European Art

Queen Elizabeth I – Portraits of the Last Tudor

Sarah Mills 20 March 2024 min Read

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was the only surviving child of King Henry VIII of England and his second wife Anne Boleyn. Being a girl was hard enough in the face of Henry’s desperation for a male heir, but after the annulment of her father’s marriage to Boleyn and the subsequent execution of her mother, she was also declared illegitimate. After a turn of fate, she became a queen and now we know Elizabeth I from many exquisite portraits.

Young Princess

Elizabeth was neglected for many years and was brought up away from court at Hatfield House. Here, she received a reasonable education. However, it was Henry’s sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, who took it upon herself to educate the young woman. Parr did so as thoroughly as befitted a princess of the realm, to include – unusually – the art of public speaking. The portrait below of Queen Elizabeth I as a young princess shows not only a girl dressed in appropriately rich fabrics and jewels, but also a rather thoughtful, learned, and composed young lady. A young lady who is preparing for a future that she is not yet fully aware of.

Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I: William Scots (attr.), The Young Elizabeth, c. 1546-7, Royal Collection, London, UK.
William Scots (attr.), The Young Elizabeth, c. 1546-1547, Royal Collection, London, UK. Museum’s website.

Upon the death of King Henry in 1547, Elizabeth found herself living in her stepmother’s household. Despite the problematic few years still to come, during which there were three accessions to the throne – her younger half-brother Edward in 1547, Lady Jane Grey in 1553, and almost immediately after that her older half-sister Mary also in 1553 – she finally came to the throne herself in 1558, aged 25, where she remained for the next 44 years.

Long Live the Queen

The painting below, known as the Coronation Portrait, depicts Queen Elizabeth I sumptuously draped in the finest cloth of gold (previously worn by Mary I). She holds an orb to symbolize Godly power and a scepter to signify temporal power and sovereignty. Of course, she also wears the crown.

Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I: The Coronation Portrait, unknown English artist, c. 1600, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.
The Coronation Portrait, c. 1600, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Museum’s website.

Elizabeth’s rule was characterized by the cautious handling of political, foreign, and religious affairs. There was also an overall sense of fairness and tolerance. Of course, her reign was not without its problems: the events surrounding the plots of Mary Queen of Scots – the Babington Plot in particular – resulted in the trial and execution of Mary by Elizabeth (1586-7).

Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I: François Clouet, Mary Queen of Scots, c. 1558, Royal Collection, London, UK.
François Clouet, Mary Queen of Scots, c. 1558, Royal Collection, London, UK. Museum’s website.

Armada Portrait

Another key event in the reign of Elizabeth I was the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Shortly after this, the Queen delivered one of her most well-known speeches to troops at Tilbury. This increased her popularity among her people, turning her into a living legend.

Below is one of three versions of the Elizabeth I Armada Portrait, in which the Queen is unusually set in a maritime context. Two different stages of the Spanish Armada’s downfall are depicted in the background to the left and right. The Queen’s back is turned against the dark, stormy seas of the right-hand scene. Her gaze is towards the light, echoed in the many suns embroidered upon her sleeves and skirt. Her hand rests on a globe, symbolizing her strength and dominion over the seas, and a crown sits above that representing her obvious power and status as monarch. Pearls symbolize chastity and female associations with the moon. The overall picture is one of radiant female strength and infallible royal authority.

Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I: The Woburn Abbey version of the Armada Portrait, unknown English artist (formerly attributed to George Gower), 1588, Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, UK.
The Woburn Abbey version of the Armada Portrait, 1588, Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, UK. Wikimedia Common (public domain).

Religious Affairs

Elizabeth was also responsible for stabilizing and reinstating the Church of England. She removed the Pope as its head and instead became its Supreme Governor herself. She introduced a new Book of Common Prayer and ensured that an English translation of the Bible became widely available. Elizabeth also saw to it that public worship was conducted in English rather than in Latin.

One of the most important portraits of Queen Elizabeth I is the Darnley Portrait of c. 1575. It is believed that this was one of few portraits that were painted from life. The face of Elizabeth as depicted here became the template for many other representations of her afterward.

Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I: The Darnley Portrait, unknown continental artist, c. 1575, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.
The Darnley Portrait, c. 1575, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Museum’s website.

Mom, I am a Rich Man

One of the most celebrated aspects of Elizabeth’s reign was the fact that she refused to marry, even when great pressure was placed upon her, such as by her own government. As a result, the association of the “Virgin Queen” became synonymous with her success as a monarch. The result was a cult-like status in which Elizabeth was held up as a paragon of unrivaled majestic and female purity.

Below is the Ditchley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth from c. 1592. Here she is depicted bathed in light, all storms and darkness behind her, astride the world. This painting was commissioned by Sir Henry Lee, who was the Queen’s champion from 1559 to 1590. The impression is once again of absolute power and perfection. However, this time the face reveals perhaps a little of the aging that would normally be associated with a woman of 60 years. Here, Elizabeth is shown in a youthful light – her skin flawless, her bodice low cut, her stature upright and slender – yet there is a hollowness to her eyes. Perhaps it is the Netherlandish will to paint realistically that revealed this detail where other artists may have been tempted to gloss over what, by now, must have been obvious signs of aging.

Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I: Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, The Ditchley Portrait, c. 1592, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.
Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, The Ditchley Portrait, c. 1592, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Museum’s website.

A Passage of Time

The Ditchley Portrait was followed only a few years later by a painting that has only recently been authenticated (2010-11), also attributed to the school of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Below, dating from c. 1595 is an image of Elizabeth that would almost certainly have been disapproved and most likely banned.

This version of the Queen is rather more factual than idealized. That is to say, it clearly shows the process of aging in the lines advancing across her face, the forming of jowls, and the sallow discoloration of her complexion. Still, there is grace to her demeanor and that certain, bright composure that can be seen in the early portrait at the beginning of this article remains with her. During her long lifetime and exceptional reign, Elizabeth I was subject to no one. However, eventually, no matter who we are, we all become subject to the passage of time.

Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I: Queen Elizabeth I in Portraits Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I
Attributed to the studio of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Elizabeth I, c. 1595, private collection. Elizabethan Gardens of North Carolina. NC, USA. Wikimedia Common (public domain).

Get your daily dose of art

Click and follow us on Google News to stay updated all the time


European Art

Masterpiece Story: The Pineapple Picture

Known as the “pineapple picture,” this enigmatic 17th-century painting captures the royal reception of King Charles II. The British royal...

Maya M. Tola 10 June 2024

greek mythology icarus European Art

7 Things That Could Only Happen to You in Greek Mythology

Thinking your luck couldn’t get any worse? Well, brace yourself for a humorous journey into the world of Greek mythology, where even the mighty...

Ania Kaczynska 3 October 2023

Alexandre_Brun_-_View_of_the_Salon_Carré_at_the_Louvre European Art

Louvre: The World’s Most Famous Museum

Nestled in the heart of Paris on the right bank of the Seine, Musée du Louvre stands as a testament to human creativity and a shared cultural...

Maya M. Tola 14 July 2023

Cristiano Banti, Portrait of Alaide. European Art

Rediscovering the Macchiaioli: Italy’s Revolutionary Impressionists

You’ve heard of the larger-than-life Impressionists who captivated Europe and the world at large with their dazzling light and color. But what...

Natalia Iacobelli 20 June 2023