This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine



At work

The actor’s wife flaunts her wealth

This painting of 22-year-old Joan Alleyn, the wife of actor Edward Alleyn and step-daughter of theatre-owner Philip Henslowe, provides artistic evidence of the growing wealth of the Elizabethan middle classes.

In 1596, as Joan posed for her portrait, England’s economy was flourishing and, as a result, merchants and traders of all sorts were finding opportunities to expand their businesses and improve their lifestyles. They soon began commissioning portraits – not only of themselves but also of their wives, who were often critical to their success, doing the accounts and other administrative tasks.

Joan’s portrait probably hung in the couple’s house as evidence of their rising status. She is shown here wearing typically middle-class clothes, including a tall black hat (possibly of felt or velvet) and embroidered gloves.

The uniform of the working poor

This extraordinary outfit, worn by a sailor or fisherman in the late 16th or early 17th century, provides a rare link to the world of the working poor. These are the people who served in the army or the navy, swept the streets, washed clothes, or carried water – the kind of men and women of whom no portraits or images exist.

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This loose-fitting outfit has been heavily worn, is spotted with tar and has been regularly patched. The full breeches would have allowed for ease of movement climbing up and down rigging. The garment owes its survival to generations of painters who kept it in a dressing-up box.

A skilled surgeon instructs his class

Painted in 1581, this image shows a doctor, John Banister, delivering an anatomy lecture for students at Surgeon’s Hall, London.

Changes in society, such as increased education and literacy, had a considerable impact on working life for the ‘middling sort’. Working people, such as lawyers, clergymen and doctors, cultivated a new sense of their own importance, and some chose to be depicted in portraits that highlight their skills.

This portrait reveals how the thirst for knowledge was slowly starting to play a part in the development of education, and is a subject matter more frequently found in portraiture of the 17th century.

Well-known figures such as Shakespeare and Sir Walter Ralegh are usually credited with the great achievements of the Elizabethan age. Yet many less celebrated men and women contributed to both economic prosperity and advances in knowledge.


At play

All of society descends on Bermondsey

A Fete at Bermondsey, a superbly detailed painting from the 16th century, depicts a village celebration on the banks of the river Thames. Probably painted by Joris Hoefnagel in c1569/70, it seems to intentionally encompass all of Elizabethan society – and, in doing so, provides a rare insight into the lives of Elizabethans outside the confines of the court.

Below are two details from the painting: an elegant nobleman in a long pale cloak (left) and a pair of musicians dressed in red (right) possibly with the artist alongside. They are joined in the painting by cooks and serving men, women busy at work, merchants, servants in livery, labourers in the distant sawmill, children at play and a man in stocks.

Elizabethans were very aware of social divisions in society, and the writer Thomas Smith stated in his 1583 book De Republica Anglorum that: “We in England divide our men commonly into foure sortes of gentlemen, citizen or burgesses, yeomen, artificers and labourers”. Nearly all of the people Smith lists can be seen in Joris Hoefnagel’s fete scene.

A country gent in his well-tended fields

This amusing and charming portrait of a local Norfolk landowner called John Symonds, dating to c1595–1600, shows him on horseback with a hawk perched on his arm. In the background we can see his well-tended fields, but the proportions between the figure and his horse seem to be at odds, which indicates that the artist was most likely a local painter.

As can be seen from the details of the Bermondsey fete picture, pleasure and recreation in Elizabethan towns and villages often centred on community events such as market days, fairs, festivals, weddings, or civic entertainments. In the countryside, however, while much of the population worked as manual labourers on the land, the country gentry would find opportunities for exercise and recreation in countryside sports, such as hunting and hawking.

How a shopaholic spent her money

Fashioned from silver, gilt thread and glass beads, this rather strange purse in the shape of a small frog is very much a product of the rapid growth in the luxury goods market during the Elizabethan period. Made in the early 17th century, it was designed to complement a fashionable woman’s outfit, and would have been used to carry small items such as coins, pins, needles and thread.

During Elizabeth’s reign, the wealthy found that they had more scope for spending on sumptuous luxury goods and accessories than ever before, with the first ‘shopping mall’ opening in London in 1568 as part of the Royal Exchange. Opportunities for entertainment also increased, and in London natives and visitors alike could choose from the regular performances of plays at the newly opened permanent public theatres (with tickets starting at a single penny) to more brutal diversions such as cock fighting or bear baiting.


At home

A maid of honour surrounds herself with pearls and pendants

This remarkable portrait depicts a female courtier and maid of honour to Elizabeth I, Elizabeth Vernon, in her dressing chamber. Vernon became Countess of Southampton in 1598, the year this picture is believed to have been painted, and she is shown in the process of dressing (or undressing), while combing her hair. An array of pearl necklaces, jewelled bracelets and pendants can be seen on the table next to the countess.

This portrait gives an indication of the cost and labour of dressing in elite households, and may have been painted for Vernon’s new husband, the flamboyant Henry, Earl of Southampton, William Shakespeare’s only known patron.

A nurse clasps a tragic child

This tender and touching portrait provides an insight into the domestic context of well-to-do households. It depicts a nurse holding a well-dressed young boy, perhaps giving an intimation of the bonds that must have existed between servants and their masters, particularly when they cared for children.

The portrait is thought to depict John Dunch, the young son of Edmund and Anne Dunch, members of the gentry from Little Wittenham in Berkshire. John died in 1589, shortly after this portrait was painted. The nurse may be Elizabeth Field, a long-serving attendant who is mentioned in the will of Anne Dunch.


Dr Tarnya Cooper is chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery. She is author of both Citizen Portrait (Yale, 2012) and the fully illustrated exhibition catalogue Elizabeth I and Her People (NPG, 2013)