On this day in 1559 (or perhaps the day before?) Queen Elizabeth I left her court for the Tower of London, commencing the three days of festivities which would culminate in her coronation. It strikes me as a good day, therefore, to (re-)examine the most famous symbol of that event, and one of her most iconic images, the so-called Coronation Portrait. I suspect that this painting has even more resonance in our own time because of the film and poster for the 1998 Elizabeth film, in which Cate Blanchett evokes a more approachable, yet also more vulnerable, version of the Virgin Queen, but it’s also important to note that the painting is not quite of her time. When I’m teaching Elizabethan or Tudor history, I always include one class in which we look at all of Elizabeth’s portraits in chronological order, so that we might grasp both the evolution of her image–and the craftsmanship behind it. My students are always surprised when we come to the Coronation Portrait–near the end of the class rather than the beginning. My observation of strict chronological order mandates this, as the Coronation Portrait is actually a copy, produced in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign–and perhaps even upon the occasion of her funeral, after the original painting was lost.
The Coronation Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, Unknown English Artist, c. 1600, © National Portrait Gallery, London; 1998 Elizabeth poster.
Most experts seem to agree that whoever painted the Coronation Portrait had seen a contemporary depiction, as there is another c. 1600 image–a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard–that also features the distinguishing characteristics: the long hair, denoting Elizabeth’s unmarried state and virginity, the cloth-of-gold dress tying her to her Tudor predecessors, the royal ermine, crown, scepter and orb. There are literary descriptions of the coronation festivities as well–reprinted at about the same time that these images were reproduced. There’s obviously an effort at commemoration and memorialization at this time of transition, and perhaps even to project a more youthful (human?) image of Elizabeth—she had become essentially ageless by the end of her reign.
Nicholas Hilliard Coronation Miniature, c. 1600, Private Collection; The Royall Passage of her Maiesty from the Tower of London, to her Palace of White-hall, with al the Speaches and Deuices, both of the Pageants and otherwise, together with her Maiesties seuerall Answers, and most pleasing Speaches to them all, London, 1604, British Library.
If so, the Coronation portrait publicists failed, as another image produced (and reproduced and reproduced….) around the time of her death proved to be far more influential: the engraving by Crispin van de Passe the Elder (after an earlier drawing by Isaac Oliver) projecting a more mature and much more worldly queen, an Imperial Elizabeth. This is the Elizabeth of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the heyday of the British Empire. Even when an intensifying focus on the personal life of the Virgin Queen commenced in the later nineteenth century (culminating in the 1998 Elizabeth film) commenced, she still looks rather Passe-ive!
Memorial print of Crispin van de Passe etching of Elizabeth after Isaac Oliver drawing, 1603, Victoria & Albert Museum; Charles Turner print after van de Passe after Oliver, 1816, British Museum, and the early 20th century historical illustrator Fortunino Matania’s coronation portrait of Elizabeth, c. 1920.