‘One Mistress and No Master’: Marriage Game





Elizabeth was only 25 when she became queen, so everyone expected her to make a favourable match and provide an heir to her throne. Unmarried female monarchs were unheard of, but ultimately the most eligible bride in Europe chose to remain single. It is worth noting that she was the first English monarch in 500 years who did not try to produce a legitimate successor. The Queen caused political uncertainty by refusing to marry – or even nominate an heir from possible candidates – and there has been considerable speculation as to her reasons.

Events from Elizabeth’s childhood may have put her off the very idea of marriage. Henry VIII had executed two of his wives: Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn and her stepmother Catherine Howard. Then, Elizabeth’s first experience of sexual attraction, with Thomas Seymour when she was 14, had been traumatic. There was another danger associated with marriage: two of the Queen’s stepmothers, Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr, and her grandmother, Elizabeth of York, had died in childbirth. It was the greatest danger a woman could face, with no antiseptics or modern pain relief. Even queens could die, despite having access to the best doctors and medicines, so it would be unsurprising if Elizabeth feared childbirth, despite the pressing need for an heir.

But political reasons were even more compelling than any psychological or physical fears. A match with a European prince, who would enhance her royal status, might also draw England into foreign wars, and the most eligible princes were all Catholics. However, marrying an Englishman would mean a union beneath her rank and it would cause jealousy, as he would inevitably promote his own family to wealth and influence.

Not only was the Queen reluctant to commit herself to any man but her council of advisors was also always divided on the matter. They would regularly entreat Elizabeth to provide an heir but they could never agree on a suitable husband. Both Queen and council had also witnessed the political difficulties of Mary I and Mary, Queen of Scots, both of whom encountered rebellion as a result of their choice of husbands. It even cost the Scottish queen her throne.

Furthermore, in the sixteenth century a husband was deemed to have authority over his wife and marriage might bring some erosion of Elizabeth’s power. As early as 1564, the Scottish ambassador, Sir James Melville, judged correctly, saying, ‘You will never marry … the Queen of England is too proud to suffer a commander … you think if you were married, you would only be Queen of England, and now you are king and queen both.’


Unknown continental artist, c. 1575, oil on panel, National Portrait Gallery, London

The ‘Darnley Portrait’ of Elizabeth I, so called because it used to belong to the Earls of Darnley, is one of the key images of the Queen. It is an accomplished work, showing us the real woman with all her power, determination and composure.

She wears a rich, Polish-style doublet with a lace ruff collar; a double string of pearls is looped around her neck and she holds an ostrich-feather fan. The ruff, a fashion accessory that came to define the Elizabethan era, was a circular collar made from a pleated frill. It was worn by both men and women, aristocrats and proletarians alike, but the quality of material varied greatly, from very expensive fine linens to cheap fabric for poorer folk. These collars became increasingly outlandish as time passed. The small ruff at Elizabeth’s neck here would grow in size until it formed the huge, detachable cart-wheel ruff at its most extreme in the 1580s.

This image is more lifelike than later portraits, as it resulted from a sitting, possibly the last time Elizabeth posed for an artist. The resulting face pattern was used for many years, suggesting that she approved of the likeness. Elizabeth and her council realised that her image was a powerful political tool and a proclamation had been passed in 1563 to regulate its production. The proposal included creating a pattern for use by painters and engravers across the country, preserving the impression of flawless beauty. While the artist of this portrait is unrecorded, the sophisticated and swiftly rendered paint suggests a foreign painter, possibly from the Netherlands.

The crown and sceptre on a table beside the Queen mark the first appearance of these symbols being used as props (rather than worn or carried) in Tudor portraiture, a theme that would recur in later portraits. They were probably added right at the end, at the request of the patron, and are the work of a different, less competent artist. This is evidenced by the difference in the delicate paint handling of her dress, for example, in contrast to the methodical use of paint to depict the crown.

Technical analysis shows a drawing, beneath the paint, which evolved as the artist worked. The paint is freely handled, with wet-in-wet blending, in which fresh paint is layered over paint that is not completely dry, a technique indicating the high skill and mastery of the artist. English artists at this time tended to wait for one layer of paint to dry before adding another. We can see this wet-in-wet blending most clearly in Elizabeth’s fixed fan of colourful and exotic feathers, set into a handle.

Whoever commissioned the work (probably a courtier close to the Queen) may have given her the fan or the jewelled pendant hanging from her waist. These items are prominent in the painting and, to those in the know, would symbolise a familiar relationship between monarch and subject. Everyone at court offered gifts to the Queen at New Year and there are records of luxurious fans being presented, such as the one given by Dudley at New Year 1574. Frustratingly, none of the descriptions exactly match the item in this portrait, so they cannot help us identify the patron. The large pendant is typical of the Renaissance jewels often gifted to Elizabeth by her many suitors. This one comprises a large red ruby, surrounded by Roman deities such as Minerva and Neptune. Minerva is an entirely appropriate motif for Elizabeth, being a virgin and fighter for just causes who was also renowned for promoting peace.


The Darnley Portrait from 1575 was possibly the last time Elizabeth posed for an artist. The face pattern was used for many years afterwards.

Conservation work has revealed that the red pigment in the flesh tones has faded over time, giving Elizabeth a much paler appearance than originally intended. Her face was once rosier and more natural and her crimson gown was far richer in colour. The borders of the golden-brown pattern may have originally been a reddish purple, a change caused by the instability of the blue pigment ‘smalt’ as well as the fading of red lake. (Lake pigments are organic and not lightfast; they were often used during the Renaissance as translucent glazes to enhance the colours of rich fabrics and draperies.)

A reproduction of this dress was made in 1971 for the acclaimed BBC miniseries Elizabeth R. Costume designer Elizabeth Waller recreated a number of other gowns from official portraits, including the Armada and Ditchley outfits, and won an Emmy award for her work. The actor Glenda Jackson wore complex make-up to portray Elizabeth from a young princess to a wrinkled monarch; she even had her head partially shaved to achieve an extremely high hairline. Getting Jackson dressed was time-consuming and required considerable help, just as it would have done in the sixteenth century. Jean Hunnisett, the costumer who made the gowns, stated in her book Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women’s Dress 1500–1800 that ‘the whole operation of dressing Miss Jackson, including a full wig change, took four people about 20 minutes’.


There is no doubt that Elizabeth was attracted to handsome, charismatic men and during her reign she revelled in the flattery of a succession of courtiers including Christopher Hatton, Walter Raleigh and later Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. But Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was probably her greatest love.

The story of Elizabeth and Dudley has fascinated people for centuries and their relationship has been explored in books, films and television. They were the same age and had known each other since childhood. On becoming queen, she appointed him Master of the Horse – a great officer of the Royal Household. It meant responsibility for overseeing royal progresses, riding and hunting together almost daily and much personal contact.

Dudley was tall and handsome, loved music and the arts and was equally accomplished in dancing and jousting. In short, he was everything that Elizabeth found attractive in a man. He also had the ability to entertain her: they enjoyed sharing private jokes and teasing each other. Elizabeth often bestowed pet names and Robert became ‘Sweet Robin’ and her ‘Eyes’. They would play on the latter by drawing double ‘o’s as eyes in their frequent correspondence. The relationship could be stormy at times, when Dudley overstretched his power or became petulant. During one argument, prompted by his jealousy of another courtier, Elizabeth angrily declared, ‘I will have here but one mistress, and no master.’ However, Robert was soon forgiven.

The attraction between them was so obvious that it gave rise to gossip at home and abroad. Philip of Spain was informed that ‘Lord Robert has come so much into favour that he does whatever he likes with affairs and it is even said that her majesty visits him in his chamber day and night’. Many diplomats related that Elizabeth was enamoured of him – but Robert Dudley was already married. Rumours spread that the Queen would wed him if she could and then, in 1560, his wife Amy died by falling downstairs and breaking her neck. The circumstances were suspicious and a scandal ensued. William Cecil had long despaired that a Dudley match would bring ruin to the Queen and he was not alone. Kat Ashley, who had been Elizabeth’s devoted governess, begged her mistress to desist from her public display of affection. Robert had supported his father’s attempt to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne and the family were tainted by treason. Although they had returned to royal favour, the fact remained that both his father John and grandfather Edmund had been beheaded on Tower Hill. Historians have generally concluded that Robert was not involved in Amy’s death but, at the time, the damage was done. Coupled with the unpopularity of the Dudley family, it meant that Elizabeth could never marry him.

There has always been speculation on the possible sexual nature of the Dudley relationship, but it is highly unlikely that Elizabeth would have risked her throne by sleeping with her favourite. What is certain is that she wanted him by her side and trusted him completely. In 1562, the Queen contracted smallpox and it is a testament to her faith in Dudley that she requested he be made Lord Protector of England, should she die. After her recovery he was appointed to the Privy Council, gifted Kenilworth Castle in 1563 and elevated to Earl of Leicester in 1564. It’s clear he was not just an ornament of court, but a leading and influential figure in the Elizabethan administration, working alongside William Cecil. In the end, Robert Dudley and the Queen were close friends for more than thirty years and she was extremely jealous of his affections. Her love brought him fame, titles and power but, despite his best efforts, he would never achieve the ultimate prize of making Elizabeth his wife.


Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c. 1575, oil on panel, National Portrait Gallery, London

In this portrait, the 43-year-old Dudley wears a hugely expensive red silk or satin suit, finely embroidered with gold thread, and a jewelled hat with matching red feather. The badge of the Order of the Garter, which he joined in 1559, can be seen hanging from his neck and again in the background, enclosing his coat of arms and topped with his Earl’s coronet.

His doublet (jacket) is fashionably tight-fitting to accentuate his shape. It is padded above the waistline (like a pea in a pod) and extends lower than the natural waist, dipping down to a point at the front. Known as a ‘peascod’ doublet, it was viewed as a projection of masculinity, in a similar way to the codpiece in portraits of Henry VIII. It is matched with pumpkin-shaped trunk-hose, stiffened and padded with bombast (stuffing of cotton or horsehair) and constructed in slashed panes of fabric to reveal a contrasting silk underneath. In 1562, this flamboyant and extravagant fashion was the subject of sumptuary legislation that regulated its volume and the amount of fabric used in its construction.

As Elizabeth’s reign progressed, so hose became much shorter, revealing shapely limbs clad in brightly coloured stockings. This portrait may originally have depicted Dudley full-length, allowing for the display of his comely legs, but most likely due to woodworm, the panel has been cut down. For an Elizabethan gentleman, the ideal leg to aspire to would be lean, muscular and elongated, as shown in the background of the Sieve Portrait (fig. 9). However, although the knitted silk stockings had some stretch, it is unlikely that the wrinkle-free depiction of male legs in Tudor portraiture reflected reality.

The sleeves were detachable, padded and often decorated with an embroidered pattern, as seen in this case at the wrist. There is ‘pinking’ (decorative cuts) on the surface of his doublet and it is further embellished with twenty gold buttons. Gold buttons were considered a masculine feature and an expensive item of display.

Although stylish, the Earl’s high ruff would have restricted his ability to turn his head, requiring a turn of the whole body, and the tight doublet inhibited turning at the waist. The result would have been a very mannered style of movement, indicating the wearer’s high status in clothes unsuited to any kind of physical labour and looking unnatural, restrictive and highly uncomfortable. The ideal male silhouette of this period had hips as well as a waist and appeared oddly curvaceous.

Such high-standing collars and large ruffs were accompanied by shorter hair for men, so as not to interfere with the neckline. The Earl’s hair is here brushed upwards at the forehead, which suited the popular crowned hat of the period.

This panel has been constructed from three panels of high-quality Eastern Baltic oak taken from a tree felled between 1568 and 1579. In conjunction with the fashions described above and noting Dudley’s moustache and beard, which are precisely trimmed in keeping with 1570s fashion, this confirms the attributed date of c. 1575. Infrared technology reveals extensive under-drawing and tracing, suggesting that Robert Dudley’s image was initially taken from a pattern and then built up in freehand once transferred to the panel. Interestingly, the artist’s preparatory drawing, produced almost 500 years ago, is today revealed to the naked eye through the thinning surface of the paint.


Robert Dudley was interested in his own image and how it could be used to spectacular effect, furthering his cause to marry the Queen.

This may be the portrait listed in Dudley’s inventory at Kenilworth Castle, in which he is described as wearing ‘a sute of russet satten and velvet welted’ and which is associated with Elizabeth’s visit there in 1575. The occasion was his last desperate and spectacular attempt to persuade Elizabeth to marry him. Sparing no expense, he invited her to Kenilworth, on his Warwickshire estate, and staged weeks of extraordinarily lavish entertainments at a huge cost.

Most Elizabethan courtiers sat for their portraits infrequently. Even among foreign rulers, few commissioned as many paintings of themselves as Robert Dudley, of whom at least twenty are known, although there were probably more. A reasonable number still exist, notably at the National Portrait Gallery, the Wallace Collection and Waddesdon Manor. There was also a demand for copies of his portrait, a version of which survives in the collection at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, as evidence that it was disseminated. The Earl was good-looking and vain, but this was not the only reason for all his self-portraits. In common with Elizabeth, he was particularly interested in his own image and how it could be used, along with clothing, to spectacular effect – in his case, furthering his cause to marry the Queen by depicting a handsome, virile nobleman who aspired to match with her. The pose of this portrait also lends it to being hung as a pair, with a possible ‘pendant’ picture of Elizabeth hung side by side, as if they were a couple.

For all Tudor people, clothing was the principal marker of class, an expression of status and identity. The Elizabethan elite favoured complex surface decoration on silks, satins and velvet, which could be padded, slashed and embroidered. For men, dress was more effeminate than in the previous generation. The bulky, layered appearance of Henry VIII’s reign, designed to make the male sex look aggressive and dominant, had disappeared and the loose-fitting top gown of Henry’s reign, which featured so prominently in his iconic portraits, was now usually replaced by a dashing cloak, typically worn over one shoulder.

In addition to being one of the most influential people at the Elizabethan court, Robert Dudley was also an ardent patron of artists, recognised throughout Europe as the greatest collector in England. In 1574, he persuaded the celebrated Italian Federico Zuccaro to come to England, where the artist completed life-sized portraits of the Queen and Dudley, to be displayed together at Kenilworth. The Earl owned a staggering 200 paintings and, interestingly, he did not take the English view of painters as simply craftsmen but held the Renaissance belief that great artists deserved status. His galleries at Kenilworth, Wanstead Manor and Leicester House, London, included works by Nicholas Hilliard, François Clouet and Paolo Veronese. He collected pictures of various foreign princes and dignitaries; Catherine de’ Medici sent him a painting of her son, the Duke of Anjou (who would later become a rival for Elizabeth’s hand).

Dudley’s executed forbears were not included in the galleries, although he did own portraits of his immediate family such as his nephew Sir Philip Sidney, who acted as his artistic agent in Europe. Unsurprisingly, he commissioned at least seven portraits of Elizabeth, and he set a trend amongst courtiers to have coded references to themselves in their pictures of the Queen. This might take the form of including items of clothing or accessories gifted to Elizabeth by the patron. For those aware of the signs, it would confirm the intimacy of the courtier’s relationship with their sovereign.

The Queen and her court were the source of advancement and patronage for ambitious young men. They competed for her favour and Elizabeth played them off against each other, just as she did with foreign suitors, so increasing her own power. Gentlemen wore ever more colourful, extravagant and impractical outfits in their bid to be noticed by the Queen, whether they were dancing or jousting.

As previously mentioned, sitting for a portrait was an infrequent event and the subject’s most expensive clothing was worn. This proclaimed the status of the wearer to the contemporary viewer because legislation stated that everyone dressed according to their rank. In practice, these laws were hard to enforce but it is safe to assume that, while an individual might break the rules in everyday life, they would draw the line at having the transgression recorded in paint. Therefore, this elite outfit – and Dudley’s right to wear it – is significant. Elizabeth demanded a sense of style and her courtiers spent vast sums on their wardrobes to impress her. It was not uncommon for men to mortgage their estates or sell land to pay mercers and tailors, in the hope of advancement at court. The jealous rivals were encouraged to compete, like colourful, virile peacocks, in elaborate and ever more impractical swagger.


There was no shortage of eminent suitors to the Queen of England and she was able to use her marriage prospects as a political tool for most of her reign. Elizabeth encouraged and enjoyed the attentions of powerful men such as Philip of Spain, Erik XIV of Sweden, the Archduke Charles of Austria and the Duke of Anjou, who were kept in hope of winning her hand. In this way, England could ensure their friendship, while Elizabeth made a deliberate policy of protracted negotiations, blending romance with diplomacy. If she chose one candidate in the ‘marriage game’, it would upset the delicate political balance of her foreign policy by alienating his rivals.


Steven van der Meulen (or George Gower), c. 1563, oil on canvas transferred to panel, private collection

The first known full-length depiction of England’s Queen is thought to have been created expressly for this royal marriage market. The Hampden Portrait by Steven van der Meulen was painted in 1563 as a gift from Queen Elizabeth to Griffith Hampden to commemorate her visit to Hampden House and is today in a private collection. It’s filled with messages of beauty, fidelity and fertility as Elizabeth is depicted with a background of luscious fruits and flowers. She is clearly young and the image proclaims her marriage potential and ability to bear children. To avoid any doubt, she even holds a sixteenth-century symbol of betrothal and motherly love: the carnation flower. The choice of a red and white dress perhaps signifies the union of York and Lancaster. The red and white Tudor rose was created by combining the emblem of the House of Lancaster (the red rose) with that of the House of York (the white rose). These rival houses were united in 1486 by the marriage of the Lancastrian Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, after years of civil war (the Wars of the Roses). The Tudor rose was used in Elizabeth’s portraits to refer to the Tudor dynasty and the unity it brought. The rose also had religious connotations, as the medieval symbol of the Virgin Mary, and here it alludes to Elizabeth as her secular successor.

This message appears again in her Tudor rose collar and her corsage, where the placing of oak leaves, instead of rose leaves, may be a playful reference to Robert Dudley (quercus robur, the Latin for English oak, possibly puns on his first name). This early portrait of the Queen is notable for its lifelike depiction of Elizabeth – showing her own hair – before the construction of the bewigged, painted ‘goddess’ we find in much later portraits. It is a portrait that would have appealed to her princely admirers in their palaces around Europe.

The only foreign suitor to actually visit Elizabeth was the Duke of Anjou, youngest son of Henri II of France, who was 24 when he arrived in 1579. The French prince was short in stature and pockmarked, but must have possessed great charm, for the 46-year-old Queen was soon quite taken with him. She enjoyed being wooed in person by an illustrious suitor, who (of course) declared passionate love for her, and she fondly called him her ‘Frog’. The political motive for this match was to form an alliance against Spain but there was much resentment from Robert Dudley, Christopher Hatton and other favourites and – as always – plenty of obstacles in the way. Anjou was not only Catholic but heir presumptive to the French throne. The Puritan pamphleteer John Stubbs drew public attention to this ‘contrary coupling’ and lost his right hand as punishment for incurring the Queen’s wrath. Elizabeth and Anjou enjoyed a lengthy courtship but, after strong opposition from the Privy Council, she finally said farewell to her ‘Frog’. The poem she penned about him, ‘On Monsieur’s Departure’, demonstrates poetic skill and a true depth of feeling belonging to Elizabeth the mortal woman. It suggests her feelings for Anjou may have been genuine, or perhaps she was lamenting the end of courtship itself, believing him to be her last suitor:


The Hampden Portrait of Elizabeth is notable for its early lifelike depiction and would have appealed to her royal admirers in their palaces around Europe.

I grieve and dare not show my discontent;

I love, and yet am forced to seem to hate;

I do, yet dare not say I ever meant;

I seem stark mute, but inwardly do prate.

I am, and not; I freeze and yet am burned,

Since from myself another self I turned.


‘This shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin.’

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth’s Anglican Church largely rejected the Catholic worship of the Virgin Mary and this played to the Queen’s advantage; the vacancy was now a position she intended to fill herself and courtly love would be infused with religious veneration. The ‘religion’ of Elizabeth would see her ‘Accession Day’ become a national holiday, like a saint’s day, celebrated with increased fervour.

At the same time, she promoted her maiden state – a fact that was to form the substance of her legend. The ‘Virgin Queen’ was portrayed as a selfless woman who sacrificed romantic love and personal happiness for the good of the nation. Elizabeth wore a pelican jewel in several portraits as a symbol of her selfless love for her people. The message would not be lost on contemporary observers; according to legend, the pelican pricked its own breast to feed its children with the blood and save their lives. In the process of feeding, the mother would die. In the Middle Ages the pelican came to represent Jesus sacrificing himself on the cross for the good of mankind and the sacrament of communion, feeding the faithful with his body and blood (see fig. 12).

Was Elizabeth I really a virgin? We have no conclusive proof, one way or another. At home and abroad, rumours about her love life circulated. The King of France joked that one of the great questions of the day was ‘whether Queen Elizabeth was a maid or no’ and plenty of hostile Catholic sources claimed the Queen was engaged in secret sexual liaisons and had even given birth to illegitimate children.

However, while Elizabeth may have enjoyed some physical intimacy with Robert Dudley, it is unlikely that full sexual intercourse took place. An unplanned pregnancy was simply too great a risk to her throne and she would never have recovered from the scandal of a sexual affair. Any sure proof of the slurs on her chastity would have ruined her value on the international marriage market.

Furthermore, the Queen had no private life to speak of, constantly surrounded by her ladies, who guarded her chastity even when she slept. A clandestine sexual relationship would have been impossible to conceal as, according to the Queen herself, ‘a thousand eyes see all I do’.


Quentin Metsys II, c. 1583, oil on canvas, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

Much of Elizabeth’s public image was based on the metaphor of chastity, such as allusions to Diana, the maiden goddess who swore never to marry. Further motifs included the use of pearls – precious stones closely associated with the sea and with purity. As Governor of the Church, England’s maiden queen served as a replacement for the Catholic Virgin of former times. Indeed, as her reign progressed, the Queen’s unmarried state became an increasingly important symbol of her devotion to her kingdom. She also used it to control her male courtiers, positioning herself as the unobtainable lady of courtly love. In Elizabethan poetry, sonneteers such as William Shakespeare and Philip Sidney addressed themselves to just such a lady.

The ‘Sieve Portraits’ celebrate the Queen’s discernment and chastity, while also depicting Elizabethan imperialism, and are directly related to her status as a ‘Virgin Queen’. They were painted by various artists, from 1579 into the early 1580s, and depict Elizabeth carrying a sieve – a symbol of wisdom and purity from classical mythology.

In the Metsys version, the Queen wears a striking outfit of black and white, which together symbolise chastity and constancy. Her simple black gown acts as a foil to offset the delicacy of her exquisite white lace ruff, veil and cuffs, as well as her jewelled girdle, pearls and brooch.

A humble sieve is a piece of equipment used by artisans to sift that which is desirable and useful from that which is merely waste. Around the rim of the sieve, an inscription translates as: ‘The good falls to the ground while the bad remains …’ This sieve is therefore telling us that Elizabeth is endowed with great discernment.


The Sieve Portraits are directly related to Elizabeth’s discernment and chastity. Elizabeth is shown carrying a sieve, a symbol of wisdom and purity from classical mythology.

The theme of purity comes from ancient Rome and Vestal Virgins, who took vows of chastity and were not expected to marry. They served Vesta, goddess of hearth and home, and were tasked with the care for the sacred flame of the temple dedicated to her.

Petrarch’s fourteenth-century poem The Triumph of Chastity relates the tale of one of these attendants. Tuccia proves her maidenhood by carrying water in a sieve from the River Tiber to the temple, without spilling a drop. The popularity of Petrarch’s work made this story very familiar and Elizabeth would have read it in Italian. So, here she is presented as Tuccia and the sieve glorifies her virgin status, while associating England – and her imperial ambitions – with the Roman Empire.

Symbols of this new English Empire include a heavily embellished pillar and a globe, showing ships sailing west in search of the New World. This iconography would appear again in her portraiture of the 1580s and 1590s, most notably in the Armada Portrait of 1588.

The pillar reinforces the message of Elizabeth’s independence and is studded with medallions telling the classical story of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and her doomed love affair with the Trojan prince Aeneas. On orders from the god Jupiter, Aeneas abandoned Dido and went on to command the Roman Empire. In other words, Aeneas resists the temptations of love for the good of the people. Importantly, the viewer is asked to see Elizabeth not as the female, Dido, but as the male, Aeneas, who rejects marriage for a greater destiny.

The globe behind Elizabeth’s left shoulder is a statement of England’s growing power as an imperial nation, engaged in trade and exploration by sea. The Queen’s advisor and astrologer John Dee was the first to use the term ‘empire’ and he advocated the founding of English colonies in the New World. The presence of the globe here is a clear statement of defiance towards England’s great rival, the Spanish Empire, and its colonisation of the Americas.

In the background, top right, we can see the courtier who almost certainly commissioned the work: Sir Christopher Hatton, England’s Lord Chancellor. He can be identified by a symbol from his heraldic crest – the golden hind (a female deer) – which is painted here on his hanging sleeve. (Hatton was also a patron of Sir Francis Drake, who circumnavigated the world and named his famous galleon The Golden Hind.) The Chancellor, who is followed by a young page, is the only figure in the composition who looks directly at Elizabeth. Beyond him, we can see members of Elizabeth’s Yeomen of the Guard, whom Hatton commanded. He had long been in great favour with the Queen and this work may express his jealous disapproval of her proposed marriage to François, Duke of Anjou, by emphasising her identity as a maiden. Nicholas Hilliard described Hatton as having ‘a very low forehead’ and not that handsome; it was his skill at dancing that first attracted the Queen.

Quentin Metsys the Younger (1543–89) was a Flemish painter, the grandson and namesake of the acclaimed Quentin Metsys (1466–1530), who is regarded as the founder of the Antwerp school of painting. It is known that Elizabeth I liked the work of the young Metsys because, as early as 1577, she tried to purchase his Burial of Christ triptych from the Carpenters’ Guild in Antwerp. By 1581 he was living and working in London, confident of commissions and possibly having fled religious persecution. Seven years later he left for Frankfurt and died there not long after. Metsys is best known for this Sieve Portrait of Elizabeth and signed it (on the base of the globe) ‘1583. Q. MASSYS ANT’ (for ‘of Antwerp’).

The painting was thought to be lost for many years but came to light in the nineteenth century, found rolled up in the attic of the Royal Palace of Siena. Today it hangs nearby in the Pinacoteca Nazionale.

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