Katheryn of Berain

Katheryn of Berain, 'The Mother of Wales' (1534/5-1591)

The life of Katheryn of Berain is laden with intrigue. This wealthy heiress from Denbighshire had Tudor blood in her veins, and was a distant relative to Queen Elizabeth I.

The story of her and her many husbands has become one of the chief romances of north Wales. She had six children and over thirty grandchildren who all went on to form some of the country's richest families, earning her the title 'the Mother of Wales'.

In Katheryn's age people married for money, land and power, not love. As a wealthy heiress of royal descent, Katheryn was considered a bit of a catch! She married four times to high-profile Welshmen, and became related to the richest, most important families of north Wales.

Wealthy sitters would often have their portraits painted to flaunt their richness and social status. But in this religious time it was just as important to appear humble in front of God.

The portrait is attributed to the Dutch artist Adriaen van Cronenburgh, who often painted portraits of the Friesian nobility. His work demonstrates the sophisticated Netherlandish oil painting technique of the time.

Explore the Painting

Click on the links below to find out what Katheryn's portrait reveals about her, the fashions of the time, and the tradition of portraiture in the sixteenth century.

Background

By using a flat area of dark colour as a background, the artist has made sure that nothing detracts our attention from Katheryn. She is our main object of focus, and her luminous skin and the rich gold of her costume stand out against this plain backdrop.

Facial features

Katheryn's pale skin was seen to be a sign of nobility and delicacy – only the poor who worked in the sun all day had tanned skin. Smiling was equated with foolishness, which explains Katheryn’s solemn expression.

Head-dress

Married women traditionally covered their hair with a head-dress. These were often decorated with jewels to draw attention to the forehead, which was considered an area of beauty.

Jewellery

Jewellery was worn for personal decoration, much like today, but was also a sign of wealth, and some were tokens of loyalty and love.

Inscription

This faint inscription reads ‘Katherine Tudor of Beren’. Such inscriptions were often added after the portrait was painted, and not necessarily by the artist.

Multiple spellings of Katheryn’s name exist. She herself has spelt her name Katherin, Katryn then eventually Katheryn. This was a common peculiarity of the period. Beren (or Berain) was the name of her home in Denbighshire.

Velvet Dress

Katheryn's long black velvet dress may seem sombre to us, but in 1568 this was the latest in Spanish-style fashion. Black costumes considered formal, dignified - and very expensive, as black dye was difficult to find. Katheryn's dress is enlivened by intricate embroidery on her sleeves and ruff.

Prayer Book

Legend has it that this is a casket containing the ashes of her second husband, Richard Clough. But he was alive in 1568 when this was painted, and the pair had recently married.

It is more likely to be a prayer-book, which Katheryn holds to portray herself as a devoted Christian woman.

Chain belt

Katheryn wears a fashionable chain belt, looping it up to show us what looks like a locket at the bottom, but could be a pomander or some valued possession.

The antiquarian Thomas Pennant wrote 'I was told that in the locket... was the hair of her second and favourite husband,' while Art Historians have said that the chain around her waist symbolized her obedience as a wife.

Skull

Folklore says that Katheryn murdered her many lovers. But this skull is not one of theirs! The skull was a familiar prop in early portraiture. It is known as a memento mori device, an object symbolic of human destiny. It is an acknowledgement of the fleeting nature of life, and a statement of humility before God.

When Katheryn's second husband died abroad, she returned to Denbighshire with this portrait, where it remained for almost four hundred years. Just before the Second World War it was sold and taken to the Netherlands. From there it was sold to a collector who brought the work back to Britain. Finally, it was purchased by the Friends of National Museum Wales who presented it to the Museum in 1957.

Kathryn of Berain can be seen in the Historic Art galleries at National Museum Cardiff