Making a Queen: The Symbolic Imagery of Elizabeth I's Reign

Posted on August 7, 2019

This summer we're publishing a series of blog posts written by students for the class HIST 211 Books: Technology and Culture. Their posts are based on materials in the Special Collections Research Center. Check out their bright insights every other week. Today's entry is written by Tess Thompson.

A hand-drawn black-and-white illustration of Queen Elizabeth I from the Elizabeth I, Queen of England document (SC 01561). Elizabeth wears a crown and royal robes. She appears to hold a scepter in one hand and a cross in the other. Her portrait is surrounded by floral designs and intricate calligraphic borders. Above her head, the words "Vivat Regina" are written -- in English: Long Live the Queen.
"Vivat Regina," or Long Live the Queen

The Elizabeth I, Queen of England document (SC 01561) in the Special Collections Research Center is dated November 6, 1574 and was created during the queen’s reign. The document is made of vellum or sheepskin, rather than paper, which possibly explains its long survival. Written in Latin in a distinct Gothic lettering, this manuscript might have been a formal proclamation or documentation of some kind, and also has a large wax seal still attached.

The distinctive imagery decorating this manuscript communicates Queen Elizabeth I’s complex political agenda to whoever might read it. The first line of text translates to “Elizabeth, by the grace of God queen of England, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith…”, indicating the Renaissance Queen’s divine right to rule as well as her tenuous claim to the French throne (a claim held by English monarchs from the 14th through 19th centuries). Interestingly, the line also ties her political legitimacy to her father, King Henry VIII, as the title “Defender of the Faith” was originally bestowed upon him by the Pope Leo X and was continued to be used even after England separated from the Catholic Church to establish the Protestant Church of England. Elizabeth likely adopted the phrase to tie herself to her father and his long reign, as many people believed her to be illegitimate and unfit to rule.

The drawings at the top of the document also indicate Elizabeth’s attempts to connect her position to her predecessors in a complex language of medieval heraldic symbols. The lion, Tudor rose, dragon, and fleur-de-lis are all symbols that an audience at the time would have explicitly understood. The lion was used widely by Henry VIII; the Tudor rose was adopted by the Tudor dynasty at the end of the War of the Roses; the dragon was included in the Tudor coat of arms to represent control over Wales; and the fleur-de-lis was used by the Plantaganents and early Tudors.

A close-up of the manuscript document's upper margin, which includes several hand-drawn illustrations. This image shows a lion, meant to represent King Henry VIII, with its paws grasping at a rod or scepter of some kind. To the left of the lion is a Tudor rose. Beneath these illustrations, the text of the document begins. The first line features text in large, bold calligraphy, with every succeeding line in smaller calligraphy. All text written in Latin.
The lion and the Tudor rose

A drawing of the Queen herself reinforces her prominence and power to whoever might read or see the document; the simple, youthful facial structure of the drawing is similar to the popularized “Mask of Youth” portrait style which was used from this manuscript’s period until the Queen’s death as a propaganda tool communicating her beauty and power. Overall, these decorative elements convey the weight of Elizabeth’s lineage and reinforce her right to rule England.

In 1574, as well as the rest of her reign, Queen Elizabeth I’s place as England’s monarch was continually challenged based on her mother’s reputation, her lack of a husband, her religion, and her gender. Even as one of the most powerful women in the 16th century, she still needed to prove herself. This manuscript reveals the symbolic imagery and language used to legitimize and emphasize the queen's power.

A view of the entire manuscript. The document is in a landscape orientation (shorter than it is wide). The majority of the document is filled with text, save for the portrait of Elizabeth I in the top-left corner and the border of illustrated symbols along the top margin.
The entirety of the manuscript, handwritten in Latin

References and More to Explore:

Finding aid for the Elizabeth I, Queen of England document (SC 01561) in the Special Collections Research Center's database.

Finding aid for the Richard G. Joynt Collection of British Manuscripts (MS 00032) in the Special Collections Research Center's database. This collection includes 88 letters and documents, 41 cut signatures, and many book engravings from the 15th to the 20th century. Authors and signatures include British kings, queens, prime ministers, nobles, military officers, authors, and other dignitaries.

Read more about the "Mask of Youth" from Royal Museums Greenwich.