Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I

black-and-white version of the van de Passe etching Elizabeth Tudor is considered by many to be the greatest monarch in English history. When she became queen in 1558, she was twenty-five years old, a survivor of scandal and danger, and considered illegitimate by most Europeans. She inherited a bankrupt nation, torn by religious discord, a weakened pawn between the great powers of France and Spain. She was only the third queen to rule England in her own right; the other two examples, her cousin Lady Jane Grey and half-sister Mary I, were disastrous. Even her supporters believed her position dangerous and uncertain. Her only hope, they counseled, was to marry quickly and lean upon her husband for support. But Elizabeth had other ideas.

She ruled alone for nearly half a century, lending her name to a glorious epoch in world history. She dazzled even her greatest enemies. Her sense of duty was admirable, though it came at great personal cost. She was committed above all else to preserving English peace and stability; her genuine love for her subjects was legendary. Only a few years after her death in 1603, they openly lamented her passing. In her greatest speech to Parliament, she told them, 'I count the glory of my crown that I have reigned with your love.' Five centuries later, the worldwide love affair with Elizabeth Tudor continues.

Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I abound, particularly from the later years of her reign. Elizabeth was perhaps the first monarch to understand the importance of public relations and she carefully prepared her image for public consumption.

There is certainly little warmth in any of her portraits, but there is much majesty. Beautiful and formidable, she gazes at us from the canvas and remains as compelling a subject in the twenty-first century as she was in the sixteenth.

At this page, please view the queen in all of her glory and her many guises. I have provided commentary for many of the portraits.

Enjoy your visit and please explore my Queen Elizabeth I website to learn more about her fascinating life. -Marilee

Please note: As students of Elizabeth's life know, the queen was very proud of her beautiful hands. She considered them her best feature and took pains to have them prominently displayed in all of her state portraits. As you view the following images, please note this recurring feature.

If I know the current location of a portrait, it is listed after the title / artist / date. The National Portrait Gallery in London has the most comprehensive selection of Elizabethan portraits. You may visit their website to learn of special exhibitions, or purchase prints. I certainly recommend viewing the original portraits if you can.


7 November 2006 Mr Peter James Hall, owner of the beautiful Clopton Portrait listed below, has temporarily loaned it to the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. A kind visitor to this website saw it in person and confirmed that it is spectacular and urges everyone to see it. I did see it - and she's right, it is striking in person - and I have to apologize for not posting this news sooner. All of my Tudor-related time on the internet has been devoted to redesigning Tudor England and not working on this auxillary site. So - go see the Clopton portrait before it leaves! And yes, kicks to me for being so disorganized and distracted.

2 June 2006
I have posted three new portraits of Queen Elizabeth. One is dated c1550. It is only the second solo portrait of Elizabeth as princess that I've found. All three paintings are attributed to Levina Teerlinc; the other two are dated c1565. I have several more color portraits to scan and post, including variations of the Darnley and Ditchley portraits. However, I'll be moving house / packing and unpacking for most of June so they might not be posted for several weeks.

Levina Teerlinc and her husband were appointed court painters to King Henry VIII after the death of Hans Holbein the Younger. She produced numerous miniature portraits, particularly of the young Queen Elizabeth. Please note that the following portraits are attributed to Teerlinc; the painter has not been definitively identified. I'll add commentary later. And I'll also be investigating the provenance of these portraits since I've seen just one of them before and I don't think it was identified as Elizabeth. Also, the sitter's nose undergoes quite a change from 1550 to 1565.

However, they have all been identified as Elizabeth by Sir Roy Strong, who is the authority on Tudor portraiture. So - it will be an interesting investigation. In any case, they're lovely and it's always exciting to find new stuff, particularly in color.

In chronological order

Two books embroidered and translated by Princess Elizabeth. Both were given as gifts to Queen Katharine Parr, Henry VIII's last wife and Elizabeth's beloved stepmother:

Elizabeth's embroidery of her translation of the French poem The Mirror of the Sinful Soul, 1544
It is bound in blue cloth and embroidered with silver thread. Katharine Parr's initials appear in the center of the cover.
Elizabeth's embroidery of her translation of Katharine Parr's Prayers and Meditations, 1545
It is bound in red cloth and embroidered with silver thread. Katharine Parr and Henry VIII's initials appear on the cover with four Tudor roses.

Princess Elizabeth, c1546, by William Scrots. This portrait can be viewed at Windsor Castle. This very beautiful portrait was sent as a gift to Elizabeth's half-brother, King Edward VI. The letter accompanying the gift was quite touching. Elizabeth wrote:

'For the face, I grant, I might well blush to offer, but the mind I shall never be ashamed to present. ....when you shall look on my picture you will witsafe to think that as you have but the outward shadow of the body before you, so my inward mind wisheth that the body itself were oftener in your presence.'

Princess Elizabeth, cropped from a dynastic portrait of Henry VIII and his children. I will post commentary on this image soon.

Elizabeth's signature as Princess of England, 1549. This signature is cropped from a letter to the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, during Edward VI's reign.

Elizabeth I: The Clopton Portrait, c1560, unknown artist. This portrait is owned by Mr Peter James Hall. It is a rare image of Elizabeth from the early years of her reign. She is dressed quite plainly but this is nonetheless a lovely portrait. It was not intended to be an iconographic statement and thus focuses on the young queen's features rather than those of her surroundings.

Most portraits of Elizabeth as queen are concerned with conveying an image rather than the truth of her appearance or character. She never appears less than confident and regal. But in this portrait her gaze is wary and she seems almost self-conscious in her finery.

Elizabeth I: Portrait with verses, c1565, unknown artist / British school. This portrait is very interesting - an almost medieval composition dating from the first decade of Elizabeth's reign. The entire portrait - including the frame - is made from a single piece of wood. The queen's hair is pulled back and held by a jeweled caul in Italian fashion, and she holds a book in her left hand. The book is reminiscent of the earliest-known portrait of Elizabeth, c.1546. The existence of this portrait was only discovered in 1994, when it was made available for sale.

The inscription at the bottom of the frame is supposedly Elizabeth's reply to a Marian priest when questioned about Christ's presence in the Sacrament -
'Twas God the word that spake it,
He took the Bread and brake it;
And what the word did make it;
That I believe, and take it.'

Elizabeth I at prayer, from the frontispiece of her personal prayer book, 1569.

Elizabeth I, miniature portrait on vellum playing card, 1572, by Nicholas Hilliard. This is Hilliard's first miniature of Elizabeth. He later became one of her favorite artists. Hilliard's impact upon the history of English portraiture should not be underestimated. In his way, he was as influential as Holbein during the reign of Elizabeth's father.

Elizabeth I, from 'The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession', c1572, attributed to Lucas de Heere. This painting can be viewed at Sudeley Castle. I have cropped the image of Elizabeth from the painting. Elizabeth appears to the right of her father, Henry VIII, holding the hand of Peace and followed by Plenty. The figure of Peace steps upon the sword of discord. To the left of Elizabeth is her brother, Edward VI, kneeling at Henry's side.

Elizabeth I: Red-chalk drawing, 1574, by Federico Zuccaro. This is a prepatory sketch for a full-length portrait. Zuccaro made a companion sketch of the queen's favorite courtier, Sir Robert Dudley. A phoenix and pelican are perched on the columns behind the queen. Their symbolism is explained below, under 'The Pelican Portrait' and 'The Phoenix Portrait'.

Elizabeth I: Colored sketch, c1570s, attributed to Federico Zuccaro. This beautiful sketch can be viewed at Sudeley Castle.

Elizabeth I: The Darnley Portrait, 1575, by an unknown artist. This portrait can be viewed at the NPG. I think this is one of the queen's most beautiful gowns, faithfully recreated in the BBC miniseries Elizabeth R. (The Ditchley, Armada, and coronation gowns are also recreated in the series.)

Elizabeth I: The Pelican Portrait, c1575, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. This portrait is held by the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), London. It is not on display. Along with Hilliard's equally famous 'Phoenix Portrait', this picture shows the growing stylization of images of the queen. Such stylization reached its apogee in the beautiful 'Rainbow Portrait' below. There is a closed imperial crown over each shoulder. The crown is on top of both a rose (on the left) and a fleur-de-lys (on the right.) These represent her dynastic claims to both England and France. The Pelican pendant on her breast symbolizes charity and redemption. It represents the queen's selfless love of her subjects. How? According to legend, the pelican pricked its own breast to feed its children with the blood. Elizabeth wore a pelican jewel in several state portraits to remind the English of her equally selfless love.

Many visitors have asked where I found the beautiful Tudor rose image for the Contents page; it is cropped from this portrait.

Elizabeth I: The Phoenix Portrait, c1575, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. This portrait can be viewed at the Tate Gallery, London. Some scholars believe this striking portrait was painted a year after the 'Pelican Portrait'. The phoenix symbolizes sacrifice and rebirth.

Elizabeth I playing the lute, date unknown, by Nicholas Hilliard. Elizabeth was an accomplished musician and played the lute throughout her life. She often performed in her privy chamber for select courtiers, but also played alone in her chambers 'when she was solitary to shun melancholy.'

Elizabeth I: The Peace Portrait, 1580-5, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder. In this portrait, the queen is the harbinger of peace. She holds an olive branch in her left hand and a sheathed sword lies at her feet. She is possibly wearing the same headdress, collar and girdle from the 'Ermine Portrait'. Also, both gowns are 'Polish style' with froggings.

From the date, we can assume the symbolism refers to the turbulent situation in the Netherlands.

I have read that this is the only definitively identified painting by Gheeraerts the Elder; it is certainly his only surviving oil portrait. I have named this portrait 'The Peace Portrait' for obvious reasons, but there is no widely-accepted title.

Manuscript portrait of Elizabeth I, from the Coram Rege Roll, 1581. The queen sits enthroned, with orb and scepter, in this beautiful image.

Elizabeth I: The Sieve Portrait, c1583, by Quentin Metsys the Younger. Elizabeth is portrayed with a sieve in a number of portraits. This one is referred to as either the 'Sieve Portrait' or 'The Siena Portrait', to distinguish it from the others. It is one of the few surviving works of Quentin Metsys the Younger and was discovered in 1895, rolled up in the attic of the Palazza Reale in Siena, hence the alternate name. Elizabeth obviously admired this artist's work. In 1577, she unsuccessfully attempted to purchase his 'Burial of Christ' triptych from the Carpenters' Guild in Antwerp.

The sieve is a symbol of chastity and purity, originally taken from Petrarch's Triumph of Chastity. In the story, a Roman Vestal Virgin proves her purity by carrying water in a sieve and not spilling one drop. The sieve thus reinforces Elizabeth's image as 'the virgin queen'. The rim of the sieve is inscribed: A TERRA ILBEN / AL DIMORA IN SELLA' (The good falls to the ground while the bad remains in the saddle).

The figure to the right of Elizabeth is possibly her courtier Sir Christopher Hatton. His white hind badge is just barely visible on the figure's cloak. If so, then it is possible that Hatton commissioned this portrait; he may have met Metsys during a trip to Antwerp in 1573.

The roundels behind the queen depict the story of Aeneas and Dido, with the queen compared to Aeneas. Like the classical hero, she has faced temptation (marriage) and now leads a powerful nation. The globe behind the queen continues this theme. Ships are crossing west on the globe, possibly an allusion to England's conquest of the New World. TVTTO VEDO ET MOLTO MANCHA ('I see all and much is lacking') is inscribed on the globe. The portrait itself is inscribed: STANCHO RIPOSO & RIPO SATO AFFA NNO ('Weary I am and, having rested, still am weary.')

Elizabeth I receiving two Dutch ambassadors, 1585. This painting was made shortly before the earl of Leicester's expedition to the Low Countries.

Elizabeth I: The Ermine Portrait, 1585, by Nicholas Hilliard. This portrait can be viewed at Hatfield House. Why is Elizabeth seated with an ermine? It was the symbol of royalty; and, if you look closely at the animal, you can see the gold crown it wears. The crown symbolizes majesty and purity. As for the bejeweled black gown and background - black and white were the queen's favorite colors. Also, the deep, dark color reinforces the symbolic gravity of the painting.

In this portrait, Elizabeth wears the famous 'Three Brothers' jewel - a gem made of three diamonds set in a triangle around a pointed diamond. It was one of her most treasured jewels. The sword of state rests on the table beside the queen and symbolizes justice; she also holds an olive branch to symbolize peace.

'Elizabeth R': Elizabeth's signature as Queen of England, 1587. This signature was scanned from the execution warrant for Mary, queen of Scots. Elizabeth's seal is directly below her signature.

Elizabeth I: The Armada Portrait, c1588, unknown artist. Another version of this portrait can be viewed at the NPG; however, it has been cut at the sides. Click here to view it. Symbolism is rife in this famous image, of which there are three versions. Once again, pearls - symbolic of purity - decorate the queen's head and gown. Next to her right arm is an imperial crown, and her right hand rests upon a globe - specifically, her fingers rest upon the Americas.

In 1587, a year before this portrait was made, the first English child was born at the English settlement in Virginia. The crown and globe tell us that Elizabeth is mistress of land and sea.

In the background of the painting are scenes from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. It was the pivotal event of the latter half of Elizabeth's reign and a great triumph for the English.

The queen is wearing a pearl necklace given to her by the earl of Leicester; it was Robert Dudley's last gift to the queen.

Elizabeth I: The Ditchley Portrait, c1592, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. This is the largest surviving full-length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, despite having 7.5 cm cut from each side. It is also one of the earliest works by Gheeraerts. His name may seem familiar; his father, Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, painted the 'Peace Portrait' above. This famous work can be viewed at the NPG. There are numerous copies as well; in most, the queen's features are considerably softened.

In 1592, Elizabeth's former champion, Sir Henry Lee, sought to regain her favor with lavish entertainment at his home in Ditchley, Oxfordshire. He had retired from court two years earlier, having offended the queen by living openly with his mistress. He commissioned this portrait to commemorate Elizabeth's visit and forgiveness. The queen stands upon a map of England, with one foot resting near Ditchley.

As a result of the cutting mentioned above, the sonnet on the 'Ditchley Portrait' lacks the final word of each line. It celebrates Elizabeth's divine powers; a jeweled celestial sphere hangs from the queen's left ear, signifying her command over nature itself. The sphere had been Lee's emblem when he fought as Elizabeth's champion in the annual Accession Day tilts. The background of this portrait appears odd - it is split between blue and sunny sky on the left, and black and stormy sky on the right. This continues the theme of royal authority over nature.

Tudor / Renaissance fashion buffs should note that the queen wears her lovely gown over a wheel farthingale. This style briefly continued after Elizabeth's death, largely because James I's wife, Anne of Denmark, wore some of Elizabeth's gowns in portraits painted by, among others, Gheeraerts.

Elizabeth I, an engraving from a book frontispiece, 1596, attributed to Crispin van de Passe I. This lovely engraving is a typical example of its kind. Engravings of the queen often prefaced books, thus spreading her image into English homes and beyond England. Her phoenix and pelican devices are visible in this engraving.

Elizabeth I: The Hardwick Portrait, c1599, by Nicholas Hilliard and his workshop. I think this portrait can be viewed at Hardwick Hall, which is maintained by the National Trust. It was comissioned by the legendary Bess of Hardwick, who also embroidered the queen's skirt. The skirt is amazing - sea serpents, dragons, etc

Elizabeth I: The Rainbow Portrait, c1600, by Isaac Oliver. This portrait can be viewed at Hatfield House. Oliver was a pupil of Elizabeth's favorite court painter, Nicholas Hilliard, and the brother-in-law of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Some historians have argued that Gheeraerts painted this portrait, but most favor Oliver.

This is my favorite portrait of the queen. It has the most elaborate and inventive iconography of any Tudor portrait; click here to view a much larger scan.

Elizabeth's gown is embroidered with English wildflowers, thus allowing the queen to pose in the guise of Astraea, the virginal heroine of classical literature. Her cloak is decorated with eyes and ears, implying that she sees and hears all. Her headdress is an incredible design decorated lavishly with pearls and rubies and supports her royal crown. The pearls symbolize her virginity; the crown, of course, symbolizes her royalty. Pearls also adorn the transparent veil which hangs over her shoulders. Above her crown is a crescent-shaped jewel which alludes to Cynthia, the goddess of the moon.

A jeweled serpent is entwined along her left arm, and holds from its mouth a heart-shaped ruby. Above its head is a celestial sphere. The serpent symbolizes wisdom; it has captured the ruby, which in turn symbolizes the queen's heart. In other words, the queen's passions are controlled by her wisdom. The celestial sphere echoes this theme; it symbolizes wisdom and the queen's royal command over nature.

Elizabeth's right hand holds a rainbow with the Latin inscription 'Non sine sole iris' ('No rainbow without the sun'). The rainbow symbolizes peace, and the inscription reminds viewers that only the queen's wisdom can ensure peace and prosperity.

Elizabeth was in her late sixties when this portrait was made, but for iconographic purposes she is portrayed as young and beautiful, more than mortal. In this portrait, she is ageless.

Elizabeth I: The Coronation Portrait, c1600, unknown artist; copy of a lost original. This portrait can be viewed at the NPG. This is a copy of the portrait made to commemorate Elizabeth's accession in 1558. It is a stunning and beautiful image. Elizabeth is lavishly dressed and holds the traditional orb and scepter. Her hair is loose, as befits her unmarried state, and its color is particularly striking against the white of her skin. And, once again, Elizabeth's much-admired hands are prominently displayed as they rest upon the symbols of her authority.

Images which I am currently rescanning. Until they are posted, you can still view the old scans.

Elizabeth I, c.1580s, by John Bettes the Younger.

Portrait of Elizabeth I with a feather fan, c.1585 , by an unknown artist.

Portrait of Elizabeth I with a fan, c.1585-90, by an unknown artist.

Elizabeth I in old age, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth on wood, c.1580 , by an unknown artist. This beautiful portrait was probably commissioned by a loyal subject. It is not a state portrait, and as a result it portrays the queen in rich but solemn attire. It is useful to compare this portrait to any of the state portraits above. The lack of lavish attire emphasizes the queen's virtue and piety rather than her majesty. Also, the book which rests before her is a testament to her wisdom.

to Tudor England: Images

to the Queen Elizabeth I website

to Tudor England

Send me email.

This page received 18,718 unique visitors in April 2006.