Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait')

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Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait')

by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
oil on canvas, circa 1592
95 in. x 60 in. (2413 mm x 1524 mm)
Bequeathed by Harold Lee-Dillon, 17th Viscount Dillon, 1932
Primary Collection
NPG 2561

On display in Room 1 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

  • Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Reigned 1558-1603. Sitter associated with 138 portraits.

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

Known as the 'Ditchley Portrait', this painting was produced for Sir Henry Lee who had been the Queen's Champion from 1559-90. It probably commemorates an elaborate symbolic entertainment which Lee organised for the Queen in September 1592, and which may have been held in the grounds of Lee's house at Ditchley, near Oxford, or at the nearby palace at Woodstock.. After his retirement in 1590 Lee lived at Ditchley with his mistress Anne Vavasour. The entertainment marked the Queen's forgiveness of Lee for becoming a 'stranger lady's thrall'. The portrait shows Elizabeth standing on the globe of the world, with her feet on Oxfordshire. The stormy sky, the clouds parting to reveal sunshine, and the inscriptions on the painting, make it plain that the portrait's symbolic theme is forgiveness. The three fragmentary Latin inscriptions can be interpreted as: (left) 'She gives and does not expect'; (right) 'She can but does not take revenge', and (bottom right) 'In giving back she increases (?)'. The sonnet (right), perhaps composed by Lee, though fragmentary, can mostly be reconstructed. Its subject is the sun, symbol of the monarch.

Related worksback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • I-Spy National Portrait Gallery, 2010, p. 9
  • Tudor Portraits Resource Pack, p. 23
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Lost faces : identity and discovery in Tudor Royal portraiture, 2007 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from Catalogue of an exhbition held at Philip Mould, London, 6-18 March 2007), p. 96 number 60
  • Audio Guide
  • Bolland, Charlotte, The Tudors Passion, Power and Politics, 2022, p. 125
  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 156 Read entry

    In 1592, Sir Henry Lee staged an elaborate pageant for Elizabeth I at his house at Ditchley in Oxfordshire and at the nearby palace at Woodstock. This was intended as a celebration of the queen's forgiveness of Lee for choosing to live with his mistress Anne Vavasour after his retirement as Queen's Champion. Elizabeth's motto was Semper eadem ('Always the same'), but, as she aged, her imagery, in both written and painted form, became ever more elaborate; poets hymned her praise as Gloriana and Astraea, and painters created images of an iconic 'Virgin Queen'. This famous portrait was probably created for the pageant at Ditchley. Its symbolic theme is forgiveness as Elizabeth stands on the globe, signalling her divinely sanctioned right to rule as she banishes the stormy darkness. Her positioning suggests that she personifies England, and her likeness shows a blending of fantasy and realism: she wears the youthful clothing of an unmarried woman but, instead of simply replicating existing portrait types that ignored any suggestion of Elizabeth's mortality, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger has sensitively created an image that acknowledges the passage of time. The sonnet on the right may have been composed by Lee and refers to Elizabeth as the 'prince of light'; it may have been read aloud as part of the entertainment. The ships that surround the coastline provide both a line of defence and a means of engaging with exploration and trade with the world beyond England's borders.

  • Bolland, Charlotte; Cooper, Tarnya, The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered, 2014 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12th September 2014 to 1st March 2015), p. 157
  • Cannadine, Sir David (Introduction); Cooper, Tarnya; Stewart, Louise; MacGibbon, Rab; Cox, Paul; Peltz, Lucy; Moorhouse, Paul; Broadley, Rosie; Jascot-Gill, Sabina, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, 2018 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA, 7 October 2018 -3 February 2019. Bendigo Art Gallery, Australia, 16 March - 14 July 2019.), pp. 84-85, 102 Read entry

    The only surviving child of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth was twenty-five years old when she inherited the throne from her half-sister Mary. As an unmarried woman, Elizabeth was without peer amongst the rulers of Europe and, although the question of succession was ever present, she created a model of rule that skilfully offset the presentation of her femininity with assertions of the power of her rule.

    The artificiality of Elizabeth’s staged court appearances and her portraiture come together in this late portrait, which was probably commissioned as part of a lavish entertainment staged by Sir Henry Lee at his house in Ditchley, near Oxford, in 1592. Lee had retired from the role of Queen’s Champion in 1590. A cartouche halfway down on the right-hand side contains a sonnet on the theme of the sun, the symbol of the monarch, which refers to the queen as the ‘prince of light’. Elizabeth is shown standing on a map, her feet placed on Oxfordshire, and turning away from stormy skies, a feature that may demonstrate her forgiveness of Lee, who had fallen from favour after choosing to live with his mistress following his retirement.

  • Charles Nicholl, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 7
  • Clare Gittings, The National Portrait Gallery Book of Elizabeth I, 2006, p. 25
  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 11 Read entry

    The so-called ‘Ditchley’ portrait, named after the house where it long resided. The Virgin Queen is portrayed in all her glory, displaying both heavenly and earthly power.

  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 23
  • Cooper, John, Great Britons: The Great Debate, 2002, p. 35 Read entry

    This portrait was commissioned by Sir Henry Lee to mark a visit by Elizabeth I to his house at Ditchley, in Oxfordshire. It was the centrepiece of a pageant in which Sir Henry expressed his remorse and regret at having slighted the Queen by going to live at Ditchley with his mistress, Anne Vavasour. The painting expresses both the cosmic splendour and earthly power of Elizabeth, and the particular gratitude - the sonnet refers to 'rivers of thanks' - Lee owes to the Queen for her anticipated forgiveness of him. The personal bond between female monarch and male subordinates, and the monarch's controlling role, are vividly demonstrated. There is little better evidence for how courtiers saw the Queen, or more realisticaly for the image of her they thought it politic to subscribe to. The ageing vrigin still has a youthful figure and emphasises in her dress the mystic, bridal union with her country. She controls the pattern of the heavens, towering over her country and the globe: a pictorial assertion of her divine right to rule which is as effective as any of the wordy arguments of her successor James I.

  • Edited by Rab MacGibbon and Tanya Bentley, Icons and Identities, 2021, p. 15
  • Gittings, Clare, The National Portrait Gallery Book of The Tudors, 2006, p. 28
  • Hayes, John T., The portrait in British art: masterpieces bought with the help of the National Art Collections Fund, 1991, p. 13 number 2
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 23 Read entry

    The ‘Ditchley Portrait’, depicts the mighty queen, her power both earthly and cosmic, dominating England. More personally, in Latin tags and the sonnet on the right, Sir Henry Lee expresses both admiration and gratitude at her forgiveness of him for living at Ditchley, Oxfordshire with his mistress, when his first allegiance in love, according to the manners of the court, was to the fair Eliza.

  • MacLeod, Catharine, Tudor Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 23
  • Nicholl, Charles, Insights: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 2005, p. 4
  • Piper, David, The English Face, 1992, p. 40
  • Redford, Bruce, John Singer Sargent and the art of allusion, 2016, p. 194
  • Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 11
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 47
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 47 Read entry

    This immense and highly ornate image of the Queen floating over a map of England, with thunderclouds behind her and bright sun in front, is thought to have been commissioned by one of her courtiers, Sir Henry Lee, in honour of her visit to his country house, Ditchley Park north of Oxford, in September 1592. It provides the most extreme idea of her as the incarnation of supreme majesty, with pinched waist and puffed sleeves and a dress festooned with jewels. But although the trappings suggest a complete lack of realism, her face has some elements of her appearance in late middle age, with wrinkled skin and hooked nose. The spirit of this portrait echoes Sir John Harrington when he wrote of the Queen, 'When she smiled, it was a pure sun-shine, that every one did chuse to bask in, if they could; but anon came a storm from a sudden gathering of clouds, and the thunder fell in wondrous manner on all alike'.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 200
  • Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, p. 104
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 46
  • Walker, Richard, Miniatures: 300 Years of the English Miniature, 1998, p. 7
  • Williamson, David, Kings and Queens, 2010, p. 103
  • Williamson, David, The National Portrait Gallery: History of the Kings and Queens of England, 1998, p. 102

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

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Events of 1592back to top

Current affairs

Queen Elizabeth I's favourite, Sir Walter Ralegh, is imprisoned in the Tower after an affair with her lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Throckmorton. They are married on his release.
A fleet under Sir John Burgh and George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland captures the Portuguese ship Madre de Dios (Mother of God). Its cargo of spices, silks, and jewels is perhaps the largest single haul of Elizabethan privateering.

Art and science

The 'Ditchley Portrait' of Queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger is painted for the royal favourite Sir Henry Lee at about this time.
William Shakespeare writes Richard III at about his time.
The cartographer Emery Molyneux and mathematician Edward Wright produce the first globes (terrestrial and celestial) to be made in England. Foundation of Trinity College, Dublin.


The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II recognises Sigismund III as King of Poland.
The Japanese ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi leads an invasion of Korea. The offensive is repelled by a combined Korean and Chinese force.

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