharply against the wall she could kill it that way. Then when people turned to see where and what the loud noise was they would see nothing going on then turn back around.
So she smartly slammed the rodent against the side of the pew.'Wham' and Hiss then wham and HISS and it also started to scream at her. I was sitting behind her and even I got embarrassed.
Then she realized she wasn't going to kill it that way since ermine are made to be smashed by huge animals as said animal is being bitten to death so she stopped.
That ermine didn't seem to even mind being smashed so she then put a shawl over it and the little monster quickly shredded the shawl to pieces and then got restless again. Finally one of the men owned up to having a very small knife (7 inches long) . He tried to dispatch it by severing it's spine at the neck but it was able to twist around and clamp down on the knife with it's teeth every time.
Then she thought she could squeeze the breath out of the stoat and thereby suffocate it to death by holding her arm against the wall. However when she tried she felt an incredible pain. The ermine had rolled off the rod sideways under the pressure and could finally twist his head around and get what he really wanted, mouthfuls of royal flesh. This time it was her that screamed bloody murder. The pressure she exerted had also worked loose the lower of the three ties and his hind legs were now clawing her arm at about 50 times a second. However, their claws are not very sharp so it didn't go through her dress but the stoat did make more noise than the minister did.
The real problem was that the ermine might escape with the crown/collar which was loaded with the most expensive jewels there were. The queen had made the importance of the stones in the ermine crown very public. She had added the crown/collar on purpose so that the women who copied her would have to have a jeweled collar for their ermine. She tried to figure a way to actually put it on the ermines head with a strap but it reacted so violently when she tried that she gave up and made the crown a collar. The crown with expensive jewels was intended to drive the impostor's husbands into poverty but not before they bought those stones and had them mounted by a jeweler. The jewelers had all been tipped off to report, for a very sizable reward, any one who had dealings with or requests for small collars with those specific stones in it.She ended up hitting the ermine against the wall a couple more times and I can't recall what else the queen did but it went on for awhile. It finally somehow got away. It actually got exciting in church for once. Queen Elizabeth was just lucky it wasn't a male ermine or she never would have gotten away so easy.
Note: I did not pay too much attention to the whole ermine thing although I was around. To me stoats were like rats that I often stepped over at the theatre which were attracted to the food left there by the audiences. Only this ermine was the rat of all nightmares, larger and meaner than all the rest. So I would have nothing to do with the little devils, hence my memories of the queen's rodent are poor and often out of sequence.
I looked closer at the painting and it appears that it was made after this event at church and after Queen Elizabeth had the expensive jewels removed from it's crown which was after the little monster almost stole it. It started out with rubies and sapphires but what I mainly recall were two large yellow diamonds.
She finally got an ermine that would sit still for this treatment. It was never tame by any means but it figured out that there was no escape. Resolved to its fate, everyone thought, it became quite friendly and would occasionally allow people to pet it. It was fine with the whole thing as long as it got fed raw meat whenever it screamed (or else it would scream even louder, then claw and tear at every thing and every one until it got fed). That ermine was just waiting for the first opportunity to escape which occurred after awhile. Then it escaped in a shot through an open door and made it's escape with it's little gold crown. Queen Elizabeth had strangely grown attached to that Machiavellian nightmarish devil as did several maids of honor and half her guard.
So they set out lots of traps that would catch it alive but it was never caught. That was near the end of the operation and it may have been because the statue of limitations was about to run out. I may be wrong but I think most of the arrests were for attempting to buy live ermines from licensed trappers.
This should be easy to prove using court records.
Until this trap there were about a dozen people a year who were convicted of violating the Sumptuary Laws. Most of these were men pretending to be Barons to commit frauds. When the trap was sprung hundreds of women and many men were brought in as primary criminals. The Queen would have hastily added 'up to twice that number of men were spared a death sentence for treason because of those arrests'. They brought in so many women that they ran out of room and had to hold many of them in cages that were converted horse stables and hen houses. It was hilarious. I remember being the person that questioned many of these women. Dozens of women sat around arguing with each other: 'No, I would make a much better queen than you would.'
When they knew they had the right women they released about half without charges. Everyone thought that these women had turned states evidence. Doing this exposed a huge black market in furs including wool which had never before been brought down. This is when many of the women turned states evidence to avoid prison. This split the massive smuggling ring wide open. The ring leaders could not figure out which of the women had turned them in so they couldn't even threaten them. Normally the smuggling ring had many men who were as willing to gut a person as they were a sheep which they were very practiced at. This time so many witnesses turned on the leaders that they could not threaten them all. When they tried they found out that these women were not the kind that threatened easily. So the leaders and the ring was destroyed but it still took several years.
With the addition of the ermine charges it took the smugglers crimes to a whole other level with much higher charges than just smuggling. The state had convicted individual smugglers like William Shakespeare's father John but never the leaders.
All furs and even the wool of England belonged to the queens monopoly. It was to keep the price low in England so that poor people could afford wool to stay warm in the coldest Little Ice Age winters that England had ever faced in recorded history. What am I saying when I use the word 'winter'? It froze in July in one year.
Earlier, Shakespeare's father John was actually convicted of being involved in an attempt to smuggle 200 tons of wool out of the country to (I think) France to sell at a higher price. It was almost 1/4 of England's yearly production. All the estimates made were that it would have caused at least 8,000 and as many as 80,000 deaths of the poor due to hypothermia. Whatever the number, it was murder, actually mass murder.
Even with the conviction of John Shakespeare the smuggling ring survived. As I recall the 'Ermine Portrait' ended in a culmination that eventually brought down the entire ring.
Elizabeth was indeed a genius but the additional destruction of the smuggling ring was a benefit that she had not figured on.
Queen Elizabeth section
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