Elizabeth I Page 2

Representations, allegories, and images

In this account of Elizabeth's life, the dichotomy of woman and queen has been constantly emphasized; but actually there is a trichotomy, the third facet being that of image and allegory. Elizabeth played many parts and enjoyed a range of mythical, symbolical, and metaphorical existences. This Elizabethan world of infinite contrivance is most familiar to readers of Spenser's Faerie Queene. His Elizabeth is Belphoebe and Gloriana: Belphoebe the type of virtuous and chaste beauty, Gloriana that of glorious sovereignty. Virtually every flattering female deity of classical and biblical mythology was pressed into service: from the Old Testament, the heroines, Judith and Deborah; from Greece and Rome and Renaissance Italy, Diana, Cynthia, and the Petrarchan mistress, the Platonically learned Laura. Most powerful of all these personae, replete with imperial and apocalyptic presumptions, was Virgo-Astraea, in Ovid the dying sunset of the golden age, in Virgil the promise of a golden age about to renew itself. On the magnificent engraved title-page of Christopher Saxton's Atlas (1579) Elizabeth sits as empress between the Pillars of Hercules, and in the portraits in the Armada series her hand rests on the globe.

The 1583 Sieve portrait of Elizabeth I. The Sieve representes her virginity.
The 1583 Sieve portrait of Elizabeth I. The Sieve representes her virginity.

Portraits of Elizabeth abound, the paintings grouped by art historians in a series of types or patterns. Sir Roy Strong counts eighty, together with another twenty-one group portraits in which Elizabeth appears, most famously in the so-called Procession to Blackfriars (Sherborne Castle), which has been connected to many particular and public events, such as the thanksgiving at St Paul's Cathedral for the defeat of the Armada, and to more than one wedding, although it may be simply a representation of the ageing queen on progress, carried in a litter. Strong also lists twenty-two miniature portraits, many of which were to be worn as jewelery—Elizabeth kept some of hers wrapped up. Most of these are by Hilliard (or derive from him), who is unique among Elizabethan artists in describing the circumstances in which he painted the queen from the life, chatting while he worked about the differences between his technique and that of the Italians. (Hilliard also painted a miniature of Mary, queen of Scots.) There were also any number of representations of the queen in cameos, illuminated manuscript initials (with a particularly fine example in the foundation charter of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, of 1584), engravings, and woodcuts. Strong records thirty-two engravings and twenty-three woodcuts, but there were probably more.

In 1563 it was said that ‘all sortes of subjectes and people both noble and meane’ wished to procure the queen's portrait for exhibition in their houses (Strong, Portraits, 10). Portraits were also required for diplomatic use, especially at the time of marriage negotiations, but in 1567 Sussex told the regent of the Low Countries, Margaret of Parma, that ‘the picture commonly made to be solde did nothing resemble’ his mistress (ibid., 25). This sheds light on a draft proclamation of 1563 which attempted to establish, one supposes with limited success, a process for vetting and licensing images of the queen which would serve as patterns for the numerous copies which the public demanded.

Whereas most portraits of Mary, queen of Scots, are instantly recognizable, few of the many representations of Elizabeth can be described as likenesses. The exception to prove the rule is the fetching portrait of the teenage Elizabeth (Windsor Castle). However, as soon as Elizabeth became queen, many portraitists abandoned all naturalistic aspirations. Strong remarks: ‘the whole structure of her face is inconsistent’—together with the colour of eyes and hair (Strong, Portraits, 17). A person has been transformed into an icon, an image of cosmic power and divinity, an object of worship, and, it has been said, less kindly, a clothes horse, since the great portraits are as much descriptive accounts of costume and jewellery as of the woman wearing them. The question of how many of the images derive from sessions in which the queen actually sat for her portraits is not known, although it is known that she was reluctant to sit, an aspect perhaps of her somewhat inverted vanity.

The coronation portrait (NPG) is accurate in its detail, including the loose flowing hair always worn by queens for the occasion, and it stands in a tradition which goes back to the coronation portrait of Richard II (Westminster Abbey). The formal and severe Barrington Park head-and-shoulders portraits of about 1563 may reflect the aftermath of Elizabeth's brush with death months earlier. In the Pelican–Phoenix portraits of the 1570s, which bear the mark of Hilliard, there is more emblematic and heraldic symbolism, the phoenix jewel of some versions representing self-renewal, the pelican in others mystical motherhood. The Darnley portrait of the same period (NPG) is one of the finest and, in terms of continental taste, most modish, although the identity of the artist is unknown. Strong suspects that Elizabeth did not sit for an official likeness again until about 1588, and the Armada portrait. If so, this would mean that the Sieve portraits, stuffed as they are with programmatic emblems and devices, were adaptations of earlier portraits. The best of these is by Quinten Metsys the younger and was discovered in 1895, rolled up in an attic in Siena, where it still hangs.

About 1588 an industry sprang up producing copies of a portrait in celebration of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the original of which was probably the work of the sergeant-painter, George Gower; ten copies are listed by Strong. The climax of Elizabethan portraiture was reached about 1592, in the full-length Ditchley portrait (NPG) by Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, so-called because of its association with a royal visit to the house of Elizabeth's champion, Sir Henry Lee, in Oxfordshire. There is no doubt that the queen's feet rest on Oxfordshire, as depicted in Saxton's map. An accompanying sonnet deciphers the codes of the picture: the sun, surpassed in radiance by Elizabeth; thunder, an image of divine power; the boundless ocean into which pour ‘rivers of thankes’. It is important to note that Lee, not the queen or any official department of royal propaganda, commissioned this portrait. Strong suggests that in the Ditchley portrait Gheeraerts ventured a realistic representation of the features of the ageing queen. If so, this ran counter to a late trend towards what has been called deliberate rejuvenation, well represented in the highly idealized and emblematically obscure Rainbow portrait (Hatfield House), which dates from the very last years. This is consistent with much literary evidence, with the tragicomedy of the Essex–Elizabeth relationship, and with the observations of the foreign observers, de Maisse and Hentzner, that while complaining of old age, Elizabeth did everything she could to disguise it.

The verdict of posterity: historiography, biography, fiction, cinema, and television

Several late Elizabethan observers reported that the English were tired of the reign of a woman and longed for a king. Experience of the rule of four successive Stuart monarchs overtook that prejudice and turned a legendary, not to say mythical, Elizabeth into a standard of staunchly protestant rectitude and militant patriotism, a stick with which to beat her successors and, ultimately, a whig queen. At the height of the exclusion crisis of 1679–81, a broadside proclaimed:
A Tudor! A Tudor! We've had Stuarts enough,
None ever reign'd like old Bess in her ruff.
(J. Miller, Popery and Politics in England, 1660–1688, 1973, 74)
The myth of Elizabeth the protestant heroine was not created by the queen's earliest historians, either because they were cool in their protestantism, or because they understood the role of the ‘politic’ historian, on the Tacitean model, to be a dispassionate one. John Clapham, whose ‘Certain observations concerning the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth’ was written very soon after her death but never published, has very little to say about religion, beyond the same kind of denunciation of the puritans that is found in Camden. As Burghley's sometime servant, Clapham's book was as much a eulogy for his old master as for Elizabeth. This was one of several more or less abortive attempts to write the history of the reign. Bacon wrote no more than a couple of pages, and Sir John Hayward, whose historical interest was in alterations in government (such as the Norman conquest), covered only the first four years in his ‘Annals of Queen Elizabeth’, which also remained unpublished and which conformed to the politique historiographical model.


Camden's Annales (1615, 1627; English translations 1625, 1629, 1630), more properly the result of his collaboration with Cotton, was an officially authorized and altogether more ambitious work, deeply researched and regarded as practically definitive for centuries. It owed its character to the circumstances of its gestation: first Burghley's commission, which opened the archives to Camden, and then the concern of James I that his mother should receive a better press than she was likely to receive from the great Jacques-Auguste de Thou, who had been over-reliant on George Buchanan's history of Scotland. Either because of his concern to placate James (a motive he denied), or because that was where his sympathies lay, Camden proved to be another loyal Cecilian (and Tacitean), who vilified Leicester together with his puritan friends, ‘protestantes effervescentes’ (Collinson, ‘One of us?’, 156). He gave Mary a very fair press, with a longer and more appreciative obit than he accorded Elizabeth. It was Camden's translators, and especially Norton, who provided as it were fancy wrapping for this sober text and so helped to promote the myth of Good Queen Bess. To discover what Camden intended, as well as several interesting corrections and amendments for a second edition which never materialized, it is necessary to refer to the scholarly edition by the tory non-juror Thomas Hearne, Guilielmi Camdeni Annales (1717).

The eighteenth century qualified without demolishing the whig construction of Elizabeth. David Hume's History of England (1759) was for long the standard account of its subject. For all that he professed tory principles, Hume credited Elizabeth with vigour, constancy, magnanimity, penetration, vigilance, prudence. This was not very different from the version of Elizabeth found in the whig historians par excellence, Henry Hallam and Thomas Babington Macaulay (especially in his ‘Burleigh’ essay of 1832). For Macaulay, Elizabeth was more than a great woman. The whiggish, Victorian anatomy of her greatness lay in her identification with the nation and its destiny, her seemingly absolute power in reality dependent on the love and confidence of her subjects. This perception came to full fruition in the twentieth century in the work of A. F. Pollard and of his pupil, J. E. Neale. An altogether subtler variant on whiggish panegyrics is to be found in the great History of England by the Roman Catholic priest John Lingard (1819–30). As late as the mid-twentieth century, a good Catholic historian of the sixteenth century was held (by Neale) to be virtually an oxymoron, but Lingard has been called the English Ranke, the first historian to insist on the independence of history from both politics and literature, and he was a pioneer in basing his history scrupulously on the best, and often manuscript, sources. His research was at its deepest in his account of the Tudors. Here again is found an Elizabeth whose government was characterized by profound wisdom, although Lingard anticipated Froude in wondering how far it was her government, her wisdom. The hidden agenda lurking behind Lingard's scholarly impartiality was to disguise the normal prejudices of Catholic historiography in a book ‘which Protestants will read’ (E. Jones, The English Nation: the Great Myth, 1998, 175).

It was left to one of the great Victorians, the thoroughly protestant Froude, to burst the Elizabethan bubble, anticipating much twentieth-century revisionism. He created the modern study of the Tudors in his twelve volumes on the History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1856–70). He began with conventional admiration for what Alfred, Lord Tennyson, called ‘the spacious times of great Elizabeth’ (‘A dream of fair women’, l.7), but long before the end he had fallen out with the queen. He loathed her feminine tortuousness and artifice, to the extent that he came to share what he thought to be the privately held opinion of her privy councillors that ‘she had no ability at all worth calling by the name’ (Rowse, ‘Queen Elizabeth’, 638). Froude attributed all the achievements of the reign to Burghley, whose policies Elizabeth had done all she could to frustrate, starve, and mutilate. His Victorian vision of the Tudor age was a vision of emergent greatness, especially on the high seas, but it was a greatness achieved despite Elizabeth.

Towards the end of the century Mandell Creighton, for all his tut-tutting about Elizabeth's dubious morals, achieved a more just and balanced appreciation; which was odd, since he once wrote: ‘as for the Tudors, they are awful: I really do not think that anyone ought to read the history of the sixteenth century’ (L. Creighton, Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, 2 vols., 1904, 1.288). He reversed Froude's harsh judgement:
Elizabeth's imperishable claim to greatness lies in her instinctive sympathy with her people … There are many things in Elizabeth which we could have wished otherwise; but she saw what England might become, and nursed it into the knowledge of its power. (Creighton, 197, 199)
Creighton's respect is implied in the sumptuousness of his first edition, a leather-bound folio, embossed in gold. His account was spare and exacting in its scholarship, compared with the 790 pages of Agnes Strickland's fourth volume of her Lives of the Queens of England (1851), which was fulsome and marred by uncritical dependence on the Italian Gregorio Leti's Historia o vero vita di Elizabetta, regina d'Inghilterra (1692). Leti invented some of his sources and made things up. Elizabethan historiography in the Rankeian mould came to its dry-as-dust conclusion in Edward P. Cheyney's A History of England from the Defeat of the Armada to the Death of Elizabeth (1914–26), continuing and completing Froude's story. The biographical element in Cheyney is reduced to the barest minimum, with no observations on Elizabeth's character or achievements.

When in 1754 Thomas Birch published his Memoirs of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth from the Year 1581 till her Death, mainly based on the Bacon manuscripts in Lambeth Palace Library, he was critical of Camden, but suggested that the last thing that anyone wanted was a new history of Elizabeth:
To relate over again the same series of transactions diversified only in the method and style, and with the addition of a few particular incidents, would be no very agreeable undertaking to the historian, and certainly of little use to the Reader. (Birch, 1.1–2)
Yet since 1890 there have been little short of a hundred books on Elizabeth of a broadly biographical character, not to speak of substantial histories of the period, like Wallace MacCaffrey's trilogy (1968–92), replacing Froude, and of aspects of the reign, such as Neale's two volumes on Elizabeth I and her Parliaments (1953–7), where the queen is given star billing, with all of her speeches quoted in full.

Most biographies have served a short-term purpose and can be mercifully forgotten. Neale's Queen Elizabeth (1934) has yet to be bettered, although it is to be regretted that his desire to reach a wide audience meant that there are no references. He continued, indeed brought to an apotheosis, the laudatory tradition which has been persistent ever since the seventeenth century, as did A. L. Rowse in his The England of Elizabeth (1950), dedicated ‘To the glorious memory of Elizabeth queen of England’, and in his many other writings. In writing about the Sealion operation of 1940, which he compared to the Armada campaign, Rowse had coined the phrase ‘the new Elizabethans’. The image contributed to the upsurge of interest in Elizabeth I at the accession of Elizabeth II in 1952, and the phrase itself provided the title for Philip Gibbs's book The New Elizabethans, published in the new queen's coronation year, which made direct comparisons between past and present achievements. Thus Drake's circumnavigation provided a model for the conquest of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, and for the test flights of Neville Duke. Gibbs looked back to Elizabeth I's reign as ‘our flowering time of genius, high adventure, and national spirit’, though he was less upbeat about British imperialism, which had begun under the first Elizabeth but seemed unlikely to outlast her namesake (Gibbs, 13). In the later twentieth century, a reactive revisionism began to gather strength: in Carolly Erickson's competent and spirited The First Elizabeth (1983), in a debunking collection of essays edited by J. M. Walker, called Dissing Elizabeth: Negative Representations of Gloriana (1998), and in another edited by Susan Doran and Thomas Freeman, called The Myth of Elizabeth (2003). The subject of Elizabeth has also been enthusiastically gendered, where, among much dross, Helen Hackett's Virgin Mother, Maiden Queen (1995) and A. N. McLaren's Political Culture in the Reign of Elizabeth I (1999) shine forth.

There have been many fictions woven around Elizabeth's historical character but only one Elizabethan novel has achieved immortality, Sir Walter Scott's Kenilworth (1821). The novel is suffused with evocations of the period and many more Victorian readers will have learned a kind of Elizabethan history from Scott than from Strickland, Froude, or Creighton. However, although the book was widely researched, using available printed sources, Scott took artistic licence, played fast and loose with chronology. He conflated events, and invented some purely fictitious characters. Kenilworth is superficially about Elizabethan magnificence, but fundamentally about the falseness and venality that Scott discerned beneath the surface. Some passages, especially the account of the tragedy at Cumnor, read like a Gothic novel.

In the hills to the north of Los Angeles, towards Ventura, where the Hopalong Cassidy westerns were shot, there is an annual Renaissance Fayre which attracts tens of thousands of visitors. Among other attractions, an actress convincingly recreates Elizabeth, complete with tall red wig, conducted around the fairground by her courtiers attired in heavy furs, despite the scorching heat. This scene reflects not so much the historical Elizabeth as the Elizabeth of the screen, or rather the many Elizabeths, who have included Sarah Bernhardt, in a film of 1912, Lady Diana Cooper (1923), and Flora Robson cast against Laurence Olivier as Drake in Alexander Korda's Fire over England (1937). The Korda film was political, in the anti-fascist context of its time, and Robson's declamation of the Tilbury speech was so effective that it was recycled in wartime propaganda films. The film was denounced by Neale and F. J. C. Hearnshaw as ‘second-rate melodrama’ and grossly inaccurate, although these academic critics admired Robson's performance (Chapman, 17). In The Sea Hawk, a pro-British American film of 1940, Robson appeared as Elizabeth again, co-starring with Errol Flynn as a swashbuckling Elizabethan sea captain. Flynn was less at ease in perhaps the most famous of all Elizabethan films, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), in which Bette Davis played Elizabeth, a role she repeated in The Virgin Queen (1955). In 1953 Young Bess, based on the Margaret Irwin novel, had Stewart Granger and his wife Jean Simmons re-enacting the scandalous Seymour story: a curious piece with which to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II. What all these films were about was the tension, even conflict, between Elizabeth I's private femininity and sexuality and her public, royal role, represented especially by her entrapment in the false little world of the court. How could Elizabeth resist Errol Flynn? Somehow or other she had to. Davis's Elizabeth complains: ‘to be a queen is to be less than human’.

Glenda Jackson created the modern portrayal of Elizabeth in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), in which Vanessa Redgrave played Mary, and then in the much-admired television series Elizabeth R (1971). In the 1980s and 1990s, any pretence of historical accuracy was gleefully abandoned in the TV series Blackadder and deliciously parodied in Shakespeare in Love (1998), for which Judi Dench won an Oscar for a few brief minutes on screen as Elizabeth. In the same year Shekhar Kapur won critical acclaim with his radically postmodernist Elizabeth, played by Cate Blanchett. As for the historians of the period, Elizabeth left them lost for words. It was as if the known facts of the reign, plus many hitherto unknown, were shaken up like pieces of a jigsaw and scattered on the table at random. However, with David Starkey's television series on Elizabeth, released in tandem with a two-part biography (2000), comes a return to what is perhaps more dubious: a set of images on the screen which can easily be mistaken for reality.

Achievement and legacy

As the country braced itself to commemorate the fourth centenary of Elizabeth's death in 2003, her posthumous fame was never greater, Gloriana never so glorious. She was for ever on the television screens, thanks only in part to Starkey's skills as publicist and communicator. Publishers were commissioning any plausible author in sight to contribute yet another biography to the heap which already exists, confident that they would not lose their investment. It is not all that easy to explain why this should have been so. Asked why Elizabeth was great, the viewers of those programmes and the readers of those books would probably refer to her charm and affability. People would also have in mind great things that happened in Elizabeth's reign, as always, the defeat of the Armada, as ever, Shakespeare.

At the same time, professional historians have in many cases ceased to be dazzled. Paradoxically, this is one of those phases in Elizabeth's posthumous reputation when her personal stock has fallen in value. This is not because her political skills are unappreciated. On the contrary, an enriched sense of the texture of Elizabethan politics enjoyed by this generation of Elizabethan historians has if anything enhanced admiration of those skills. It is true that her instinctive reluctance to take decisive and creative action has never been so emphasized. Not even Froude called Elizabeth a do-nothing queen, which his successors have dared to do, but some biographers have decided that often it was the wisest course to do nothing, or to put off until tomorrow what need not be done today. Elizabeth has been praised not as the great achiever but as the consummate survivor, although others would say that that was not something that she could ever guarantee, and that throughout her long reign she gambled with the lives and fortunes of her subjects, above all through failing to make arrangements for their future government. However, a wave of revisionism in recent studies of the English revolution and civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century has meant that Elizabeth is no longer held culpably responsible for those in many ways calamitous events, which it is now fashionable to account for by short-term and contingent circumstances and happenings.

What has diminished Elizabeth's personal monarchy in the perception of the most recent and most academically minded of her historians is a growing realization of the limited extent to which it was in fact personal. The Elizabethan political culture was a complex organism, ceaselessly interactive at and between the many levels of society. That ancient formulation ‘self-government at the king's command’ proves to be a very true summary of how things were managed in England in the later sixteenth century. Elizabeth's subjects were also citizens of a commonwealth, ultra-conscious in the unstable and dangerous conditions of the time, the second phase of the Reformation, an age of religious wars and assassinations, that they were as much responsible for the safety of the state as their unmarried and heirless monarch. Elizabethan England was a monarchical republic; which is not to say that Sir Thomas Smith was wrong when he wrote in De republica Anglorum (1583) that his sovereign was far more absolute than any doge of Venice.

Patrick Collinson

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