From Judi Dench’s portrayal in Shakespeare in Love (1998) to Anita Dobson in the BBC’s Armada: 12 Days to Save England (2015), modern viewers are repeatedly served the image of Elizabeth I as a vain, fickle, embittered queen who battled gracelessly against her age. What’s the complex reality behind the flaking white mask?
Here, literary scholar Professor Helen Hackett and art historian Professor Karen Hearn explain why the time is right to challenge our view of the ageing queen, exploring what Elizabeth I was really like at 60, and questioning why it’s the gothic image of her that endures…
Q: Your focus is on the queen in 1593, the year in which Elizabeth I turned 60, though she eventually lived until she was 69. What’s the significance of this year for the queen?
Helen Hackett: We first thought that 1593 would be a good focal point to think about representations of Elizabeth as an aging woman. The more we looked into it, we realised that it’s an incredibly eventful year. She summoned a parliament early in the year because she needed money for military campaigns in Ireland and the Netherlands. However, parliament wanted to talk about another matter: her succession. Everyone was mindful at this time that the ‘Virgin Queen’ had no child and she refused to name a successor.
Karen Hearn: It was very important that Elizabeth was seen as strong and healthy at this time, as it is for monarchs of any era; even now, we are reassured when the monarch is in good health. In 1593, nobody could have known that Elizabeth was going to live for almost another decade, so there was a current of anxiety running through the whole year: who is going to be the next monarch.
HH: That’s not all: through 1593 an ongoing and severe outbreak of plague killed thousands of Londoners and there were also two plots on the queen’s life that came to trial. It was also the hottest, driest summer of the century. All of these things meant that Elizabeth would have spent a lot of the year in isolation: first she retreated to Nonsuch Palace in Surrey and then to Windsor; she had a very reduced court; and there were strict commands that no one was to come to court from any plague-infected area such as London.
Some of us will remember how, in 1992, our current Queen talked about having an annus horribilis because of the various family scandals [including the separation of the Prince of Wales from his first wife, Diana] and the fire at Windsor. I think 1593 was Elizabeth I’s own annus horribilis.
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Q: What else do we know about the 60-year-old Elizabeth I?
HH: It’s remarkable that also in 1593, while Elizabeth was beset by all of these challenges, she took on a massive intellectual exploit. In the autumn of 1593, Elizabeth translated a work by the Roman philosopher Boethius called the Consolation of Philosophy. This was a very long, 6th-century Latin work of stoic philosophy, which Elizabeth translated (according to her secretary) in less than a month. It’s extraordinary that Elizabeth seems to have done this purely for her own entertainment.
The Consolation is about rising above troubles and being strong in your mind. I think the translation shows both Elizabeth’s intellectual prowess at this time – that she had the Latin and translation skills to do this – and also points to the kind of endeavour she finds relaxing; how she finds comfort and fortitude from a text like this in the face of the many trials being thrown at her.
Elizabeth was also politically astute. In this year, Henry IV of France – her main international ally as the only other Protestant monarch in Europe – converts to Catholicism. She writes an eloquent letter to Henry sharing how distressed and disturbed she is about this. This might seem to be a political reaction, but because Henry was an ally it would also have undoubtedly been an emotional reaction. As a devout Protestant herself, Elizabeth would have been genuinely concerned for the state of Henry’s soul after he had abandoned the “true faith”.
Q: How varied is the evidence of what Elizabeth looked like at this time? And how do these sources contrast with the popular image of her today?
KH: Many accounts come from overseas visitors and from German visitors. They are all men – experienced diplomats, lawyers, or young medical students – and they are seeing the public face of the queen. We know that Elizabeth regularly made herself publicly visible: people could go to her palaces and she publicly processed from her quarters to chapel on a Sunday, providing an opportunity for people to see her and make petitions to her.
In 1592 Count Frederick of Wurttemberg and Mompelgard paid a visit to England and the queen received him in person in Reading on 17 August. His secretary wrote (though he gets her age wrong, thinking she’s older than she is):
“Yet notwithstanding that her Majesty was at this time in her 67th [sic] year, seeing that she was chosen Queen on the 16th of November, 1558, in the 33rd year of her age, and has thus borne the heavy burthen of ruling a kingdom thirty-four years, she need not indeed – to judge both from her person and appearance – yield much to a young girl of sixteen. She has a very dignified, serious and royal look, and rules her kingdom with great discretion.”
In 1598, Paul Hentzner, a 40-year-old German lawyer, was travelling as a tutor to a young Silesian nobleman on a three-year tour. In 1612 he published an account of what they had seen as the queen processed through Greenwich Palace to chapel:
“Next came the Queen, in the sixty-fifth year of her age, as we were told, very majestic; her face oblong, fair, but wrinkled; her eyes small, yet black and pleasant; her nose a little hooked; her lips narrow, and her teeth black (a defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar); she had in her ears two pearls, with very rich drops; she wore false hair, and that red; upon her head she had a small crown…”
It’s interesting that Hentzner notes that, in having bad teeth, the queen was no different from many of her subjects. If we look at what’s being presented, it’s not the grotesque television or film version of Elizabeth. It’s very important that Elizabeth was presenting herself as youthful and healthy.
HH: However, there are some private texts that give us another angle. Yet another thing that had been going wrong for Elizabeth was her relationship with Sir Walter Ralegh. In the past few years, he had been her leading favourite: prominent at court, playing the game that all her male courtiers had to play – that is, performing the role of courtly lover to his mistress, writing her love poems and such. But in 1592, things had gone badly wrong for Ralegh: the news had broken that he had secretly married one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton, who had borne him a child.
The queen was extremely displeased by this, seeing it as treacherous, and Ralegh was thrown into the Tower of London. While he was imprisoned he wrote an extraordinary poem, Ocean to Cynthia– in manuscript, not published, which means that it might be much more honest about his state of mind and their relationship.
It’s a very bitter poem; Ralegh talks about Elizabeth having a change of fantasy, having abandoned him. He represents himself as the ocean or water – the queen’s nickname for him was her “Water”, a play on Walter – and represents the queen as Cynthia, the moon goddess. There’s an idea that she’s the moon, pulling the tide in and out as her favour shifts and fluctuates. He uses the moon to associate her with ideas of female changeability and – in a darker, misogynistic response to her in her later years – he’s also showing her as a moon that’s in wane, fixated on the idea of her as an aging woman with a decaying body and mind, fickle and unstable. This is another account that’s fed into the modern-day image of Elizabeth. What we have to question is whether we want to continue buying into this picture.
Q: What is known about how Elizabeth I controlled her image? And how much of this was tied up in vanity?
KH: There are a couple of key images which arise around the time of Elizabeth’s 60th birthday. One of them, the grand image for our talk, is the unfinished Isaac Oliver miniature watercolour on vellum in the V&A. Because it’s unfinished, it seems as though Oliver made it from life and then kept it as a template to make other copied images.
At around the same time there was the Ditchley portrait, the biggest surviving picture of the queen – in fact, it was originally even larger but it was later cut down. The painting [which is now in the National Portrait Gallery in London] was painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, in connection with an entertainment at Elizabeth’s retired spin doctor Sir Henry Lee’s country house, Ditchley in Oxfordshire.
In both of these portraits, we can see very clearly that the queen is a woman of around 59-60, and they are both painted portraits that must result from actual sittings with the queen.
What seemed to happen after the queen turned 60 was a kind of reversal in the portraits of her. She was presented once again as a young woman, quite girlish, her face becoming plumper and unlined. This has been called – I think Sir Roy Strong first used the term – the “mask of youth”.
We can see this effect in the portrait miniatures of Elizabeth by her long-standing miniature painter Nicholas Hilliard, who had been portraying her since the beginning of the 1570s. Elizabeth effectively commissioned these to give out to people, including to her ambassadors to take abroad. These were images that she had agency over. In the past, historians might have presented this as being a result of Elizabeth’s vanity; part of the idea that she didn’t want to be shown to be old. But the point is that it’s a political necessity and it would really have been the same for a male ruler: to look healthy and young and as vigorous as possible.
Most of Elizabeth’s subjects would only have seen her on a coin, which was, as was customary, in emulation of Roman coins and showed her in profile. On the gold sovereign designed in 1593 she was still shown as quite a young woman. But we might say that our present monarch’s coins are designed the same way; it’s a representation of the office of the queen, rather than a lifelike portrayal of an individual.
Q: When did the modern-day ‘caricature’ of Elizabeth I first originate and why does it endure?
KH: These depictions go back quite far. At the beginning of the 19th century, the French painter Paul Delaroche made his name with paintings of historical moments, as there was a great fashion in France for portraying images from Tudor history. The most famous one is the ‘Execution of Lady Jane Grey’, which can be viewed at the National Portrait Gallery.
But Delaroche also painted the death of Elizabeth I, which shows her as a sort of rather grotesque and tragic figure; it actually makes her look rather like a man. This image was widely reproduced in the 19th century.
HH: The popular idea that has taken hold – of Elizabeth as grotesque – is something we really have to question. Over the centuries, her aging body and supposed instability have been used as fuel with which to attack her and undermine her. Particularly if you look at the Victorian period, you see a lot of images which contrast Queen Victoria – a very fertile, fecund figure as a wife and mother – with Elizabeth as a much more sterile, withered, unfeminine queen.
Coming into the 20th century we have biographies of Elizabeth such as that by Lytton Strachey [Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History, published in 1928], which seem increasingly fascinated with this Gothic version of Elizabeth, with the false hair and black teeth. It’s an image that really takes hold.
It’s quite a misogynistic reaction, both in terms of what happens to women once they get older and what we think about women in power. For centuries, women who have held power have often been seen as quite troubling figures and I don’t think we’ve escaped from that today. But I think it’s perhaps a suitable moment to ask if we still want to buy into this myth of the old Elizabeth as a decaying hag consumed by vanity. The evidence gives us a much richer, more multifaceted and complex picture of her in her later years.
Interviews by Elinor Evans, Deputy Digital Editor of
This article was first published by History Extra in June 2018