The Armada Portrait (1588) is one of the most famous depictions of Queen Elizabeth I, formerly attributed to court painter George Gower whose authorship is today considered unknown.
Armada Portrait Analysis
This painting is exceptional in that, although it is manifestly a portrait, its defining trait is two pictures in its background. It is called the “Armada Portrait” because the two pictures show the greatest military triumph of Queen Elizabeth’s reign: the defeat of the Spanish Armada in the English Channel.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada
The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was a pivotal event in European history that had far-reaching consequences. It marked the decline of Spanish naval dominance, the rise of England as a global power, and a turning point in the religious and political conflicts of the time. Here is a summary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada:
The Spanish Armada was a formidable naval fleet assembled by King Philip II of Spain with the aim of invading England and overthrowing Queen Elizabeth I. Philip’s motivation stemmed from religious differences, as he sought to restore Catholicism in Protestant England. The Armada consisted of around 130 ships, including galleons, warships, and support vessels, with a total of approximately 30,000 men.
The English, led by Lord Howard of Effingham, Sir Francis Drake, and Charles Howard, were aware of the Spanish preparations and launched a preemptive strike. In April 1587, Sir Francis Drake raided the Spanish port of Cadiz, destroying or capturing numerous ships and supplies intended for the Armada.
The Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon in May 1588, and their plan was to sail up the English Channel, rendezvous with the Duke of Parma’s army in the Netherlands, and transport the troops to England for the invasion. However, the English were prepared. They had a smaller fleet of around 200 ships, including smaller, faster vessels known as “fire ships” that could be set ablaze and sent toward the enemy.
The Spanish Armada encountered unfavorable weather conditions and was further hampered by the English fleet’s tactics. The English ships engaged in hit-and-run attacks, utilizing their superior maneuverability to keep their distance from the larger Spanish vessels. The Spanish struggled to bring their cannons to bear effectively, while the English used long-range artillery and smaller, more agile ships to harass the Armada.
Several skirmishes and battles occurred along the English Channel, with notable clashes at Plymouth, the Isle of Wight, and the Battle of Gravelines. The English used their fire ships to create chaos among the Spanish fleet, causing panic and forcing the Armada to break the formation. In the Battle of Gravelines on July 29, 1588, the English launched a coordinated attack, inflicting heavy damage on the Armada and forcing it to retreat.
The Spanish Armada, now severely depleted and battered, attempted to sail around the north of Scotland and return to Spain. However, they faced treacherous weather conditions, strong winds, and rocky coastlines. Many ships were wrecked or damaged, and a significant number of Spanish sailors perished. By the time the remnants of the Armada reached Spain, it was clear that the invasion had failed.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada was a significant turning point in European history. It secured England’s position as a major naval power and signaled the decline of Spanish dominance on the seas. It also bolstered England’s confidence and sense of national identity, as the victory was seen as a triumph of Protestant England against Catholic Spain.
The defeat of the Armada had wider geopolitical implications. It weakened Spain’s military and economic power, while England, with its newfound naval prowess, was able to expand its influence and engage in overseas colonization, including the establishment of colonies in North America.
Moreover, the defeat of the Spanish Armada had a profound impact on the religious and political landscape of Europe. It bolstered the Protestant cause and cemented England’s role as a Protestant stronghold. It also weakened Spain’s ability to exert influence and support Catholic forces in Europe.
Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I, also known as Elizabeth Tudor or the “Virgin Queen,” was one of England’s most influential monarchs. She reigned from 1558 until her death in 1603 and is remembered as a strong and iconic leader. Here is a biography of Queen Elizabeth I:
Elizabeth was born on September 7, 1533, in Greenwich, England, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Her birth came at a time of political and religious upheaval in England, as her father had broken away from the Catholic Church and established the Church of England. However, her mother fell out of favor with the king and was executed when Elizabeth was just two years old.
Despite her tumultuous childhood, Elizabeth received a comprehensive education, studying languages, literature, history, and classical texts. Her education fostered her intellectual curiosity and shaped her later reputation as a learned monarch.
When Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary I ascended to the throne, Elizabeth’s Protestant beliefs put her in a precarious position. Mary, a devout Catholic, viewed Elizabeth as a threat to her reign and even imprisoned her for a time. However, after Mary’s death in 1558, Elizabeth succeeded to the throne at the age of 25.
Elizabeth’s reign is often referred to as the Elizabethan era, which marked a period of cultural, economic, and military growth in England. She navigated the challenges of her rule with a combination of pragmatism, political astuteness, and charisma.
One of the key challenges Elizabeth faced was the religious divide in England. She sought to maintain a delicate balance between Catholics and Protestants, aiming for religious stability and unity. Her religious settlement, known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, established the Church of England as the state religion while allowing some Catholic practices to continue. This moderate approach helped stabilize the country and earned her the support of many of her subjects.
Elizabeth faced threats from foreign powers as well. The most notable was the Spanish Armada, which aimed to invade England and bring it back to Catholicism. Elizabeth’s leadership during the conflict and the subsequent defeat of the Armada in 1588 became a defining moment of her reign. It solidified her reputation as a strong and capable leader, and England’s victory bolstered national pride.
As a monarch, Elizabeth was known for her political acumen and ability to navigate treacherous waters. She skillfully played rival factions against each other and relied on trusted advisors such as Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Robert Cecil to manage domestic and international affairs.
Elizabeth’s reign was also a time of cultural flourishing, known as the Elizabethan Renaissance. It saw the works of great writers like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Edmund Spenser. Elizabeth herself was a patron of the arts and encouraged the growth of literature, theater, and music.
Elizabeth’s unmarried status and her refusal to name a successor led to her being referred to as the “Virgin Queen.” She used her marital status as a diplomatic tool, skillfully maneuvering through marriage proposals from various suitors, both foreign princes and English nobles. Despite the pressure to marry and secure an heir, Elizabeth chose to remain single and dedicated herself to her role as queen.
Queen Elizabeth, I passed away on March 24, 1603, ending an iconic reign of over 44 years. Her death marked the end of the Tudor dynasty, and she was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England.
Elizabeth’s legacy as a powerful and influential monarch remains to this day. Her reign is celebrated as a time of national prosperity, cultural achievement, and political stability. She is remembered as a monarch who defied expectations, overcame challenges, and left an indelible mark on English history.
A symbol of Royal legitimacy
Because the victory against the Armada represented a final rebuff to Catholic claims against the legitimacy of Elizabeth and in favor of Mary Stuart of Scotland; because it was partly due to:
- A seemingly divine intervention among the forces of nature in favor of Elizabeth’s navy
- It mobilized the British, most especially English, people to a great collective effort of preparation and national defense
- It involved the Queen herself appearing under arms and on horseback before her army with a vow that she would fight and die if needs be
The victory against the Spanish Armada quickly became a symbol of Elizabeth’s reign and an element of British and English national pride.
It matters little that a similar British expedition against Spain a year later similarly failed at endangering the Spanish capital. The triumph of 1588 became extensively commemorated in Great Britain, the tempest that engulfed the enemy navy even becoming known as the “Protestant Wind”. Its importance for Queen Elizabeth is majestically on show in the Armada Portrait.
The background Paintings in the Armada Portrait
On a scarlet wall and strangely enwrapped in velvety jade-green curtains, two paintings can be seen. The picture on our left shows the English vessels facing the incoming Armada. The trails of smoke over some of the ships in the distance tell us that English fireships have been dispatched to hit the Spanish vanguard. The sand-colored sea, we notice, is disturbed, and the sails are blown up: premonitions of the storm in a day that is still serene.
In the right-hand picture, it is night, instead, and the storm has come. Fierce-looking waves are lapping all around the rolling Spanish galleons. The Armada is in the throes of its near-total demolition under the blows of nature.
The Portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I
The merry queen sits with her back to this victory of British arms, ceremonially attired in a billowing dress, a display of pearls across her chest and arms and her imposing coiffure, and turning her bust and head slightly to our left.
A crown lies to the left behind her, the table beneath it helping us, just like the other piece of furniture to the right, to establish the four levels of distance in this painting. The crown is notably simple and cannot have been a representation of Elizabeth’s royal crown. It is perhaps intended to betoken modesty.
Queen Elizabeth’s left hand is symbolically placed over a globe — the entire painting is an allegory, we realize — precisely over North America, firm colonial possession at the time. The other hand, hanging limply at the level of the knee, is holding a minuscule scepter in-between index and thumb. A small metallic statue of a mermaid intrudes in the bottom right, implying another surface on that side of the room.
The Allegory of the Armada Portrait
The Queen is thereby represented in the Armada Portrait as the empress of the seas, she whose power, embodied by the Royal Navy, cannot be truly questioned by any peer. The Armada Portrait shows her in the guise of a queen triumphant, her equable visage a testament to the confidence of her royal authority.
The serenity of her rulership is likely intended to be shown by the opposition of light on the left (the Queen’s right) to the relative darkness on the right (the Queen’s left). The way Elizabeth looks, it may be implied, is radiant; behind her is only the doom of her fallen enemies.
This opposition between the two halves of the painting, substantiated mainly by the contrast in tones between the two background pictures, may also be observed in Elizabeth’s hands: the one on the right is visibly livid by contrast with the one on the left.
This symbolic opposition is taken up and enhanced in the more strenuously celebratory Ditchley Portrait of c. 1592. In that case, the Queen stands over the flattened surface of a globe (bearing down on Germany rather than America), two fans in her hands allusive of winds.
The peculiar mermaid figurine on the bottom right, besides being a powerful female figure who is supposed to hold sway over the oceans, may be a sexual allusion as well. In the myth, the mermaid has the power of bewitching sailors and leading them to perdition.
She is therefore a symbol of rampant female sexuality and guile. Queen Elizabeth, by contrast, had made a cult of her own chastity and virginity, a symbol of which is the pearl, one of which is to be admired over her forehead while one dangles from her bodice.
Indeed, one might fancy that the astounding system of pearls along her vestment shuts her figure inside that amazingly geometric blouse and gown which gives structure because it runs along their edges and across.
Attribution of the Armada Portrait
The Armada Portrait was once thought to be the work of George Gower (d. 1596), Elizabeth’s court painter in the faculty of Serjeant Painter since 1581.
More recent studies, however, have ascertained that authorship cannot be safely attributed to any one artist. What is clear, instead, is that the painting was well regarded given that several remakes were made by unknown artists, three of which survive to this day.
Location of the Armada Portrait
The authoritative version of 1588 is today in the rich collection at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, England. A variant supposed to have been commissioned by Sir Francis Drake was purchased in 2016 by the British Royal Family and made a national property.
The other two versions are held in the National Portrait Gallery in London, as well as in the Queen’s House at the Royal Museums Greenwich in London.