‘God Hath Raised Me High’: Accession and Religion





In the early morning of 17 November 1558, Queen Mary I died and for generations afterwards the date would be celebrated as Elizabeth’s ‘Accession Day’. At Smithfield in the City of London, Protestant heretics were saved, moments before the fires were lit, after a royal messenger announced the Queen’s death. Mary’s cousin, Reginald Pole, the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, passed away later the same day, of influenza, and the Counter-Reformation in England died with him.

The Lords of the Council rode to Hatfield where, according to legend, they found Princess Elizabeth reading a book under an old oak tree in the grounds. The dangers of past years now turned to deliverance as they presented her with Mary’s ring. Elizabeth sank to her knees and said, ‘A domino factum est istud, et est mirabile in oculis nostris’ (‘This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes’: Psalm 118:23).

It is very likely that Elizabeth had prepared her speech in advance, knowing that her sister was dying. Now, she embraced her power but she also realised from the outset that good counsel was essential. Within hours she appointed two trusted servants who would become the mainstay of her regime: Sir Thomas Parry and Sir William Cecil. Parry had been Elizabeth’s financial manager and now became Controller of the Queen’s Household. William Cecil was a grammar-school boy who had studied a humanist curriculum at St John’s College, Cambridge. He already had experience of high office, as principal secretary to Edward VI. The shrewd and industrious Cecil reassumed this role for Elizabeth and for the next forty years would be at her side as her chief minister. She called him her ‘Spirit’.

Elizabeth made a triumphal entry into the City of London a week after her accession and she was crowned quickly, within two months, to invest her as soon as possible with the full authority that anointing conferred. The proceedings of a coronation fell into four parts: possession of the Tower of London; the sovereign’s progress through the city to Westminster; the ceremony itself in Westminster Abbey; and, finally, a celebratory banquet in Westminster Hall.

The day before her coronation, Elizabeth set out in magnificent procession from the Tower to the Palace of Westminster. Many who watched in the snowy London streets may have also witnessed her mother’s coronation twenty-five years earlier. Along the way, triumphal arches expressed themes of political and religious allegory. The first arch, at Gracechurch Street, near today’s Leadenhall Market, featured large effigies of Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, with Elizabeth seated in majesty at the very top. It pointedly underlined her dynasty and the legitimacy of her succession.

On Sunday 15 January 1559 – a date that astrologer Master John Dee had determined would bring good luck – Elizabeth entered Westminster Abbey in her coronation robes, patterned with Tudor roses and trimmed with ermine. Here she was crowned by Owen Oglethorpe, Bishop of Carlisle. After the ceremony, the Queen left the abbey, smiling and exchanging greetings with the crowd. The next stage was the procession to Westminster Hall for the banquet where she came forth in a ‘rich mantle and surcoat of purple velvet’. (Sumptuary laws decreed that the colour purple was only associated with the immediate royal family.)

Elizabeth’s coronation was the last occasion on which the Latin service was followed and she was crowned with full Catholic ritual. However, the new Queen had made no promise to maintain her sister’s faith and, in fact, a reversal was expected. Certainly, in London the pageants and speeches of her coronation demonstrated that the people of this city – who had witnessed so many Protestant burnings – now saw Elizabeth as their saviour.


Unknown English artist, c. 1600, oil on panel, National Portrait Gallery, London

Although it is considered a portrait, there is remarkably little of Elizabeth I on view in this panel painting. The picture is principally a depiction of the gold and silver coronation robes, elaborate jewellery, high ruff, ermine fur and symbolic coronation regalia. The viewer is probably not intended to see it as a portrait, but as a representation of Elizabeth’s position as Queen of England. In other words, we are being shown the body politic rather than the body mortal. Under medieval and Tudor political theology, the body mortal is subject to all the infirmities of nature and will age and die as all humans do, but the body politic represents the ongoing role of government that will continue long after the monarch’s death.

The gold-edged ruff rises magnificently to Elizabeth’s ears so that only her face is visible. She is depicted as beautiful by sixteenth-century standards. Her hairline and eyebrows are plucked as it was believed that a high hairline made the face look slimmer and longer. Her flowing golden-red hair is loose and in the style of a young virgin, which was traditional for the coronation of a queen. When Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, was crowned consort in 1533, it was noted that her hair was long enough for her to sit on. The only other visible parts of Elizabeth’s body in this portrait are her hands, which are white and bedecked with gold rings set with precious stones.

But it is the spectacular gold coronation robes that dominate the painting. First worn by Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary for her coronation in 1553, they were placed in store until Elizabeth’s coronation at Westminster Abbey in January 1559. Elizabeth was not fond of her older sister, who at one time placed her in fear of her life, so the choice to wear her sister’s coronation robes might seem surprising.


The viewer is probably not intended to see this as a portrait, but as a depiction of Elizabeth’s position as Queen of England, in spectacular gold coronation robes.

The re-using of royal garments was common for reasons of tradition and economy – but these were clothes of special significance to Mary and for Elizabeth to wear them at her own coronation was perhaps symbolic. It allowed her to exorcise her sister’s ghost and to finally triumph over her regal predecessor. This psychology has a precedent in the Protestant reformers in England, who would re-use Catholic altar clothes and vestments and turn them into domestic furnishings, rather than disposing of them altogether. It was a way of reversing their mysticism and neutralising their power.

Elizabeth was taller and slimmer than Mary, so alterations to the robe were necessary. A new bodice and pair of sleeves were made and ‘four yards of Clothe of Tishewe the ground silver, and tyshewe silver’ at £4 per yard were delivered for the alterations. The cloth of gold is woven with a pattern of Tudor roses and fleurs-de-lys. Since the 1485 triumph of Henry of Lancaster at the battle of Bosworth, and his union with Elizabeth of York, the Tudor rose was immediately recognisable as the emblem of their dynasty. The lilies refer to the English claim to the French throne.

After Elizabeth’s coronation, these sumptuous clothes were once again placed in storage and records reveal that in 1571 the ermine fur of the cloak was repaired by Adam Bland, the Queen’s skinner. During its time in store, the fur may have been attacked by moths or, more likely, lost hair around the join of the skins. The garments appear once again in an inventory of the Wardrobe of Robes in 1600, the year this portrait is thought to have been painted.

There is confusion as to whether the fur was ermine or minever (the white winter coat of the red squirrel) but this is most likely an error by the scribe, because historically, ermine has always been used for royal gowns. Ermine is the white winter pelt of a stoat, when only the tip of its tail remains black. Each black ermine tail in this robe therefore denotes the pelt of one animal, with more than two hundred tails to be counted on the visible part of this robe.

The young Queen would surely have commissioned a portrait to commemorate her coronation and this panel is thought to be a copy of a lost original. However, other suggestions have been put forward. Following the coronation, Elizabeth’s accession date – 17 November – became a day of commemoration when, each year, church bells rang and festivities took place. This picture may have been painted to commemorate one of these celebrations, or it may have been produced for the Queen’s funeral in 1603. Until documentary evidence comes to light, all of the above are conjectural.

Most paintings produced in the early reign of Elizabeth were portraits, primarily likenesses of men and some of women, but few images of individual children. Until the later part of Elizabeth’s reign, portraits were generally painted on wooden panels. The wood was primed and given a smooth and even surface that was perfectly suited to the painting of intricate details like the elaborate jewels, smooth silk fabrics and delicate lace ruffs that we see here and which were so typical of the period. The most common panel used in England was fashioned from oak, and the most highly sought-after oak panels were imported from the Eastern Baltic (today’s Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). Native English oak was available, but it generally produced an uneven, twisted grain that was difficult to cut and finish into the thin, regular-sized boards that were suitable for painting. Panels made from English oak were therefore cheaper to buy and tended to be used by less accomplished artists or by those living a distance from London where supplies of quality materials were limited. The uneven texture of oak panels grown in England was due to the fluctuating temperatures. Boards from trees in the Baltic region had grown in cold, even temperatures where the wood grew slowly, causing the tree rings to be evenly spaced and close together, making for a stable board.

Modern dating techniques use the position of the tree rings to give an approximate date for when the tree was felled and the region in which it grew. This is helpful in ascertaining the authenticity of a work. For example, this painting has been examined using dendrochronology and the results prove that its wooden panel dates to after 1589. It cannot, therefore, be a contemporary portrait of Elizabeth’s coronation because, at the time, the tree from which the panel was made was still growing. Once cut and shaped, the panel was seasoned and then prepared for painting. Elizabeth was around 67 and had been Queen for over forty years at the earliest date this painting could have been produced.

Elizabeth’s orb and sceptre do not appear in a 1574 inventory of jewels and plate and may have been separately housed in the Jewel House at Whitehall. With its cross mounted on a globe, the orb symbolises the Christian world. It is decorated at the ends and centre with jewels surrounded by pearls. The sceptre represents the monarch’s care and control of her people and it matches the rubies, sapphires and pearls that Elizabeth is wearing.

Three crowns were used in the Tudor coronation ceremony. Firstly, St Edward’s Crown was placed on the sovereign’s head; this was then removed and replaced with the Imperial Crown; and lastly a crown made specifically for the new monarch. Three crowns were prepared by the Jewel House for Elizabeth but, regrettably, nothing remains of the regalia shown in this portrait. After the abolition of the monarchy in 1649, following the English Civil War, the precious stones were prised from their settings and sold, and the gold frames of the crowns were melted down at the royal mint within the Tower of London and turned into coins stamped ‘Commonwealth of England’.

Before 1600, there is little known about the display of paintings in England, but most English picture frames were made of a flat panel of oak. We do know that this picture of Elizabeth has received at least three different frames during its lifetime. It was formerly at Warwick Castle where it was displayed in a later, quite grand painted frame. Photographs taken in 1866 can today be viewed in the V&A Museum archives in London and they show this painting in a Sunderland frame likely to have been given to it in the 1670s or 1680s.

The Sunderland frame takes its name from Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland and an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales. Between 1665 and 1668, the Earl reframed his extensive collection of paintings at Althorp in gold, baroque-style frames, creating a nationwide fashion that was replicated for the Coronation Portrait at Warwick.

Following a fire at Warwick Castle in 1871, Elizabeth’s Coronation Portrait received a third new frame and was hung in the Great Hall at Warwick. It was a heavier and grander frame in the Sansovino style that had been popular in Venice in the 1600s and which saw a resurgence of popularity in England during the late nineteenth century. It is made of a rich dark wood, highlighted with gold, and incorporates garlands of fruit, leaves and grotesque masks.

It is worth noting that, possibly due to the influence of digital presentations, unframed pictures have today become an everyday occurrence. And yet, the choice of frame can dramatically alter the way a painting is viewed. Black frames will emphasise the white in a picture and gold will enhance the blue. In addition to celebrating the glory of God, a gold frame was particularly popular during the Renaissance as it enhanced the traditional blue robes of the Virgin.

Frames are part of the furniture of a room and are often chosen to complement the décor. Once a painting is removed from the room, it is not uncommon to notice that the frame enhanced the room better than the painting contained within it. Of almost 2,700 paintings in the National Gallery, no more than a handful are in their original frames.

When the National Portrait Gallery received this picture, its gilded pine frame was reduced in size at the top and bottom and then refurbished using gesso (traditionally a mixture of animal glue and chalk) as a base for the regilding. It was finally finished and placed on view in 1978. Elizabeth had at last found a permanent home in London.


‘There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith. All else is a dispute over trifles.’

Elizabeth I

Since Henry VIII’s break from Rome, the people of England had endured a quarter-century of violent Reformation and Counter-Reformation, based on the personal beliefs of their monarchs. The traditional narrative of the Marian years is one of disasters: flooding, bad harvests, famine and the loss of Calais to the French. But nothing has given Mary a worse reputation than the fires of Smithfield. Nearly 300 Protestants are known to have perished at the stake and their deaths were recorded by John Foxe in his Acts and Monuments, commonly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Foxe was an ordained Anglican priest whose Puritan beliefs forced him and his pregnant wife into exile, just ahead of officers sent to arrest him. This book, with brutal woodcuts of executions, was hugely influential in shaping English popular opinion against the Catholic Church.

Religion was of fundamental importance and it would now be the most pressing issue of Queen Elizabeth’s first Parliament. A restoration of Protestantism was widely anticipated, for Elizabeth was committed to the new faith. In March 1559 she told Feria, the Spanish ambassador, that she ‘resolved to restore religion as her father left it’. As the Queen was herself a direct product of the break from Rome, she was bound to reject the Pope, but otherwise her beliefs were not radical. By Calvinist standards she was a conservative who, like her father, enjoyed the traditional ceremonies of religion. Her chaplains wore splendid, embroidered robes, the crucifix was displayed and she listened to glorious anthems and motets (short pieces of sacred choral music) sung by choristers. She liked candles, stained glass and colourful images and she disliked married clergy.

In an age when people were burned for their beliefs, Elizabeth held surprisingly tolerant views and hated fanaticism. She told the French ambassador, André Hurault, ‘There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith. All else is a dispute over trifles.’ Her religious policy would be an attempt to unite her divided country and she had already decided that it must be Protestant, with elements of Catholic rituals.

Elizabeth’s settlement comprised two Acts of Parliament, passed in 1559: The Act of Supremacy and The Act of Uniformity. The former made Elizabeth the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and the latter reintroduced the Book of Common Prayer. Thus, the Catholic Church lost its authority in England, for the second time, and Anglican worship was once again established in the nation’s churches.

For her Archbishop of Canterbury, Elizabeth chose Matthew Parker. A moderate man, he had also once been the chaplain of her mother, Anne Boleyn. Parker gave the people the Bishops’ Bible, an English translation published at his own expense in 1572, and his influence would help Anglican theology take shape.

Elizabeth believed that a moderate Church of England, not so different from the old faith, would gradually woo her subjects away from Catholicism. She was largely right and by the end of her reign most people accepted this hybrid of Protestant liturgy with Catholic traditions. The Church of England’s character today is still the result of this Elizabethan Settlement.

There was broad support for the new Church and very few refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Queen. She asked for outward conformity to her laws on religion but, according to the writer and philosopher Francis Bacon, had ‘no desire to make windows into men’s souls’. Providing her subjects were loyal to herself and the state, Elizabeth was content, but this approach did not please everyone. Her reign would later become notorious for the persecution of Catholics, though this was born of political necessity and not religious fanaticism on her part. Opposition also came from extreme Protestants, known as Puritans, who wanted to ‘purify’ the Church of all residue of the Catholic faith. Many Puritans had fled abroad when Mary was queen, but returned to Elizabeth’s England. They raised their views in Parliament, but did not seek to overthrow the regime and were therefore less of a threat than Catholics. Some of Elizabeth’s most trusted advisors, notably Robert Dudley and Sir Francis Walsingham, were Puritans in the sense of seeking to extinguish Catholic traditions. But Elizabeth firmly resisted their attempts to change her Religious Settlement. The Queen would later quash a number of Puritan bills, such as the call for prohibition of sports and entertainments on Sundays and the move to make heresy and blasphemy criminal offences. English Puritans also wanted to remove sacred music from churches, just as it had been swept away in Reformation Scotland. Their efforts were in vain, for this was a much-loved Catholic practice that Elizabeth was determined to protect.


Music was a vital component of church worship before the Reformation and it was essential for Henry VIII to have a highly trained chapel choir who could sing in Latin to the glory of God and the King. Edward VI was fond of music, but the radical Protestantism of his reign meant choirs were generally disbanded and church organs destroyed. Where church music did survive it took the form of a sermon, sung not in Latin but in simple English – clearly heard and understood. Under Queen Mary’s Catholicism, the old style of music returned to the chapels and then, with Elizabeth, the stage was set for a new golden age of choral arrangements.

Music was a lifelong passion for Elizabeth I. Her tutor, Roger Ascham, said in 1550, ‘She is as much delighted with music as she is skilful in the art.’ She was accomplished on the lute, a stringed instrument favoured by her father, Henry VIII, and her singing voice was praised. As Queen, she employed over 70 musicians, and names like Thomas Tallis and William Byrd would go on to become the most influential composers of the sixteenth century. The virginals, a keyboard instrument of the harpsichord family, seems to have been her favourite instrument and she spent hours practising. One of Elizabeth’s virginals, dated from a tiny inscription to 1594 and bearing the Boleyn arms, is now housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The Queen claimed on one occasion to have composed dance music, although no compositions by her have so far been discovered. Her love of music was so well known that on her deathbed musicians were summoned to comfort the Queen and revive her.

In 1564, when informed by the Scottish envoy, Sir James Melville, that Mary, Queen of Scots, played both lute and virginals, Elizabeth wondered how well Mary played. Later that day, Melville was asked by an English courtier to listen to some music and taken to a gallery where he heard a melody that ‘ravished him’. The player turned out to be Elizabeth herself and she disingenuously told Melville that she had not been expecting him. However, since he had now heard her, perhaps he could judge whether her playing or that of the Scottish Queen was better? Melville was obliged to answer that Elizabeth was the superior musician.


Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1576/80, portrait miniature, vellum stuck onto card, Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire

Although Elizabeth I was praised as an accomplished lute player, this portrait is unlikely to have been taken from life. The miniature probably hails from the collection of the Queen’s cousin Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, its provenance coming through his granddaughter Elizabeth, wife of Sir Thomas Berkeley. It can be considered both an icon suggesting the harmony of the body politic and a reference to the musical interests of the Carey family. Henry Carey was patron of the Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company of actors, and a supporter of the accomplished lutist and composer John Dowland.

Dowland’s First Book of Songs was published in 1597 and uncommonly includes a piece of music written for two players on one lute. It became one of the most influential collections of music in the history of the instrument and it may have been the Carey family’s interest in the lute that prompted them to commission this portrait.

It is only the second picture of a Tudor monarch playing a musical instrument, the first being a miniature of Henry VIII playing the harp (from a book of Psalms belonging to the King, now held in the British Library). The delicate detail of the gold edging and the fretwork on the lute indicate that it was most likely painted through observation of an actual instrument because even the grain of the wood can be discerned. The neck of the lute is longer than those of Italian lutes depicted in the art of the period and so it may have been an English creation.

In relation to the throne behind her, the Queen’s body is strangely twisted and it is difficult to discern if she is sitting or standing. However, she appears relaxed, with the position of her hands credible as those of a musician, albeit with improbably elongated fingers. On either side of the throne is a crowned pomegranate, which refers to queenship, fertility and the Resurrection of Christ. They were introduced into Tudor symbolism by Katherine of Aragon and deployed by both Mary I and Elizabeth. The fruits are curiously shaded in such a manner as to resemble two eyes, with the Queen seated between them, and although probably not intentional, once seen, their placing is imposing and difficult to ignore. The composition, including the elaborate and fantastic throne, is reminiscent of manuscript painting, from where miniatures in England first took their inspiration during the reign of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII.

The elaborate costume, with its jewels and embroidered sleeves, echoes a dress worn by Elizabeth in a portrait at Reading Museum, Berkshire, and may suggest a date of around 1575, before Hilliard went to France, although other estimates place this miniature in the 1580s.

The painting has suffered somewhat from the oxidation of the silver used on Elizabeth’s dress, which originally would have shimmered against the chair upholstered in black and trimmed with gold. This miniature is one of very few English pictures of a lute at a time when it was at the centre of musical life. The Queen’s face is unfortunately damaged and the background, the throne and the inlaid table in the foreground are flatly painted, leaving the starring role in this portrait to the lute itself.



Music was a lifelong passion for Elizabeth, as it was for her father. She was an accomplished player of the lute (shown here) and virginals.

In Elizabeth’s England music was so highly regarded that most noblemen employed their own musicians. Gentleman were also expected to sing and to read music, which was printed and readily available from booksellers. Its significance in the culture of the time was echoed in the plays of William Shakespeare, who makes more than 500 references to music in his works. Elizabethan music was known for its steady rhythm and its polyphony, where songs sung often included a four-to-five-part harmony with multiple melodies weaving throughout one another.

This very spiritual art form would find deeper, intoxicating expression in Elizabeth’s chapels, where it is described as choral polyphony. It can be heard in the new service of Evensong, which was created around 1549, as part of the English Reformation. The liturgy of Evensong comes from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and is sung in harmony at the even point between day and night. The whole idea is derived from monastic prayer traditions and Elizabeth’s melodic Evensong is unchanged to this day.

English composers such as Thomas Tallis lived and worked through the religious changes of four monarchs and had to be flexible, changing content and writing masterpieces in English as well as Latin. Tallis was 54 when Elizabeth became queen and he adjusted his style for what would be the last time. His better-known works are Elizabethan, including the motet ‘Spem in alium’, written for eight five-voice choirs, but several of his anthems written during Edward’s reign are judged to be on the same level, such as ‘If Ye Love Me’. He would live to be 80 years old. As a Catholic in dangerous times, his deep faith was never written down but is vividly demonstrated in his music.

Other accomplished musicians included Orlando Gibbons, John Taverner, John Dowland, Christopher Tye and Tallis’s pupil William Byrd – one of the great masters of European Renaissance music. All these composers were able to create a sense of the divine, in Latin and English, through works of incredible serenity. Their music glorified not only God but the monarchy too. It was both an ornament and a form of power which would impress visitors from Europe. Many composers who wrote for the Church also wrote for court and came to exemplify the era with their beautiful arrangements.

Music continued to flourish under the Queen’s patronage and in 1575 she granted Tallis and Byrd exclusive rights for the importing, printing, publishing and sale of music. The two friends and colleagues went on to publish a collection of vocal sacred music, Cantiones sacrae, which they dedicated to Elizabeth. During this time, William Byrd was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, where he shared the duties of organist with Tallis, and produced secular and sacred compositions for the Queen. He was also associating with prominent Catholics and at one point his house was searched for priests, resulting in his temporary suspension from the Chapel Royal. Though Byrd was often cited as a Catholic and had to pay fines, he was considered loyal to the Crown and was protected from severe punishment by the Queen. Like Tallis, he lived to a great age and his death, in 1623, was noted in the Chapel Royal, describing him as ‘a Father of Musick’.

Sacred music was unacceptable to radical Protestants, who saw it as a distraction from the Word of God. They discouraged polyphony, unless the words were clearly audible, and they tried to remove Evensong and the use of church organs altogether. But the Queen continued to love and defend sacred music against the Puritans of her realm and she ensured its survival. Through the compositions of Elizabeth’s talented musicians, the vaulted roofs of her churches echoed to the most astonishing beauty, perhaps transcending the bitter conflicts of religious beliefs.

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