Did Elizabeth I Pull Off The Greatest PR Stunt of All Time?

A woman pulls on the reins of her horse, bringing it to a stop near the coast's edge, metres from the turbulent sea. Her red hair tumbles around her shoulders in soft curls, her silver armour glints over her chest and arms in the sunlight. She straightens her back, raises her head and rouses her gathered troops in a firm, deep voice, announcing to them that she may be a woman but she has the heart and stomach of a king. And a king of England at that. They cheer loudly, encouraged by her patriotic words and radiant energy, before launching into battle. 

This is Elizabeth I's famous Tilbury Speech, where she rallied her troops on a warm August day in 1588 ahead of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. But this isn't a contemporary description of Elizabeth I. It's based on a 2011 film starring Cate Blanchett in the role of Elizabeth. Today, even four hundred years after her death, she is a goddess, glinting on horseback. She is the epitome of bravery, sacrifice and purity, a symbol of ultimate patriotism. This is the Elizabeth portrayed in films, novels and art, more than four hundred years after her death. 

Which makes me think: if her name conjures up this image after nearly half a millennia, did she pull off the most successful and enduring PR stunt ever? 

The Armada Portrait, 1588, George Gower. Public Domain

Elizabeth has certainly fared better than other historical figures over time. King Alfred is remembered for burning the cakes. Henry VIII is seen as a tyrant. And Richard III is only just being recognised for his softer side, after being declared the 'evil uncle' for the last five hundred years. 

We know from historical sources that Elizabeth strictly controlled her image. She personally approved templates that painters would follow, to create her portraits which explains why many portraits we have of her today look similar. The use of allegory - pearls for virginity and purity, a pelican for self-sacrifice, and an ermine for loyalty - represents that she had the qualities of a dedicated and loyal queen. The Armada portrait depicts her with a hand resting on a globe, so we can all remember that she was adventurous and established overseas settlements, too. 

To the sixteenth century, allegory was the ultimate PR tool. In an age where literacy was far lower than it was today, painters were able to use symbols to convey details (usually positive) about a person's character.  

Elizabeth's 'Rainbow Portrait', painted towards the end of her reign in around 1600, is packed full of secret meanings that would have been clear to the allegory-savvy Tudor. There are the pearls for virginity, the rainbow for peace. The snake embroidered on her dress signifies wisdom. We are reminded that the queen hears and sees all, from the eyes and ears embroidered on her dress. Elizabeth is tinged golden in the light, and radiant. She represents the sun, shining golden-bright in front of us. At the time of the sitting, she was around sixty-seven years old, but you'd never guess. Her jawline is slightly softened although her skin is clear, her dark eyes are fixed and sparkling. There is no trace of the black or missing teeth and pockmarked skin that was commented on during her reign. The portrait is the sixteenth century equivalent of today's selfie filter. As she gazes at us with her trademark pale skin and hooded eyes, Elizabeth appears to us, glowing, with all the qualities of the perfect monarch. 

The Rainbow Portrait, c1600. Public Domain. 

Elizabeth didn't just leave portraits behind for us though. Unlike her father, who built at least fifty-five palaces and houses during his 37-year reign, Elizabeth encouraged her courtiers to build great mansions - in the shape of her initial. Many Elizabethan houses, such as Burghley House, with its pale bricks and glassed windows, were built in the shape of an 'E' to honour the queen. 

It is during Elizabeth's reign that there was also an explosion of literary works, again, many dedicated to their queen. The Faerie Queen was written by Edmund Spenser in the 1590s, and was also presented to her. Ben Johnson, Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were also writing at this time. It's even been suggested that she was the inspiration for Shakespeare's Titania in his Midsummer Night's Dream. Using her as the inspiration for fictitious or even mythical characters such as these cemented her appearance to us, centuries later, as an alluring woman with also strength, wisdom and a tinge of magic. 

Elizabeth was of course very wise with her own words, too. She was a gifted writer and poet herself - and delivered rousing speeches to her people and to parliament. She repeatedly told them, when they pressed her to consider marriage negotiations - that she already had a husband and pointed to the coronation ring on her finger: England. 

The Faerie Queen Frontispiece, Public Domain.

We also consider Elizabeth one of the most seafaring Tudors. She engaged Drake, Raleigh and Hawkins to explore new trading networks and overseas colonies, perhaps planting the seed that would one day become the British Empire. Her links with pirates and her authorisation of the plundering of her enemies' ships are less well known, but are documented in the primary sources of the time. But there she sits, her hand resting calmy and decisively on the globe as she gazes out at us, having defeated the Armada, bedecked with pearls that shout out her purity. This is the message that was conveyed to anyone who could set eyes on the portrait.

Like any PR expert, she also distanced herself from scandal. She wrote to Mary Queen of Scots' son James, after his mother's execution, emotionally confiding in him that she was unaware the execution had been carried out. When Robert Dudley's wife died suddenly, she distanced herself from him for a time. She had learned to distance herself from any hint of scandal. Scandal sticks. Even for hundreds of years. Just ask Charles II. Or Barbara Villiers. Or Richard III.

Burghley House, Public Domain.

But was all this intentional, or was Elizabeth an unknowing bystander to this outpouring of art, literature and building in her name? The fact that the painters she commissioned were given carefully-approved templates to work from suggests that it was intentional. If she didn't encourage literary works in her honour, then she did nothing to stop them, and why would she? The large number of buildings that were built in the shape of her initial suggests it was beneficial for others to jump on the bandwagon, an incredibly expensive and time-consuming way to salute your queen. Something had to make it worth it. Was she granting favour to those who recorded her image - and legacy - in this way? There's no doubt too that Elizabeth visibly - and deliberately - distanced herself from negative attention. There was no other reason she would cool her close friendship with Robert Dudley in 1560, other than because of the gossip after his wife's death. 

But if we scratch this carefully-veneered surface just a little, we see that, just like us hiding behind our own tinted and smoothed selfie-filters, Elizabeth wasn't all Faerie Goddess in real life. She hired pirates (pardoning some of them), took a risky attitude to foreign policy which resulted in war and often sank into deep depressions during her life. She had smallpox scars, wore wigs and had visibly decayed teeth. A formidable, strong woman she was, but she was also a human - something the gold-tinted portraits of her later years seem to be designed to miss. 

Ask anyone who their favourite monarch is, and many of them will say Elizabeth I. Her cult-like status has been handed down to us through the secret messages in her portraits which show her ever youthful beauty and we spend hours walking in the shape of her initial on many days out at stately homes in the countryside. By supporting, encouraging or just allowing literary works to be published that praise her, she has cemented her reputation as the virgin goddess or the Faerie Queen - or even Titania, Queen of the Fairies herself. Her cleverly-worded speeches and personal choices within the court shows that there's little doubt she had some concept of self-image and PR and how she was represented to her people. This trickled down the centuries and still endures today. 

And here we are. Four hundred years after her death her likeness sells thousands of mugs, pendants, books, costumes and entry tickets to royal palaces. We are fascinated by Elizabeth and we want to unravel the real Faerie Queen that rode on horseback, her armour glinting in the sun. 

Further Reading: (the links below are affiliate links, if you click on them and decide to make a purchase I may receive a small commission that goes back into keeping the blog running). 

Laura Brennan, Elizabeth I - The Making of a Queen. Pen and Sword, 2020. 

Want to taste some Tudor food? You might enjoy these recipes: Tudor Stuffed Eggs, Marchpane and Elizabethan Trifle!

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