A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Queen Elizabeth I

© Liz Hager, 2009. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in VR series on lace in portraiture. Other chapters include: Prologue, Beatrice d’Este, Nicholaes Tulp, Louis XIV, Clement III, The Duchess of Alba, Gloria Swanson; or click here for all posts in the series.

Attributed to George Gower, Queen Elizabeth I, ca. 1588,
Oil on panel,  105 x136 cms.
(Woburn Abbey)

When she ascended to the throne in 1558, Elizabeth I inherited a relatively backwater island country, bankrupt, torn by religious strife, and perennially under threat of attack by continental powers France & Spain. Over her 45-year reign, she led England’s extraordinary transformation into a 16th-century superpower. By the time of her death (1603), not only was England free of extra-border threats, but the country was well-positioned for virtually limitless colonial expansion. At the heart of this transformation was the British navy.

George Gowers’s portrait of the Queen (one of three copies) was painted to commemorate the defeat in 1588 by the British of the Spanish Armada. The battle was arguably one of the most significant military victories in British history, for it catapulted England to maritime domination, which supported colonial expansion. For centuries afterward, Britain would reap the economic rewards of its far-flung empire.

17th century Chart showing route of Armada
(courtesy British Library)

The Battle

The conflict pitted Catholic Spain—its preeminent force backed by considerable New World gold and silver—against Protestant England, a country with little wealth, few friends, and scant defenses. In the fall of 1588, the 124-boat Armada arrived in the English Channel. . . only to suffer humiliating defeat.  The heavy Spanish galleons were thwarted by stormy Channel weather and outmaneuvered by the more nimble British fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake. Attempting to retreat, the Armada found its direct route to Spain blocked by the British, and the ships were forced to sail around the perilous north coast of Scotland. Storms wrecked a good number of vessels; the remaining few straggled home. The message of British naval supremacy was clear.

The Queen

Elizabeth was an intelligent and pragmatic woman, keenly aware that she was as much a symbol as an individual. By 1588 the epithet “Virgin Queen” would have been in common use, although her power was in no way diminished. Further, Elizabeth was adept at deploying her images in service of propaganda, always cognizant that she must overcome perceptions of weakness represented by a female monarch without heirs.

Gower presents her as Eliza Triumphans, an iconic pose that reinforces Elizabeth as the savior of her country at the height of her political powers. The Queen is in her mid 50s—aging, yet still vital and commanding. The painting is larger than life-size, meant to impress. Further, the Queen is surrounded by symbols of her power, including a luxurious costume studded with hundreds of jewels. She rests her hand on a globe in a gesture that symbolizes her monarchical reach. Her fingers hover over the Americas; the first English child was born at the English settlement in Virginia, just before the portrait was painted.

After 1560, Elizabeth was rarely depicted without her cache of jewels. As opulent accoutrements, they signaled the affluence and separateness of Elizabeth, the Monarch, as well deflected attention from the deteriorating physical condition of Elizabeth, the individual. Pearls, said to be her favorite jewel, symbolize virginity. As a display of her purity, virtuousness, and even agelessness, the pearls would have reminded her subjects that she was “married” to them.

The extravagant and delicate white lace collar also refers to her virginity, curiously (or perhaps deliberately) mimicking the ornamental gold halos of 14th century Madonnas.

Pattern for Reticella Lace from pattern book of Cesare Vecellio, 1591Reticella Lace, from Pattern Book of Cesare Vecellio, publishing 1591.

The Lace

True lace is generally thought to have originated in the 15th century, although its birthplace—Flanders or Italy—is still disputed. Lace-making skills may have been brought to Britain by Protestant refugees, fleeing the continent in the latter half of the 16th century.

The ruff, a Spanish style, was introduced to Tudor England by Katherine of Aragon. Elizabeth may not have been the first to add lace to the ruff, but certainly she pushed the fashion to dizzying heights. In order to wear her collars higher and stiffer than her subjects, Elizabeth consumed endless yards of cut-work, purle (lace knitting), needlework and bone lace, all of which required elaborate stays and starching to hold the many embedded jewels and other ornamentation properly.

QEI-Armada-unknown-1588-89Attributed to George Gower, Queen Elizabeth I (detail), ca. 1588,
Oil on panel,  105 x136 cms.
(Woburn Abbey)

Elizabethean portraiture provides excellent documentation of the evolution of the ruff—from a tight pleated collar of lace, newly fashionable in the 1560s, through the enlarged and unfolding style of the 1570s and 80s, to the extravagant grandeur depicted in the Rainbow Portrait (1600).

Reticella cloth, late 19th century.

The lace of the Armada collar was most certainly needlework lace, as Elizabeth was known to have preferred the Italian styles. Its gossamer quality and repeating geometric design (with lovely end wheels) suggests a reticella, an early form of true lace said to have originated in the Ionian islands. As 17th century portraits report, reticella was hugely popular among European nobility,  and made only to a limited extent in England. Elizabeth would have liked its scarcity.

Wider Connections

National Portrait Gallery—117 portraits of Queen Elizabeth I
Roy Strong—The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry
Elizabeth Brydges (Lady in Waiting to QE1) 1589 portrait.  Note the outer scallops of lace in the shape of Royal Crown.
British Library—Defeat of the Armada
Reticella history

3 Responses to “A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Queen Elizabeth I”

  1. Bravo, this is a magnificent website. A lot of information, and beautiful picture to give us the opportunitie to see what it is.

    Really beautiful,

    Francine from Québec

  2. Trying to figure out how this fabulous and unique website could be translated into a course in art history for middle school aged kids. I’m in the midst of developing a curriculum for 7-8th grade. Interesting! Interested????

    • Interesting and worthwhile idea. Adults have written to ask whether VR has online courses and we do have at least one other reader/teacher sending her college-aged students here. Having said that, it’s never too early to start an art education, as our friends at Art in Action will testify.

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