What Did Elizabeth I Look Like?

Posted By claire on September 11, 2009

Elizabeth I c.1580

Elizabeth I c.1580

“What a silly question!”, you may say, after all we’ve got an abundance of portraits and depictions of this famous queen of England! But, can we trust these to give an accurate record of what Good Queen Bess really looked like? Probably not.

Why do I say this? Because, like many monarchs of her time, Elizabeth was more concerned with propaganda and with portraits depicting her as she wanted to be seen by her subjects and foreign powers, rather than how she herself actually looked. Alison Weir writes of how after Nicholas Hilliard painted a 40+ year old Elizabeth as an “icon of royalty”, Elizabeth “began to take an increasing interest in how she was represented, insisting upon the trappings and appearance of majesty taking precedence over any attempt at realism”.

We must also take into account Elizabeth’s vanity and her desire to be the most beautiful woman around, even later in her life when she suffered with bad teeth! Her later portraits certainly do not show bad teeth and wrinkles!

You can see a selection of portraits of Elizabeth on our gallery page – see what you think.

So, what do we actually know about Elizabeth’s appearance from written records? Let’s look at what historians and historical sources say of Elizabeth in her youth:-

Elizabeth I’s Appearance

In her book “Elizabeth the Queen”, Alison Weir describes the 25 year old Elizabeth as:

“tall and slender, with a tiny waist, small bosom and beautiful, long-fingered hands, which it pleased her vanity to display to advantage in a variety of affected poses. She had a swarthy complexion like that of her mother, although she made a habit of whitening it with a lotion made up of egg-whites, powdered egg shell, poppy seeds, borax and alum, which made her face appear white and luminous. She had inherited also Anne Boleyn’s long, thin face, high cheekbones and pointed chin. From her father she had her red naturally curly hair and high, hooked nose.”

Weir also quotes Sir John Hayward describing Elizabeth as:

“slender and straight; her hair was inclined to pale yellow, her forehead large and fair, her eyes lively and sweet, but short-sighted, her nose somewhat rising in the middle; her countenance was somewhat long, but yet of admirable beauty, in a most delightful composition of majesty and modesty”.

Coronation Portrait

Coronation Portrait

Anne Somerset, in her book “Elizabeth I”, says that “Elizabeth had no claims to genuine beauty” but also that her best feature was her hands with their “elongated and slender fingers”. Somerset also describes her as having a long oval face and a hooked nose “rising in the middest”.

David Starkey writes in his book, “Elizabeth”, of how the well-known portrait of the teenage Elizabeth shows auburn hair, inherited from her father, a “delicate mouth and her long, slightly arched nose” and her mother’s “coal-black eyes”. This portrait also shows her long and slender hands.

Alison Plowden, in “Elizabeth I”, writes of how the Imperial Ambassador in Henry VIII’s reign, Eustace Chapuys, described a five year old Elizabeth as “very pretty”. This was a man who hated Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, whom he called “the concubine”, so Elizabeth must have been an attractive child for Chapuys to speak well of her!

According to William Cecil’s son, Thomas, King Philip was “enamoured” with a twenty-something Elizabeth when he was married to her half-sister Mary because Elizabeth was “a fair and beautiful woman”, and in 1557 Giovanni Michiel, the Venetian ambassador, gave an account of the Princess Elizabeth, saying:

“My Lady Elizabeth is a young woman whose mind is considered no less excellent than her person, although her face is comely rather than handsome, but she is tall and well formed, with a good skin, although sallow. She has fine eyes and above all a beautiful hand of which she makes a display; and her intellect and understanding are wonderful, as she showed very plainly by her conduct when in danger and under suspicion. As a linguist she excels the Queen [Mary I], for besides Latin she has no slight knowledge of Greek and speaks Italian more than the Queen does, taking so much pleasure in that from vanity she will never speak any other language with Italians. She is proud and haughty, as although she knows that she was born of such a mother, she nevertheless does not consider herself of inferior degree to the Queen, whom she equals in self-esteem….She prides herself on her father and glorifies in him; everybody saying that she also resembles him more than the Queen does”

What we can gather from all of these descriptions of Elizabeth in her youth, together with the portrait of the Princess Elizabeth, the Whitehall Family portrait and Elizabeth’s coronation portrait, is that Elizabeth had her father’s auburn hair and hooked nose, her mother’s dark eyes and swarthy complexion, and elegant hands with long, slender fingers. Like her mother, she is not described as a classic beauty, but it seems that also like her mother, her wit and intelligence shone through and that she had a certain “je ne sais quoi”! She was certainly never short of admirers, so perhaps she had Anne Boleyn’s famous sex appeal – she definitely had her flirtatious nature!

Elizabeth enhanced her assets with high fashion and jewels. She is said to have had over 3,000 gowns, which were often decorated with jewels, and she had shoes made on a weekly basis. She also loved low cut necklines, red wigs, extravagant costumes and jewellery. She must have cut an imposing figure when she was welcoming foreign ambassadors to her court.

To see what may be a more realistic image of Elizabeth, you can click here to visit a site about Blanche Parry, Elizabeth’s good friend, where there is a photo of a portrait thought to have been painted in the 1580s by Joost de Hondt. This portrait is said to resemble an engraving of Elizabeth I by Crispin van de Passe the Elder and to be a better likeness of the Queen than official portraits. I love this portrait – thanks go to Rochie for telling me about it!

If you have found any descriptions of Elizabeth I in her youth or in her later years, feel free to leave them as comments below.

P.S. Remember to email your Elizabeth I competition entry to claire@elizabethfiles.com – I will be judging them over the weekend, along with 2 other judges, and announcing the winner on Monday. Good luck!

Comments

32 Responses to “What Did Elizabeth I Look Like?”

  1. Madeline says:

    Wow! I love that portrait of Elizabeth on the Blanche Parry page!
    It looks a lot like some of the Anne Boleyn portraits, which of course would make sense!
    Thank you for sharing it, I’ve never seen it before!

  2. Claire says:

    It was Rochie who found it, she’s done a brilliant Blanche Parry Squidoo lens – see http://www.squidoo.com/blanche-parry – interesting lady.
    Yes, I think Elizabeth was a real mix of Henry and Anne, in character and looks. On The Tudors wiki, someone has overlaid a portrait of Elizabeth on top of one on Anne and they are pretty identical – see http://tudorswiki.sho.com/photo/6859392/Gheeraerts+vs+Unknown+Overlay%29 and http://tudorswiki.sho.com/photo/6843859/Gheeraerts+vs+Unknown for original portraits. Rochie pointed those out to me too!!

  3. rochie says:

    It is quite poignant, to think that the two portraits, of Elizabeth and Blanche were side by side in that home (Newcourt) for many years prior to the auction, and now they are both lost. How tragic!
    The fact that Blanche herself would probably have owned them as a pair is an indication, I feel, that the Queen’s portrait in this instance must be a genuine likeness. Both painted by the same artist, probably round about the same time – 1580′s.
    Two women who, for a period of perhaps as many as 60 years were hardly ever apart. How wonderful.

  4. rochie says:

    Correction – probably different artists, according to the website (just visited again to check)

  5. lisaannejane says:

    Thanks for sharing this – I am amazed at how much Elizabeth resembles Anne! I have never seen this picture before of Elizabeth. And I agree with you about portraits not representing people as they actually appeared. Even photos are not realistic.

  6. Claire says:

    Rochie has done a section on the Elizabeth Files wiki showing a reversal of Anne’s portrait alongside the portrait of Elizabeth with a fan – they look so similar. No wonder Henry saw Anne when he looked at Elizabeth! See http://elizabethfiles.wetpaint.com/page/Elizabeth+I+Portraits one up from the bottom.

  7. Matterhorn says:

    There’s a discussion going on at “Histatic!” by TammiMagee on the 1588 portrait of Elizabeth commemorating the victory over the Armada, here:

    http://histatic.blogspot.com/2009/09/whats-in-portrait-challenge.html

    We were trying to guess the symbolism.

  8. Claire says:

    Hi Matterhorn,

    Thanks for that link, I’ve gone and put my ideas down on the histatic blog, although I did cheat and do some digging first!! Feel free to add your thoughts on symbolism to the portraits at http://elizabethfiles.wetpaint.com/page/Elizabeth+I+Portraits , our wiki site where you can contribute in any way that you like.

  9. lisaannejane says:

    I saw an interesting show on how a face could be reconstructed from a death mask. It showed George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and a possible one of Napeleon and JuiusCaesar. I was wondering if Elizabeth had a death mask done. The images rely heavily on forensic sciences but were very interesting.

  10. Claire says:

    Hi Lisa,
    As far as I know a death mask was not done of Elizabeth I, which is a shame. I don’t think Elizabeth would have allowed it as she was very strict on how she was portrayed so I’m sure she would have left instructions against this even if it were the trend at the time.

  11. Martyn Taylor says:

    Hello… For starters I would like to thank you for making this website. It’s good to know there are other Elizabeth fans around… I agree with you about the portraits… And I agree about the death mask… However… I do know that The Tomb Effigy of Elizabeth is as close as we’re going to get to seeing what The Virgin Queen actually looked like… They did once make a cast of the face from The Effigy… depicting what her face would of looked like… Here is the link for the face cast thing :) x

    http://library.princeton.edu/libraries/firestone/rbsc/aids/C0770/ex61.jpg

    The Cast… ^^^

    http://www.tudorhistory.org/elizabeth/effigy.jpg

    The Actual Tomb Effigy ^^^

  12. Ana says:

    I wonder if she actually got that nose from her mother. Henry’s portraits don’t show a hook nose, do they? But Elizabeth had Howard blood, and the ‘Howard nose’ can be seen in a lot of portraits – tending toward the roman and indeed ‘hooked’.

  13. erin says:

    I have heard that she died with some unseemly poundage of makeup caked on her face…do you know how heavy it was/how much? I have heard a quote in the past and have not been able to find an answer…

  14. James Moon says:

    Elizabeth was no doubt ijn her youth highly attractive with long beautiful red-gold hair, vey clear pale skin and beautiful large dark brown almond shaped eyes and a slender figure. But as she ended puberty around 20-21 her features changed her nose enlargened and grew hooked, her round face grew long and thin. She was probably still attractive when she was crownd Queen of England, aged 25. But she didn’t possess delicate features. And the older she got the more majestic both her looks and attire grew.

  15. Jen says:

    I have noticed the portraits of Elizabeth show her as unnaturally pale . Some that knew her say she had swarthy skin, some pale. I read she may have used white lead on her face. What do you think is true?
    I think she did use makeup to appear lighter and the ones that say pale, only saw her in her makeup. Plus, her mother was not pale.
    Elizabeth did look better than most or some of the people in her generation. Judging on their portaits.
    . Starting at a young age, Elzabeth was abandoned by her father then eventually reconciled. Elizabeth had to be strong all her life, like her mother

  16. Graham says:

    How wrong can you get!!!!
    All the quotes from people of the time are full of words open to interpertation. I have seen even an error in one translation of her hair when she was older. The orginal document was written in latin and the hair colour was translated as red, when in fact it was yellow in the latin. So Elizabeth was 100% BLOND! I think she might have wanted RED hair, but she didn’t have it.
    Let’s get something clear. The word “fair” didn’t mean what it does now. Back then it was the word for beautiful. Others make it clear she had a massive presence. A real dignity about her.
    So hear’s a different viewpoint: Elizabeth was a blond, absolute stunner of a woman, who men wanted to marry at the sheer sight of her. Not that you could convince her of that! For Elizabeth had one massive problem in her life. Herself!
    For once you know that the cause of this, that being that Elizabeth The Virgin Queen had an inferiority complex the size of Mount Everest! Then everything about falls into place. Without that knowledge you end up with more problems than answers.

  17. Erin says:

    i am doing a projest about elizabeth so help me tell me about her and i egmire her thank you for listening .

  18. Claire says:

    Hi Erin,
    Have a good browse of the site and feel free to ask questions, we’ve got a forum too!

  19. CLAUDIA GONZALES ARAOZ says:

    MUY INTERESANTE…!
    ES MUY BUENO TENER ALGO DE CULTURA GENERAL.. ;D..!

  20. Alice Langworth says:

    Very helpful! Thanks for sharing this! :) :) :)

  21. Abbie says:

    thank you very much

    :D

  22. alisha says:

    queen elizabath is so nice iw ish i met her but i want to meet queem eliabath number 2 i was looking for any ways

  23. jemimah says:

    this website is great all of the subject in history i use this website for everything great thxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  24. rose smith says:

    claire can you respond/reply to what graham said sorry its just i want to know your reaction to that comment

  25. Patti B says:

    Since Elizabeth I was so vain, she had to approved all sketchings of her, which later became paintings. That is why she never looks the same in any of her portraits. One thing is certain: Elizabeth indeed had long fingers as evidenced by a pair of her lace gloves on display in Hatfield House.

  26. Horny lady says:

    Do u think that Elizabeth was cute when a teen???

  27. Anita says:

    I did not realize she had a dark complexion like her mother, while Catherine of Aragon, and Spanish was blonde?

    But this is interesting as I always viewed her like myself, a typical red/auburn haired, with fair skin and blue eyes.

    She had dark eyes?

    Very interesting in terms of physical trivia.

    Thanks for your hard work.

  28. I am a researcher of French medieval literature with an intense non-authoritative interest of Tudor history.
    “fair of face” or “fair countenance” is meant to be understood as without pox or its scarring after survival of “pox” diseases during Tudor history including Henry VII. “Fair” therefore became to mean beautiful or pretty as history progressed.

  29. maria says:

    i have been visiting tudor buildings for a few years now and i captured something on photo from hampton court in the short gallery, a lady in a white coat with long black hair was walking through and i took a photo she has this head on her shoulder with a large forehead and large nose little eyes and bright ginger hair its as if its just walking through this woman, i myself believe it to be Elizabeth ,i have tried to find a true person to examine my photos but they make out they are true paranormal experts but when it comes to it they are all liers,i will prove my photo is genuine when people stop listening to people who know nothing there are some genuine people about but i still cannot find them to prove my findings

  30. Joy says:

    At age 13 she looks completely different than later on. I wonder about the Bisley Boy rumor. After all, he was the illegit grandson of Henry VIII so he had the coloring. To me Eliz I does look like a man.

    She would never allow a physician to “examine” her.

    ….hmmmm…

  31. Joy says:

    At age 13 she looks completely different than later on. I wonder about the Bisley Boy…

  32. Christine says:

    I think the coronation portrait of her is lovely it shows her looking very young with her red blond hair cascading over her shoulders and down her back, it’s a pity she didn’t keep her hair like that as it was lovely, instead of having it tied back and round her face like a huge frizz ball, that made her look more severe, what I find intriguing is her colouring, red heads have very white skin and either green or blue eyes yet she’d inherited her dark eyes and olive skin from her mother, in an age when we think of tanned skin as beautiful it was the reverse in Tudor times and indeed upto the early 20 th c when Coco Chanel made being brown glamorous, I think had Elizabeth not tried to whiten her face she would have looked much more striking with the contrast of her hair, but then it was the fashion, when I first saw the portrait of Anne Boleyn years ago then Elizabeth I was struck by the likeness between them, even tho she had Henrys colouring.

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