Left: Queen Elizabeth's locket ring, c.1575. The portraits depict Elizabeth herself (lower) and a likeness of Anne Boleyn, her mother. © National Maritime Museum, London. Courtesy of The Chequers Trust.
After a gallant young man placed his coat across her path, Penelope Parkin arrived in Greenwich to have a look at this royal show.
Blood red letters on a chain mail, Blackadder-style gauze mark the opening to Elizabeth I at the National Maritime Museum until September 14, 2003.
This fantastic exhibition, which marks the 400th anniversary of Elizabeth's death in 1603, provides an exciting if somewhat dark illustration of her childhood and subsequent 45-year reign.
Guest Curator David Starkey explains the show's grizzly gauze entrance feature, which shields a formidable looking knight, stating that it begins: 'importantly with the armour of the Earl of Pembroke, on horseback and not with a portrait of Elizabeth.'
Right: Henry VIII, after Hans Holbein, late sixteenth century. Henry was born at Greenwich on June 28, 1491. © National Maritime Museum, London.
All the better to emphasise her strikingly turbulent early years…
In true Blackadder style, a letter written by Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn to Lord Cobham in 1533 upon her birth in Greenwich reveals that she was in fact expected to be a boy! To add insult to injury, the young princess was left both motherless and illegitimate at the hands of her father Henry VIII whilst still barely a toddler.
A striking replica of Henry VIII's dagger, set with jacinths and emeralds, highlights Anne Boleyn's grizzly fate upon failing to produce a male heir. In contrast, Elizabeth's tiny locket ring touchingly retains her mother's image.
Mercifully, in a subsequent episode of what Starkey terms: 'having his cake and eating it'; Henry restored Elizabeth and her older half-sister Mary to the succession shortly before his death in 1547. Eleven years later Elizabeth herself became queen aged only 25.
Left: Prince Edward VI, after Hans Holbein, early seventeenth century. Henry VIII's third and last child, this portrait shows Edward aged about five and clothed and posed in a way that recalls portraits of his father. © National Maritime Museum, London.
The tiny 'Miniature of Elizabeth in her Coronation Robes', January 15, 1559, offers a rare glimpse of the young queen in her gold, wasp-waisted, ermine-trimmed coronation gown. Plain faced, her long curly hair obediently frames her slight silhouette.
As if she is anticipating the many tasks that lie ahead of her as monarch, Elizabeth's expression seems somewhat sombre and resigned.
Fearlessly however, she used her first speech from Hatfield, just three days after her coronation, to sack 29 of her Catholic sister's councillors, wisely choosing to surround herself with her own Protestant allies. It makes for interesting reading!
Rather astutely, Elizabeth also gauged the importance of courting popularity as a protestant heroine…an undoubtedly 'cunning plan' for an unmarried and childless monarch.
Right: Elizabeth I, English School, formerly attributed to John Bettes the Younger, about 1590. © National Maritime Museum, London.
Images of a pelican consequently appear on many of the portraits and trinkets displayed, symbolising Christian charity whilst simultaneously emphasising the queen's loving care for her subjects.
As NMM Director Roy Clare also emphasises, a strong theme of Empire also runs throughout the exhibition.
Prompted by John Dee, who Starkey terms her favourite 'think tank', Elizabeth authorised many of her adventurers to seek new trade routes and colonies in her name.
A colourful series of sketches by John White dating from 1585 highlights various new world plunders from such expeditions, amongst them a pineapple, a turtle and a flying fish. Trophies such as these prompted Raleigh's seventeenth century visit to Virginia, which he named in honour of the Virgin Queen.
Left: Portrait of Sir Francis Drake by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1591. The objects surrounding him refer to his achievements, namely his circumnavigation of 1577-1580, underwritten by Elizabeth. © National Maritime Museum, London.
If you're interested in curios however, don't despair. A gargantuan leopard flagon dating from 1600 reveals that Elizabeth entertained in style.
A Blackadder-style hat worn by Elizabeth Knollys, one of the queen's six maids of honour also survives in spite of the disintegration of much Elizabethan costume.
Retaining her throne despite attacks by adversaries as diverse as the Spanish Armada and her own cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth did well to get to the end of her reign intact. Staunchly forbidding discussion of a successor she died on March 24, 1603 at the pretty respectable age of 70.
As Starkey précis: 'So on to that prodigal and foolish dynasty, the Stuarts.'
Reviewer Penelope Parkin is participating in the 24 Hour Museum / Museum and Galleries Month Arts Writing Prize.