Elizabeth I is probably one of the most recognised monarchs of English history.
Her early life was full of uncertainties, and her chances of succeeding to the throne seemed very slight once her half-brother Edward was born in 1537. She was then third in line behind her Roman Catholic half-sister, Princess Mary. Roman Catholics, indeed, always considered Elizabeth illegitimate and she only narrowly escaped execution in the wake of a failed rebellion against Queen Mary in 1554.
As a result of her lengthy reign she became very conscious of her image, only the best portraits would be approved that reflected her regal status.
Here are some of the most famous portraits that were produced during her 45 year reign.
The Coronation Portrait – Elizabeth’s coronation took place at Westminster Abbey on the 15th January 1559. The portrait is known to be a copy of the original which was lost. She has long flowing hair which was traditional for a crowning of a Queen at that time. The cloth of gold depicts both the Tudor rose and the fleur-de-lis which was a reference to the English claim to French soil.
Her face is pale which denotes a person of high birth and her highline is unnaturally high. It was custom for women of rank to pluck their hairline to make their faces appear longer and thinner. As she aged she would exaggerate these features in an effort to appear more youthful. She suffered from smallpox before she reached the age of thirty, which left her scarred and half bald, and resulted in her dependancy on wigs and heavy cosmetics for the remainder of her life.
The Hampden Portrait – This full-body portrait is unique in its allusions to Elizabeth becoming a mother and wife, with the foliage, fruit, and flowers to the right symbolising her fertility and readiness for marriage. The work was likely painted when Elizabeth was made to address the issue of marriage during the early stages of her reign.
In her right hand she holds a red carnation, a reference to the Virgin Mary, affirming her as not just Queen but also the governor of the Church of England. On her shoulder is the red rose a symbol of the Tudor Dynasty’s descent from the House of Lancaster. Another important symbol is the celestial sphere hanging at the end of a string of pearls from her waist. It is believed to refer to the harmony her wisdom brought to the kingdom.
This portrait shows her in that short lived period before what was a recognisable human, and the beginning of her transformation into a goddess.
The Darnley Portrait – It was almost certainly painted from life, and the resulting pattern of her face “The Mask of Youth” was to be repeated in portraits through the rest of her reign. It shows the Queen looking haughty, cold and imperious. The jewel hanging from the Queen’s waist shows a large red ruby surrounded by Roman gods. Minerva, Jupiter, Venus, Cupid and Mars. Elizabeth was highly educated and it is possible the jewel refers to her classical learning.
The Pelican Portrait – Named after the pelican jewel at her breast which represents self sacrifice. A female pelican was known to draw blood from its own breast to feed its young. It symbolises her role as mother to the nation. At her right ear are two cherries which is probably a reference to her virginity and that her cherry remained intact.
The Phoenix Portrait – Another jewel portrait showing the phoenix at her breast. A mythical bird symbolizing rebirth and chastity, so referring to her unmarried status. The phoenix became associated with her in the 1570’s as an emblem of virginity, uniqueness and as reassurance that she would be able regenerate the dynasty. She is shown holding a red rose which was a symbol of the House of Tudor
The Ermine Portrait – The ermine is an animal which is associated with royalty, its is shown here with a gold crown around its neck. The crown itself represents purity and majesty. She also wears the ‘Three Brothers’ jewel at her breast which was a massive pyramid shaped diamond, surrounded by three square cut rubies and three round pearls. It was one of her most treasured pieces.
The Sword of State rests on the table beside her symbolising justice, and in her right hand she holds an olive branch representing peace.
The Armada Portrait – The image of Elizabeth in the Armada portrait is no doubt the most recognised. It details imagery that affirms her authority and the defeat of her enemy, the Spanish in 1588. To the right of the portrait is a carved figure of a mermaid, they would tempt sailors and ruin them so the inclusion of one shows her might against the Spanish seamen.
Her hand rests upon the globe, striving for imperial power in the Americas, and pointing to Virginia which was named after her. She faces the calm waters on her right, and has her back to the stormy waters behind her showing the destruction of the Spanish ships. She is postioned as a calming force for good, in contrast to the chaos of Catholic Europe.
The Ditchley Portrait – Produced for Sir Henry Lee who had been the Queen’s champion until 1590. He had lost favour with her for living openly with his mistress Anne Vavasour. In 1592 he organised a lavish entertainment for Elizabeth I at his estate in Ditchley in Oxfordshire. She stands on a globe with her feet positioned on England.
The Rainbow Portrait – One of the last paintings of the Queen which hangs in Hatfield House, Hertfordshire. It is one of the most symbolic portraits of her. Her bodice is emblazoned with wild flowers representing her as Astraea, an ancient Greek heroine. Her cloak is covered in eyes and ears, indicating that she sees and hears everything, whcih was no doubt due to her ring of spymasters that reported their intelligence to her. The pearls give reference to her virginity, and the cresent shaped jewel above her crown refers to the moon goddess, Cynthia.
The serpent on her sleeve symbolises wisdom and in her right hand is the rainbow with a latin inscription above it ‘non sine sole iris’ – ‘no rainbow without the sun’. It is a symbol of peace, emphasising that there can only be peace with the Queen’s wisdom.
She would have been in her late sixties when this was painted, yet she still appears ageless and beautiful.
Nearing the end of her reign, this is one portrait that shows the Queen looking aged, tired and unhappy. Her flaws have been no longer covered up. A series of deaths amongst her friends plunged her into a severe depression, and by early 1603 she fell sick and remained in a “settled and unremovable melancholy”, and sat motionless on a cushion for hours on end.
When her senior advisor Robert Cecil told her that she must go to bed, she snapped: “Must is not a word to use to princes, little man.” She died on 24 March 1603.