Though more than 400 years have passed since they were painted, her portraits are as recognizable as a movie star’s: the receding red hair studded with pearls, the lace ruff hugging the neck from ears to collarbone, the ghostly white face with its haughty, confident gaze. England’s exalted Queen Elizabeth I insisted her face be depict-ed in this way, luminous and shadow-free. A former lady-in-waiting gossiped that the queen loved to be told no one could look her full in the face because her radiance rivaled the sun’s.
“There was a lot of mystique around Elizabeth,” says Georgianna Ziegler, head of reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., which claims the largest collection of Elizabethan writings and artifacts outside Britain. Popular poetry of the day celebrated the queen as Diana, the chaste goddess of the moon. To her subjects, England’s maiden queen seemed slightly unnatural, more divine than mortal. “She saw herself as wedded to her realm,” Ziegler says. “In a sense, for almost half a century she was the realm.” And she managed to exploit the very peculiarity of her status as an unmarried woman to help shape the most glorious era of English history.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Virgin Queen’s death, and a string of new exhibitions has been organized to commemorate her reign. The Folger has mounted a lavish tribute, “Elizabeth I, Then and Now,” which opened in March—the month she died—and runs through August 2. At London’s NationalMaritimeMuseum, a major exhibition is on view through September 14, and in Chicago, “Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend” will open at the Newberry Library on September 30. “Elizabeth is a figure of great interest now,” says Ziegler, “because she was a powerful woman who carved out her own place and made herself a queen at a time when there weren’t models for doing that successfully.”
In fact, Good Queen Bess is a full-fledged pop phenomenon. New romance novels and thrillers about Elizabeth or her archrival, Mary Queen of Scots, appear almost monthly. A recent book, Oxford: Son of Queen Elizabeth I, posits that the Earl of Oxford was not only the author of Shakespeare’s plays but also Elizabeth’s secret love child. Several new biographies are due out this year, and films and plays about her reign are being revived. “Her life was a classic survival story,” says Sian Flynn, curator of the London exhibition. “She was nearly executed twice by her own siblings, and she succeeded as a woman in a man’s world.”
And what a cutthroat world it was. Elizabeth’s father was King Henry VIII, rotund, red-haired and irascible. Her mother was Anne Boleyn, a coquettish young lady of the court who was pregnant with Elizabeth when Henry was still married to Catherine of Aragon. Henry, who was Roman Catholic, established the Church of England largely so he could have his marriage to Catherine annulled and marry Anne (a marriage the Catholic Church never recognized). Princess Elizabeth was born September 7, 1533. Within three years, Henry had her mother beheaded on a trumped-up charge of adultery. He married another fetching young lady of the court, Jane Seymour, 11 days later.