Elizabeth I – A Life In Portraits.

She may have had the “body of a weak and feeble woman”… but what did she look like? Although lots of portraits exist of Elizabeth, she did not pose for many of them…

Although lots of portraits exist of Elizabeth, she did not pose for many of them. Perhaps she was a little vain – if she disliked a particular picture she would have it destroyed. Her Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, an astute diplomat, worded it carefully….”Many painters have done portraits of the Queen but none has sufficiently shown her looks or charms. Therefore Her Majesty commands all manner of persons to stop doing portraits of her until a clever painter has finished one which all other painters can copy. Her Majesty, in the meantime, forbids the showing of any portraits which are ugly until they are improved.”

Young Elizabeth I

So what did she really look like? Quotes from visitors to her Court can perhaps shed some light.

In her Twenty-Second Year:
“Her figure and face are very handsome; she has such an air of dignified majesty that no-one could ever doubt that she is a queen”

In her Twenty-Fourth Year:
“Although her face is comely rather than handsome, she is tall and well-formed, with a good skin, although swarthy; she has fine eyes and above all, a beautiful hand with which she makes display.

In her Thirty-Second Year:
“Her hair was more reddish than yellow, curled naturally in appearance.”

In her Sixty-Fourth Year:
“When anyone speaks of her beauty she says she was never beautiful. Nevertheless, she speaks of her beauty as often as she can.”

In her Sixty-Fifth Year:
“Her face is oblong, fair but wrinkled; her eyes small, yet black and pleasant; her nose a little hooked; her teeth black (a fault the English seem to suffer from because of their great use of sugar); she wore false hair, and that red.”

The Gripsholm Portrait, thought to be Elizabeth I of England

It is known however that she contracted smallpox in 1562 which left her face scarred. She took to wearing white lead makeup to cover the scars. In later life, she suffered the loss of her hair and her teeth, and in the last few years of her life, she refused to have a mirror in any of her rooms.

So, because of her vanity, perhaps we shall never know exactly what Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) looked like.

The “Darnley Portrait” of Elizabeth I

Published: 23rd March 2015

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