- DESERT ISLAND DISCS
- LADY ANTONIA FRASER'S LIFE LESS ORDINARY
- RESPONSE TO LETTER SENT TO THE BRITISH LIBRARY
- SPEECH GIVEN AT THE OPENING OF ‘ON THE NATURE OF WOMEN'
- LETTER SENT TO THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY
- SPEECH GIVEN AT THE ‘CELEBRATION FOR DRAGON WOMEN’ LUNCH (2)
- SPEECH GIVEN AT ‘CELEBRATION FOR DRAGON WOMEN’ LUNCH (1)
- THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (Part 2)
- THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (Part 1)
- ANTONIA FRASER'S DIARY
- Truth and Reality in Operatic Librettos (part three)
- Truth and Reality in Operatic Librettos (part two)
- Truth and Reality in Operatic Librettos (part one)
- Society Portraits
- THE FRENCH CHILD
- CULTURAL LIFE
- QUEEN ELIZABETH: A PERSONAL VIEW
- ANTONIA FRASER’S DIARY
- IF I CAME BACK AS…
- SPECTATOR DIARY
- LOVE, LOUIS XIV AND ME Part 2
- LOVE, LOUIS XIV AND ME
- MY HERO
- BODIAM CASTLE
QUEEN ELIZABETH: A PERSONAL VIEW
‘Always the Same’ – Semper Eadem. This was the celebrated motto of Queen Elizabeth I. By it she attempted to convince the world against all the evidence that she would ‘hold an even course in her whole life and all her actions’, in the words of the historian Camden. The caprice, the vacillations, even the sudden heroic inspirations were all to be smoothed over with this bold declaration.
What a relief that her portraits at least are not ‘Always the Same’! There is an extraordinary progression from the charming, modest teenage girl of around 1547 down to the effigy still to be seen in Westminster Abbey, based on the one carried in the Queen’s funeral procession of 1603. Altogether it has been calculated that about 135 painted portraits survive. And this Hilliard portrait of the fifteen seventies represents Elizabeth at my favourite period.
Born in September 1533, she would have been forty or thereabouts. With the aid of Hilliard as court painter – his first miniature of Elizabeth dates from 1572 – the Queen is already beginning to develop that iconic image, half woman, half goddess, which will dominate her later years until the woman has virtually vanished in favour of the painted hieratic figure. From the goddess point of view, the Queen’s prodigious use of make-up must have greatly assisted the painter to depict her as she wished: mask-like and without shadows.
Personally, I am always riveted by the subject of historical cosmetics and it’s not the least of the attractions of Queen Elizabeth that she depended on them to such an extent. It’s not so much the contrast in the various elements used which intrigues me, as the universality of the claims made for the make-up of the past. All the products are vowed to be essential, both completely harmless and thoroughly youthifying … just like our own in the twenty first century. A recipe used to produce Elizabeth’s famous ivory complexion has survived: two new-laid eggs with their shells, burnt alum, powdered sugar, borax, poppy seeds finally beaten and ‘a pint of water that runs from under the wheel of a mill’. This mixture would apparently keep for a year and was to be used as ‘that Queen’ did, three times a week to whiten, smooth and soften the skin. There were many other whiteners since pallor was the ideal: mercury sublimate or even ground-up animal bones as a cheap alternative. Even more goddess-like was the use of ‘liquid pearl’ to give a kind of translucent glow.
The result of all these applications was, so far as Elizabeth was concerned, a progressively more and more immobile visage. By the last years of her life, a hostile Catholic priest would describe her as ‘continuously painted, not only all over her face, but her very neck and breast also … in some places near half an inch thick.’ It is a comment which recalls the lines of Shakespeare written about the same time: Hamlet reminisces as he holds the jester Yorick’s skull: ‘Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.’ It is however significant that although ‘painting’ was regularly denounced by preachers, the more Puritan, the more invective, the connection of a painted woman to whoredom was never pressed so far as the monarch was concerned …
At the same time this Queen Elizabeth of the early seventies has not altogether lost her humanity, let alone her femininity. It is useful to recall that Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester had not quite abandoned hope of marrying her at this point. With hindsight, we can see that the likelihood of a marriage with a subject (and one with what would now be called a dodgy background: suspicious death of wife, two beheaded and attainted ancestors) had probably passed by the early 1560s. But the people who admired Hilliard’s Queen were scarcely prophets and had no idea that Elizabeth would die a virgin – or at any rate would die unmarried – thirty years later. Leicester’s last great throw, the three weeks of entertainment at Kenilworth, took place in the summer of 1575. Even later, during the bizarre courtship of Elizabeth by her ‘dear Frog’, brother of the French King, twenty two years her junior, there were those who thought that she could still bear children by ‘those signs that women know’.
If Elizabeth’s future marital and maternal status remained uncertain at this date, still less was the whole successful outcome of her reign, in the sense that Elizabeth never lost her throne, assured. 1570 for example could be described as a moment of maximum danger in an age when dynastic and religious perils were intertwined. Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s nearest heir in blood (but a Catholic) was already being held in captivity in England. The so-called Northern Earls’ Rising of that year in the Scottish Queen’s favour was finally defeated; the premier nobleman of England, the Duke of Norfolk who had aspired to marry Mary, was executed. We can see now that the danger of a Catholic take-over had been averted; although the Ridolfi cannot read] Plot followed in 1572. At the time it was easier to dread the effects of the Pope’s excommunication of Elizabeth, which theoretically freed all her Catholic subjects from obedience to her.
Thus the emblem of the phoenix which can be seen on Elizabeth’s breast in the Hilliard picture, just above her famously long white hand, is in itself a deliberate boast of dynastic strength. As Roy Strong has made clear in his master-work on the portraits of Gloriana, the phoenix in its application to Elizabeth ran the full range of meanings in praise of her uniqueness, oneness and chastity, but ‘it was above all a vehicle in dynastic mysticism asserting the perpetuity of hereditary kingship and royal dignity’.
So the Queen confronts us in all her panoply of costume so richly embroidered and bejeweled that hardly an inch of cloth is visible. Yet it is surely impossible to criticize Elizabeth for her vanity (and she was vain) or showmanship (she loved being a star) without remembering that terrible childhood. When she was three years old her governess Lady Bryan had to write in protest against the lack of provision for her. At this point the little Elizabeth was the daughter of a woman executed for adultery and herself had been made a bastard, even if she was a King’s bastard. So Lady Bryan addressed Cromwell, Henry VIII’s minister, in despair: ‘my Lady Elizabeth is put from that degree she was before, and what degree she is of now, I know not but by hearsay … And that she may have some raiment; for she hath neither gown, nor kirtle, not petticoat, nor no manner of linen or smocks, nor kerchiefs, nor night dresses, nor corsets nor mob caps nor nightcaps …’ Given that unpromising start, Queen Elizabeth can surely be forgiven her lifelong addiction to jewels and costume, in short the supremely modern art of bling.
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