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Elizabeth I, the Spanish Armada and the art of painting politics

Elizabeth I of England, the Armada portrait, 1590.

After what the Heritage Lottery Fund has described as one of the most successful funding campaigns ever, one of three versions of the 1590 “Armada portrait” has been acquired by the Art Fund for £10.3m. The painting, bought from Sir Francis Drake’s descendants, will be on public display from October this year in the Queen’s House, Greenwich, before undergoing conservation in 2017.

Few images are as well known as the Armada painting, which shows Queen Elizabeth I basking in the aftermath of the greatest military success of her long reign, the defeat of a Spanish Armada.

This invasion force was sent by her rival and brother-in-law, Philip II, to take the English throne and revert England to Catholicism in 1588. The Spanish Armada posed an existential threat to Elizabeth Tudor’s reign and had been feared for decades. But when the Spanish launched the actual invasion, delivery from the threat seemed miraculously easy. A combination of atrocious weather and shrewd naval tactics on the part of the English divided the Spanish force, shipwrecking some and diverting others. No landing forces reached English shores.

At the time the victory was viewed as nothing short of miraculous and a sure sign of divine support for the rule of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. The propaganda potential was considerable and the Armada portrait was no doubt commissioned in order to capitalise on this.

The Queen’s House, Greenwich, in the foreground. Leonid Andronov/

Painting politics

By 1590, when the image was painted, Elizabeth had been on the throne for more than 30 years and there was rising domestic discontent with her rule. Internal plots to overthrow her were especially rife in the 1580s and the execution of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots for treason in 1587 had done little to calm matters down. Elizabeth remained unmarried, was firmly past childbearing age – and as she approached old age the unresolved questions over her succession came increasingly to the forefront.

The stunning military victory over the Spanish Armada deflected attention away from these internal fears, instead projecting the image of a monarch whose reign was blessed by a divine overlord who endorsed her Protestant rule over that of her Catholic challenger. The wise, calm, magnificent Elizabeth steered her ships to victory, while those of her enemy crashed and burned. The iconography of the image is hardly subtle, aiming instead at glorious celebration.

The value of the Armada painting lies in its masterful storytelling, beautifully executed by the unknown painter who committed the narrative to canvas sometime after the actual events of the feared and foiled invasion. Elizabeth, in a splendid and jewelled gown, occupies the centre of the painting, flanked by two images. Both scenes show a fleet. On the left, the English fleet rides high on tranquil and becalmed waters, basking in sunshine, whilst on the right the Spanish fleet are battered by ferocious high waves. Elizabeth’s presence has becalmed the waves for her own navy, resulting in the destruction of enemy ships.

Cropped Armada portrait highlighting background.

But there is more to this than just a reference to the military battle. The biblical references to the parting of the Red Seas, which allowed the Israelites, God’s chosen people, to be safe from the wrath of the Egyptian pharaoh, are all too clear. The painting bears witness to how contemporaries considered the events of 1588 as a reaffirmation of their monarch’s divine right to rule, something the patron of the image sought to evoke and remind the viewer of.

It should also be remembered that images of Elizabeth I were governed by tight rules that required images to be approved of by Elizabeth herself, which is one of the reasons why there are several versions of the Armada portrait. The propaganda value of the image was such that once the image was approved, several more versions were commissioned by courtiers demonstrating their loyalty to Elizabeth by adding one of her images to their own collections. The politics of painting at the Elizabethan Court were sophisticated and complex.

The painting also speaks more eloquently than even the sonnets and literature associated with the Elizabethan court, such as Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, about gendered perceptions of Elizabeth I. Here her reign is measured by meaningful events, and in the Armada portrait, she is curiously, magnetically androgynous in being both a woman in body but a divinely appointed king in her actions.

The second Elizabeth

Fast forward to images of the second Elizabeth, HRH Elizabeth II, now in the seventh decade of a reign whose longevity has outstripped even that of her Renaissance predecessor, and a different kind of royal portrait emerges.

In Mont Orgueil, in Jersey – long a significant Channel Island stronghold – is a prominent portrait of Elizabeth II, commissioned in 2004 by the Jersey Heritage Trust. Chris Levine’s aptly titled work “Equanimity”, featured on a holographic £100 Jersey stamp and banknote, depicts Elizabeth II as a serene and calm woman – and, significantly, an old woman, with silvery white hair and a lined face.

Jersey’s Jubilee note.

Her image speaks of graceful age and experience (and images of old women projecting age in a positive manner remain surprisingly few and far between). But where the Armada portrait surrounds Elizabeth I with iconography, telling a story about her achievements and successes, the story in the modern image lies in permitting the viewer a close contemplation of the person of the Queen herself. Military victories and political change are divorced from the figure of the monarch – she functions as a very different icon 400 years on: as a role model for personal integrity and conduct.

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