Elizabeth I: Where to find the 16th century Queen in museums and galleries

By Ben Miller | 15 January 2014

On the anniversary of her 1559 coronation, here are some of the stories of the reign of Elizabeth I

An image of a portrait of a 16th century queen in a glamorous white decorated dress
Nicholas Hilliard, Queen Elizabeth I - The Pelican Portrait. Oil on panel© Walker Art Gallery
In this portrait of the queen, aged about 41, she is treated almost like a religious icon, with elaborate symbolism, a stylised figure, a mask-like face and little attempt to convey spatial depth.

The mother pelican on her brooch is a traditional Christian symbol of Christ's sacrifice. It was believed that the pelican fed her young with her own blood. Here such a symbol refers to Elizabeth's role as a mother to her people. The work relates closely to Hilliard’s miniature portrait of 1572, but might have been made by a follower using his designs.

An image of a handwritten 16th century letter in black ink with the word elizabeth
Letter to the Mayor of Coventry (1569)© Herbert Museum and Art Gallery
This letter was written by Queen Elizabeth I to the mayor of Coventry on 26 November 1569.

It concerns Mary Queen of Scots, who was imprisoned in Coventry, probably in St Mary's Guildhall. Mary was ultimately executed for plotting against the Queen. Read the full contents.

An image of a photo of a gun on wheels in gold dating from the 16th century
A brass gun from The Gun Garden, Rye Castle Museum© Rye Castle Museum
In the days of Good Queen Bess (1533-1603) a Gun Garden was constructed at what is now known as Ypres Tower in Rye, creating an important artillery position at the time of the Spanish Armada of 1588.

For their services, Queen Elizabeth I presented six brass guns. Another may have come from one of the wrecked Spanish ships.

An image of a painting of a 16th century queen looking magnificent in a red dress
Attributed to Steven van Herwijk or Steven van der Meulen, England, Hampden portrait of Elizabeth I (circa 1560)© Philip Mould, philipmould.com
This picture is the only image of the ‘Virgin Queen’ that alludes to her becoming a wife and a mother. The background to the right of the portrait, a brilliantly painted array of foliage, fruit and flowers, portrays the Queen as fertile and ready for marriage.

The portrait was most likely painted in the early 1560s, when Elizabeth was forced to address the issue of her marriage during the first serious test of her reign – the succession crisis of 1562/3. It is the only surviving visual record of the moment when Elizabeth’s hand in marriage was sought as the greatest prize in Europe, and is the earliest individual full-length of her.

A photo of an ornate 17th century red box embroidered with a gold royal crest
The Seal Burse of Elizabeth I (circa 1596)© Trustees of the British Museum
This seal burse (purse) is embroidered with the Royal Arms of England for the Great Seal of Elizabeth I (reigned 1553-1603). The Great Seal was traditionally carried in procession before the Lord Chancellor and Keeper of the Seal.

By the end of the 16th century the burse was transformed into a magnificent velvet purse, embroidered with the arms of England and elaborately decorated. This example shows the crowned royal cypher and the letters ‘ER' (Elizabeth Regina) for Queen Elizabeth I, and a Tudor rose: the heraldic design is set within a scrolling foliate border. Find out more from the British Museum.

An image of a small circular moulded white and brown cast portrait of a 16th century queen
Cameo of Elizabeth I from the Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London© Museum of London
In Elizabethan London, New Year’s Day was the big time to give and receive gifts, particularly at court. The tradition appears to date back to at least the 13th century, but under Queen Elizabeth I it reached new heights in terms of the extravagance and range of the gifts given.

The Queen loved puns and many of these jewels would have held hidden meanings and witty jokes for her amusement. Find out more from the Museum of London.

An image of a painting of a 16th century queen wearing a tightly hemmed white dress
Queen Elizabeth I (1575). Held by Reading Museum© Reading Museum
Although Elizabeth visited Reading on several occasions – she stayed with her Privy councillor, Francis Knollys, in the Berkshire town – the origin of this portrait, on wooden boards by an unknown artist, remains a mystery.

Designed to project a powerful Queen clad in a rich dress, jewels and pearls of purity, the style of the work suggests it would have been made during the late 1570s.

An image of a circular portrait of a young male 16th century portraitist against blue
Isaac Oliver (circa 1590). Watercolour on vellum© National Portrait Gallery
Isaac Oliver was a French-born miniaturist who settled in England in about 1568. Having trained under Hilliard, he became the artist’s rival and was repeatedly patronised by royalty.

One of his portraits, of Elizabeth during the final year of her reign, can be seen at Every Painter Paints Himself.

More online gems on Elizabeth I:


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