To celebrate the April issue of BBC History Magazine, which explores why the Virgin Queen’s court revolved around politics, not romance, here at our HQ it’s Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada Week. First up, Tracy Borman reveals some lesser-known facts about the famous monarch
Elizabeth I is one of the most iconic figures in history. She was England’s ‘Gloriana’ – a virgin queen who saw herself as wedded to her country, and who brought almost half a century of stability after the turmoil of her siblings’ short reigns.
Flame-haired, white-faced and always lavishly dressed, Elizabeth possessed the natural charisma of her father, Henry VIII, and was the darling of her people. Her finest hour came in 1588 when she defeated the Spanish Armada, catapulting her to legendary status.
Yet for everything we know about Elizabeth, here are a few facts that might surprise you…
1) Elizabeth was never meant to be queenAlthough Elizabeth is now hailed as one of our greatest monarchs, she should never have got anywhere near the throne. She was not only a girl at a time when the laws of succession favoured boys, but she had an elder sister, Mary. Elizabeth was also removed from the line of succession altogether when her parents’ marriage was declared invalid prior to Anne Boleyn’s execution, and was only reinstated thanks to the kindly intervention of her last stepmother, Katherine Parr.
By the time of Henry VIII’s death, therefore, Elizabeth was third in line to the throne behind her younger brother Edward and elder sister Mary. It is one of the greatest ironies of history that Henry VIII had been so obsessed with having a son, yet his cherished boy only reigned for six years, dying of tuberculosis at the age of just 15. The second in line, Mary, did not fare much better. Her brief, catastrophic reign ended after just five years.
It was up to Elizabeth to show them how it ought to be done.
2) Elizabeth was a mummy’s girlThere is a common misconception that Elizabeth thought little of her ill-fated mother, Anne Boleyn. The fact that she hardly spoke of her and saved all of her praise for her adored father, Henry VIII, has often led to the conclusion that Elizabeth was ashamed of Anne.
On the contrary: all this proved was what a great pragmatist Elizabeth was. She had no wish to alienate swathes of her subjects by openly voicing her love for the woman who was still reviled as the ‘Great Whore’. Instead, Elizabeth chose more subtle ways to demonstrate her affection. For example, when posing for a portrait during her teenage years, she wore her mother’s famous ‘A’ pendant around her neck – an audacious stunt that would have landed her in hot water if her father had spotted it.
As queen, Elizabeth made sure that all of her late mother’s relatives were promoted to the best positions at court, and she also wore a pendant necklace that contained a miniature portrait of her mother opposite one of herself.
3) Elizabeth liked to give nicknames to her courtiersElizabeth was as famous a flirt as her mother, Anne Boleyn. She loved to surround herself with the most handsome men at court, and also entertained various foreign princes all hoping for her hand in marriage.
Elizabeth used her femininity to bring a male-dominated court to its knees, and gave playful nicknames to her favourites. Her chief minister, Burghley, was called her ‘spirit’, and her alleged lover, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was her ‘eyes’. Rather more cheekily, she called François, Duke of Anjou, her ‘frog’.
4) Elizabeth used dirty tactics to outshine her rivalsElizabeth exalted in being the queen bee at court. But although for the early part of her reign she was the most desirable bride in Europe, as her physical charms began to fade she employed dirty tactics to make sure that she kept all of the male attention to herself. Thus, while Elizabeth appeared at court bedecked in lavish gowns of rich materials and vivid colours, her ladies were obliged to wear only black or white.
No matter how attractive they might be in their own right, the plain uniformity of their dress would draw all eyes to the star of the show. To test the effect that this created, the queen once asked a visiting French nobleman what he thought of her ladies. He immediately protested that he was unable to ‘judge stars in the presence of the sun’. This was exactly the response Elizabeth required.
5) Elizabeth I took longer to get ready than any other monarchElizabeth was always fastidious about her appearance, but the ritual of dressing the queen became increasingly elaborate as age began to overtake her: it took her ladies a staggering four hours a day to complete the ceremony of dressing and undressing the queen.
Elizabeth had originally worn wigs that matched her own colouring, but as she grew older these were used to conceal her greying hair. At the same time, ever more layers of makeup were applied to complete the so-called ‘mask of youth’. Her face, neck and hands were painted with ceruse (a mixture of white lead and vinegar); her lips were coloured with a red paste made from beeswax and plant dye, and her eyes were lined with kohl.
Ironically, most of these cosmetics did more damage to the skin than ageing ever could. Ceruse was particularly corrosive, and one contemporary observed with some distaste: “Those women who use it about their faces, do quickly become withered and grey headed, because this doth so mightily drie up the naturall moisture of their flesh.”
But Elizabeth insisted that she continue to be adorned with this and other dangerous cosmetics, and only ever let her closest ladies see what lay beneath. When the impetuous Earl of Essex famously burst into her chamber before Elizabeth was dressed or made up, he was so shocked by her haggard appearance that he secretly joked about her “crooked carcass” to his friends. Elizabeth found out and it was said that she cut off his head in revenge – although his rebellion against her [in February 1601] probably had something to do with it.
Realistic portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. © GL Archive / Alamy
6) Elizabeth might have been a man(!)Although she has gone down in history as the Virgin Queen, upon her accession it was widely expected that Elizabeth would marry. But as she continued to resist pressure from her councillors to take a husband, rumours began to circulate that there was some secret reason why she was so determined not to marry.
One of the most popular was that Elizabeth had some ‘womanish infirmity’ that prevented her from conceiving. This gained such currency that a foreign ambassador bribed the queen’s laundresses to report on the state of her sheets so that they might discover whether her menstrual cycle was normal.
At the opposite end of the scale, there was a theory that the real reason Elizabeth would not marry was because she was really a man. According to the ‘Bisley Boy’ story, the real Elizabeth had died as a young girl and been replaced by the only redheaded child that could be found. The fact that he was a boy was inconvenient, but he spent the rest of his life dressing as a woman to continue the pretence.
7) Elizabeth is a screen starElizabeth has been portrayed more often in film and on television than any other British monarch. First was Sarah Bernhardt in Les Amours de la Reine Elisabeth (1912), then Bette Davis played her twice – first in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and again in The Virgin Queen (1955).
Many more actresses followed, including the iconic portrayal by Glenda Jackson in the BBC television series Elizabeth R (1971). Perhaps inspired by the Bisley Boy legend, a man was cast to play her in 1992’s Orlando, when Quentin Crisp took on the role.
More recently, Cate Blanchett gave us a distinctly un-virginal Elizabeth in the films of 1998 and 2007, while Judi Dench won an Oscar for her brief but brilliant portrayal in Shakespeare in Love (1998). Helen Mirren took on the role with typical aplomb in the TV mini-series Elizabeth I in 2005. Time-travelling time lord, Doctor Who, has also bumped in Queen Elizabeth I in episodes from 1965 and 2007.
Tracy Borman is a leading historian and joint chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces. The paperback of her new biography, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015) reached number four on The Times Bestseller list and number nine in the Sunday Times bestsellers.
To find out more, visit www.tracyborman.co.uk.