Elizabethan Arts: The Golden Age




The Golden Age of Elizabethan arts reached its height in the last decade or so of the Queen’s reign, from the 1590s until her death in 1603, when the English Renaissance fully blossomed. Drama was the dominant art form, attracting an estimated 15,000 people from the growing population of London to attend the theatre each week. Christopher Marlowe was arguably the first great playwright of the era, but after his death in 1593, it was William Shakespeare who dominated the London theatre.

The Royal Shakespeare Company consider The Taming of the Shrew to be the dramatist’s earliest play, believed to have been written before 1592. Two Gentlemen of VeronaA Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard II are examples from the mid-1590s. Hamlet was written around 1600 and All’s Well that Ends Well is thought to span the period between the death of Elizabeth and the coronation of James I. Macbeth (also known as ‘The Scottish Play’) and King Lear are among a large body of work that falls within the Jacobean period.


In the early days of Elizabeth’s rule, the morality plays of the medieval era were still being performed, as were stories enacted by strolling players. These were tales written in the vernacular, acted by semi-professional groups, generally in the streets, without scenery and with a minimum of props. But as Elizabeth’s reign progressed, plays became more complex, playhouses opened and the stage of the later Tudor era became accessible to the public on a level that was only rivalled by the Church. Theatregoing became hugely popular with the poorer classes, who somehow found the time and money to go and see plays that today might be considered elitist.

The first purpose-built playhouse was the unimaginatively named Theatre, opened in Shoreditch in 1576, followed by the Curtain a year later. By 1587 the Rose, known for its connections with Christopher Marlowe, had been built beside the Thames in Southwark. In 1572, players were defined as vagabonds and criminals who were subject to arrest, whipping or branding. Religious and civic authorities condemned the playhouses as a scandal and an outrage. To avoid prosecution, theatres clustered around the Southwark area, which was known as a ‘liberty’. In other words, it was outside the city boundaries, beyond the control of the Lord Mayor, and a part of London where all sorts of prohibited activities could take place openly. The original Globe Theatre opened in Southwark in 1599, to house a group of players known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. They were a company of six actors who each took shares in the theatre to fund its construction. The young William Shakespeare was a member and wrote most of their plays. His genius for wordplay and dramatic dialogue was unprecedented.

The actors associated with these theatres were generally sponsored by noble patrons. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, organised a public performance in the courtyard of the Bell Inn, Bishopsgate, London, in 1574. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had been formed in 1594 by Elizabeth’s chamberlain, Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, and the Admiral’s Men were under the patronage of Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham, who in 1585 was appointed England’s Lord High Admiral. Powerful patrons made an enormous difference to the opportunities available to the companies they sponsored.

Elizabethan theatres could hold as many as 3,000 spectators. They were built from wood and open to the elements, so if it rained, the actors and most of the audience got wet. Seating was available in a covered gallery for those able to pay the price and – for a lesser entrance fee – there was also an open section at the front of the stage, known as the yard, where the audience could stand. In 1599, a penny would gain admittance to the yard, a seat in the gallery cost 2d and a place with a better view and a cushion increased the price to 3d. Money was collected in a box, which was then stored in the box office. To put the prices into perspective, a quart of ale in a tavern was 4d and an hour with a prostitute would set one back 6d. In his Plays Confuted in Five Actions of 1582, Stephen Gosson describes how ‘it is the fashion of youths to go first into the gallery, then, like ravens where they spye the carion, thither they fly, and press as nere to the fairest as they can’.

There was little scenery in an Elizabethan play, which made descriptive words crucial, whereas costumes could help the audience recognise the social class of the characters. Women were forbidden to appear on stage and so boys took the female roles. It appears that at the age of around 18 the boys either transferred to playing male roles or left the company. However, this was not always true, because there is an anecdote concerning a performance that was delayed because ‘the queen was shaving’.

Going to the theatre could also be hazardous. In 1587 a playgoer wrote to his father that he had seen a performance by the Admiral’s Men in which an actor accidentally used a live musket. Tragically, shots were fired into the audience, where they ‘killed a woman great with child forthwith and hit another man in the head full sore’. The Queen must have heard of it, for the Admiral’s Men were banned from Christmas revels at court that year.

Elizabeth’s reign was arguably the most splendid era of English literature, when names familiar to us today first found fame. Christopher Marlowe, the son of a Canterbury shoemaker, was Shakespeare’s most noted predecessor and a writer who established blank verse as a standard for Elizabethan writing. His earliest known play, Tamburlaine the Great, is based on the life of Timur, a fourteenth-century conqueror of Central Asia whose ambitious quest for power took him from lowly shepherd boy to the throne of Persia. But Marlowe’s most famous work is perhaps The Tragicall History of Dr Faustus, the tale of a doctor who attains knowledge and power by selling his soul to the devil. Marlowe himself was a self-confessed atheist and on 18 May 1593 the Privy Council issued an order for his arrest on charges of denying the deity of Jesus Christ’. Twelve days later, the playwright was stabbed to death at a lodging house in Deptford, possibly during an argument over an unpaid bill. However, his death has also been linked to espionage at the highest level: it’s possible that Marlowe was part of Elizabeth’s secret service.

A new genre of Elizabethan theatre was introduced by Thomas Kyd when he wrote The Spanish Tragedy, a revenge play and one of the most popular works of the era. A company of players under the patronage of Lord Strange performed it sixteen times in 1592. One of the characters is a personification of revenge, there are several murders and some elements, such as a vengeful ghost, are echoed later in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Few other plays are attributed to Kyd with any certainty. He was arrested and tortured in 1593 after letters discovered in lodgings he shared with Christopher Marlowe suggested that he, too, was an atheist. By December 1594, Kyd had died, aged 35, leaving little behind him to further illuminate the story of his life.

Ben Jonson’s career was diverse; born in London, from a poor background, he worked as a bricklayer, fought in the Dutch war against Spain, became an actor and a poet and wrote numerous masques and plays, both comedy and tragedy. His bold and aggressive nature led him into serious trouble and he was accused of killing the actor Gabriel Spenser, only narrowly escaping the gallows. Jonson wrote numerous plays known as ‘get- penny entertainments’, which were quickly composed pieces written solely for financial gain. By contrast, he was also a man of letters who understood the classics, particularly Horace and Aristotle. Referring to his literary craftsmanship and Jonson’s views on the supremacy of classical models, the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope considered he had ‘brought critical learning into vogue’.

A royal proclamation of 16 May 1559 forbade discussion of religion or politics in popular drama but it appears to have been largely ignored; during a theatrical performance at Cambridge University in 1564, Elizabeth was incensed by the sight of the Bishops Bonner and Gardiner eating a lamb and a dog bone in mockery of the sacrament. Edmund Bonner was known as ‘bloody Bonner’ for his persecution of Protestants during the reign of Mary I and, on becoming Queen, the young Elizabeth had shrunk away in horror when he had attempted to kiss her hand. Nevertheless, as a powerful show of displeasure towards this play, she walked out of the theatre and instructed the torchbearers to accompany her, leaving the performance in darkness.

Allegory and ambiguity were watchwords for Elizabethan poets and playwrights, as in the Wiltshire-born poet John Davies’s poem ‘To the Queene. The poem appears to praise the Queen, but soon becomes more ambiguous. Davies writes, ‘For you which downe from heaven are sent, such peace upon the earth to bring’, a verse that could be understood as praise of the Queen, but which is also critical of Elizabeth’s failing to deliver the mentioned peace at a time when England was almost continually in conflict with Spain.

In music too, Elizabeth was muse. A collection of madrigals by the leading composers of the day was assembled in 1601 by Thomas Morley, the most famous composer of secular music in England. It was titled, The Triumphs of Oriana and each madrigal finished with the phrase ‘long live fair Oriana’, an extravagant musical compliment to Queen Elizabeth I.

Members of the upper classes were expected to have an appreciation of music and because an understanding of it required intellect, it was considered a greater skill than playing an instrument. Music had long been associated with wantonness and unchaste behaviour and so Elizabeth would only conduct musical performances in her private rooms. She would surely have remembered that her mother Anne Boleyn was accused of an affair with the musician, Mark Smeaton. Sir James Melville, the Scottish ambassador, surprised Elizabeth while she was playing the virginals and he claims that she stopped playing the moment she saw him. ‘She came forward, seeming to strike me with her hand; alleging she used not to play before men.’

Elizabeth and her court would spend a part of each summer on progress to visit and lodge with her noblemen. She was naturally at the centre of the lavish entertainments they prepared for her and was consistently addressed as muse, but careful judgement was required from her hosts. In 1575, the poet George Gascoyne designed entertainments for the Queen’s visit to Robert Dudley at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. In the opening scene of the play, Diana and Zabeta, Elizabeth was greeted by the ‘Lady of the Lake’ and hailed as the greatest British sovereign since King Arthur. However, when the character Triton posed the question of whether the Queen should marry, it was not well received and the play did not continue. Gascoigne claimed it was due to unseasonable weather, but more likely, Elizabeth objected to being associated with the lost nymph Zabeta whom Juno tried for sixteen years to win over to marriage but to whom she continually refused to yield.

The 1590s saw Elizabeth growing older and England still in conflict with Spain. It was a time of rising food prices, heavy taxation and social unrest, worsened by Elizabeth’s refusal to name her successor. At the Christmas celebrations of 1600, the chronicler Anthony Rivers wrote that Elizabeth’s make-up was in parts half an inch thick and he noted that ‘she has become a memento mori of herself’. It is regrettably true that there was little precedent of older women in the arts, with aged women generally representing sin, vice or even witchcraft.

The Queen’s death could not be broached either directly or indirectly while she was living, but after she died in 1603, the image Elizabeth had constructed for herself became a stage prop. It continues to evolve today through artistic reimagining and reworking. During the forty-four years of her reign, Elizabeth was disguised beneath layers of make-up, wigs, elaborate costumes, jewels and masks. That raises the question of how much we can now truly know of the face behind the mask and of the real Queen Elizabeth I.


Attributed to John Taylor, c. 1600/10, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

‘One man in his time plays many parts.’

William Shakespeare

This portrait of William Shakespeare is the only known image that has a claim to have been painted from life. George Vertue, a seventeenth-century antiquarian, notes that the picture was at one time owned by the poet and playwright William Davenant, Shakespeare’s godson, who was born in 1606. Vertue adds that it was painted by ‘one Taylor, a player and painter’, possibly referring to the artist John Taylor, a member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company and a contemporary of Shakespeare, but the name of Richard Burbage, artist and actor manager at the Globe Theatre, has also been considered.


This painting of William Shakespeare, in the National Portrait Gallery, is the only known image that has a claim to have been painted from life.

It is named the Chandos Portrait after the Duke of Chandos, who acquired it in 1789, and it has been awarded the designation NPG1 because it was the first portrait received into the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, donated in 1856 by the Earls of Ellesmere.

Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, Shakespeare was the son of a glover and wool trader. His father made a name for himself in the civic life of Stratford, becoming Bailiff (mayor) of the town of around 1,000 residents when William was aged 4. The young Shakespeare attended the King’s New School, the local free grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he received an intensive and excellent education, based upon Latin classical authors.

In 1582, aged 18, he married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his elder and pregnant at the time. They had three children together, the lastborn being twins who were baptised in Stratford in 1585.

The playwright made his reputation by 1592, but the seven years between the christening of his twins and his arrival on the London scene are often referred to as ‘The Lost Years’ because practically nothing is known about his whereabouts. Shakespeare’s name appears again in 1593 with the publication of his first long poem, Venus and Adonis, followed by The Rape of Lucrece the following year.

Writing for the Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare produced an average of two plays a year for almost twenty years. Sadly, no original manuscripts of his estimated thirty-eight plays or 154 sonnets survive. The ‘First Folio’ is the first collected edition of Shakespeare plays, published in 1623, seven years after the writer’s death. Five copies of these large and valuable books are conserved in the British Library in London. Before 1642, twenty-one plays were printed in quarto (named after the size of the paper on which they were printed). The earliest copies were anonymous and Shakespeare’s name does not appear on a title page until 1598 with Love’s Labour’s Lost. Queen Elizabeth saw several of the plays performed and appears to have enjoyed them, with The Merry Wives of Windsor being a particular favourite. Since the eighteenth century, it has been rumoured that it was written after she commanded Shakespeare to write a play showing the character Falstaff falling in love. This is now considered unlikely, although it is recorded that Elizabeth watched the play. Her love of theatre made it respectable and the quality of Shakespeare’s work ensured the Globe was packed with spectators every night. As he received a share of the box office, it made him financially successful and, by 1597, he was able to buy New Place, the second largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon. The writer then appears to have divided his time between London and Stratford, an exhausting and dangerous commute of around two or three days.

During the 400-plus years since it was painted, this portrait has suffered physically. The surface has thinned, parts of the face have been overpainted in a darker pink and the varnish has discoloured. The collar on the costume has been darkened by brown varnish and the erosion of the paint has meant areas of the grey underpainting are also visible, along with the weave of the canvas. On the collar of the costume, only minor areas of original white pigment remain unaffected. A small patch of test cleaning on the forehead reveals that, originally, Shakespeare was painted with a much paler complexion.

The striking gold earring stands out brightly despite the damage. It was painted with a lead tin yellow, a pigment common from the fifteenth to seventeenth century, which confirms it is an original feature. Earrings were worn extensively by men in the Elizabethan age to display wealth and status and ranged from the common gold hoop to extravagant elaborations of pearls and jewels.

Intriguingly, Shakespeare’s hair has been substantially lengthened in a prior restoration and his beard is longer and more pointed. Ongoing investigations will reveal further information and assess the possibility of removing the old varnish to reveal the portrait in its original form. However, the paint was thinly applied and the surface abraded by crude attempts to clean it in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and so it is a delicate task to remove the overpainted hair and beard without damaging the picture surface. It could also be argued that as the amendments to the picture most likely took place over 300 years ago, the overpainting itself is of historical interest and should therefore remain.

The ruff had fallen out of favour by 1610 and the simple black doublet and white open-necked shirt with loose ties were emblematic of poets and writers. They are also seen in the portrait of the writer Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary, and that of the poet John Donne, both pictures forming part of the National Portrait Gallery collection.

Following Shakespeare’s death on 23 April 1616, two images of the playwright were produced. The Stratford Memorial bust was erected in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, between his death in 1616 and 1623, and an engraving by Martin Droeshout, an English artist of Flemish descent, was published in 1623, along with the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays. The sculpted bust was installed in the church during the lifetime of Shakespeare’s two daughters and it was seen by members of the town who had known him. Ben Jonson is thought to have said that it was ‘true to life’. The Chandos portrait bears a striking resemblance to both works and so it can confidently be assumed a true likeness of this remarkable English writer, described on his monument as a ‘Socrates in mind and a Virgil in art’.


Unknown artist, c. 1576, oil on panel, National Portrait Gallery, London

‘Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite, “Fool,” said my Muse to me; “look in thy heart and write.”’

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney is the epitome of an Elizabethan gentleman – a poet, a statesman and a soldier. Born in Penshurst, Kent, in 1554, he came from an influential family that included his uncle Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He was the grandson of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and heir presumptive to the Earldoms of Leicester and Warwick.

His mother, Mary Dudley, was lady-in-waiting to the Queen and cared for Elizabeth after she contracted smallpox. The young Philip and his mother were both infected with the disease and Mary was left heavily disfigured. The poet Ben Jonson wrote that when she appeared in public, she always wore a mask, and four of Sidney’s Certain Sonnets (8–11), first printed in 1598, are concerned with the face of a beautiful woman disfigured by disease. Philip was also scarred but no hint of this appears in his portrait.

The young Philip was sent away to school at 10 years old, to be educated at Shrewsbury School, Shropshire, before continuing his education at Christ Church, Oxford University. His stay there was cut short by an outbreak of plague in 1571 and he travelled in Europe. It was in Venice, in February 1574, that Sidney sat for a (now lost) portrait by the artist Paolo Veronese.

Home in England in 1575, he met Penelope Devereux, the inspiration behind his famous sonnet sequence of the 1580s, Astrophil and Stella. There was mention of marriage, but her father, Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex, died in 1576, ending negotiations. Astrophil and Stella is a sequence of 108 sonnets and eleven songs, which tell the story of Astrophil, his name meaning ‘star-lover’ in Greek, and his hopeless passion for Stella, the Latin word for ‘star’. Sidney adapted the Petrarchan sonnet to write it and produced the first ever sonnet sequence in English. It ends when Stella confesses that although she loves Astrophil, she is unable to consummate the affair.

Sidney did not forget Penelope and they appear to have met again at court around the time of her marriage to Lord Robert Rich in 1581. There is no proof they had an affair, but he expresses his feelings for her in poetic form and there are puns suggesting that Stella is based on Penelope, Lady Rich. In Sonnet 35, for example, Astrophil says ‘long needie Fame / Doth even grow rich, meaning my Stellas name’. If Penelope was Stella, then perhaps Astrophil is Sidney, who regrets his neglect of her when she became the wife of Lord Robert Rich.

However, in 1583, at the age of 29, Sidney married Frances, the 16-year-old daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, in whose house he had lodged a decade earlier, during the St Bartholomew Day Massacres in Paris.


Sir Philip Sidney was considered the epitome of an Elizabethan gentleman – a poet, a statesman and a soldier. He died in battle aged 31.

The same year, he wrote the essay The Defence of Poetry. It argues that by combining the historical and the philosophical, poetry becomes more powerful than either individual subject. It is one of the most important tracts on poetry written during the Elizabethan era and one that can today claim the status of a classic text.

Sidney’s two versions of Arcadia are arguably his most ambitious works. They were written with the advice and support of his sister Mary, Countess of Pembroke. Excepting the Queen, Mary Sidney was one of the greatest female writers and patrons in Elizabethan England and the person to whom Sidney dedicated the work. She also acted as his literary executor following his death. In The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, 1580, Philip Sidney was the first to put into print the phrase ‘my better half’ to mean spouse.

A few years after his marriage, Sidney travelled to the Netherlands to serve under his uncle, the Earl of Leicester. During the conflict with the Spanish at Zutphen, he was shot and his leg shattered above the knee. According to a famous legend, while lying wounded he gave his water to another injured soldier, saying, ‘Thy necessity is yet greater than mine.’ The bullet was too deep to be removed, amputation does not seem to have been considered and Sidney died a few weeks later of gangrene.

His body was taken back to London to be buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in February 1587. The Lord Mayor marched in his solemn funeral procession, with a huge retinue. Although paid for by his father-in-law, Walsingham, it had all the appearance of a state funeral. Such an event, for a private individual, was not seen again until that of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965. There is a theory it was deliberately grand to draw attention away from the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, that same month. Sidney was just 31 at his death and described as ‘the flower of England’.

This portrait depicts him in his early twenties, wearing a piece of armour for the neck known as a gorget, under a white ruff, over an elegant white-slashed doublet. He is painted as a courtier, rather than as a poet, wearing expensive, elaborate clothes. The decorated sword beside his hip sends a message of his importance and elite status. There are numerous small areas of restoration in the face, which possibly indicated a small moustache at the corners of the mouth.

Composed of three panels, this picture is unusually made from two vertical panels of East Baltic oak and one of English board. Dendrochronology reveals that the picture could not have been painted before 1561 and was most likely from a tree felled between 1561 and 1577, agreeing with the attributed date of 1576. Apart from the old varnish residue, there are black deposits which could be soot, a very human touch perhaps indicating the smoky interiors of Elizabethan homes. The inscriptions may not have been applied at the same time and it is possible that they are a later addition.


Not only poetry and drama flourished in the latter part of Elizabeth I’s reign; the Golden Age also extended to craft and design. The Queen’s spectacularly embroidered gowns are meticulously depicted within her portraits and provide a detailed and lasting testament to the skill of Elizabethan needleworkers.


Sixteenth-Century fabric, on loan to Historic Royal Palaces, Hampton Court Palace

In 2016, an embroidered altar cloth in the small church of St Faith’s in Bacton, Herefordshire, could be seen framed and displayed on the north wall, as it had been since 1909. It was clearly very old, but over the years no-one had discovered just how unusual it was. At one time, the vicar had apparently slept with it under his bed because there was nowhere else to keep it.

The embroidery is unique because it is the only surviving provenanced piece of material from any of Elizabeth I’s extensive and impressive wardrobe of more than 1,900 dresses. She is wearing the dress that this particular piece of material almost certainly came from in the Rainbow Portrait (fig. 13).

The fabric has traditionally been associated with Blanche Parry, Elizabeth’s Chief Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber. Parry was born in Newcourt, near Bacton. There is a memorial to her within the church and her ancestors lie in the graveyard. However, when she died in 1590, at the age of 82, she was buried in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, leaving her memorial at Bacton empty.

Tracy Borman, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, visited Blanche Parry’s tomb while researching her book, Elizabeth’s Women, and saw the cloth hanging on the wall as she was leaving the church. She suspected something special and alerted Eleri Lynn, a curator of textiles for HRP. The evident pattern cutting made it clear that it had come from a dress, and the high-quality silver silk, embroidered with gold and silver, denoted it belonged to someone of the highest rank. Its association with Blanche Parry led quickly to the possibility of it having belonged to Elizabeth I.


The Bacton Altar Cloth is the only surviving material from any of Elizabeth’s extensive and impressive wardrobe of more than 1,900 dresses.

It was removed from Bacton to Hampton Court Palace, where a three-year conservation plan ensured its survival. As the original backing cloth was removed, it was clear that the colours of the Elizabethan embroidery had been remarkably preserved, likely aided by the subdued light of the church. The fabric was cleaned using fine cosmetic sponges to reveal the use of exotic dyes from around the world, including blue indigo from India and a red dye from Mexico.

An anonymous but supremely talented Elizabethan needlewoman embroidered this rich fabric with flowers, birds, animals and insects. Smaller motifs such as the caterpillars and the sea creatures have been worked by a second hand. To avoid damaging the delicate and expensive cloth of silver, the motifs would generally have been embroidered onto a separate piece of fabric and then sewn onto the base material, but these women have displayed the utmost skill, and their total confidence, by embroidering directly onto this expensive textile.

Multicoloured silks, such as those used in the Bacton Altar Cloth, were often combined with sequins (called spangles in Tudor times) and fine thread fabricated from precious metals such as silver or gold.

In the Hardwick Hall painting of Elizabeth, her white satin dress is minutely worked with land animals, flowers, birds and exquisite sea creatures. It is notable that portrait artists have gone to great lengths to intricately reproduce the patterns of the embroidery, illustrating the popularity and charm they held for the Elizabethans, in addition to reflecting a love of nature common to the Tudor era. For the embroiderer, inspiration came from published pattern books, herbal medicine illustrations, printed engravings and woodcut illustrations of animals and fish.


In this Hardwick Hall painting, Elizabeth’s white satin dress is minutely embroidered with land animals, flowers, birds and exquisite sea creatures.

Needlework played an important part in the lives of Elizabethan women, but men too appear to have been skilled in the art. In the Account of the Queen’s Purse, 1559–69, a payment of £203 15s 7d was paid to David Smith, Embroiderer, and £25 11s 11d was received by William Middleton. Large numbers of enthusiastic Tudor needlewomen and -men competed with professional workshops to produce all manner of embroidered items, from sheets, cushion covers and handkerchiefs to gloves, shoes and hawking gear.

In 1561, Elizabeth granted a charter to the Broderer’s Company and by 1562 expensive, high-quality embroidered work was taken to their Hall to be inspected before being offered for sale. By 1580, there were eighty-nine Master Craftsmen of the Embroiderers Guild.

The Royal School of Needlework in England has recreated some of the motifs from the Bacton Altar Cloth to highlight the brightness of the original colours and to illustrate to future generations both the skill of Tudor needlewomen and -men and the richness and splendour of the dresses of Elizabeth I.


The Elizabethan period saw a rapid growth in the demand for domestic silver, due principally to the expanding population and an increasing number of middle-class families eager to buy. Skilled silversmiths responded to this new market and, from ordinary tableware to high-quality, elaborate showpieces, England was producing silver of an excellence equal to that created by continental craftsmen.

In Elizabethan homes, wooden and pewter utensils began to be displaced by silver plate and, as the century wore on, other items were fashioned in silver – sconces and mirrors being particularly eye-catching examples.

Gifts of silver were both given and received by Elizabeth on a grand scale: in 1572, she gave away almost 6,000 ounces of silver in various articles. During the first years of Elizabeth’s reign, silver was highly and richly decorated in response to the influence of the Renaissance, but as her reign progressed, decoration become much plainer and evolved into simple chasing, although table salts would often be topped with an elaborate finial so that they could be seen on the table when required.

Punchbowls, snuffboxes and spoons were commonly commissioned, along with ewers and basins. William Cawdell was a London silversmith specialising in spoons and by 1599 his workshop had evolved into one of the largest spoon-making workshops in the capital. A set of spoons made by Cawdell, known as the Tichbourne spoons, was made in 1592 from silver gilt and hallmarked London. They resemble Apostle spoons, where each of the finials represents one of the twelve apostles, but in this set, Christ and St Peter are rubbing shoulders with Queen Elizabeth I.

While secular articles of silver were being produced in increasing numbers, ecclesiastical silver was being destroyed. Edward VI had ordered that all silverware employed during the Catholic Mass should be destroyed and commissioners were appointed to enter churches and remove all the plate they could find. The order was abandoned under the rule of Elizabeth’s half-sister Queen Mary, but Elizabeth re-appointed the commissioners and sent them to confiscate the few remaining ‘monuments of superstition’. As a consequence of this Protestant zeal, very few pieces of ecclesiastical silver made before Elizabeth’s reign survive and they attain high prices today at auction.

Before the Reformation, plate made for the royal family was not always hallmarked. The Lion mark on silver was first employed around 1545 and before that, from around 1300, a leopard’s head had been the standard mark for sterling silver. Precious metals are rarely used in their purest form and so a hallmark denotes the amount of pure metal contained in an item. In 1576, the gold standard was raised to 22 carats and the silver standard was confirmed as sterling.

The wonderfully named aforementioned Affabel Partridge was silver-gilt and goldsmith to Elizabeth and she patronised him more than any other. He is last mentioned in 1568, when his name is found in connection with a sale of land in Essex for £302, listed as Affabel Partridge, City of London, Goldsmith, and his wife, Dynonis. His work lives on in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, where a wine cup and cover by him are conserved. A nautilus cup, created from a shell, is in the collection of the V&A Museum, London, and a cup made by him for Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, in the 1570s remains as testament to the skill of Elizabeth’s gold- and silversmiths.

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