Dress, Dazzle and Display: Mask of Youth




The reign of Elizabeth I was dominated by the fact that she was female. As Catherine de’ Medici remarked, ‘we of all Princes that be women are subject to be slandered wrongly by them that be our adversaries’.

The Queen certainly played up to stereotypes of femininity in dealing with her ministers and suitors, employing various tactics and feminine wiles: encouraging flattery, changing her mind, prevaricating and losing her temper. But she also had to be significantly different from other women. To counter criticism of her sex and unmarried status, Elizabeth and her Council fabricated a potent persona for the Queen that projected her as ‘Gloriana’, a female ruler who exceeds all other women. Glorious and unchanging, she was promoted as the Virgin Queen, wedded to a country that adored her.

This image was disseminated by artists, authors and playwrights, and through the ‘Cult of Gloriana’ she achieved semi-mythical status within her own lifetime. The Queen mirrored the glory of the nation through her display of magnificent dresses and jewels. As previously mentioned, her ageing face was supplanted by the ‘mask of youth’: a smooth and ageless image created by her court artist Nicholas Hilliard. From 1596, it was a mask that all artists in England were obliged to reproduce. Even as a woman in her sixties, Gloriana was the nation’s icon, always dazzling and with a face that expressed perpetual youth and immortality, in an age when beauty was synonymous with goodness.


Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c. 1592, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth is close to 60 in this portrait. The strict control that was exercised over images of the Queen may not have been fully enforced by 1592, because this unusual portrait combines the persona of Gloriana with the elderly Queen’s more realistically ageing features. After 1596 her image would have been replaced by an obligatory ‘mask of youth’.

She is depicted full-length, positioned on a globe, disconnected from the real world – a goddess belonging to the cosmos. Her god-like power is referenced by the armillary sphere suspended from her ear, and her feet rest on Ditchley, Oxfordshire, the home of Sir Henry Lee.


Elizabeth is depicted as a goddess belonging to the cosmos with her feet on Ditchley, Oxfordshire, the home of her former champion Sir Henry Lee.

The portrait was commissioned by Lee, Master of the Ordnance and Clerk of the Armoury at the Tower of London. He was also the first courtier, under Elizabeth, to hold the office of Queen’s Champion. In a tradition dating back to the reign of William the Conqueror, the sovereign was forbidden to fight in single combat against anyone but an equal and so a Champion was appointed to battle on their behalf. Lee organised jousts for the Queen and tilted in her honour. An accomplished painting of him, by Antonis Mor, demonstrates his loyalty to his ‘lady’ through the celestial spheres and true-lover’s knots that decorate his sleeves.

Dark clouds fall behind her and sunny skies draw near. There is a sonnet in a cartouche to the right of the picture that has been partly cut, although enough remains to learn that she is being hailed as the sun and addressed as ‘the Prince of Light’.

Her white silk dress is elaborately embellished with jewels of three varied designs: gold set with an oval ruby, gold with four pearls and gold decorated with a square diamond. To ornament the complete dress would likely have required at least 135 to 140 of these impressive gems. They are mentioned in the court inventory of 1587 and many appear to have been inherited from Henry VIII, who wears similar oval ruby jewels in his 1536 portrait by Holbein.

The depiction of the gold jewels is so thorough that it is likely the artist had access to the gown without requiring the Queen to model it. It could have been positioned on a mannequin, modelled by a living woman or draped on a dress stand to permit close scrutiny. The gems appear to have been painted after the rest of the portrait was complete.

The overall effect of the work has changed since it was painted in c. 1592. Elizabeth’s complexion would have appeared a lot warmer than it does today and her cheeks much pinker. The vermillion and red lake pigments used to create a high flesh colour have faded, making the Queen’s appearance less lively. The sky was painted using smalt, a blue potassium glass that contains cobalt. When ground into a pigment, it produces an intense, rich shade. This too has discoloured, meaning the background is no longer the vivid blue it once appeared.

The canvas has suffered major damage in the past where areas of the paint have flaked, leading to the left-hand side of the heavens being overpainted and the brilliant rays of sunlight, referred to in the poem, being obscured. Although once a crucial element of the picture, the golden beams of the sun are today only visible using infrared reflectography.

Henry Lee had displeased the Queen by taking a mistress and living with her openly in his home at Ditchley. Ann Vavasour was almost thirty years Lee’s junior and a married woman. She had been a lady of the bedchamber to Elizabeth and, after giving birth to an illegitimate son by the Earl of Oxford, she was now ‘living in sin’ with Lee and raising their own illegitimate son, Thomas. Elizabeth’s disapproval of all this can be easily imagined.

Mottoes on the painting declare that ‘she gives and does not expect’, ‘she can but does not take revenge’ and ‘in giving back, she increases’. These refer to the Queen’s delicate relationship with Lee and his thankfulness for her forgiveness, signalled by her visit to Ditchley and her willingness to exonerate him for being ‘a stranger to a lady’s thrall’. A pageant – an elaborate, colourful spectacle made up of a series of tableaux and accompanied by music – had been prepared for the royal party and this portrait was likely intended as an integral part of the entertainments that took place on 20–21 September 1592.

The spectacle involved costumed figures frolicking in the grounds of Ditchley and interacting with the Queen. Her royal passage was barred by players intent on warning her that the gardens were full of distressed men and women, sick with love. Among them, lying prostrate and paralysed by desire, was an old knight representing Sir Henry Lee, who was to be liberated from death by Elizabeth. In composing the pageant, Lee was acknowledging that he was old, he was paying homage to the power of the Queen and he was requesting her forgiveness for his love of Ann.

The Queen’s pardon of Lee was complete in 1597, when she appointed him to the Knights of the Garter, the most elevated chivalric order in England. He and Ann lived together at Ditchley until he died, a wealthy man, in 1611 at the age of 78. John Aubrey, the seventeenth-century English antiquary and author of Brief Lives, wrote of Henry Lee, ‘Here lies the good old knight Sir Harry, who loved well, but would not marry.’

This painting is attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger on the grounds of his draughtsmanship and typical handling of paint, which is similar in style to his portrait of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The italic style of the lettering, particularly the form of the ‘W’, is recognisable in other works.

Gheeraerts’s father and grandfather were both artists, working in Bruges. In 1568, his father was prosecuted for producing caricatures of the Pope and for criticising Catholicism. The sentence could have been death and so he left Bruges and brought the young Marcus to London while his mother and sister remained in Belgium.

The younger Gheeraerts was most likely trained by his father, and there were additional family influences. Following his mother’s death in Bruges, his father remarried to Susannah de Critz, the sister of Elizabeth I’s Serjeant Painter, John de Critz. Additionally, Marcus’s half-sister Sarah joined the Gheeraertses in London after their mother’s death and wedded the miniaturist Isaac Oliver. Thus, within this family were two of the most talented artists of the Elizabethan period. Marcus himself married in 1590 to his stepmother’s sister Magdalen de Critz, so they were truly a family of artists.


The Ditchley portrait is the largest known full-length portrait of Elizabeth I and the first of the Queen to be painted on canvas instead of wooden panel. Marcus Gheeraerts was one of the first artists in England to paint on canvas. It was used as an alternative to panel in sixteenth-century Europe because it was cheaper, lighter and could be produced in larger sizes. Known as cannabis in Latin, it was historically made from tightly woven hemp. During the Renaissance, great importance was placed on preparing the canvas using gesso. This was intended to hide the weave and to ensure that the oil paint did not touch the fabric of the canvas, as it caused it to decay.

The first canvases produced for artists in Europe came from Venice, where the woven material was a common sight in the sails of ships in the lagoon. The humid climate of the Venetian bay meant that frescoes were not stable and wooden panels absorbed the moisture and warped, so an alternative was sought. Paintings on canvas could be larger and were more portable because they could be rolled up for transportation. Spanish artists soon followed the Italians, and Northern Europe began to commonly use canvas towards the end of the sixteenth century. However, for fine details, painting on panel still had an advantage because of its smooth surface.


As Elizabeth’s reign progressed, her clothing became ever more complex and dramatic. She wore hundreds of spangles, braiding and little jewels which sparkled and caught the light when she moved. The task of dressing her fell to the ladies of the bedchamber and it would have taken more than an hour, principally because each part of the ensemble was assembled and tied on separately. It would not have been possible for the Queen to dress herself, even if she wished to, for each layer of clothing had to be fastened with laces, and hundreds of pins were required to keep intricate pieces in place, layer after layer.

The first item of clothing on the Queen’s body was a smock or chemise, probably sewn from soft linen. It would have been worn as an undergarment for comfort and to avoid staining the silk satin dresses with perspiration.


c. 1603, Westminster Abbey, London

Over the chemise a boned corset, referred to as a pair of ‘bodies’, flattened the bust and elongated the waist, fastening at either the front or the back. On her death in 1603, a funeral effigy of Elizabeth I was made from wood and placed on top of the coffin. The figure was remade in 1760 and a wax head was added, but the original bodies from 1603 survive and can be viewed at Westminster Abbey. They are probably of the style the Queen wore at the end of her life – front laced and boned with whalebone in strips of around a quarter inch wide. Their very narrow size is testament to Elizabeth’s slender figure, even in old age.


Boned corset from the effigy of Elizabeth I at Westminster Abbey. The very narrow shape is testament to Elizabeth’s slender figure, even in old age.

It has been thought that women did not wear knickers or drawers until the end of the eighteenth century, but the accounts of the Great Wardrobe (1558 to 1603) note that John Colte, who made the wooden effigy of the Queen, was paid £10 to provide ‘the image representing her majestie … with one paire of straite bodies (corsets) and a paire of drawers’. The Englishman Fynes Moryson, who spent most of the 1590s travelling Europe and writing about his adventures, noted that ‘many Italian ladies wear silk or linen breeches under their gowns’, and Marie de’ Medici is believed to have had many pairs of drawers made for her. However, Elizabeth’s underwear habits remain something of a mystery.

In 1559, she was presented with her first pair of silk stockings, to replace the cloth ones she usually wore, and was so impressed that she vowed never to wear anything else but silk. They were held up with ribbons that tied just below the knee. There is a pair of her silk stockings – thought to be among the first in England – at Hatfield House.

With the chemise, the corset and the stockings in place, it was time to tie on the farthingale. A padded roll was first tied around the waist and a wheel-shaped structure made from whalebone or even metal placed on top. This structure changed shape according to fashion during Elizabeth’s reign, but in the Ditchley portrait she is wearing a wheel farthingale, which was popular in Europe from around 1590. The attraction of a farthingale was that it spread the fabric of the dress and displayed the expensive material to best advantage. It was fashionable for the hemline to be lower at the front and to rise shorter at the back. The same silhouette was copied by Elizabeth’s ladies, but the most expensive material and elaborately jewelled decorations were intended to set the Queen apart from the rest of the court.

A tight-fitting bodice was put on next. It had a deep V-shaped opening into which a stiffened piece of fabric known as a stomacher was pinned or tied. The lengths of fabric floating from the Queen’s shoulders in the Ditchley portrait are known as ‘hanging sleeves’ but they were worn simply as decoration, the ‘true’ sleeves being tied to the bodice. At the back of the Queen’s gown is a brocade overskirt in a different design to the dress. A heavily gathered ‘proper’ skirt was tied around the waist and fell to the floor at the front.

The open-style ruff that Elizabeth wears is usually associated with unmarried women and behind it is a wired veil with lace cuffs on her wrists to match. Ruffs were made of varying kinds of linen, either Lawne, Holland or Camerick, all finely woven and expensive. They were starched, a skill at which the Dutch excelled, and were generally white. Wearing a ruff in the open air could be unpredictable, because if caught in an unexpected rainstorm they would collapse. If in doubt, the ruff could be carried in a box and tied on by your maid on arrival.

Gloves and fans were often received as diplomatic gifts and the folding fan in this portrait was a modern novelty, more unusual than the feather variety. Fans were delicate items and generally stored in leather boxes lined with taffeta. Gloves were usually sewn from the finest leather and often strongly perfumed, something the Queen appears to have disliked. The fingers of the gloves were sewn exaggeratedly long with the tips padded with fine wool to elongate the hands and show off her elegant fingers.

Elizabeth’s shoes in the portrait were likely made from silk satin to match her dress and she appears to have favoured slip-on shoes with a thin sole and low heel that were referred to as ‘pumps’, a style that would not be unfashionable today. William and Roland Winter made footwear for the Queen until 1581 and Garret Johnson made the Queen a new pair of shoes every week until 1590, when he disappears from the records and is superseded by Peter Johnson (perhaps a son). Johnson also supplied the Queen with shoehorns to ease the pumps onto her foot. The blacksmiths Polson and Jeffrey made her shoehorns of metal, but they appear not to have been as successful as those produced from softer horn.

The Queen had a fondness for footwear and on 12 April 1577 the Royal Wardrobe noted an order for ‘Spanische leather shoes of sundrye colours, one pair stitched and lined with carnacion taphata’. John Parr, the Queen’s embroiderer, edged a pair of shoes made of cloth of silver and in 1572 John Wynneyard is noted as perfuming two pairs of Elizabeth’s shoes. The monarch was known for her parsimony and Garret Johnson submitted an account for ‘translating’ a pair of velvet-lined slippers, meaning cutting out the worn pieces and remaking them.

Elizabeth chose the colour of her clothes with great care. White was a popular choice as it represented purity, black was for constancy and the two together meant chastity. Red echoed the blood of Christ, mercy and justice, while red and white symbolised Lancaster and York.


As evidenced by the portraits within this book, Queen Elizabeth loved jewels. Even in her old age, she maintained her public appearance and wore a great amount of jewellery. In 1587, an inventory of 628 pieces was recorded by Blanche Parry, Chief Gentlewoman and Keeper of Her Majesty’s Jewels.

Many of her treasures were received as gifts from ambassadors or courtiers and some were presented to her by suitors or even looted from the ships of her Spanish enemies. On New Year’s Day 1584, for example, Sir Francis Drake presented Elizabeth with gifts he had raided from Spanish and Portuguese ships. Her favourite pieces had symbolic meanings or were novelty pieces, often in the shape of ships or animals.

Hardly any of the Queen’s jewellery survives today, but a particularly poignant piece is her locket ring, now belonging to the Chequers Trust. It is set with rubies, diamonds and pearl and opens to reveal two miniature enamel portraits. One is a picture of Elizabeth when she was in her forties and the other is a tiny image of her mother, Anne Boleyn. It is believed that this remarkable ring was on the Queen’s finger when she died in 1603.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is said to have begun a custom of welcoming the Queen with a lavish jewel when she came to visit his country home and, on her departure, saying goodbye with an equally precious memento of her stay. He is also said, in 1571, to have presented her with a watch encased in a bracelet (called an ‘arm watch’), perhaps the first known wristwatch in England. When he died, Robert willed the Queen a diamond and emerald pendant and a rope of 600 large pearls.

Elizabeth was extremely fond of pearls, which could be worn in strands, sewn onto clothes, set into elaborate settings or worn as decoration in the hair. One of her most spectacular pieces of jewellery was a necklace of large pearls, in six strands, which once belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth outbid Catherine de’ Medici of France to obtain them and they are likely to be the pearls that can be seen in several portraits of Elizabeth, including the Armada portrait (fig. 21). Pearls had an advantage over stones because they did not need cutting and polishing before being worn.

During the sixteenth century, narwhal tusk or walrus ivory was often referred to as unicorn horn and a popular myth claimed that only a virgin could stop a charging unicorn. (This is famously the subject of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Musée Cluny in Paris.) Elizabeth may therefore have used jewels made from tusk or ivory to reinforce her unmarried status as the Virgin Queen.

The elaborate gold settings of rings were often as prized as the jewels contained within them and sixteenth-century gemstones were cut differently from the styles seen today. Early in Elizabeth’s reign, they were commonly cabochon cut, meaning they had a smooth round top, or they were table cut, leaving a flat surface, and close examination of the Queen’s portraits can confirm this. Diamonds are a particularly hard jewel to fashion and so in this case Elizabethan jewellers created a pyramid cut that came to a point. By the end of the century, a rose cut had been devised that produced more sparkle and allowed the gems to glitter.

The great number of cameos of Elizabeth in sardonyx (a variant of onyx) points to a well-developed manufacturing process, although the quality is uneven and little information is available regarding the method of their production. Cameos required hard stones such as sardonyx, carnelian, jasper and onyx, with freshwater and sea pearls also used.

Brooches fell out of favour with the Elizabethans and were replaced with pendants. These jewels were fabricated from enamelled and jewelled goldwork, often incorporating large baroque pearls. (Baroque pearls are named from the Portuguese term barroco, meaning imperfect, and they are recognised by their irregular and unique shape.) Elizabethan pendants principally came in the form of animals; swans and other birds were favoured, as witnessed by the Pelican and Phoenix portraits. They could be worn on a ribbon around the neck or suspended from a necklace, hung from the end of a jewelled girdle (belt), attached to a sleeve or worn as an ornament in the hair.

Portraits of Elizabeth indicate a fondness for earrings. They are either a single pearl or pendant earrings with one or three pearls hanging from a central jewel, as in the Rainbow Portrait. Towards the end of her reign, the earring could be threaded on a ribbon which was then fed through the hole in the ear and tied with a bow, but this is not seen in portraits of the Queen.

Carcanets were wide, richly decorated gold collars set with jewels in elaborate settings with clusters of pearls, gold beads and precious or semi-precious stones. They could be worn with additional chains and necklaces to create spectacular displays. The Pelican and Phoenix portraits show good examples of the richness of these ornamental collars.

Among all of Elizabeth’s jewellery, the Three Brothers jewel is both famous and mysterious. It is depicted in the Ermine portrait of Elizabeth (Nicholas Hilliard, 1585) and is the jewel sculpted into the tomb of the Queen in Westminster Abbey to rest with her in eternity. It was named ‘Three Brothers’ after the three large rubies it incorporates. They are balas rubies (after Balas in Afghanistan where they are found) of the same size and weight. A pointed diamond known as the ‘Heart of the Three Brothers’ is in the centre, with four pearls set around it.

It was originally designed as a shoulder clasp for John the Fearless of the House of Burgundy and he died wearing it in 1419 at the age of 33, when he was murdered by his cousin Charles Valois. It passed to his grandson, Charles the Bold, who lost the jewel and died in battle against the Swiss in 1476. It was illegally sold to the magistrates of Basel, who had a watercolour drawing made of it, making it certain that it was the same jewel worn by Elizabeth I. It was put up for sale in 1504 when it was bought by Jacob Fugger, an Augsburg financier. Fifty years later, Fugger’s son began to negotiate its sale to Henry VIII, but the deal was not completed until May 1551, by which time Henry had died and it was acquired by Edward VI. Two years later, it was inherited by Queen Mary and eventually became part of the crown jewels of Elizabeth I and the early Stuarts. Of its history after Charles I, little is known. One account says that Cardinal Mazarin purchased it during the English Civil War and another says that it was dismantled. Either way, after the mid-seventeenth century, it was never seen again.

The Queen knew that her jewels played an important role in her magnificence and how she was perceived by others. Another compelling reason for her love of jewels, as Sir Francis Bacon shrewdly pointed out, was that they drew attention away from her ageing appearance. Decked out in a dazzling array of jewels and fine clothes, Elizabeth could both project an image of royal power and give the viewer an impression of beauty.


The famous and mysterious Three Brothers brooch appears (centre) in the Ermine Portrait and is also the jewel sculpted into Elizabeth’s tomb at Westminster Abbey.


Elizabeth’s appearance, with red hair, dark eyes and strong nose, is very familiar to us from her portraits, just as it was to her subjects. In her own time, her image was disseminated more than any other female figure in history, except the Virgin Mary. A profile of her, with loosely flowing hair, appeared on newly minted coins produced in the early 1560s under an ambitious programme of re-coinage. Public images were available in cheaply produced printed woodcuts and a number of portraits were made for the popular market so that ordinary citizens might view their Queen.

Although she inherited the Tudor red hair, she looked like her mother, Anne Boleyn, with a swarthy complexion, fine eyes, long, thin face and pointed chin, the same slender figure and small bosom. Like her mother, she was not a conventional beauty but she had a sense of style and a charisma that drew men to her. Beauty was associated with goodness in the sixteenth century and it was a key ingredient of Elizabeth’s persona. As her own personal attractiveness faded, she would increasingly come to rely on make-up, jewels and gorgeous clothing to present an image of loveliness to her people.

It is not known exactly when the Queen started using make-up but a key event of 1562 may have prompted her decision. While at Hampton Court Palace that year, she fell ill and the deadly disease of smallpox was diagnosed by the notable physician Dr Burcot. At first, she refused to believe him and dismissed him as incompetent. However, her condition deteriorated, the tell-tale red spots began to appear and for a time she was not expected to survive. On recovery she was fortunate not to be badly disfigured, but some lesions remained from the disease. Elizabeth began to cover her scars with Venetian ceruse, a heavy white make-up made from white lead and vinegar, also known as ‘Spirits of Saturn’. The ceruse could cover up any blemish but it also did great damage. As the concoction dried on the skin, it dehydrated and discoloured it, eventually leaving the complexion underneath grey and having the opposite effect to the youthful look that was intended. The Queen covered her hands, neck and face with this mixture and it could be left on her body for as long as a week. In 2020, the make-up expert Lisa Eldridge worked with a pharmacist at Keele University to recreate true Venetian ceruse, with all its toxic ingredients. The resulting mixture was creamy, opaque and pure alabaster white. Lisa discovered that, when worn in candlelight, it would have had a sheen and a beautiful ethereal glow that modern, non-toxic substitutes cannot match.

To contrast with her white complexion, Elizabeth coloured her lips and cheeks red using a paste made with red madder, a plant extract, or cochineal derived from an insect. The dye was mixed with beeswax to obtain a sticky consistency rather like lip balm. Her eyes were outlined with kohl to add definition and belladonna could be dropped into them to dilate the pupils, supposedly making them more attractive.

The facial cleanser used to remove the make-up was made from rosewater, honey, eggs and mercury, the latter making the skin feel soft but causing further poison and corrosion. The eyebrows and hairline were plucked to create a high forehead, hinting at noble birth and an intellectual personality, as seen in her Coronation Portrait.

The Queen’s love of sugar caused tooth decay and the loss of some of her teeth. She particularly enjoyed candied violets and lavish desserts made from sugar paste, a high-status ingredient that was more expensive than honey. Grown as a cane and imported from the East or West Indies or the Barbary coast, it was generally produced in the form of a loaf from which sugar was planed off for use. Elizabeth’s ladies used wine, vinegar and honey to clean her teeth and sweeten her breath, which would have been stale from gum disease. Her sunken cheeks were sometimes padded with balls of perfumed material to plump them. In 1597, the French emissary, André Hurault, gives us a description that is far from the public image projected in official portraits: ‘As for her face, it is and appears to be very aged. It is long and thin, and her teeth are very yellow and unequal … Many of them are missing so that one cannot understand her easily when she speaks quickly.’

From around the age of 30, Elizabeth took to wearing wigs fabricated in her natural shade of golden red. Smallpox had caused the loss of some of her hair and lead and mercury had thinned it. It is believed that she owned as many as eighty wigs, the style and colour of which was imitated by her court ladies. Two months before her death in 1603, a Venetian envoy describes her ‘wearing hair of a colour never made by nature’.

The Queen’s appearance invited compliments, flirting and flattery, and by projecting her image as Gloriana, in a cult of admiration and as the embodiment of English power, it set her apart and above her male courtiers to the end of her life.

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