Monarchy – Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I

This activity is designed for a history class on the Tudors. The document under study is a secondary source – an excerpt from a chapter by historian Susan Doran on the representation of the Queen. Although the focus of the text in on portraits, the activity cannot be separated from a more general course on the history of the 16th Century and of the Tudor dynasty in particular. The activity is about reading comprehension, and writing a summary of the text with scaffolding questions. It is also possible to ask the students to write an introduction to a potential commentary of the text. The paintings discussed by Doran are provided along with her text. Keys are provided at the bottom of this page.


Susan Doran, “Virginity, Divinity and Power: the Portraits of Elizabeth I”, The Myth of Elizabeth, ed. Susan Doran and Thomas Freeman, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, p. 191-193.

Instructions: Read carefully the following text and answer the corresponding questions. 

I. Vocabulary – Look up the words that are underlined in the text:

the evidence, court paintings, courtiers, prints, maiden state, maidenhood, upsurge, patronage, to be equated with, iconography, her forebears, her heir, sycophancy, panegyric.

II. References – In just a few words, identify the following people or cultural reference:

The Virgin Queen, her Protestantism, her victories against Spain, the death of Princess Diana, the official censor that existed for drama and printed books, St George, Francis, Minerva, Mercury, Mars and Diana.

III. Questions

1. What is the nature and origin of this document?

2. Who is the author and who is he/she addressing?

3. When was the document written and what historical period is it concerned with? What kind of source is it?

4. What is the main idea of the text?

5. What in your opinion is the main aim of the author?

IV. Summary

1. Present a summary of this document bringing out its internal structure and organisation. Although the key concepts of the text should be present in your summary, you should use your own words and avoid quoting the text.

2. The following questions are here to help you prepare your summary:

a. How many different parts can you identify in this text? Justify.

b. Can virginity be said to be the most important aspect of Elizabeth I’s representation?

c. What are the 2 definitions of “a cult” cannot be applied to the relationship between Elizabeth and her subjects?

d. Were the paintings and representations of Elizabeth unique?


From the evidence of portraits is there evidence of a cult of the Virgin Queen? As seen above, there was no systematic presentation of Elizabeth as a virgin queen before the 1580s, but thereafter allusions to her virginity dominated her representation in miniatures and recurred frequently in court paintings.

English book illustrations, however, continued to depict her in ways that illustrated the theme of the particular book, and very few exploited her virginity at all. As far as prints are concerned, Elizabeth’s maiden state was often embedded in the verses which accompanied them, but the visual imagery tended to emphasise her Protestantism (as can be seen in Rogers’s ‘Tudor Succession’) or her victories against Spain (as in his 1589 ‘Eliza Triumphans’ and De Passe’s 1596 print).

Even though virginity was only one aspect of the representation of the queen, is it still useful to refer to a ‘cult’ of Elizabeth? If by ‘cult’ we mean a spontaneous upsurge of adoration as appeared, if only momentarily, at the death of Princess Diana, there is obviously no evidence of any cult. If by it is meant an orchestrated campaign of image-making for propaganda purposes, as occurred this century in Communist and Fascist states, the term is equally inappropriate.

Elizabeth certainly tried to control her image by enforcing a standard face pattern and ordering the destruction of offensive portraits, but there was no official censor as existed for drama and printed books nor any one governmental source for producing and disseminating portraits of the queen.

Official, Darnley portrait, c. 1575

Instead, authors of books, or in some cases their printers, as well as peers, courtiers, councillors and prominent citizens commissioned and created the royal image themselves within certain prescribed limits. In some cases their motive was to flatter the queen and thereby secure her favour and patronage; in others it was to express pride in their own power and closeness to the monarch. Perhaps too some individuals and institutions felt the need to make a public statement of loyalty in displaying the royal portrait during a period of religious upheaval and threatened invasion.

The number of these pictures should not, however, be exaggerated; the sum total of original paintings of the queen is unknown but about 135 have survived, while her picture illustrated only about 25 printed books, although well over 150 were dedicated to her when queen. The fact that her face does not adorn books such as Camden’s Britannia (1600) or the translation of Ubaldino’s A Discourse Concerning the Spanish Fleete (1590) should lead us to question the standard assumption that the person of Elizabeth came to be equated with the English nation.


Furthermore, it is doubtful whether many ordinary men and women had much access to the royal portrait, especially after her image was removed from newer editions of the Bible. Paintings were seen by a relatively closed group, whether courtiers and their kin, privileged members of a livery company or university college, or important foreign visitors. Some of her subjects might see small versions of her portrait on official documents or commemorative medals. Most people, however, probably only saw the royal visage on their coins and took as little notice of it as we do of the present queen’s head on our stamps or currency. In any event the royal image on coins was entirely conventional.

Finally, by using the term ‘cult’ of Elizabeth, the implication is that the style and iconography of her portraits were somehow unusual or unique. Again this is debatable.

First, there was considerable continuity in the iconography of the English monarchy. Not only did her medieval and Tudor forebears employ similar symbols (most obviously the rose and St George […]), but also prints and drawings of her Stuart heir, James I, sometimes included the flamboyant decoration and symbols usually associated with Elizabeth.

A royal letter patent of James VI dated 1619, for example, includes of roses, thistles, strawberries, pansies carnations, an eagle, peacock and winged caterpillar.

Second, England was far less cut off from European cultural influences than is sometimes thought. Many of Elizabeth’s portraits reflect the Continental mannerist style in their composition, exaggerated forms and lack of naturalism, though they are usually less well executed and often taken to extremes.

Furthermore, royal portraits of the French and Habsburg courts used similar artifices and pictorial codes to create icons of their rulers. A Nicolò Bellin miniature of Francis I, for example, depicts the king with the attributes of classical deities, both male and female: the helmet of wise Pallas-Minerva, the winged boots of eloquent Mercury, the sword of valiant Mars, and the horn, bow and arrow of chaste Diana. […]

Nicolò Bellin, miniature of Francis I

While sycophancy knows no boundaries of time and place, the symbols and emblems within Elizabethan visual panegyric were a European phenomenon, as patrons and artists borrowed from the same stock of political imagery. Elizabeth’s maidenhood may have rendered her unique as a ruler while her gender made her unusual, but the symbols used in her representation were generally more varied and conventional than either modern historiography or the popular media allow.



III. Questions

1. What is the nature and origin of this document?

Extract from the book The Myth of Elizabeth edited by Susan Doran and Thomas Freeman, more precisely from the chapter dedicated to “Virginity, Divinity and Power: The Portraits of Elizabeth I” written by Susan Doran. Chapter cf history of art and political history: addresses both matters of representation and issues specific to the monarchy.

2. Who is the author and who is he/she addressing?

written by Prof. Susan Doran, a British historian, senior lecturer at Oxford University.

Research interests focused on the political, religious and cultural history of the 16h century, especially the reign of Elizabeth I.

Addressing students and / or academics. 

3. When was the document written and what historical period is it concerned with? What kind of source is it?

Published in 2003. Period concerned Queen Elizabeth I reign (1558-1603) with, sometimes, a reference to contemporary events (Princess Diana, Communist and Fascist States) and to mythology. Secondary source.

4. What is the main idea of the text?

assessment of specificity of Elizabeth’s portraits in relation with usual iconography of royal portraits. 

5. What in your opinion is the main aim of the author?

to debate/refute the idea that there was a cult of (the virginity of) Queen Elizabeth I

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