First Published: 23 July 2016
Revised (substantive): 7 March 2017
An introductory note for the In Brief biography which follows:
Margaret Cavendish casts Elizabeth I as a powerful warrior-queen and shrewd politician (“though she cloathed her self in a Sheeps skin, yet she had a Lions paw, and a Foxes head”).
Her “Foxes head” was on display at her proclamation of accession in 1558, when Elizabeth adopted as her royal style (the ceremonial designation of a sovereign used at the beginning of official documents): by the grace of God Queen of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc.
This was in contrast to her father, Henry VIII, who adopted (by a statute of 1544) the style of: King of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, and of the Church of England and also of Ireland on earth the supreme head. This styling was an overt challenge to Catholics, and Elizabeth deliberately chose more diplomatic language to describe herself and her dominions, replacing Henry’s confrontational “on earth the supreme head” with the more ambiguous “et cetera.”
a She-philosopher.com In Brief biography
Elizabeth I (1533–1603),
Queen of England and Ireland (1558–1603)
Of Queen Elizabeth.
“ Queen Elizabeth reigned long and happy; and though she cloathed her self in a Sheeps skin, yet she had a Lions paw, and a Foxes head; she strokes the Cheeks of her Subjects with Flattery, whilst she picks their Purses; and though she seemed loth, yet she never failed to crush to death those that disturbed her waies. Her Favourites for Sport, she would be various to, sometimes in Favour, and sometimes out of Favour, as Essex, Leicester, Ralegh, Hatton, and the like: But she stuck close to her old Counsellors and Favourites, Burleigh, Walsingham, and the rest. Neither did the first Favourites get so much as the last, Ralegh got not so much as Burleigh did; some may say, because they spent more, they laid up less; but vain Favourites get more Enemies to themselves, and Hatred to their Princes, than Profit to themselves; for the sight of their Vanities makes the People remember their Taxes, and think that their Prince hath poled from their Purses to maintain their Vanities; and their Prince thinks they have given them more, because they shew what they have, and many times more than they have: But the Wisest save, and lay it up, till the Envy is past, and the Tax forgot. But Queen Elizabeth maintained more forein Wars at one time, than any of her Predecessors before her, and yet without the Grievance of the People; for it was not so much out of their Purses, as the Prizes she got by Sea; for though the King of Spain had the Honour of being Master of the Indies, yet the Queen of England had the Honour of being Mistris of the Sea; so her Ships were her Mines, to maintain her War against him.
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SOURCE: Cavendish, Margaret. The Worlds Olio. Written by the Right Honorable, the Lady Margaret Newcastle. London: Printed for J. Martin and J. Allestrye at the Bell in St. Pauls Church-Yard, 1655. 126.
^ Elizabeth I, Queen of England (print published circa 1st decade of the 17th century). Portrait engraving by William Rogers (fl. 1584–1604), after a drawing by Isaac Oliver. Published by the map- and printsellers John Sudbury (d. 1620) and George Humble (d. 1640), at their shop known as the White Horse, in Pope’s Head Alley, opposite the Royal Exchange.
This three-quarter length portrait is from a later state of a plate by Rogers that in its original state was a full-length of Queen Elizabeth. A. M. Hind dates the full-length original to “about 1595-1600.” (A. M. Hind, A History of Engraving and Etching, 136)
This Sudbury & Humble print shows the Virgin Queen in full royal regalia — holding sceptre and orb, bejeweled in a triple chain of pearls — all recognizable icons of Elizabethan power and rule.
And just in case the viewer does not hold a monarch so represented in sufficient awe, a 2-part, 3-line gloss is added at the bottom of the print:
[on the left] Th’ admired Empresse through the worlde applauded / For supreme Virtues rarest Imitation: / Whose Scepters rule fames lowde-voyc’d trumpet lawdeth.
[on the right] Unto the eares of every forraigne Nation / Cannopey’d under powerfull Angells winges / To her Immortall praise sweete Science singes.
Portraits of Elizabeth I made during her lifetime deliberately repudiated her body and any likeness of feature, in order to transcend her humanness and construct a divine royal figure of mythic proportions, as in this Sudbury & Humble print. Elizabeth carefully choreographed every detail of her public presentation (e.g., in 1564, receiving ambassadors such as Sir James Melville in the palace’s Privy-garden, the queen having by then decided that an open garden light was most favorable to her beauty), and let it be known that she wished to be represented to her people as the beau ideal of a “Virgin Queen,” both by poets and painters. To that end, she issued a proclamation in 1563 that none but “a special cunninge paynter” would be permitted to draw her likeness, and she ordered that all pictures of her by unskilful painters be burned. (James Dallaway, Anecdotes of Painting in England by Horace Walpole, 3 vols., 1862, 1.150n1-151)
Modern critics have noted that the portraits of Elizabeth make no use of illusionist techniques (e.g., perspective or shadow) — not because Elizabeth wished to downplay her “high-nosed” features by being presented full-face in an open garden light, without shadows (as earlier commentators such as Horace Walpole would have it), but because Elizabeth sought to avoid resemblance altogether and move beyond ordinary representations of what the eye might actually see. According to the Belseys, the iconic royal portraits of Queen Elizabeth I are a record
not of her subjectivity but of her authority, wealth and greatness, the qualities that require absolute obedience. These pictures do not represent an image, not even an ideal image, of her body, since the available repertoire of likenesses of the human body offers no obvious image for a woman who is also a ruler in a patriarchal society. The portraits of the Queen subdue her sexuality in order to proclaim her power, and in the process they place her outside the realm of nature. In these images Elizabeth escapes the constraints of time and space [e.g., in paintings such as George Gower’s Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I (c.1588), separate episodes in the history of the Armada are pictured in the background, “immediately behind an oblivious Queen”]; she represents a superhuman transcendence; and finally she takes the place of God.
(Andrew Belsey & Catherine Belsey, “Icons of Divinity,” 32–3 and 17)
In her portraits, Tudor costume (designed to overwhelm and compel audiences with its magnificence) thus supplants Tudor character. As Walpole explained:
It is observable that her majesty thought enormity of dress a royal prerogative, for on the 12th of February 1579, an order was made in the Star-chamber, “that no person should use or wear excessive long cloaks (this might proceed from apprehension of their concealing arms under them) as of late be used, and before two years past hath not been used in this realm; no persons to wear such great ruffes about their necks; to be left off such monstrous undecent attyring.” Also another against wearing any sword rapier, that shall pass the length of one yard and half a quarter in the blade, nor dagger above twelve inches in the blade at most. In her father’s time, who dictated in every thing from religion to fashions, an act of parliament was passed in his twenty-fourth year against inordinate use of apparel, directing that no one should wear on his apparel any cloth of gold, silver or tinsel, satyn, silk, or cloth mixed with gold or silver, any sables, velvet, furrs, embroidery, velvet in gowns or outermost garments, EXCEPT PERSONS OF DISTINCTION, dukes, marquisses, earls, barons and knights of the order, barons’ sons, knights or such that may dispend 250l. per ann[um]. This act was renewed in the second of Elizabeth. Edward VI. carried this restraint still farther: In heads of a bill drawn up with his own hand 1551, (though it never passed into a law) no one who had less than 100l. a year for life, or gentlemen, the king’s sworn servants, was to wear satten, damask, ostrich feathers, or furs of conies; none not worth 200l. or 20l. in living certain, to wear chamblet [i.e., camlet]: no serving man, under the degree of a gentleman, to wear any fur, save lamb; nor cloth above ten shillings the yard.
(Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England, 4 vols., 2nd edn., 1765-80, 1.139n–140)
Of note, it was not always thus. Circa 1551, while her brother Edward VI (1537–1553; r. 1547–1553) was on the throne, then-Princess Elizabeth “affected a severely plain style of dress, setting the fashion for other high-born protestant maidens” such as Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554), another Protestant claimant to the English throne (A. Plowden, ODNB entry for Lady Jane Grey, n. pag.). This early fashion statement — in stark contrast to the glorious style of dress Elizabeth would adopt once she became queen — also telegraphed religiopolitical symbolism, since Elizabeth’s Roman Catholic sister, Princess Mary (1516–1558; later Mary I, r. 1553–1558), favored the embellishments of royalty and popery. When “presented with a rich gown of tinsel cloth of gold on velvet” by Princess Mary in 1551, Lady Jane Grey “refused to wear it, saying that ‘it were a shame to follow my Lady Mary against God’s word and leave my Lady Elizabeth which followeth God’s word’” (qtd. in A. Plowden, ODNB entry for Lady Jane Grey, n. pag.).
The aura of absolute power conveyed by Elizabeth’s distinctive brand, as depicted in popular prints like the above, was never the whole story. No matter how effective Elizabethan visual rhetoric was at masking the vulnerabilities of an unmarried and heirless, aging female monarch ruling a factious commonwealth in “an age of religious wars and assassinations,” Elizabeth I could not escape reality.
The chorus of admiring approval for Gloriana and the Virgin Queen has often obscured the serious problem posed by Elizabeth’s sex. It was not only Knox [i.e., the Scottish reformer John Knox, author of First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women (1558)] who believed a female ruler to be, if not an unnatural monstrosity, an unusual and in principle undesirable exception to the regular rule governing human affairs. Apart from any other considerations, it was not clear that a woman could exercise the oldest function of a monarch, leading her forces into battle. Nor could she, in any station or walk of life, ordinarily exercise the kind of authority associated with the mental powers of a man. Women, especially widows, might manage households, but they were excluded from all public offices. Privileged women might learn languages, but they could not study the law. On one occasion Cecil was upset when a messenger discussed with the queen an ambassadorial dispatch, it ‘being too much for a woman’s knowledge’ .... Elizabeth was regularly visited with unsolicited male advice, often represented as the will of God, which on Pauline principles only men were authorized to interpret.
(Patrick Collinson, ODNB entry for Elizabeth I, n. pag.)
Despite the success of targeted court messaging, Elizabeth I struggled continually with the gender bias undermining her royal authority. The most glorious dress in the realm could not pattern over the contradictions of a gender-plural Virgin Queen combining “the bodie, but of a weak and feeble woman” with “the heart and Stomach of a King, and of a King of England too.” (Queen Elizabeth I, Speech rallying the English troops at Tilbury Camp, Essex, on 9 August 1588, prior to the defeat of the Spanish Armada; as transcribed in Cabala, Mysteries of State, in Letters of the Great Ministers of K. James and K. Charles, 1st edn., 1653/4, 260)
^ Elizabeth I (1533–1603), queen of England and Ireland (r. 1558–1603), circa the end of her reign. Damaged Elizabethan coin fragment in Horace Walpole’s possession (“purchased from the Cabinet of the late Earl of Oxford”).
Walpole’s self-published editio princeps of A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, with Lists of their Works (Strawberry Hill, 1758) included the first reproduction of this sensational image of a “horridly old and deformed” Queen Elizabeth — a suppressed likeness of the aging queen, about whom the earl of Essex contemptuously reported “That She grew old and cankered, and that her mind was become as crooked as her carcase!”
Walpole considered Elizabeth’s life-long obsession with her lighting (here anticipating many a modern movie star and diva who also knew the importance of presenting the right profile to the lights & camera) and her public image as immutable glorious sovereign, coupled with her need for flattery and homage (“a proper degree of awe and adoration”) from courtiers, a “weakness” in such a “great” and “illustrious Woman.”
To introduce “so singular a curiosity” — his revisionist portrait of the mythologized queen — Walpole wrote: “How did She torture Melville to make him prefer her beauty to his charming Queen’s! Elizabeth’s foible about her person was so well known, that when She was sixty-seven, Veriken the Dutch Embassador told her at his audience, ‘That he had longed to undertake that voyage to see her Majesty, who for beauty and wisdom excelled all other princes of the world.’ The next year Lord Essex’s Sister, Lady Rich, interceding for him, tells her Majesty, ‘Early did I hope this morning to have had mine eyes blessed with your Majesty’s beauty.-----That her brother’s life, his love, his service to her beauties did not deserve so hard a punishment.-----That he would be disabled from ever serving again his sacred Goddess! whose excellent beauties and perfections ought to feel more compassion.’ Whenever the weather would permit, She gave audience in the garden; her lines were strong, and in open day-light the shades had less force. Vertue the engraver had a pocket-book of Isaac Oliver, in which the latter had made a memorandum that the Queen would not let him give any shade to her features, telling him, ‘That shade was an accident, and not naturally existing in a face.’ Her portraits are generally without any shadow. I have in my possession another strongly presumptive proof of this weakness: It is a fragment of one of her last broad pieces, representing her horridly old and deformed: An entire coin with this image is not known: It is universally supposed that the die was broken by her command, and that some workman of the mint cut out this morsel, which contains barely the face.” (Horace Walpole, A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, 2 vols., 1st edn., 1758, 1.123–126)
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