Attici Amoris Ergo

In a recent BBC programme this miniature portrait with the motto Attici Amoris Ergo was shown as an example of baffling visual Elizabethan code.  The portrait is by Nicholas Hilliard and has two versions, one in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London and the other in a private collection.

Hilliard-AAE - Arthur perhaps

Attici Amoris Ergo – meaning Therefore, by, with, from or perhaps, through the love of Atticus.  For those of you who have read my novel, The Truth of the Line, will recognise this image as being the inspiration for the front cover.

I am almost convinced that this may be a portrait of someone calling himself Arthur Dudley.  Whether he really was, or was someone who thought he could cash in on the strong gossip about a royal illegitimate child, we will never really know.  There has been speculation about this image for years, mainly focusing on the translation of the motto, but also on the curious female hand from the sky.  The date is relevant too, but more on that later.

A straight translation of the latin is Therefore, by, with, from or through the  love of Atticus, which is apparently gibberish.  Why refer to Atticus?  There have been 19th century speculations about this being a reference to Athenian love – a Victorian euphemism for homosexuality? If so, then why the female hand from a cloud, why not a more androgynous hand?  And why the reference of being ‘therefore, by, with, from or through’ any love at all?

Is the motto suggesting that this man is a product of Athenian love, in which case, the motto cannot be a reference to homosexuality.  Perhaps the unidentified woman is his lover but is already married, so the relationship is adulterous.  But that still doesn’t explain the motto, or the date for that matter.

The poet, Richard Burns, was inspired by this image and in my correspondence with him he said how he thought it was perhaps a son who was the product of an adulterous relationship, hence the cloud hiding her identity

A curly headed man with russet beard

And swishly banded feathered fine-brimmed hat

Clasps a heaven-hid woman’s hand descending

Out of a sleeve of cloud.  Prevailing space

Means we can’t see her body, arm or face.

Hold on.  Hold on to love descending as

A hand from nowhere.  Here comes poetry.

Out of her spongy light-flecked cloud she’ll tender

far finer guidance than a mother will

And more than all your hope and longing fill.

New Poem No. 2 for Kevin Nolan : posted Sept 2009 & copyright 2009 Richard Burns.

Like the poet, I am puzzled by the relationship of the two people in the miniature and I kept returning to the visual clues. The sitter too, is dressed fashionably and expensively and sporting a jaunty hat.  The colours set off his russet beard and hair and his fair complexion.  Black and white are the colours of the Elizabeth’s livery, but this may be mere coincidence.  Is he a spy?  Perhaps he is one of Walsingham’s agents and this is a declaration of his loyalty to the queen?  It might explain the hidden hand, but this doesn’t explain the motto.  

So who was Atticus? There are several possibilities.  Firstly, perhaps it refers to a man of Attica, so perhaps this individual is saying he is a product of a relationship with a Greek.  Somehow his colouring makes this difficult to believe as his sandy hair suggests a different gene pool.

Perhaps this is a reference to Herodes Atticus who claimed he was related to the Athenian king Thesius; Cecrops, the mythical king of Athens; another mythical king, this time of the island of Aegina, called Aecus who was reputedly the son of Zeus and Aegina (the daughter of Asupos, god of the rivers) and of Zeus himself.  This Atticus was the first Greek to be appointed as consul ordinarius to Rome (143AD) and clearly had an aristocratic lineage.

Then there is Titus Pomponius Atticus who was also a Roman citizen and great friend of the orator and politician, Cicero.  Cicero’s writings on friendship are a record of their deep and abiding friendship.  Atticus later moved to Athens as he had become an Epicurean – a form of philosophy.  He may have had other sexual reasons than his desire of following a particular philosophy, hence the suggestion this motto is an oblique reference to homosexuality.

Perhaps the reference to Atticus is more subtle and includes a reference to a rank within Roman society?  If it is a reference to Herodes Atticus (HA), with his claims of royal and godly ancestry, it suggests that the sitter may have had pretensions claiming a similar lineage.  If it is to Titus Pomponius Atticus (TPA) then what do we know of his lineage?  TPA came from  a level of Roman society which had evolved from the ancient Roman Eques and in modern parlance his family were  equestrian knights.  Has this rank been conflated by the devisor of the motto into a reference to the post of The Master of the Queen’s Horse?  In reality, the Roman Master of Horse was a specific post, but perhaps we should not be looking  for literal specifics.  If this is the case, then perhaps the reference to Atticus may be an amalgamation of the two ancients?

Because of the complexity we can deduce the meaning is supposed to be exceedingly subtle, so who devised it?  Clearly someone with a classical education and a good knowledge of Roman society. Perhaps this sitter gave this motto to Hilliard and knew about the positions in society that both TPA or HA held; perhaps Hilliard had been let into a secret and he has devised this motto as a puzzle piece, the meaning of which is known only to three people.  It was not uncommon for the mottoes on miniatures to be only understood by the giver and the receiver, and perhaps also the artist.

If this is a referencing either Atticus’s position within society and comparing it to someone in the 16th century, who might it have been?  The Court position of Master of the Queen’s Horse was one of the first positions handed out by the very new Queen Elizabeth in November 1558, to one Robert Dudley.   He held the post until 1587 when his stepson, The Earl of Essex, succeeded to the title.  But this young man is not Robert Devereux – Roy Strong has suggested that another Hilliard miniature, Man Amongst Roses, as being he.

So who might the man in this miniature be and whose hand is he holding? Perhaps the motto is a reference to the sitter’s own parentage being similar in rank to Herodes Atticus whose family bore the Roman name of Claudius.  Herodes Atticus’s parents were allegedly uncle and niece, which leads me to think that, if this is the Atticus referred to in the motto, this young man believed he came from an incestuous relationship.  I find it hard to believe anyone would have commissioned an expensive portrait, let alone two copies (unless it was one for each parent) to remind them of their crime.

If we return to the character, Titus Pomponius Atticus and what we know of him and his place in history, is this young man telling us that he is in some way related to this unidentified woman and a Master of Horse? Perhaps now the colour of his clothes take on more significance.  Is the hand that of a member of Elizabeth’s household, hence the black and white cuff, or more daringly, is it the hand of the Queen who was famous for her long fingers and beautiful white hands ?

Dr Paul Doherty has found papers in the Escorial archives which he published in his book, The Secret Life of Elizabeth I.  The BBC 2 did a one off programme of the same name on 14th June 2006.  Doherty tells of the documentary evidence regarding the identity a young man who had been shipwrecked on the Spanish coast who was taken to the Spanish Court because he claimed he was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth of England and Robert Dudley.  He claimed his name was not Arthur Southron as it appeared on his papers, but Arthur Dudley.    Philip II accepted his story and the young man was given an allowance and a place at the Spanish Court.  In effect this Arthur was a bird in a gilded cage.

This is where the date may be significant.  1588 was the date when Philip II of Spain’s great Armada was destroyed by a combination of weather, chance and the English fleet.  We know from the papers Doherty found that the individual at the Spanish Court calling himself Arthur Dudley died in 1588.  Given the opportunity to wreak vengeance on the English queen who had, in effect, wrecked his navy, I believe Philip would have no compunction in murdering her alleged son.  We have many examples through history that demonstrate that this urge would be irresistible so perhaps this was this why the date of 1588  added later?

Is this the illegitimate son of England’s Virgin Queen and her close friend Robert Dudley?  If so, then Hilliard’s words in his draft treatise when he is talking about ‘the truth of the line‘ could take on a different meaning.

So far you will probably think, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but there is no other proof than a whole load of idle speculation!”  So I ask you to compare the portraits of this young man, Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley all done by the same artist.  Do they look alike?

by Nicholas Hilliard, watercolour on vellum, 1572
by Nicholas Hilliard, watercolour on vellum, 1572

Hilliard-AAE - Arthur perhaps

by Nicholas Hilliard, watercolour on vellum, 1576
by Nicholas Hilliard, watercolour on vellum, 1576


Granted you may consider this nothing but idle speculation, but before you discard this idea I recommend you read my post which examines some rather arcane images on the front of the proceedings of the Queens Bench where the queen is portrayed as God’s purveyor of mercy and justice.  What better place to hide visual evidence of a royal secret than in a formulaic image executed in pen and ink, where only lawyers researching previous law cases are likely to ever look – until now that is!  As to whether you buy into my theory will depend on whether you agree with Paul Doherty’s evidence (his book is a very good read and available on Amazon in hard or Kindle copy) and whether you accept the visual evidence in the Ps, as it is unlikely we will ever find a document that is the equivalent of a 16th century birth certificate telling us of a royal bastard, thus revealing The Truth of the Line. Also, ask yourself why one of the copies of this portrait originally belonged to Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Robert Dudley’s brother?

So, having read The Queen’s Image in a P, what do you think?  Leave a comment as I would be interested to hear from you.


Melanie Taylor was born in Pinner, England in 1953 and brought up on the Channel Island of Jersey. On leaving school she attended the local secretarial college. With secretarial skills learned, London beckoned and Melanie returned to England. After marriage, children and divorce, in 1999 she saw an advert for part-time degrees at Kingston University in her local newspaper and enrolled to study The History of Art, Architecture & Design, graduating in 2005. Redundancy and an inheritance gave her the luxury of being able to study full-time for her Master of Arts degree in Medieval & Tudor Studies at the University of Kent, Canterbury. Melanie now lives in Surrey and lectures in art and social history.

View all posts by

4 thoughts on “Attici Amoris Ergo

  1. I have read this amazing book The Truth of the line by Melanie V Taylor. It is a real page turner and written so well that I am now convinced that although a novel, I can see the likeness in this Hilliard portrait between Elizabeth 1 and a certain favoured courtier. I hope this goes on to be made into a film. It would be a massive success and has an original plot.

    1. Thank you Maggie. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. Hilliard is such a good looking chap – do you have any suggestions as to who may play him? Do you think our Benedict Cumberbatch could be persuaded (except he would have to wear brown contact lenses as Hilliard had brown eyes).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *