Elizabeth I & Her People

Past exhibition archive
10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014

Elizabeth I & Her People explored the remarkable reign of Elizabeth I through the lives and portraiture of her subjects.

The reign of Elizabeth I from 1558-1603 was a time of extraordinary enterprise. New opportunities for creativity and wealth creation in this period saw the beginning of the rise of the so-called ‘middling sort’ or middle classes.

The changes that took place at this time dramatically shaped the future of England and Wales.  The Church of England was securely established and over time much of the country embraced the Protestant faith. The known world was expanding through maritime exploration and trade, cities grew in size and population and the economy flourished and purpose built theatres opened to the public.

This exhibition explored the story of the Elizabethans from the Queen, the nobility and gentry to many other talented individuals such as explorers, soldiers, merchants, artists and writers.


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Elizabethan England

Elizabeth I reigned for over forty-four years in relative peace and prosperity. The widespread publication of the Bible in English encouraged literacy, the economy flourished and cities expanded.  Immigration by foreign artisans and merchants also helped to stimulate competition. All these changes contributed to the rise of men and women with talent and ingenuity and created new opportunities for social mobility.

However, throughout this period there were significant challenges in foreign policy. The country faced the threat of invasion from the Spanish in both 1588 and 1591, while long term unrest in Ireland culminated in a nine-year war at the end of Elizabeth’s reign. 


Encountering the Queen

Although few of her subjects would have met the Queen personally, many would have known her likeness from the newly minted coins first circulated in 1561. The painted portraits of Elizabeth I in this section were originally owned and displayed by a range of different patrons. Some were owned by members of the nobility and gentry; others were originally on display in universities and town halls and together they provide an insight into the ways different audiences would have encountered the Queen.

Elizabeth I rarely sat for her likeness and most surviving portraits derive from templates that were circulated between artist’s workshops. Many portraits were commissioned and financed by the Queen’s courtiers. From the mid-1570s onwards portraits of the Queen became more complex and increasingly used emblems and symbols to emphasis her unique virtues such as purity, virginity, charity or wisdom.


The Nobility, Gentry and the Court

The Elizabethan nobility derived their power and wealth from the significant ownership of land and hereditary titles. Noble titles such as ‘Duke’ or ‘Earl’ were granted by the monarch and were passed down the male line of families over many centuries. The nobility demonstrated their rank and fortune by building country houses, displaying their coats of arms and by commissioning luxury goods, tomb monuments and portraits. They also had representation in parliament, in the House of Lords.

The gentry owned land but did not have hereditary titles, and some of them would have served in parliament in the House of Commons. Increasingly, in the Elizabethan period entry into the ranks of the gentry became more fluid and was associated with a leisured lifestyle, rather than income from ownership of land. Those who succeeded at the Elizabethan court came mainly from the nobility and gentry, but they also included men from a variety of backgrounds, such as the talented explorers Francis Drake and Sir Walter Ralegh, both sons of Devon farming families.


Merchants and Traders

The economic stability of the Elizabethan period encouraged new opportunities for enterprising merchants. Imports of luxury goods such as wine, spices, sugar and cloth grew rapidly and many London businesses responded to the opening of new trade routes in the East Indies and the Middle East. The creation of the first stock exchange in London – where local and foreign traders could meet – was financed by the energetic and talented merchant Sir Thomas Gresham, who also arranged financial loans to the crown.

Many of those whose fortunes flourished – from butchers to theatre owners – began to commission their own portraits. In being portrayed they were often concerned to appear to their peers and associates as sober, dependable honest and pious. Consequently, several are depicted with skulls to emphasise their humility and interest in Christian salvation, over and above worldly gain.


Professionals, Writers and Artists

The professions of law, medicine and religion flourished in new ways in the Elizabethan period. As urban populations grew, so the need for lawyers and physicians increased. In the Church of England and in Wales clergymen were allowed to marry, which over time meant that family dynasties of clerical families developed.

As the demand for printed books expanded, the publishing industry grew by about a third in this period. Many people of the newly emerging middle class would have owned a number of books, particularly a copy of the Bible, prayer books and other factual books such as an illustrated herbal. Portraits of this group show serious minded individuals often with inscriptions designed to present a particular message or narrative.


Working People and the Poor

The vast majority of the population in England and Wales were working people, but few images of such men and women were ever produced.  Average life expectancy at this period was around forty, and years of bad harvests caused widespread hardship and famine, particularly in the 1590s. However, charity was an essential Christian duty and many who could afford to do so, gave to the poor.

Among those living in towns, some of the better off were skilled artisans such as carpenters, masons and tailors. Far less visible in history are the labouring poor who worked the land, washed clothes, or served in the army or navy. There were harsh penalties for vagrancy, and refusal to work for lawful wages could result in harsh physical punishment.


In Focus films

Elizabethan Buildings – Middle Temple Hall


Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses


Sir Walter Ralegh


Queen Elizabeth I (The Ditchley portrait)


Queen Elizabeth I (The Darnley Portrait)


The Elizabethan Bookshelf



Modern counterparts of Elizabethan professionals discuss their occupations in this set of blogs.