Medieval & Early Modern History Research article

The Sun Queen: Elizabeth I

 We take a look at the famous portraits of Elizabeth I and their complex symbolism

5 minute read

When we think of Elizabeth I, we might imagine her many glorious portraits, such as the ‘Rainbow’ portrait that hangs in Hatfield House, the residence once owned by Robert Cecil, the son of the Queen’s chief minster William Cecil.

In it she is portrayed as having transcended her age; she seems to be in a masking costume, alluding to her mythic and poetic construction as the fairy queen. In her right hand, she holds a rainbow while inscribed above are the Latin words ‘Non sine sole iris’ (No rainbow without the sun). Elizabeth is the sun; the divine light that brings hope and peace through her virtue and wisdom. The pearls that drape her body point to her purity, the knot in them alluding to her virginity; her pale shimmering face (painted with white lead) is also meant to represent beauty and purity while symbolising the racial superiority of the English nation she embodies, a notion that is time and again reflected in her association with light, whiteness, lustre and colonial power.

Elizabeth is the sun; the divine light that brings hope and peace through her virtue and wisdom

‘The Rainbow Portrait’, by Isaac Oliver, c.1600. Hatfield House / Bridgeman Images

It is a complex image and its complexity reflects the multi-faceted character of this extraordinary monarch. There is much to look at in this portrait: the bejewelled snake which refers to wisdom; the heart representing the love she has for her countrymen; the eyes and ears on her gown that allude to the all-seeing and all-knowing presence of God (who has anointed her) and, more importantly, of the state – this was, after all, an age of political surveillance. Painted in 1600, three years before Elizabeth’s death (she would have been 67), the portrait depicts a rather more youthful and resplendent Queen, one who seems at the height of her glory. Roy Strong has described her in this painting as a ‘legendary beauty, ageless and unfading’. Others have commented that she looks ‘buxom’ and ‘seductive’, commenting on the near visibility of her bosom; observations about her body are too often disparaging. This aspect of her dress, nevertheless, seems somewhat paradoxical. Here we are given a glimpse of Elizabeth as a woman as well as a monarch. Women were seen as weak, biological mutations of nature (a woman’s clitoris was thought to be an inverted penis, one that failed to thrust forth), and as inferior intellectually, biologically and socially. Elizabeth I as only the second female monarch in her own right to rule England, had to somehow transcend her ‘feeble’ sex and its associations with sexual appetite and weakness.

Her representation as a virgin, of course, had its political benefits, as it shored up and consolidated her power as a single woman reigning over England. Symbolically it would suggest that, like England, the Queen’s body could withstand alien threats or foreign invasion. Her cultish virginity reassured her subjects that she would be faithful to them and them only. Other portraits of her similarly gesture to the various constructed and authentic aspects of her character: her virtue, sovereignty, power, authority, divinity, mythical agelessness and womanhood.

Her cultish virginity reassured her subjects that she would be faithful to them and them only

The sixteenth-century Scottish minister and theologian John Knox famously railed against female monarchy, arguing in his treatise, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, that ‘To promote a Woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation or city is: A. Repugnant to nature; B. Contumely to God. C. The subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.’ He insists that ‘Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him.’

Cate Blanchett as the Queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Working Title / Kobal

Films have not always been fair to Elizabeth; she is often depicted as careless, overly desirous, sexual to the point at which she is reckless with the fate of her nation. I would argue that some films actually engage in ‘slut-shaming’ the Queen. She is also depicted as aging gracelessly, as overly painted with disgusting levels of cosmetic paint (which is intolerably inaccurate given that makeup used at that time would have provided a softer and more luminescent complexion than the curd of cheesecake some Hollywood depictions offer). John Knox’s view seems also to have permeated subsequent depictions of Elizabeth. Knox’s sentiments, as extreme as they are, were shared by many others.

Abigail Cruttenden as Elizabeth in Swive [Elizabeth]. Photographer: Johan Persson

Women in politics even today are faced with a barrage of threats, insults and misogynistic rhetoric. The strength, sense of duty, courage and intelligence a woman would need to rule England in a time when most people firmly believed she was unfit for power would have been remarkable. It is Elizabeth’s remarkability that I hope history will remember. Although her portraits are designed to memorialise her authority, the mythic and semi-divine quality that is attributed to them can mask the human messiness of Elizabeth, a messiness which should be celebrated because it means recognising she was a woman, an aging woman and a desirous one and that is where her real power resides.

It is Elizabeth’s remarkability that I hope history will remember

Perhaps the ‘buxom’ Rainbow portrait attempts to present her in such a light. In the final decades of her reign, England was beset by uncertainty with no obvious heir to the throne, political unrest and, some historians have argued, economic difficulties. Despite such challenges, the Rainbow portrait is significant when it comes to historic depictions of this Queen, because even if it continues the tradition of mythologizing her, it simultaneously conveys Elizabeth’s real capacity for power through its artistic appreciation of femininity as a sign of unmistakable authority.