The Armada Portrait


The ‘Armada Portrait’ was painted after England defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588.[1] The portrait portrays a victorious Queen Elizabeth I upon a galleon ship, sitting proudly before two Armada scenes; we can assume that this painting is professional from both the intricate detailing in the embellishments of Queen Elizabeth’s costume. It is also unlikely that an apprentice would have had the opportunity to see Elizabeth first hand or have the privilege of obtaining such a prestigious commission. However there appears to be discrepancy over the artist’s identity, with some historians confidently naming George Gower, whilst the National Portrait Gallery list the artist as ‘unknown’.[2] Perhaps this confusion arises as this painting is not unique; there are three surviving versions. The version I shall be focusing this analysis upon was owned by Sir Francis Drake, a member of Elizabeth’s court and the English Fleet’s Second in Command at the time of the Armada’s defeat.[3] The second has been displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, (NPG 541) since its transfer from the British museum in 1879. This version of the portrait has been trimmed to show only the Queen, removing the globe, statue, crown and even most of the Armada-scene background.[4] The third and final surviving version of the portrait hangs in Worburn Abbey, Bedfordshire.[5] The paintings were likely commissioned by the Queen and her advisors to show to her subjects both Elizabeth’s and England’s strength in naval warfare after a great victory. The replication of the portrait implies that the Court wanted to promote this image of Elizabeth to reach out to a wider audience than if only one were to be situated within Elizabeth’s residence; although this would only stretch to the upper-class visitors of those in possession of the painting. (This portrait has been made accessible to the modern public through more recent displays in galleries). This which would ensure loyalty to the Crown through evoking pride in her subjects for her military achievements. Furthermore, perhaps the commissioners of the portrait were forward thinking and wanted to ensure that their great Queen stood forever in England’s history.

Main Text

When looking at the Armada portrait, our eyes are first drawn to Elizabeth’s face and surrounding collar. Her face appears to be a source of light, whilst her crisp collar acts like a halo, extending this light in a circle.[6] Elizabeth is the dominant subject of the painting, positioned in the centre and taking up most of the space, signifying her importance as a monarch. The Queen’s eyes meet the spectator’s gaze, requiring submission and evoking nationalistic pride within the viewers’ hearts.[7] Her posture is strong, standing upright and proud. We can assume that the embellishments on her gown are representative of the clothes royalty such as she wore as this is a realistic painting, however it’s probable that this was also an opportunity for the artist to show off their ability to capture intricate details. The lines forming the painting are generally curved, portraying a plumpness which represents being well fed and clothed, an association we can make to the wealthy during this period. The strength and wellness Elizabeth radiates in the Armada portrait is however a stark contrast to the Coronation Portrait in which a petite body appears to be swamped by the mass of clothing material.[8] Here, the Queen appears rather timid at the beginning of her reign; this was probably an accurate depiction of Elizabeth in her youth, and thus stresses the importance of depicting her achievements which defied the male public’s initial misconceptions of a female monarch being incapable of ruling. However, in 1588 Queen Elizabeth was 55, yet this depiction of Elizabeth does not appear this old. There are no signs of the Queen having aged but rather an absence of wrinkles on her face and greying hair. Roy Strong describes the Elizabeth as having been vain, a possible explanation for eradicating any imperfections that come with age, particularly as society must believe that the Queen is a strong figure and cannot show any weakness.[9] This therefore makes the painting perhaps less credible as a historical source than a photograph which captures actuality, as the correct image of the Queen at this point in time has been manipulated by the artist’s hand, through either fear of insulting Elizabeth or through direct instruction.

Behind Elizabeth, two scenes from the Armada are illustrated. The left-hand side shows a calm gathering of ships which we can presume is a depiction of the navy setting off for battle in the light of day. The right-hand side is a dark contrast, telling the story of the, battle not just with the Armada, but against the north Atlantic gales which ultimately secured an English victory.[10] It’s important to note that the occurrence of these simultaneous scenes, implies that the painting is taken from the imagination of the artist, rather than a representation of a visual stimulus. Whilst Elizabeth probably posed for the painter, whether the objects surrounding her were actually in view is questionable. The crown and globe on the left of Elizabeth are balanced against the gold statue on the right; otherwise the portrait is almost symmetrical in terms of general shape. Their deliberate arrangement combined with a dual Armada background leads be to believe that these objects were manipulated for the sake of the portrait, chosen to appear in the painting for symbolic reasons. The gold crown is an instant notification of royalty, power and wealth, as is the golden statue of a mercreature; this could also represent the seas being on Elizabeth’s side, providing her with protection in naval battles. The globe represents imperial interest and foreign policy, another demonstration of military success against the Armada. Elizabeth’s hand resting on it is supposed to represent her control and guidance regarding these affairs, as she is married to the kingdom and will protect it against the threat of invasion.[11]

Continuing with symbolisation found within the portrait, we can identify Elizabeth’s decorative Virgin Pearls, yet another symbol of wealth, but also a symbol of purity which is necessary for the Virgin Queen to promote as this was an important part of her constructed monarchical identity.[12] This too, can be said about the volume of white used for the painting, particularly in the collar and the paleness of the Queen’s face. With regards to clothing, whiteness was an indicator of cleanliness in the Early Modern period, and cleanliness was an indicator of purity. The sixteenth century developed elaborate lace collars and cuffs which could only be worn by the wealthy as they required thorough washing (these were likely detachable to simplify the process), and were least likely to come into contact with dirt through their profession or living conditions.[13] Today, the white of the painting is more is as sharp as it has ever been. The portrait was undergone a six-month period of restoration in which retouching, and grime removal has occurred. Th original painting had been covered with an opaque varnish in order to make it appear antique, and had since naturally yellowed even further. Christine Riding, head of arts and curator of Queen’s House, Greenwich believes that the portrait now possesses its original impact and grandeur.[14]

The Armada portrait, alongside all portraiture of Elizabeth, is significant as it aims to demonstrate her unchallengeable right to the throne, as a woman, and after conspiracies against her predecessor and half-sister Mary.[15] During the 16th Century, men believed that women were capable of ruling a kitchen, but were incapable of ruling the kingdom successfully.[16] Elizabeth was initially challenged with the task of defining the attributes of a female monarch through imagery whilst escaping the restrictive ideal of womanhood. Portraits of the Virgin Queen had to portray strength, power, and beauty.[17] However, these traits are mostly masculine, showing that only women possessing masculine qualities could be powerful through the male eye; the average woman would not be displayed as possessing such traits. Any portrait of Elizabeth I is significant regardless, as cameras did not exist during the early modern period, therefore paintings are going to provide us with the most realistic representation of Elizabeth’s physical appearance and an insight into the types of clothing a female monarch would wear. In the absence of photos, this is a better source than a textual description. Whilst Elizabeth has been misguidedly portrayed as youthful despite being middle aged, portraiture is arguably no more unreliable than photography today as photography can be just as easily enhanced and airbrushed to create the ‘perfect’ look, particularly for modern celebrities and those of a high status. I believe this portrait was created with the intention of becoming a historical source to capture an important event (the victory against the Armada) and person (Queen Elizabeth I), just as we would photograph our friends and family at special moments such as births and graduations in the modern world.

Overall this portrait of Queen Elizabeth I is a fairly typical representation of the Queen, and is in particular comparable with the Ditchley portrait, featuring Elizabeth stood on top of a map between a background of a calm and stormy sky, reminiscent of the two Armada scenes. This suggests that the theme of foreign conquest and control over the nation was a popular way of portraying Elizabeth.[18] We can also see similarities between Elizabeth’s depiction in the Armada Portrait and the embodiment of masculine strength and power in representations of her father, Henry VIII, painted by Hans Holbein – right down to holding the same stance[19]. Belsey believes that Elizabeth invokes her father’s memory by possessing and that strength as a female monarch and knew that portraying this was key to winning the support of the public and her government.[20] This would have been important for Elizabeth to assert her power over the masses and prevent her overthrow. In contrast, Elizabeth’s Armada portrait possesses far more grandeur than portraiture of her foreign contemporary, Phillip II, who stands modestly before a plain grey background in equally sombre clothing.[21] This suggests that Elizabeth (and more generally, the Tudors) wanted to prove they were the greatest rulers. 


In conclusion, The Armada Portrait is an important visual source for historians in understanding how Elizabeth I chose to represent herself, primarily as strong female ruler. The content is arranged rather than being a response to a spontaneous visual stimulus which allows for high symbolisation through the selection of objects. Its purpose was to commemorate a great victory for both Elizabeth and Britain which is almost certainly why it was replicated to gain more spectators. Ultimately, these paintings were created to preserve Elizabeth’s memory in England’s history, particularly her victory in military objectives; I believe they were intended to be used as a historical source for the future. The fact that time and money has recently been spent on restoring the painting suggests that Elizabeth I is still considered a great figure today and that this is a magnificent depiction of her.



Gent, Lucy. Llewellyn, Nigel. eds. ‘Icons of Diversity: Portrait of Elizabeth I’, in Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture c.1540-1660

Haigh, Christopher. Elizabeth I: Profiles in Power, (Pearson, 2000)

MacCaffrey, Wallace, T.  Elizabeth I: War and Politics 1588-1603 (Bloomsbury Academic, 1993)

Sarti, Raffaella. Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture, 1500–1800, (Yale University Press, 2004)

Strong, Roy. The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry, (University of California Press, 1987)


National Portrait Gallery:

Queen Elizabeth I’, 541, available at: [Accessed:21/11/17]

‘Queen Elizabeth I’ NPG 5175, [Accessed: 03/12/17]

The Guardian, ‘Armada portrait of Elizabeth I returns after ‘spectacular’ restoration’, available at:; [Accessed: 21/11/17], Philip of Spain in later life, available at: [accessed: 10/12/17]

Woburn Enterprises, ‘The Armada Portrait’, available at: [accessed: 27/11/17]

[1] National Portrait Gallery, ‘Queen Elizabeth I’, 541, available at: [Accessed:21/11/17]

[2] Ibid; Andrew Belsey, Catherine Belsey ‘Icons of Diversity: Portrait of Elizabeth I’, in Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture c.1540-1660, ed. by Lucy Gent and Nigel Llewellyn p.11

[3] The Guardian, ‘Armada portrait of Elizabeth I returns after ‘spectacular’ restoration’, available at:; [Accessed: 21/11/17]

[4] National Portrait Gallery, 541

[5] Woburn Enterprises, ‘The Armada Portrait’, available at: [accessed: 27/11/17]

[6] Belsey, p.11

[7] Ibid, p.12

[8] National Portrait Gallery, ‘Queen Elizabeth I’ NPG 5175, [Accessed: 03/12/17]

[9] Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry, (University of California Press, 1987) p.23

[10] Wallace T MacCaffrey, Elizabeth I: War and Politics 1588-1603 (Bloomsbury Academic, 1993) p.78

[11]MacCaffrey, p.88

[12] Belsey, p.12

[13] Raffaella Sarti, Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture, 1500–1800, (Yale University Press, 2004) pp. 197-8

[14] The Guardian

[15] Christopher Haigh, Elizabeth I: Profiles in Power, (Pearson, 2000) p.7

[16] Haigh p.21

[17] Ibid, p.23

[18] Belsey p.16

[19] Ibid, p.11

[20] Haigh p.24

[21], Philip of Spain in later life, available at: [accessed: 10/12/17]

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