Elizabeth 1 The Iron Queen – Portrait of Power and Influence


Queen Elizabeth 1 (1533 – 1603) of England was the ultimate feminist and an ‘Iron Queen’. She fashioned herself and her kingdom into a major world power by believing in the qualities of the men who surrounded her, exploiting their weaknesses and admiring their strengths. While motivating and inspiring them she also sought to circumscribe their power in clever ways.

O, for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention;
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And Monarchs to behold the swelling scene! *

The so-called Rainbow portrait of Queen Elizabeth 1 is attributed to Isaac Oliver and a great treasure in England, as well as a vision of her power and influence. Portraiture was a tool of propaganda and Elizabeth was a true master of the game. She presented herself as a magnificent emblem of virtuous statehood.

Her costume, preference for particular colours, carefully crafted jewellery and elaborate headdresses, as well as other decorative accessories are revealed in great detail. It was painted around 1600 – 1602 when the Queen was in her sixties.

Hatfield House GREATIt was known to be at Hatfield House in 1719, the country residence of the Cecil family and prior to that is believed to have been in Salisbury House, their London establishment.

The most spectacular of her bodkins in the Rainbow portrait was the crescent pinned to her headdress. She personifies the sun that brings the rainbow as a symbol of peace following a storm.

Elizabeth1 with Red Jacket & PearlsThe crescent is significant in that it is set with a ruby and diamonds and tipped with pearls. The value of the jewels were also attached to their beauty; rubies were ripe like a pomegranate, a symbol of prosperity, diamonds were for endurance while pearls meant purity.

Over the long length of her reign (1558 – 1603) William Cecil and his son Robert were her most trusted advisers and 1st Ministers. Many portraits of Elizabeth 1 were produced during her lifetime, although few were made directly from life. None were so heavily symbolic as this one.

Those portraits of her that are not overtly allegorical were full of meaning to a discerning eye of the time. Elizabethan courtiers were very familiar with the language associated with flowers and would have been able to read stories in the flowers on her gown, the images depicted on the embroidery on her clothes, and the design of her jewels and headdresses.

She was given a great deal of jewellery as a ‘love gift’, however none more acceptable to her than that from her favourite the Earl of Leicester.

In the so-called Armada portrait she wears the incredible strings of natural pearls that he gave to her in love and friendship.

Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake Queen Elizabeth 1’s privateers, or pirates, dependent on your point of view

She is wearing Chandelier earrings with a cross bar of three diamonds supporting a large lozenge shaped diamond between two hanging pearls, three ruby drops and finally a pear pearl.

As a record of facial likeness the many portraits of the Queen were rarely accurate. They were however significant evidence of the majesty of monarchy.

… but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair or I’ll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what colour it please God *

‘in blacke witha hoode and cornet’ – the Clopton Portrait of Elizabeth painted 1558 – 60

From the moment of her birth the Titian haired Elizabeth 1 changed the course of history by being a girl, not the longed for son King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) her lion-like father and her beauteous mother Anne Boleyn (b1500-1509 – 1536) the ‘most happy’ but ill-fated 2nd Queen of England, had wanted.

Her mother was beheaded on Tower Green before Elizabeth was three years old and her death set in motion a pattern of events that would have long lasting effects for her only living child.

Like most children of her time and station Elizabeth was sent away from court to be educated, in her case at first when she was three months old.


Hampden Portrait Elizabeth 1, courtesy V & A Museum, London

This is when she went on her first progress to the household of her great uncle at Hatfield House, a palace in Hertfordshire. Her first governess Lady Margaret (Muggie) Bryan would take her to see her parents on special occasions and festivals such as Christmas. She did everything to assist her charge through the dreadful downfall of her mother, but was replaced by a new governess when Elizabeth was only four years old. Kat Ashley came from Devon. She was a well educated, loving and affectionate governess. She became completely devoted to Elizabeth, who came to love Kat dearly.

She played an important role in her life as both a friend and confidante. She praised Kat’s early devotion to her studies by stating that she took “great labor and pain in bringing of me up in learning and honesty”.

Elizabeth’s love of learning enabled her to embrace new subjects with great ease and enthusiasm. Her studies included languages, grammar, theology, history, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, arithmetic, logic, literature, geometry, and music. Her religious studies were guided by Matthew Parker, who had been charged with her spiritual well being.

Elizabeth_I,_Procession_Portrait.Great attention was given to her study of languages. One of her tutor’s Roger Ascham’s most widely known and accepted educational device was double translation.

He praised her aptitude in learning languages and her amazing retentive memory. Ascham wrote that Elizabeth developed a style that “grows out of the subject; chaste because it is suitable, and beautiful because it is clear’. He also said ‘Her ears are so well practiced in discriminating all these things and her judgment is so good, that in all Greek, Latin, and English compositions there is nothing so loose on the one hand or so concise on the other which she does not immediately attend to, and either reject with disgust or receive with pleasure as the case may be.”

Elizabeth 1 of England by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder

Her daily lessons were divided into morning and afternoon. By the age of eleven Elizabeth was able to speak six languages fluently; French, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Welsh and English.

She acquired a taste for fine books and grew up with a dislike of the coquetries enacted by some of the women of her age.

Elizabeth 1 had intelligence, a strong will and strength of purpose, all of which were necessary attributes for survival in the world of political intrigues surrounding the court of her father. She acquired a disdain for low political intrigues and subsequently in life always tried to take the high ground.

Elizabeth 1 lived through heart racking years of uncertainty, many in prison or close confinement, with stepmothers coming and going. She was surrounded by masters of manipulation and learned the feminine skills of sewing, embroidery, dancing and music and the more manly arts of archery, riding and hunting.

The greatest compliment made to her by her last tutor Roger Ascham was that she had the intelligence of a man and noted that this would hold her in excellent stead in the years of her reign.


The Darnley Portrait of Elizabeth 1 of England

She came to the throne at the age of 25, offering the English people a chance for a splendid future. When she received the news she was Queen of England it is recorded that as the courtiers who came bearing the news bowed before their new queen, Elizabeth got on her knees and said in Latin, “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

During her reign a higher value would be placed on political freedom, public spiritedness and free enquiry  She embraced some Renaissance ideals;  life was no longer viewed through a vale of tears, but as a quest for enlarging man’s powers and his awareness of God.

Her most famous explorers, or privateers were really pirates attacking the Spanish treasure fleet and Spanish colonies to bring the booty home to her.

Following Elizabeth’s accession a building boom had begun and she fuelled the competition between her nobles. A keen traveler she liked to check up on her subjects at their cost and historians have suggested she did on purpose to get overambitious subjects into financial difficulties so that she could keep them in control.

The population totally adored her as each summer she set off to visit palaces built to divert and seduce her.

Her Royal progresses combined pomp, poetry, chaos and celebration with at their centre a permanent virgin ruler, with an informed, scholarly mind, who delighted in silk stockings, jewels, flattery, music and above all, dancing. Her charismatic reign would produce some of the most creative minds in English history.

She captivated at ‘centre stage’ among the glittering courtiers, fashionable foreign dignitaries, handsome sea captains,  passionate playwrights and above all her people, whom she devoted all her energies to serving. They all jostled for her favour in an age that admired the grotesque among the beautiful.

Elizabeth always trusted her Spiritual advisor, although her sister Mary hated him due to his Protestant beliefs. When Elizabeth became Queen in the November of 1558, it was widely believed she would restore the Protestant faith in England.

During her sister Queen Mary’s five year rule her persecution of Protestants had done much damage to the standing of Catholicism in England. Elizabeth adhered to the Catholic faith during her sister’s reign as a matter of survival. Mathew Parker had ensured that she had been raised a Protestant, and she was committed to that faith.

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I.Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I.Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

She saw herself as God’s vessel on earth, and would pray to determine God’s will so that he would reveal it to her, and she could implement it. She also declared that she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls”. When Elizabeth became Queen she had appointed Matthew Parker Archbishop of Canterbury.

In her age Elizabeth’s religious views were remarkably tolerant.  She believed sincerely in religious toleration, and that Catholics and Protestants were both part of the same faith. “There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith” she exclaimed later in her reign, “all else is a dispute over (man made) trifles.”

Elizabeth and her courtiers, Hatfield House

Unfortunately for Elizabeth many of her contemporaries did not share her views on toleration.

Circumstances often demanded that she had to adopt a far harsher line towards Catholics than she intended or wanted.  Her refusal to make changes to the Church she established in 1559, has led some historians to doubt her commitment to her faith but we know she prayed daily in her own private chapel.

The form of worship suited the Queen’s conservative stance. She had little sympathy with extremists of any kind, especially those who wanted to strip the Church of it’s finery, to ban choral music, the wearing of beautiful vestments and bell ringing.

She liked her Church just the way it was.

Elizabeth hoped that people would gradually become accustomed to it. Her whole stance as elevating herself to the adoration of a Virgin Queen is suggested by some historians as making herself a replacement for the Virgin Mother of Christ, Mary who many would have missed worshiping when she changed the religion to Protestanism.

Elizabeth 1 wanted her Church to be popular with her people, and for Catholicism to die out naturally as people turned to the religion she had established.

In this she was largely successful, for by 1603, the English nation as a population were generally Protestant, and Catholics were in the minority.

She would not have ever foreseen the arrival of the Puritans, Oliver Cromwell, England’s Civil War and the powers of the monarchy being circumscribed as a direct result. With the enormous upheaval that followed the break with Rome the connection between religion and art became almost lost.

While the great English tradition of embroidery continued it was entirely secular use, not re-emerging as an aspect of the original opus anglicanum until a movement for the revival of Catholic doctrine and observance in the Church of England began at Oxford University in 1833.

George II (1683 – 1760) described a bench of his bishops as a ‘parcel of black, canting, hypocritical rascals’; and there was a great deal of corruption due to a great divide between rich bishops and poor curates.

The Oxford Movement aimed at the restoration of ‘High Church principles’ and several causes contributed to its being seen as desirable. They included the decline of Church life, the spread of ‘liberalism in theology’ and the question of Anglican identity, which had suffered enormously during the eighteenth century with the lack of respect for clergymen generally.

During the nineteenth century Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin led the charge for a Gothic revival when Victoria came to the throne.

At Cambridge with a revival of liturgical knowledge a widely diffused taste for ecclesiastical design in the fabric and furniture of the church sprang up, promoted by the works of Pugin.

He provided much of the foundation for the emergence of modern Art

The Roman Catholics benefited from all of this activity following Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and religious tolerance, as formerly desired by Elizabeth 1 was re-instated. But then there was more.

It has directly led to the emergence in the 21st century of respect for all religions and cultures in our world today.

Queen Elizabeth 1 greeting Dutch Ambassadors courtesy Kasell National Museum, Germany

Queen Elizabeth 1 greeting Dutch Ambassadors courtesy Kasell National Museum, Germany

We would have to conclude that Queen Elizabeth 1 really had no peer, at least in terms of her wit, style, endurance and courage. She was a larger than life character on the world stage of her time.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-2019

* Quotes by Queen Bess’s favourite playwright William Shakespeare
1. Henry V: Prologue- Chorus, “O for a Muse of Fire…” 2. Much Ado About Nothing: Act II: ii – Benedict, “I do much wonder that one man…”

There has been controversy particularly in modern times over whether he, William Shakespeare, actually wrote the plays that bear his name. Some have suggested it was the earl of Oxford, others Sir Francis Bacon, even to the most fanciful that it was all Good Queen Bess (Elizabeth I)’s own work.

The most authoritative word on that controversy comes from Sir Laurence Olivier, the 20th century’s greatest Shakespearean interpreter who laid to rest the question of the authorship of the plays when he said, “No self respecting actor would ever have worked for the Royal Bacon Company.”

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