Portrait Propaganda

In our age of the internet and celebrity formed almost entirely through carefully curated images it’s easy to forget that this idea far out dates Instagram and Youtube. Kings and queens had used portraiture for centuries to ensure proliferation of their image and the presentation of their power over subjects but arguably it was Henry VIII who kickstarted the trend of immense, vivid and detailed images that spoke of his majesty. The invention of the printing press, helped by technical advances in portraiture, saw the spread and control of images of a monarch as an essential part of statecraft, ensuring that subjects would able to see what was presented as a true image of the wealthy and powerful, though perhaps more labour intensive than a decent angle and a few filters.


Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘Anne of Cleves’, 1539


We know from the example of Anne of Cleves that portraits were often designed to be more flattering than factual, I feel I could make a Tinder joke here but I’ve never actually used it so we’ll stick with calling this a prime example of the political power of portraiture.


Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I learned from her father’s example; she and her council were particularly adept at exploiting public goodwill through the frequent creation and distribution of new images of the queen, all laden with obvious iconography and subtle symbolism which spoke of the patriotism and loyalty expected of the viewer. Unauthorised images of the queen, whether original or reproductions were subject to attempts at heavy regulation, not just to restrict their use to permitted means, but because Elizabeth despised images which included ‘grievous and offensive “errors and deformities”‘ in her appearance.


Unknown Artist, ‘Elizabeth I: The Armada Portrait’, c.1588


While no original copy exists, the coronation portrait of Elizabeth was her first opportunity to state her intentions to the world. Despite the extravagant cost of her coronation Elizabeth wears her sister Mary’s robes, reworked and styled, as a visible link to the previous monarch, and only officially acknowledged Queen Regnant. The pose and style of the portrait is unusual for the time; the front facing pose is said to mimic the coronation portrait of Richard II, so that Elizabeth is ‘physically modelling herself on the last English monarch with an unquestioned claim to the throne’.


Unknown Artist, ‘Elizabeth i: The Coronation Portrait’ c.1600 copy of a lost original


Elizabeth’s life during the reigns of her father, brother and sister had invested in her both an unwavering pride in her position, and a seemingly never ending internal and external conflict to assert the dominance of her claim to the throne. Modelling her coronation portrait on that of Richard II created ‘link that overarches Elizabeth’s bastardisation’. Elizabeth’s love of spectacle and obsession with asserting her lineage and status came to define her reign, and our most lasting impressions are formed by the scrupulously refined images of her that survive, exactly as she would have intended. 



Some Sources

Thomas Heywood ‘Englands Elizabeth her life and troubles, during her minoritie, from the cradle to the crowne. Historically laid open and interwouen with such eminent passages of state, as happened vnder the reigne of Henry the Eight, Edvvard the Sixt, Q. Mary; all of them aptly introducing to the present relation’, 1631  

Lisa Hilton, Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince, 2014

Louis A. Montrose, ‘Idols of the Queen: Policy, Gender, and the Picturing of Elizabeth I’



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