Queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

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    Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait'),    by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger,    circa 1592,    NPG 2561,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
The largest known painting of Queen Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor monarchs.
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)
NPG 2561
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 1 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) ruled England over 400 years ago, during the Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). period. She was queen for nearly 45 years from 1558 to 1603 and was the last of the Tudor monarchs.

The England that Elizabeth inherited from Mary I was a relatively insignificant country on the edge of Europe and on the verge of bankruptcy. Added to this, the Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). saw women as weak and inferior to men and unable to lead the country. Elizabeth was determined to prove them wrong.

This portrait was Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. by Sir Henry Lee to help him win back the queen’s forgiveness after he chose a partner she did not approve of.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait'),    by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger,    circa 1592,    NPG 2561,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait'), by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, circa 1592

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a minute. What can you see?

    • She’s wearing hundreds of pearls in her hair, around her neck and on the high collar behind her head.
    • She’s wearing an elaborate dress, covered in gold stitching and precious stones – red rubies, diamonds (that appear black in this portrait) and more pearls.
    • She’s wearing a gold necklace inlaid with even more jewels and is holding a pair of gloves and a fan (which was a symbol of wealth).
    • Her ruff (the collar around her neck) is made of fine lace, which would have been very expensive.
    • Elizabeth I is shown here towards the end of her reign, aged about 60 years old.
    • Her skin is clear and without the smallpox scars she tried to cover up with white make-up.
    • Her mouth is closed, hiding her rotten teeth.
    • She still has her famous red hair – there is no grey or white in it. (She wore wigs as she became older.)
    • She is wearing the sort of dress a younger unmarried woman may have worn.
    • Elizabeth I is standing on a globe on top of England. She is surrounded by stormy skies and sunbeams, with ships at her feet.
    • The sky in the background is turning from dark and stormy to bright and calm. This could be to show how Elizabeth had brought Tudor Britain England and Wales from 1485 to 1603, when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled.   through difficult times to a calmer and more stable period. It also shows her as forgiving of Sir Henry Lee, who Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. the portrait after he chose a partner without the queen’s blessing.
    • The three 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’.
    • Elizabeth is looking straight at us and has a grand, stern expression.
    • Her padded dress makes her shoulders and arms look broad and strong. The dress is white to emphasise her image as the ‘Virgin Queen’.
    • She’s standing on a globe that features a map of England. This perhaps suggests that she has the world at her feet and shows England as an important nation. It might even suggest that Elizabeth represents or Personify To show or think of an object or place as a person. England.
    • The coast of England is surrounded by ships. This shows England as a strong nation, protected from invasion by the sea and Elizabeth’s powerful Navy The part of a country’s armed forces that fights at sea, and the ships that it uses. . It also shows a nation that is ready to explore the world, trade with other countries and even invade and Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and send people from your own country to live there. them.
    • She is shown turning towards the sun, which is a symbol of the reigning monarch.
    • There is a rose pinned to her ruff. The red and white rose was a Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). symbol, but this pink rose is a Christian symbol of the Virgin Mary The mother of Jesus Christ and an important figure in Christianity. , connecting her to Elizabeth, who was known as the ‘Virgin Queen’.
    • There is an armillary sphere hanging from her ear. These spheres date back to ancient times. They represent the earth surrounded by heavenly circles. Here it could symbolise Elizabeth as having a divine, god-like power or as being strong and stable with the world revolving around her.
    • She is holding a folding fan. This was a high-status, fashionable object of the time. They were sometimes given to Elizabeth as special gifts by her Courtier A person who is part of the court of a king or queen. .
I will have but one mistress here, and no master.
Queen Elizabeth I

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This is the largest known painting of Queen Elizabeth I. It is about 2.5 m tall, as tall as the ceiling in an ordinary house. It was painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, the most distinguished and fashionable portrait artist of the 1590s.
  • The portrait was Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. as part of Henry Lee’s elaborate entertainment for Elizabeth in 1592 at his estate in Ditchley, near Oxford. He wanted to celebrate Elizabeth’s forgiveness after he chose to live with his young lover without the queen’s blessing, following his retirement as the Queen's Champion A role in the Royal Household which involved defending the queen at her coronation against anybody who challenged her right to the throne.  .
  • Only a few portraits of Elizabeth were painted from life (while she stood in front of the artist). Most of the artists who painted her portrait never even met her. They used a ‘pattern’ of her face as a guide.
  • This portrait is from a time when Elizabeth had great ambitions for Tudor Britain England and Wales from 1485 to 1603, when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled.   . She had already sent explorers on voyages around the world to find nations to trade with in order to make money, and lands that could be Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and send people from your own country to live there. .
  • By the time this portrait was painted, Elizabeth was nearly 60 years old, unmarried and without an Heir A person who has the legal right to receive somebody’s property, money or title when that person dies. They are often a person's child. . Her later portraits, such as this painting, present her as if she is an Immortal Someone or something that lives or lasts forever. being, the powerful ‘Virgin Queen’ who symbolises national unity – a devoted queen married only to her people, and a symbol of a stable, united and powerful nation.

Who was Queen Elizabeth I?

Queen Elizabeth I was a shrewd and charismatic queen. She transformed England into a rich, powerful nation and a key player on the world stage. Many historians describe her long reign as a ‘golden age’.

She is remembered for:

  • Ending decades of turmoil by offering a religious compromise that many of her subjects accepted.
  • Surviving threats on her right to the throne and plots to overthrow her – including by her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots.
  • Expanding Tudor Britain England and Wales from 1485 to 1603, when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled.   ’s links with the wider world through exploration and trade, including in the Americas and Africa.
  • Defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588 when it tried to invade England.
  • Choosing not to marry – she would rather rule alone than risk losing her power.
  • Proving that women could be powerful and successful leaders.

She is also remembered for laying the foundations for what would later become the British Empire The countries ruled by Britain starting in the late 1400s and peaking around 1920 when the British Empire included around a quarter of the world's population. , including:

  • Approving acts of piracy against Spain. The money stolen from Spanish ships during Francis Drake’s Circumnavigation The act of sailing all the way around something, especially all the way around the world. would have been worth billions in today’s money and was enough to pay off the national debt.
  • Supporting the first English slaving voyages by John Hawkins and Francis Drake in the 1560s, and the subsequent enslavement of African peoples.
  • Granting royal permission to Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and send people from your own country to live there. parts of North America.

Questions

  1. What do you think were some of the main challenges Elizabeth would have faced as a Tudor queen?
  1. Why do you think Queen Elizabeth I is still remembered today?
  1. Create your own portrait of Elizabeth. How would you make her look powerful? What media would you use?