In the summer of 1588, Philip II of Spain sent a mighty invasion fleet to the shores of England. 130 ships sailed north, with instructions to overrule Queen Elizabeth I, who had ruled for three decades.
But things didn’t go to plan. Philip’s Grande y Felicísima Armada (‘Great and Most Fortunate Navy’) was thrown off course by fireships, mismanagement and terrible weather. The planned invasion was a disaster for the Spanish, and Elizabeth emerged victorious, having successfully thwarted the European superpower of the 16th century.
Around two years later, a portrait was created to mark this watershed moment. It depicted Elizabeth I, then in her late 50s, as a symbol of female majesty who embodied the hopes and aspirations of a nation. The portrait was copied several times, and three versions survive.
Behind Elizabeth are two seascapes. On the left, the English fleet prepare for battle in calm waters. On the right, the Spanish Armada are battered by English storms, their fleet in total disarray. In this portrait, Elizabeth turns her back on the Spanish struggle, and faces towards the calm sea. The message? She is a calm force for good amongst the chaos of Catholic Europe.
From imperial pursuits to symbols of chastity, here’s the story of the Armada Portraits and their symbolism.
A vision of majesty
The portrait is a carefully calculated piece of propaganda, filled with symbolism and hidden meaning. Elizabeth’s golden-red hair and pale, unblemished complexion betray none of her natural ageing, nor the scars from the smallpox she had suffered at 29.
Her upright posture and clear, calm gaze speak of the vitality of youth. Indeed, the egg-shaped finial behind her left shoulder may symbolise rebirth and eternal life. She was, as Sir Walter Raleigh observed, “a lady whom time has surprised”.
Elizabeth’s clothing is incredibly lavish, indicating her immense wealth and fine taste. The black and white of Elizabeth’s dress represented eternal virginity. This was practically impressive too: white was expensive to maintain, and black required rare dyes. This monochrome scheme was also an allusion to Cynthia, the goddess of the moon (black for night, white for the pearl-like moon), and probably alluded to Raleigh’s 15,000 line elegy to Elizabeth ‘The Ocean’s Love to Cynthia’.
The pearls which drip from her clothing also suggest purity and chastity: there is no denying that this is The Virgin Queen. In fact, the Elizabethan philosopher and polymath Sir Francis Bacon suggested Elizabeth “”imagined that the people, who are much influenced by externals, would be diverted by the glitter of her jewels, from noticing the decay of her personal attractions”.
Elizabeth’s skirt and sleeves are embroidered gold with numerous suns, and her extraordinary ruff fills a circular shape, emulating rays of sunshine emerging from a sun – which is, in this case, the face of Elizabeth I, a source of warmth and benevolence.
The objects which surround her convey important messages, too. In the bottom right is a mermaid, a creature believed to tempt sailors to perilous waters, perhaps representing Elizabeth’s power over the Spanish sailors.
The globe on which Elizabeth’s right hand rests indicates England’s dominion of the seas and expansion into the New World. Elizabeth’s finger even points towards the first English colony in the Americas, on Roanoke Island, which had been established three years before in 1587. This is now North Carolina, but was then Virginia, named after this Virgin Queen.
Behind the globe sits the imperial crown, which may also nod to the pursuit of empire. However it may also represent a claim of ancient lineage: the Tudors argued they were descended from Brutus of Troy, who was supposedly a descendent of Aeneas, the mythical first king of Britain.
A set of three
There are three surviving versions of this portrait, all painted around 1590. This is not surprising considering the nature of Elizabethan portraiture.
Whilst portraits of the Queen were in high demand – perhaps for courtiers to declare allegiance or demonstrate wealth – Elizabeth participated in very few portrait sittings throughout her life. So once a portrait had been royally approved, this was often reproduced multiple times to satisfy demand (used more as an approved ‘pattern’ or ‘template’).
The most famous is on display in the Queen’s Presence Chamber in the Queen’s House, in Greenwich. This is the site of the original Greenwich Palace, where Elizabeth was born in 1533. It was owned by Sir Francis Drake, the English fleet’s second in command when the Armada was defeated and has been in the possession of Drake’s descendants since at least 1775.
The Greenwich portrait has the most vibrant colours, as a 2016 conservation effort removed several layers of old varnish.
Another version hangs in Woburn Abbey, which has been recorded in the collection since 1782 (although it could have been in the collection for longer). This version is believed to show the seascapes as they were originally painted (modern paint analysis of the Greenwich version suggests the scenes were painted over in the early 18th century).
A third portrait hangs in the National Gallery. This version was at some point ‘cut’ down on both sides, leaving a vertical portrait without the seascapes.
This was once owned by the Scottish antiquarian David Steuart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan. The Earl presented it to the British Museum in 1765, and it was later transferred to the National Portrait Gallery in 1879, where it still hangs.
Both the Woburn Abbey and National Portrait Gallery versions have an addition of classical marble columns, framing the seascapes. These have been interpreted as the pillars of Hercules, the most westerly point of the classical world.
The artist of all three portraits is unknown, although Nicholas Hilliard and George Gower – two of the most important English artists of the period – have both been suggested as possibilities. Hilliard was the Queen’s ‘limner’ (miniature portrait painter) from around 1573, and produced some of the most enduring portraits of Elizabeth’s reign (namely the ‘Phoenix’ portrait). Gower was a leading portrait painter of his age, and employed as Elizabeth’s ‘Serjeant Painter’ from 1581.
Despite the unknown origins, all three portraits are a triumph of Elizabethan propaganda. They shine a light on Elizabeth as a champion of female power, and mark England’s strength as a maritime power, heading at full speed into the Elizabethan golden age.