I am honoured to welcome Gareth Russell to On the Tudor Trail, to discuss a fascinating posthumous portrait of Elizabeth I. Gareth studied History at Saint Peter’s College, Oxford, and his masters at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of the wonderful ‘Confessions of a Ci-Devant’ historical blog, and a number of fiction and non-fiction books, including ‘An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors‘.
Over to you Gareth!
I cannot say exactly why the portrait of an aging Elizabeth I keeps me so enthralled. It dates from about 1610, seven years after the Queen’s death at Richmond, and it shows a fading Elizabeth flanked on either side by the only two enemies she could not defeat, Death and Old Father Time. Elizabeth here looks more careworn and exhausted than she does in any of the portraits painted from life, but the artist in question had evidently studied them or perhaps even seen the Queen regularly enough in her waning years to recall with perfect precision the contours of her face. It’s all there – the slender frame, the dark Boleyn eyes, the Beaufort nose and the Tudor-York colouring. (The pearls she’s wearing across her middle appear later in a portrait of the next queen, Anna of Denmark, which suggests to me it was by a court insider who may have known Elizabeth’s wardrobe well.) Elizabeth seems weighed down, exhausted, as her head rests languidly on her hand. Gone is Gloriana with her bejewelled feet standing proudly astride a map of her realm or the extravagantly-gowned warrior queen with a ruined Armada floating as background wreckage as her hand reaches out confidently to seize the globe.
My first introduction to the painting was years ago via a caption which said the artist was trying to mock Elizabeth’s pretensions to eternal youth. As an act of defiance, once she was safely dead, she was painted withered and frail, hemmed in by the two forces which no amount of air-brushing could save her from. However, I’m not so sure that is the intention. We know so little about its providence that the aforementioned theory about its message might tell us far more about the twentieth century author of the caption than the seventeenth century artist. Instead, there seems to me to be something rather tender about it. The skeletal figure of Death who hovers over the Queen’s shoulder makes more sense as a revived danse macabre than as a ghoulish game of point-settling.
Elizabeth I struggled with depression in her later years. Father Time robbed her of most of her contemporaries and closest friends – Boleyn cousins dropped like flies with the death of the last, Katherine, Countess of Nottingham, causing Elizabeth particular sorrow; the stalwarts of the first part of Elizabeth’s reign, like Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham, and her beloved Robert, Earl of Leicester, were also gone. She was out-of-step with the new generation, many of whom regarded her as a dithering old woman trapped by her pathological conservatism. The betrayal of her last favourite, Robert, Earl of Essex, wounded her deeply, although she did not hesitate to have condemned to the traitor’s death which he unquestionably deserved by the standards of the time.
There was a feeling of ennui during Elizabeth’s final decade. Her godson, Sir John Harington, said that among the students and professors at Oxford there was a feeling that the world itself had gone beyond its glory days, that the ‘world had waxed old’. In eastern parts of the country, the suffering of the poor reached such a level thanks to a terrible shift in the weather and rising food prices that a rumour circulated that the exiled Catholic Earl of Westmoreland would return to liberate them with an army of avenging paupers. In Ireland, a rebellion led by the Earl of Tyrone rapidly took on a sectarian hue and horrific violence was doled out against the English settlers in the southern province of Munster, which was repaid in kind, beginning nearly a century of agonised bitterness. To the north, Elizabeth’s third cousin James VI waited with ill-concealed impatience to become king in England and rumours that he might be shunted to one side to make way for his and Elizabeth’s gorgeous mutual cousin, Arbella Stuart, did nothing to calm his nerves. During one opening of Parliament, the Queen nearly collapsed beneath the weight of her robes. It seemed as if the kingdom itself was rotten, diseased and unutterably tired.
This portrait is therefore a perverse celebration of the idea of the king’s two bodies, the fusion of the personal and political in early modern monarchy: Elizabeth’s malaise is also her kingdoms’. Yet it is also touchingly human. Elizabeth, still receiving her crown from God as it is held above her by frolicking cherubim, is submitting to our common end: Death. Canute could not turn back the tide; Elizabeth cannot turn back Time. We are all mortal. Death’s was the one embrace that Elizabeth could not escape. He looms over her expectantly, but not quite threateningly. He came for this extraordinary lady on 24th March 1603. She had been comforted almost to the last by her loyal archbishop of Canterbury and she would not hear prayers in the hope of her recovery. When he spoke to her of the promises made by Christ’s mercy she, speechless by this stage, ‘hugged’ his hand. Then, very gently, like a candle going out, she slipped away and her name was reinvented by Time, over and over again in the centuries to come.