History

Trixie the Prison Cat

Trixie the Prison Cat

One of the most asked-about images in Unseen Treasures is this portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. It shows him while in the Tower of London accompanied by Trixie the Prison Cat. Trixie is remembered for her loyalty to her master.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573–1624) Maybe by John de Critz, after 1600 © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573–1624) Maybe by John de Critz, after 1600 © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection

 

The 3rd Earl of Southampton was a leading courtier of Queen Elizabeth I. Late in her reign (1601), Henry joined the rebellion led by the Earl of Essex. For this, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Legend has it that Trixie was so desperate to be with her master, she found an unusual way of entering the Tower:

“After he had been confined there a small time, he was surprised by a visit from his favourite cat, which had found its way to the Tower; and, as tradition says, reached its master by descending the chimney of his apartment.”
Thomas Pennant, Some Account of London (1793).

Historians have since argued that the cat was probably taken to the Tower for the Earl by his wife. However she arrived there, the cat was clearly significant to the Earl.

It’s thought that this portrait was commissioned from John de Critz as a gift to King James I. This demonstrated his loyalty to the new monarch and petitioned for his release from jail.

Fitting, then, to feature the famously loyal cat.

Portraits of the Southamptons

The 3rd Earl of Southampton was a striking figure, often depicted with long dark hair and blue eyes. Shakespeare described him as “a man right fair” and dedicated two of his narrative poems to him.  Unseen Treasures of The Portland Collection includes three portraits of the 3rd Earl.

The exhibition also includes three more portraits of Southampton family members. The 3rd Earl is accompanied by a portrait of his eldest son, Lord James Wriothesley, and his two daughters-in-law, Rachel Ruvigny and Elizabeth Leigh.

So why are there such a lot of portraits of this family in the Portland Collection? The Dukes of Portland descend from the Earls of Southampton via the Earls of Gainsborough.  The University of Nottingham notes that: “1st Duke of Portland in 1716, married Elizabeth Noel, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Gainsborough, and through her acquired the Titchfield estates in Hampshire (formerly owned by the Wriothesley family, Earls of Southampton). It was through the marriage of their son Henry, 2nd Duke (1709-1762) to Lady Margaret Cavendish Harley (1715-1785) in 1734 that the former Cavendish-owned Welbeck estates in Nottinghamshire came into the possession of the Bentinck family, Dukes of Portland.”

 

Rebecca Hardy

Rebecca Hardy

Rebecca Hardy trained as a fine artist and has been working in the culture sector for over a decade. She writes for a number of publications on topics such as art history, contemporary exhibitions, and museum marketing.

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