Tudor portraits: Queen Elizabeth I, power and symbolism

Learning objectives

  1. Analyse portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and investigate how she constructed her image as a powerful leader.
  1. Explore how Elizabeth used her image to convince others of her strength and ability to rule.
  1. Apply your knowledge of Tudor politics and society to portraits to help understand their meaning.

From the moment she took the throne in 1558, Queen Elizabeth I’s power was at risk. She had entered a political world dominated by men. Much of society thought women were weak and inferior to men. People questioned Elizabeth’s right to rule Tudor Britain England and Wales from 1485 to 1603, when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled.   , and her ability to do it well – because she was a woman.

Elizabeth had other challenges too, including:

  • little money – she inherited a country whose government had huge debts
  • little international status – the king of Spain already controlled land on three continents.

One of Elizabeth’s leadership strategies was to build an image for herself that tackled these challenges. She used her public image to defy people’s expectations. We can examine how she set about transforming how people saw her through her portraits.

The portrait of Queen Elizabeth l wearing a black dress was painted at the start of her reign. The full-length portrait of her in a white dress was painted near the end. What are your first impressions?

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    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1560,    NPG 4449,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist, circa 1560
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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
  1. Which portrait seems more powerful? Why do you think so?
  1. What might have changed since the first portrait was made?

Looking rich

Queen Elizabeth I used portraits to appear wealthy. This was nothing new, her family had been doing this for years. Compare the portrait of Elizabeth to the portrait of her stepmother, Katherine Parr (painted when Elizabeth was a teenager). How do they both display their wealth?

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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
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    Katherine Parr,    attributed to Master John,    circa 1545,    NPG 4451,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Katherine Parr, attributed to Master John, circa 1545
  1. What materials are they wearing and holding? In what amounts?
  1. What are they surrounded by? List what you notice.

Putting meaning into portraits

Queen Elizabeth I controlled her image carefully, and her portraits were filled with meanings and messages. Almost everything in Elizabeth’s portraits can be read as a symbol to reveal these messages. Some of the things Elizabeth communicated through her portraits are clear to us, 450 years later. Such as her crown, a symbol of royalty.

Some of the meanings in her portraits are not so obvious to us today. Look at these two portraits, one commemorating her Coronation A ceremony at which a crown is formally placed on the head of a new king or queen to mark them becoming king or queen. , the other marking her victory against the Spanish Armada A large group of armed Spanish ships sailing together. They were sent to attack England in 1588. . Explore them to find out more about how she communicated her power and status in different ways.

How did Queen Elizabeth I tackle problems through portraiture?

  1. Draw a table with three columns. At the top of each column, write one of the problems Elizabeth needed to tackle when she became queen. For example:

    - Female ruler seen as weak and incapable by some

    - Seen as poor, weak economy

    - Tiny empire, no global status
  1. Note down or think about the symbols you have seen in the portraits of Elizabeth. Which problem does each symbol address?

    Sort them into your table. Most symbols could go in more than one column. Decide for yourself which heading you think they fit with best.

Analysing ‘The Ditchley 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
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

When this portrait was painted, Queen Elizabeth I had reigned for more than 30 years. It was commissioned by one of her Courtier A person who is part of the court of a king or queen. and it is filled with symbolism.

  • What symbols are included that you have seen before? What do they mean?
  • What new symbols can you find? Look at her appearance, objects, clothes. What could they be communicating about her?
  • What does the portrait say about Elizabeth’s reign? Look at what she is surrounded by and what she is standing on.
  1. Make a quick drawing of the portrait, or save the image to your device, and annotate it.

Look closer at the symbols in ‘The Ditchley 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
    • Elizabeth’s dress is covered with pearls, rubies and diamonds set in gold. 
    • They symbolise her wealth and global connections. The pearls also represent her virginity.
    • We have seen Elizabeth holding an orb before, which could represent the globe. Now she is standing right on top of the globe. 
    • This might refer to her ambition to gain global power. Her Navy The part of a country’s armed forces that fights at sea, and the ships that it uses. had defeated the Spanish Armada A large group of armed Spanish ships sailing together. They were sent to attack England in 1588. a few years before this portrait was made.
    • Elizabeth had also supported explorers and traders’ voyages to Asia and Africa. This included enslavement of African people. She also granted 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 America. 
    • These were considered global achievements at the time, although they led to devastating consequences for generations of Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. peoples.
    • Elizabeth’s feet are on a map of England, her country. 
    • Elizabethan maps were usually decorated with ships, which have been included in this portrait. They may be a reminder of Elizabeth’s power at sea.
    • A storm rages behind Elizabeth, but she has turned her back to it and is facing the sunshine. 
    • This may represent her ability to bring her country to a calm, peaceful, bright future. 
    • It may also be to represent the idea that her power can control forces of nature like the weather, literally bringing the sunshine.
    • The roses pinned to her Ruff A wide stiff white collar with many folds in it, worn especially in the 1500s and 1600s. may symbolise her family, the Tudors. 
    • Roses also symbolise the Virgin Mary The mother of Jesus Christ and an important figure in Christianity.
    • Elizabeth saw herself as a mother to her people, so like Mary, she was both a virgin and a mother.
    • Elizabeth wears a white dress and cloak, embellished with black and red. 
    • Red represents her royalty. Black and white represent her eternal virginity, and her lifetime commitment to her country. 
    • The strongest message is her virginity, because, now in her 50s, she was unlikely to marry and have children.
    • Elizabeth’s Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. , along with her layers of large, structured clothes make her look big, imposing and strong.

How was Queen Elizabeth I able to create her image?

Many people did the work needed for Elizabeth to create her image, but their identities have not been preserved. We often know little about their lives. We are left to make our best guesses using the evidence we have from the portraits. It is important to remember that these people existed, although their stories have not always been recorded.

Explore this portrait and consider the people who contributed to Elizabeth’s powerful image.

Your conclusions

  1. In your opinion, how successful was Queen Elizabeth I at using portraits to project an image of power and strong female identity?

Next steps

Who contributed to Elizabeth’s image?

Find out more about the people whose work, knowledge and skills helped to create Elizabeth’s image of a rich and powerful leader. Discover what portraits can revel about Tudor Britain England and Wales from 1485 to 1603, when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled.   's growing connections to the wider world, and some of the important stories hidden behind their creation. 

Elizabeth I and gender

We have looked at how Queen Elizabeth I built an image of herself as a powerful woman. Artist Daniel Lismore argues that Elizabeth’s image is gender non-binary, neither all female nor all male. Watch this two-minute video of Daniel discussing his ideas. To what extent do you agree or disagree? You may want to compare portraits of Elizabeth to portraits of other Elizabethan and Tudor people to help you decide.