The Development of the Cult of Elizabeth I



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The Development of the Cult of Elizabeth I

The topic of my paper was prompted by a request to give the source of one of my references about the development of Queen Elizabeth’s cult along a historical line. I realized I could not do that, since there is no work dealing explicitly with the ordering of the various aspects on a timeline, although most of the books on the topic1 refer to it. Thus the following paper will contain a chronological overview of the symbolical attributes of Queen Elizabeth with illustrations from the field of literature and art.


The line of the various aspects starts with an element usually easily skipped over. Its dating preceeds17 November, 1558 when Elizabeth Tudor ascended the thrown of England. By that time the 25 years old princess fashioned a well articulated image of herself. She was known and admired for her intellect, of which she made proof in many ways: she completed translations from Latin as a New Year’s gift to her father, and set a French poem into English for her stepmother2; she composed poems; wrote prayers; spoke fluently Latin, French, and Italian and read Greek and Spanish. The importance of the educated prince was emphasized already by Erasmus in his Education of a Christian Prince (1516) and it seems reasonable that Elizabeth consciously developed this feature amid the turmoil of her young years and uncertainties facing her future. She refers to this strategy in a later speech delivered to her troublesome parliament in 1566: “I am your anointed queen. I will never be by violence constrained to do anything. I thank God I am indeed endued with such qualities that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place of Christendom”.3 On a portrait sent to her brother Edward VI in 15494, she had herself painted with two books, a bigger one in the background on a lectern, and a smaller one in her hand, calling attention to the fact that her learning was her chief attribute. In the accompanying letter she self-assuredly wrote to his brother: “The face … I might well blush to offer, but the mind I shall never be ashamed to present. For though from the grace of the picture the colours may fade by time, may give by weather, may be spotted by chance, yet the other nor time with her swift wings shall overtake, nor the misty clouds with their lowerings may darken, nor chance with her slippery foot may overthrow.”5 After her ascension this image of the educated Renaissance prince remained an important metaphor in her panegyric. She often used it to justify her personal participation in affairs of politics and diplomatic negotiations. A late example of showing off her superior intellect was the incident with the Polish ambassador in 1597. The polish diplomat delivered an impolite challenging oration to the queen in front of the court. Elizabeth responded to it with an extempore Latin speech, of which Sir Robert Cecil wrote “I swear by the living God that her majesty made one of the best answers … I ever heard, being so much moved to be so challenged in public, especially so much against her expectation”.6 Poets, panegyrists and courtiers referred to Elizabeth’s learning to claim superiority for their monarch above other princes of Europe. One extreme example of such praise is the acrostic hymn cycle of Sir John Davies of 1599, in which eight hymns alone were composed with this subject matter with the following titles: “Of her mind”, “Of the Sunbeams of her Mind”, “Of her Wit”, “Of her Memory”, “Of her Phantasy”, “Of the Organs of her Mind”, “Of the Innumerable Virtues of her Mind” and “Of her Wisdom”.7
Elizabeth’s image acquired further elements at her first public appearance as Queen of England, at the procession through the City of London on 14 January, 1559 - usually referred to as her Coronation Entry as it was followed the next day by her coronation at Westminster.8 In this procession she was represented as a godly queen and the restorer of Pure Religion.
The Coronation Entry marks a turning point in the cult of Elizabeth. From this time onwards Elisabeth’s carefully fashioned image became “public property”. Next to the official image the performers’ personal interests, expectations and wishes were also expressed in them.9 The following lines - delivered by a child as Elizabeth was leaving London - illustrate that the presented show was offered as an advice to the Queen:
So now, sith thou must nedes depart out of this towne,



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