The face of Elizabeth
A comparative reflection on two iconic queens
- Reading time
- 15 min.
The preparation of our production Bastarda, centred on the character of Elizabeth I, coincided with a renewed focus on the British monarchy, illustrated by series such as The Crown, Wolf Hall or The Tudors. The historic event of the death of Elizabeth II proved that many people today share the fascination that Gaetano Donizetti must have felt in his time for her predecessor and namesake Elizabeth I. In this article, we reflect on the obvious and not so obvious links between these two queens in history and popular culture.
Operation London Bridge. Those words may conjure up the abandoned title of a James Bond film, or an obscure spy novel, but they actually involve a very serious set of plans and actions following the death of Queen Elizabeth II of England on 8 September 2022, which ended the longest reign of a female monarch in history. Immediately after Buckingham Palace announced Her Majesty’s death, the media relayed the information, interrupting their programmes and launching special editions.
A ten-day period of national mourning was declared in the United Kingdom. The Queen’s coffin, on public display in Westminster Hall, was visited by 250,000 citizens, creating a queue stretching ten miles, with waiting times of more than a day. A state funeral was held on 19 September 2022, with 2,000 guests, including 500 dignitaries representing 168 countries (87% of UN members), more than a million people gathered in the streets of London and hundreds of millions more behind their television sets.
The renewed media attention for the Windsor family persists with the release of Spare, Prince Harry’s controversial memoir, which sold over two million copies in one week in the UK, the US and Canada alone. The British crown has fascinated Europe and the world for centuries, most notably through the iconic figure of its three great queens (Elizabeth I, Victoria and Elizabeth II) whose longevity captures the imagination of the most anti-monarchist to the most ardent royalist. Although many links can be made between each of their reigns, the most striking relate to the parallel paths taken by the two Elizabeths.
They did not belong to the same lineage, they did not resemble each other physically, they lived in very different times, and yet Elizabeth I and II of England shared much more than a first name. Certain biographical details reveal strange similarities between the two women.
The first remarkable coincidence symbolically unites these two queens in history as they both came to power when they were just 25 years of age. Neither of them was really destined to take the throne. Upon her birth, Elizabeth I was heir apparent, in place of her older half-sister Mary, later known as Bloody Mary, whose legitimacy as successor to their father Henry VIII had been annulled along with the latter’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. However, following the beheading of her mother Anne Boleyn, and her father’s new marriage to Jane Seymour, Elizabeth, just two years and eight months old, was removed from the succession and declared illegitimate.
This status was reinforced by the birth of Edward who, as a man, was automatically designated as the future king of England. He ruled the country under the regency of his uncle the Duke of Somerset and then the Earl of Warwick from 1537, until his untimely death at the age of 15 in 1553. With no children, Edward chose his first cousin Jane Grey as his successor. Just nine days after her coronation, she was replaced by Mary, who had proclaimed herself Queen. Throughout the reign of her Catholic half-sister, the status of Elizabeth, a Protestant, remained the subject of much political debate. Accused of plotting, she was even arrested and placed under house arrest for a year. However, just ten days before she died, Mary recognised Elizabeth as her rightful heir.
For her part, throughout her childhood, the woman who would later become Elizabeth II was only third in line of succession to her grandfather, King George V. After his death in 1936, her uncle Edward VIII ascended the throne. He was still young and ‘single’. The majority of the country imagined that he himself would soon have one or more children, redistributing the order of succession. But just a few months after his coronation, Edward abdicated amidst a constitutional crisis caused by his wish to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. Elizabeth’s father became king in his turn, as George VI, and the young girl was now the heir apparent. If her parents had had a son afterwards, he would have replaced his older sister in the order of succession under the laws of cognatic primogeniture with male preference, which were still in force in the United Kingdom at the time.
A private education
As young girls, they were both privately educated by a series of tutors. Elizabeth II and her sister Margaret were actually the last members of the British Royal Family to be educated in such a traditional way. Initially taught by their governess Marion Crawford, who taught her the rudimentary basics in several subjects, the princess took courses in constitutional history with the Provost of Eton College, Henry Marten, and in religion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Through contact with several Belgian and French governesses, she became familiar with the language of Molière. She also discovered a passion for horse riding and nature, and joined the Girl Guides at the age of eleven. During the Second World War, as a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service or ATS, the women’s branch of the British Army formed in 1938, she took part in a motor vehicle maintenance course. In 2007, in a series of television documentaries, historian David Starkey questioned the quality of the education received by Her Royal Highness, criticising her supposed lack of cultural sophistication and intellectual curiosity. Several official biographers deny or contradict these claims. According to Marco Houston, the editor of Royalty Monthly, Elizabeth “may not have had the best formal education, but she has had the best education at the university of life”.
Elizabeth I’s private ‘home’ schooling was of a completely different quality. From the age of four, her governess and future lady-in-waiting Catherine Champernowne (later known as Kat Ashley) taught her French, Dutch, Italian and Spanish. In 1544, the intellectual and educator William Grindal, straight from Cambridge, helped her progress in Latin and Greek. By the age of twelve, the princess was able to translate prayers and philosophical treatises into three languages, an activity she continued to practise throughout her life. After Grindal’s untimely death from the plague in 1548, Elizabeth continued her education with Grindal’s mentor, Roger Ascham, who was also responsible for the education of her half-brother Edward. According to several sources, the Queen was one of the best-educated women of her generation. By the end of her life, she had mastered a dozen different languages with “the same ease as her mother tongue,” according to Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli, a Venetian ambassador who marvelled at this achievement in a series of letters in 1603.
It is often felt that the main discomfort endured by royalty (cynicism would have us say the only one) lies in the fine line between public and private life, scrutinised and analysed sometimes to the point of obsession. Both Elizabeth I and II experienced this in radically different contexts.
In the 16th century, the question of a royal marriage and its geopolitical repercussions was a genuine affair of state. The image of an unmarried queen is twofold: that of a supreme authority, independent of submission to a husband (possibly a foreigner) who would supplant her in the eyes of a highly patriarchal society; and that of major instability, without the possibility of producing a legitimate heir, which could result in dangerous constitutional chaos. From the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth I’s intimacy was the subject of much diplomatic manoeuvring and speculation, which she maintained by considering several potential candidates such as Eric XIV of Sweden, Frederick II of Denmark and Norway, the Austrian Archduke Charles II and Henry, Duke of Anjou and future King of France.
While she projected an image of virginity, the Queen collected ‘favourites’, including her childhood friend Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, with whom she was seemingly in love. There were rumours of a possible marriage to Dudley if he became a widower. His wife Amy died in an accidental fall down the stairs and some would accuse the Earl of having arranged it. Several of the sovereign’s advisors, some conservative members of Parliament and the nobility were firmly opposed to this potential union, even suggesting the possibility of a revolt. Without a husband until the end of her reign, Elizabeth I described herself as married to the people of England.
Less politically debated, Elizabeth II’s love life nevertheless caused a stir at the beginning of her relationship with Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, her distant first cousin. When she met him in 1939, the princess, who was only thirteen years old, immediately fell in love with the young man, who was five years her senior. They began an intensive correspondence and their engagement was announced in July 1947. In the palace, this relationship did not meet with unanimous approval. According to Marion Crawford, many of the King’s advisors considered Philip unworthy of marrying Elizabeth, describing him as a stateless prince without a kingdom. A certain press focused considerably on his ‘foreign’ status. Philip, although a British subject, was born in Corfu; and even the Queen Mother initially dubbed him ‘the Hun’. Among other controversies, the young fiancé had no financial assets and his sisters were married to German noblemen with ties to the Nazi Party. To quell these controversies, Philip gave up his Danish and Greek titles, renounced Orthodoxy and converted to Anglicanism, changed his name to Mountbatten, his mother’s British surname, and was made Duke of Edinburgh. The wedding took place on 20 November 1947, in Westminster Abbey. It was broadcast on the radio and followed by 200 million people worldwide. None of Philip’s three sisters were invited to the ceremony…
Strangely enough, even the respective end of their lives are similar. Both lived long lives in great physical and mental health before they deteriorated rapidly following personal tragedies. In sixteenth-century England, life expectancy was around 35 years, an extremely low average that reflected a high infant mortality rate. After reaching adolescence, the majority of the population could expect to live up to 50 years. When she died, Elizabeth I was almost 70 years old, a rare longevity at the time. In 1602, a series of disappearances in her inner circle plunged her into a deep depression. In March 1603, she fell ill (probably with a respiratory infection), was bedridden for a few days and succumbed at the end of the month.
Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee, celebrating the 70th anniversary of her reign, began in February 2022. At the end of the month, she started to suffer from flu-like symptoms and tested positive for Covid-19. While recovering, she followed the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine through telephone conversations with her Prime Minister Boris Johnson. She recovered in March, but noted that the infection “leaves one very tired and exhausted”. Already affected by the death of her husband the previous year, the Queen was increasingly replaced at official events that required her participation. She missed the opening of Parliament for the first time in 59 years. Some studies suggest that the bereavement of a long-term husband or wife accelerates the effects of old age, which the Queen may have suffered. His presence at the jubilee celebrations was restricted to a few appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. She retired to Balmoral Castle in Scotland for the summer. But on 8 September 2022, Buckingham Palace issued its first morning statement indicating that the Queen’s doctors were concerned about Her Majesty’s health. Her family rushed to Balmoral the same day. Elizabeth II died peacefully at 3:10 p.m. at the age of 96, with her children Charles and Anne at her bedside.
Many factors influence a reign’s longevity. The importance of luck and chance, of good management of the kingdom’s affairs, at least in appearance, of great popularity and of the general impression of stability that the monarch manages to convey in the eyes of the population cannot be overemphasised. This stability is the shared achievement of the two Elizabeths who came to power during tumultuous times for the British monarchy. On the one hand, the troubles of succession and international tensions, notably linked to the separation of the Protestant Church of England from the Catholic papal hegemony, seen as heresy; on the other, the abdication of a sovereign, the hasty death of his successor, the economic consequences of the Second World War and the dissolution of the Empire. Both queens navigated the diplomatic waters of their time with equal skill, not least thanks to certain qualities they shared.
The first, and certainly not the least important, is to surround yourself with the right people. In the early days of their reigns, they benefited from the experience of their political mentors, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, and Winston Churchill respectively. Elizabeth I’s advisors often disagreed on reforms, which allowed her to reduce the risk of many proposals through compromise, or by allowing time to work in her favour. She manipulated the friction in her court to exert control over it, using the fear of some of those she trusted regarding their future if she were to disappear. Although she effectively operated within a constitutional monarchy, the final decision on every new law, all state expenditure, rested entirely with her.
The distribution of power at the time of Elizabeth II’s ascension differed significantly. She was part of the first generation of monarchs in Europe whose role became almost entirely symbolic. In terms of domestic policy, she acted more as a consultant to her Government, with weekly meetings with the Prime Minister. Externally, and particularly with regard to the Commonwealth, she presented a benevolent image that promoted transnational cooperation. At her coronation, she promised: “Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.” In 1983, after years of ambivalence towards the independence of former Commonwealth members, in a Christmas speech she mentioned the importance of narrowing the gap between rich and poor countries, moving away from nationalism to interdependence. At the time she was criticised for her ‘lack of chauvinism’ but in some ways, her travels made her more diplomatic and socio-culturally aware than the most conservative level in the United Kingdom. However, her silence on the colonial legacy of the Crown and British imperialism in general still raises questions today.
Elizabeth II and I shared a sense of reserve and prudence that places them above the political fray, and thus beyond reproach. After the peace agreement signed in 1604 between James I and Spain, ending several years of conflict, the officer, explorer and favourite of Elizabeth, Walter Raleigh argued that if the late Queen had engaged more openly in warfare, total victory would have been on the horizon. He remarked, “But Her Majesty did all by halves.” Elizabeth hated the risk taking and uncertainty of aggressive military campaigns. She categorically rejected open conflict, preferring to rely on continental alliances and a purely defensive strategy. She was often careful not to reveal her opinion, following her motto ‘video et taceo’ (I see and say nothing). There were times when she even distanced herself from certain unpopular decisions, even if it meant placing the blame on others. She denied, for example, that she wanted Mary Stuart executed, as recommended by many of her closest advisors and members of Parliament. Did she have any regrets? Or was she worried about the precedent of such a regicide?
Generally described as being impeccable in her work, Elizabeth II strictly applied an equivalent level of reserve. Polling analysis revealing the Queen’s immense popularity with her population suggests the importance of this reserve. Throughout her life, and her career, she gave almost no interviews and never shared her political views. Rumour has it that, even in her confidential meetings with the Prime Minister, she never issued recommendations. Instead, she listened attentively, and asked questions about the government’s proposed reforms. In terms of international diplomacy, this prudence translated into a formal attitude, influenced by a particularly strict royal protocol, always well prepared and always cordial. According to some journalists, a rather subtle signalling system allowed the sovereign to communicate to her team during certain social interactions in order to cut short unwanted discussions. A figure of consensus, above debate, balancing the maintenance of tradition with moderate support for the more generally accepted changes in society, Elizabeth II ensured that the very concept of the monarchy endures despite its many opponents. Like her namesake, she demonstrated that the best way to harness a wave is to not create any.
Fashion and propaganda
When your function is mainly symbolic, your power results from its perception in the media and requires that your image be permanently controlled. The Windsors have skilfully followed the technological advances in information dissemination to promote the value of their institution, modelled as ‘serving the nation’: from radio to television, from official photographs to stamps and tea sets, from appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to a strong presence on the Internet and social networks. Elizabeth II quickly understood the power of appearance, of a garment, of an outfit. She avoided ephemeral fashions in favour of a style that evokes reliability, stability and constancy.
As a young princess, she wore the pleated floral dresses typical of the 1930s and 1940s, then skirt suits. But from the time of her accession to the throne, her wardrobe developed a characteristic style, guided more by function than fashion. When travelling abroad, the outfits were designed to subtly adapt to local customs and culture. In public, the Queen dressed so the crowds could see her. She often wore a frock coat, or a dress and matching hat, in bright, bold colours, suggesting a warmth and accessibility increasingly favoured over regal coolness. The fabrics used for the sovereign’s clothes were tested to limit creasing and weighted at the hem to make them resistant to gusts of wind. Subtle prints were used to prevent marks from being visible, and there were even detachable pads under the arms to hide perspiration.
As a sovereign, Elizabeth I was also very concerned about her image and aware of her political potential. In private, she valued her comfort, hence her preference for simple, plain dresses, which she sometimes wore two or three days in a row. In public, she dressed to impress, regardless of the size of her audience. Clothing was an important indicator of social status at the time. The Queen’s wardrobe had to be more splendid than anyone else’s. Although she collected fabrics of all colours, she preferred white and black, symbols of virginity and purity. Her dresses were magnificently embroidered by hand with all kinds of colourful threads and decorated with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, pearls and other jewels and precious stones. In her youth, Elizabeth I wore make-up sparingly, but after catching smallpox in 1562, this trend was dramatically reversed to hide the scars it had left on her face. She had it painted with white lead and vinegar, while red was applied to her lips and cheeks.
Once she reached a certain age, the Queen left it to her courtiers to promote the cult of ‘Gloriana’ by commissioning ever more flattering and iconographically convoluted royal portraits: globes, crowns, swords, columns and maps pay homage to her empire, but there are also roses, prayer books, moons, pearls and other classical allusions to purity. Small armies of workers toiled for months to create lavish outdoor entertainment in her honour. Her public appearances were marked by a dazzling display of wealth and magnificence. Throughout her reign, she moved constantly from one palace to another and enjoyed the hospitality of her wealthier subjects. During these (mainly summer) trips, known as royal progresses, she wooed her people with a veritable image propaganda. Artists, including poets such as Edmund Spenser and painters like Nicholas Hilliard, celebrated it in various mythological forms: Diana, the chaste goddess of the moon; Astraea, the goddess of justice; or Gloriana, the Faerie Queene. Elizabeth also appropriated part of the Christian veneration of the Virgin Mary, using her celibacy to present herself as a virgin queen, a second Madonna. She thus cultivated the impression of being timeless, eternally youthful; an immortality due to her apparent sexual purity.
Sources of inspiration
The two sovereigns are a hit in the world of culture and entertainment, to say the least. The international success of The Crown is resounding proof of this. The Netflix series depicts a fictional version of Elizabeth II’s story, focusing on two main areas: her love life and that of her children, and her role as Queen, including her relationship with her Prime Ministers. She is played in turn by Claire Foy, Olivia Coleman (both of whom won prestigious awards) and, in the final seasons, by Imelda Staunton. More surprisingly, Elizabeth II is also the heroine of several novels, from political satires such as Sue Townsend’s The Queen and I and Queen Camilla, to books aimed at young people such as Roald Dahl’s The BFG, Jane Riordan’s Winnie-the-Pooh Meets the Queen, and Steve Antony’s series The Queen Collection.
On the big screen
On the silver screen, while Helen Mirren won the Oscar for Best Actress for The Queen, dedicated to the days following the tragic death of Lady Diana, Her Majesty has also appeared in much less consensual films. In Tricia’s Wedding, an X-rated short film from 1971, Steven Walden’s Elizabeth II in drag takes part in the orgiastic wedding celebrations of Tricia Nixon. Julie Walters lends her voice to the Queen in the Belgian cartoon The Queen’s Corgi, dedicated to her dogs. Cars 2, the animated film by Pixar Studios, sees her transformed into a Rolls-Royce Phantom IV, a luxury car with Vanessa Redgrave’s inimitable vocal inflections. She also appears in a cavalcade of comedies, each more deliciously ridiculous than the last: The Naked Gun, Austin Powers in Goldmember, or Johnny English. She was even robbed of her crown in the Bollywood blockbuster Dhoom 2… There are plenty of examples to choose from.
For centuries, Elizabeth I has been an almost inexhaustible source of inspiration for artists, as evidenced by the phenomenal amount of works of all kinds based on her life. Shakespeare first included her birth and baptism in the ‘historical’ play King Henry VIII. She also appears in works by Friedrich Schiller, Walter Scott and Mark Twain, to name but the most famous. In literature, many more or less fictional versions of her youth appeared in the 20th century, notably in several books for children and adolescents. She is even one of the main characters in a limited series of Marvel comics called Marvel 1602, which depicts an alternative reality in which the Elizabethan period is populated by superheroes like Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.
As far as music is concerned, in addition to the extensive catalogue of pieces composed for her during her lifetime, several operas feature Elizabeth as one of their protagonists: Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra by Gioachino Rossini, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Ambroise Thomas, Gloriana by Benjamin Britten (composed for the coronation of Elizabeth II), etc. Three of Gaetano Donizetti’s four ‘Tudor’ operas explore her relationship with her favourites and her great rival Mary Stuart. Our two-part production Bastarda, which proposes a revival of this tetralogy, is built around her character.
Costume dramas have always been very popular with production companies. Firstly, because they attract a fairly wide audience, without costing exorbitant amounts of money. Secondly, because they are a magnet for awards in three categories: acting, sets and costumes. Judi Dench won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. Barely ten minutes on screen, she plays an authoritarian, greedy, proud, curt, often funny queen, full of mischief and, at times, compassion too. With a depth and accuracy that sometimes eludes the rest of the cast, she sums up the weight of this fascinating monarch’s dilemma in a single line: “I know something of a woman in a man’s profession… Yes, by God, I do know about that…”
So what is it about them that fascinates us so much? Their historical significance? Their personality? The curiosity that makes us want to scratch the veneer of power and its symbols? The evocative power of their image? The power of an icon lies in its universality, in its cultural versatility. An icon is an enigma capable of signifying as many things as there are sensibilities. In the end, perhaps it is because the faces of the Elizabeths do not belong to them. And that is their strength.