Tudor portraits: Queen Elizabeth I’s power

Learning objectives

  1. Look closely at portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and decide what they tell us about her.
  1. Explore how she used pose, clothing, jewellery and other objects to show herself as a powerful leader.
  1. Decide how successful her portraits are in showing her as a strong and powerful leader.

Queen Elizabeth I wanted to look powerful in her portraits. When she became queen in 1558, people talked about her. They said that her government had run out of money, which was true. They also said women were weak and not as important as men, which is not true.

Some people said she had no right to be queen, and that she would not be a powerful leader. Elizabeth tried to use her portraits to show those people they were wrong.

Elizabeth needed her portraits to show everyone that she was a strong and powerful queen.

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    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Nicholas Hilliard,    circa 1575,    NPG 190,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I
by Nicholas Hilliard
oil on panel, circa 1575
31 in. x 24 in. (787 mm x 610 mm)
NPG 190
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 2 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery
  1. Look at this portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. How well do you think it is doing at showing Queen Elizabeth I as a strong and powerful queen?
  1. Give the portrait a score out of ten.

    Ten out of ten means the portrait is doing well at making Elizabeth look strong and powerful. Zero out of ten means you think this portrait makes Elizabeth look weak and feeble.

    Write your score down.

A powerful pose?

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    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Nicholas Hilliard,    circa 1575,    NPG 190,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Nicholas Hilliard, circa 1575

Look again at the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I and copy her Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. .

  • Try to make your back straight, like hers.
  • Hold your arms and fingers in the same position.
  • Keep your chin up and copy the expression on her face.
  1. How does this pose make you feel? Do you feel powerful?

A rich ruler

Queen Elizabeth I also used her portraits to show off how rich she was. Look at the portrait below. What expensive things can you see in this painting? Explore the portrait to find out more.

  1. Do you think this portrait could change people’s minds about Tudor Britain’s money problems? How?

Crowning a queen

Elizabeth wanted to remind everyone that she was from the Tudor royal family. Her father, brother and sister had also ruled the country.

This portrait celebrates her coronation, the day she became queen. What can you see that makes her look like royalty?

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    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1600,    NPG 5175,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist, circa 1600
    • She is wearing a crown, like the kings and queens before her did. 
    • The crown shows that she has the right to be queen.
    • She is holding a ball with a cross on top. This is a royal object called an orb. 
    • It represents the Christian religion. It shows us she is a Christian, and believed God gave her the power to be queen.
    • The gold stick she is holding is called a sceptre. 
    • This is also a royal object that tells us she has a right to rule as queen.
    • Her gold robes make her look rich as well as royal. 
    • The white and black fur on her cloak is from an animal called an ermine (which is another name for a stoat). 
    • Ermine fur was only worn by very important people, like the royal family. 
    • White ermine fur was a symbol of purity.
    • Can you see the rose pattern on her cloak? A rose was the famous symbol of the Tudor family. 
    • The rose is repeated all over her cloak making another powerful statement of her right to rule like her father, brother and sister.
  1. Do you think this portrait could persuade people she should be queen?

Being an independent woman

Queen Elizabeth I was known as ‘the Virgin Queen’. She didn’t get married or have children. She spent her life looking after her country instead. She didn’t need a husband to help her rule the country and share her powers. She kept her royal powers for herself.

Elizabeth wanted her portraits to remind people that she was good and pure – the Virgin Queen. All these things are symbols of purity:

  • The colours black and white
  • The moon
  • Pearls (which are round white gems and look like tiny moons).
  1. Hunt for pearls in these portraits of Queen Elizabeth I. Look out for black and white too, and shapes or patterns that remind you of the moon.
  1. Why did Elizabeth have lots of pearls in her portraits?

A strong leader

How is Elizabeth showing us that she is a strong leader in this portrait?

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    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
    • Elizabeth is standing on a globe, showing a map of Tudor Britain England and Wales from 1485 to 1603, when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled.  
    • This could be to show that she is the ruler of Tudor Britain, or that England is an important nation in the world.
    • The weather in the portrait is dramatic. The weather on the right side is very different to the weather on the left.
    • Imagine if you could hear the weather in this portrait. What would it sound like? Try it out, make some noise. 
    • The cloudy side could be a reminder of the stormy day in 1588 when Elizabeth’s Navy The part of a country’s armed forces that fights at sea, and the ships that it uses. won a battle against the king of Spain’s ships.
    • The storm is behind her. Elizabeth is facing towards the calm and sunny weather.

Some historians think that Elizabeth might have tried to make herself look like a man in her portraits as a way of showing she was equal to a king.

Compare the portrait of Elizabeth with the portrait of Robert Dudley. They were painted at around the same time. Robert Dudley was a wealthy man. The queen knew him well, as he was one of her closest friends and Advisor A person who gives advice, especially somebody who knows a lot about a particular subject. .

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    Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester,    by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist,    circa 1575,    NPG 447,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, circa 1575
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    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown continental artist,    circa 1575,    NPG 2082,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown continental artist, circa 1575
  1. Look at their clothes and poses. How are they the same?
  1. How are their clothes and poses different?
  1. We can’t know for sure whether Elizabeth was copying Robert Dudley or whether it was the other way around. Who do you think was copying who? Or do you think it was a bit of both ...?

Look again

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    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Nicholas Hilliard,    circa 1575,    NPG 190,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Nicholas Hilliard, circa 1575

At the beginning of this resource, you scored this portrait out of ten for how well it showed Elizabeth as a strong and powerful queen.

Think about all the things you have found out by looking at other portraits of Elizabeth. Reflect on what Elizabeth was saying about herself with those portraits.

Think about her Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. , clothes, colours, symbols and objects.

Look again at this portrait from top to bottom. Take a minute to look (use a timer). Notice Elizabeth’s pose and clothes. Hunt for colours, symbols and objects.

  1. Are you going to change the score? Why or why not?

Connections around the world

Queen Elizabeth I wanted to make her country richer and more powerful by trading with other countries.

Look at her portraits again. What has she included to show that connecting with other countries around the world was important to her? Look out for maps, globes, ships and objects that might have come from other countries – like feathers and jewels.

Compare and contrast

This Queen Elizabeth I doll was made hundreds of years after Elizabeth died. Compare it to the portrait of her.

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    Queen Elizabeth I,    manufactured by Mattel Inc,    2004,    NPG D48092,    Art Fund Popular Portraits Collection. Photo: © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, manufactured by Mattel Inc, 2004
  • 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
  1. Do you think the designer of the doll was inspired by this painting? Why?
  1. Imagine if Elizabeth saw the doll. Do you think she would be pleased? Why or why not?
  1. What changes do you think she might ask the doll designer to make?

Activity: could you do a better job?

  1. If you gave the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I a score of 9 or less, draw your own portrait of Elizabeth that shows her as a strong and powerful queen.

    If you gave the portrait a score of 10 out of 10, choose another famous person. Draw a portrait of them that makes them look as strong and powerful as Elizabeth.

    Think about pose, facial expression, clothes and background as well as all the symbols you want the portrait to include.
  1. Write down your ideas next to the portrait, explaining the things you have included to make your portrait strong and powerful.