Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book

Subscribe

The Tudors were great Latin-lovers - Harry Mount

Blog | By Harry Mount | Apr 28, 2020

Edward VI Copyright Philip Mould and Company

The exhibition, Love's Labour's Found, at the Philip Mould gallery in London has some wonderful Tudor portraits on show.

Above is a portrait of Edward VI. There’s also a charming picture of William Arundell in the show by George Gower.

Both pictures, like so many Tudor paintings, have Latin inscriptions.

The Edward VI has, written around the frame, these words:

EDWARDI SEXTI ANGLIE, FRNCIE ET HIBERNICE REGIS VERA EFFIGIES EO PRIMU TEMPORE QUO REGIA CORONA EST INSIGNITUS AETATIS SUE 10 ANO 1547

Gratifyingly, there are a few mistakes there - notably primu, which should be primo. But the meaning is still clear: 'A true effigy of Edward VI, King of England, France and Ireland at the first moment the royal crown was placed upon him, at the age of 10, in 1547.'

The Latin – harder to read – on the Arundell portrait says, 'Non spirat qui non aspirat' – 'He who doesn't aspire doesn't breathe.' Arundell's motto is a nice play on the Cicero line, 'Dum spiro spero' "While I breathe, I hope".

Up in the top left corner, the Latin reads, 'Ano Dni 1580, atatis sua 20' – meaning, 'In the year of God 1580, at the age of 20.' Again, there's another mistake there - it should be 'aetatis'.

In a funny way, those mistakes actually show how familiar with Latin the Tudors were. Just like people making spelling mistakes in English today, because they don't bother to check a familiar language, these Tudor painters were familiar enough with Latin to write it badly rather than checking with a scholarly figure before they wrote their words.

Tudor monarchs, too, were keen on Latin. Amazingly, Elizabeth I’s Latin handwriting survives. She was extremely good at the subject, translating the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and correcting her brother Edward’s (as in Edward VI) Latin exercises.

Mirabile dictu!