Significant people: Queen Elizabeth I’s powerful portrait

Learning objectives

  1. Investigate what portraits can reveal about Queen Elizabeth I.
  1. Recognise some of the different portrait elements, including expression, pose, clothes and objects, and explore the stories they tell.
  1. Compare and contrast portraits from the past and the present.

What does a queen look like?

Think about a place where you have seen a picture of a queen. It might have been in a book, on TV, in an art gallery, in a game, on a coin or somewhere else. 

Now close your eyes.  

  • What did she look like? 
  • What was she wearing? 
  • What was she doing? 
  • Where did you see her? 
  • View larger image
    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1588,    NPG 541,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I
by Unknown English artist
oil on panel, circa 1588
38 1/2 in. x 28 1/2 in. (978 mm x 724 mm)
NPG 541
© National Portrait Gallery, London

This is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. She was the queen over 400 years ago.

Look closely at the portrait.

  1. Can you see anything that’s the same as the queen you were thinking about?
  1. What can you see that’s different?

Look closer

What can this portrait tell us about Queen Elizabeth I?

Portraits can give us lots of useful clues about the lives of people from the past. But there are also some things they can’t tell us.

Look at the portrait again, for a whole minute (you might want to set a timer). Remember to look around the edges and in all four corners. What is Elizabeth showing us in this portrait and what is she hiding?

For each of these sentences, decide whether you think:

  • Yes – the portrait is showing us this about Elizabeth I because we can see …

Or

  • No – the portrait is hiding this about Elizabeth I – we can’t tell this just from looking.
  • View larger image
    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1588,    NPG 541,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist, circa 1588
    • Yes, we can tell this from the portrait.
    • Her clothes look like they are made from fine, expensive materials, like silk and lace. They are covered in gold thread and precious jewels, such as pearls, rubies and sapphires. She’s also wearing lots of pearls in her hair and around her neck.
    • No, we can’t tell this from the portrait.
    • We know that Elizabeth’s father was a very famous king (his name was King Henry VIII), but we can’t tell this just from looking at the portrait.
    • We could find out more by looking at a royal family tree from the Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). period, when Elizabeth lived.
    • Yes, we can tell this from the portrait.
    • We know from the title of the portrait that she was a queen, so she must have been important.
    • No, we can’t tell this from the portrait.
    • Queen Elizabeth I did wear wigs, but we can’t tell for sure whether she is wearing a wig in this portrait.
    • Do you think she is wearing a wig? Why might she wear a wig?
    • She is said to have owned over 80 wigs. We know this from lists of her belongings made by her servants.
    • Yes, we can tell this from the portrait.
    • Her dress looks very big, and the jewels would have made it very stiff and heavy.
    • The lace Ruff A wide stiff white collar with many folds in it, worn especially in the 1500s and 1600s. around her neck means she has to keep her head very straight. It looks quite itchy too!
    • Over 2000 dresses were found in Elizabeth’s wardrobes when she died. Some of them were so stiff with jewels, they could stand up by themselves. She wouldn’t have worn clothes like this all the time – only for special occasions.
    • No, we can’t tell this from the portrait.
    • We know that Elizabeth did love sugar, but we can’t tell this just by looking at the portrait.
    • Menus and lists from the royal kitchens have been kept for over 400 years. They tell us that she liked to eat sugary food – especially marzipan and candied violets (purple flowers covered in sugar).
    • Do you like sugar?
    • No, we can’t tell this from the portrait.
    • We know that she did have black teeth, but we can’t tell this just from looking at the portrait.
    • We know she loved sugar, which is very bad for our teeth (and there was no toothpaste in Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). times). This made her teeth go black.
    • Do you think her mouth looks like she’s hiding her teeth?
    • Do you think Queen Elizabeth I would allow artists to paint portraits showing her rotten teeth?
    • Yes, we can see this in the portrait.
    • We can see that her face looks very pale in this portrait. She looks younger than her age when this portrait was painted. (We know she was about 55 because she was born in 1533 and the portrait was painted about 1588.)
    • She also wore white make-up to hide scars that had been caused by a nasty disease called smallpox.
    • No, we can’t tell this from the portrait.
    • We know she could speak different languages, but we can’t tell this just from looking at the portrait.
    • Letters she wrote and speeches she made show she could speak as many as seven different languages including French, Spanish and Italian.
    • What languages can you speak?
    • Yes, we can tell this from the portrait.
    • Queen Elizabeth I became very powerful – and she wanted everyone to know it. She used portraits like this one to show how powerful she was.
    • In this portrait her clothes make her shoulders and arms look wide and strong.
    • Her make-up and hair make her look young and energetic.
    • She isn’t smiling. The expression on her face is stern and determined.

Why do we remember Queen Elizabeth I?

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

Things were very different in Tudor times. Many people believed women were too weak to rule the country. Elizabeth was determined to prove them wrong.

By the time she died, Queen Elizabeth I had become a rich and powerful queen.

Compare and contrast two queens

Queen Elizabeth II was queen of the United Kingdom from 1952–2022. She became queen nearly 400 years after Queen Elizabeth I.

Compare the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I with this portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and her corgi, Sparky. Both queens are about the same age (around 55–60 years old) in these portraits.

  • View larger image
    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1588,    NPG 541,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist, circa 1588
  • View larger image
    Queen Elizabeth II,    by Michael Leonard,    1985-1986,    NPG 5861,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth II, by Michael Leonard, 1985-1986
  1. What can you see that’s the same?
  1. What can you see that’s different?
  1. What words would you use to describe each queen?
  1. Would any of these words be the same?
  1. What might they say to each other if they met?
  1. What might you ask if you met them?

Explore more portraits

Here are some more portraits of Queen Elizabeth I.

  • View larger image
    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Steven van Herwijck,    1565,    NPG 4294,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Steven van Herwijck, 1565
  • View larger image
    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1600,    NPG 5175,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist, circa 1600
  • View larger image
    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. What can you see?
  1. What can you say about her just from looking at the portraits?
  1. What other questions would you like to ask about her?
    Try using these question starters:

    I wonder why …
    I wonder what …
    I wonder how …
    I wonder who …
    I wonder when …
    I wonder if …

Next steps

Queen Elizabeth I was the last of the Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). kings and queens. Can you find out who the others were? You could search the National Portrait Gallery’s online collection to find portraits of them.

You could compare Queen Elizabeth I with ordinary people from the Tudor times. Why might it be difficult to find portraits of ordinary Tudor people?

You could compare the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I with portraits of kings or queens from other powerful nations in the Tudor times, such as Queen Idia of Benin in Africa.