The Armada Portrait

Following on from last week’s article “Elizabeth I – Queen of PR”, I thought it would be good to start our examination of Elizabeth I portraits with the famous Armada portrait. This portrait is by an unknown artist (possibly George Gower) and was painted circa 1588, the same year as Elizabeth I’s defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The Armada Portrait is rich in symbolism, as are many of Elizabeth’s portraits, so I’ll start the ball rolling with symbols I can see and have found during my research, but please do add your own thoughts in the comments section below.

Symbolism in the Armada Portrait

  • Pearls – Like her mother before her, Elizabeth loved pearls and in her portraits pearls symbolise purity and virginity. Pearls symbolised purity. Marilee Cody, on her excellent site on Tudor portraits – – suggests that the pearls were Dudley’s last gift to Elizabeth and so had special meaning to Elizabeth.
  • Elizabeth – Although Elizabeth was around 55 when this portrait was painted, she is presented as youthful and vibrant with her made-up face, bright red hair and unblemished complexion. She is also dressed in all her finery and rich jewels,  and really is the iconic, ever-youthful Virgin Queen.
  • Elizabeth’s gaze – C J Cairns writes of how the way that she is gazing into the distance could symbolise her looking to the future of her realm.
  • Posture – Just as her father liked his posture to speak of his power and magnificence, Elizabeth too has adopted a posture of power.
  • Ruff – C J Cairns writes of how her ruff frames her face like rays of the sun.
  • Window scenes – I think it was David Dimbleby in his series “The Seven Ages of Britain” who noted that in the window on the left hand side of the painting there is the arrival of the Armada and then on the right there is the defeat of the Armada. This portrait could be seen as a tribute to Elizabeth’s success at protecting the nation from Spanish invasion or you could see a religious meaning: perhaps the ships are being forced onto the rocks by the “Protestant wind”. C J Cairns comments that Elizabeth has “called upon the elements to dispel the Spanish Catholic threat”.
  • Globe – If you look at the placement of Elizabeth’s hand on the globe, you can see that her hand is over the Americas which England was busy colonising. As Marilee Cody points out, this painting was painted one year after the birth of the first English child in the colonist’s settlement of Virginia. Her fingers are extending to other parts of the globe and this symbolises that Elizabeth’s power is fa reaching and that the whole world is at her disposal.
  • Pillars – An article on wikipedia says that “The Queen is flanked by two columns behind, probably a reference to the famous impresa of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, Philip II of Spain’s father, which represented the pillars of Hercules, gateway to the Atlantic Ocean and the New World.”
  • The egg shaped object – Of you look at the right hand side of the painting, you can see that there is an egg shaped object above Elizabeth’s shoulder and in front of the window. It appears to be a pomegranate which symbolised fertility, abundance, generosity, union, prosperity, rebirth, resurrection and eternal life.
  • The Crown – Confirmation of Elizabeth’s powerful position as monarchy and her royalty and majesty. If it is indeed an imperial crown, as some have suggested, it speaks again of Elizabeth’s far reach and Elizabeth as Empress.
  • Carving – The arm of the chair has a carving of a mermaid which, according to C J Cairns was “a symbol of the potential destructive nature of females” and that Elizabeth’s position with her back to the image could signify her rejection of its meaning. I wonder if it actually speaks of Elizabeth’s power over the seas.
  • Bow – One article on this portrait has suggested that the placement of the large bow is a “blatant display of Elizabeth’s virginity” just as Henry VIII’s large codpiece spoke of his sexuality and prowess.

Notes and Sources

41 thoughts on “The Armada Portrait

  1. Regarding those pillars… On the left hand picture, depicting the Armada arriving to attack England, they’re very visible. On the right hand picture, depicting the defeated Armada, they’re very dark and almost completely obscured by the drapery. If the pillars represent the power of Philip’s family, the Hapsburgs, and the HRE, does their representation on the right hand picture symbolize Elizabeth dealing a mighty blow to that power and not just Philip? After all, Spain and the HRE were arguably the most powerful coalition in the world, and Philip threw everything he had at her and she repulsed that attack. So is she, in effect, declaring herself to be the most powerful person in the world now with her victory? How galling that must have been for Philip. LOL.

    I believe there are two or three versions of this portrait that exist, so they must have been copied for distribution. After all, what good is propaganda if no one sees it? I think it would have been hilarious if Elizabeth had sent a copy directly to Philip – he would have had an aneurysm!

  2. The mermaid was a traditional symbol of female licentiousness and destructiveness and Mary Queen of Scots was associated with this symbol in much of the literature of this time. I think Spenser’s The Faerie Queen used this guise to allude to Mary Stuart…I think there may be a reference somewhere in Shakespeare as well but I can’t quite remember where.
    It was Mary’s execution that was one of the triggers to the launching of the Armada, so it would be appropriate to include the mermaid as part of Elizabeth’s chair to show her Protestant victory over Mary – another Catholic power in her world.

  3. The pomegranate is also a symbol associated with Spain. Principally, it was (and still is) the symbol of Granada, which Philip’s grandparents had reconquered from the Moors. Catherine of Aragon had taken it as her personal badge when she came to England, ironically in view of her sad gynaecological history.
    Its position in the window in front of the scattering of the Spanish fleet could therefore be taken as some sort of savage joke – the alleged flourishing Spanish empire floundering against Elizabeth’s (or God’s) might. Again ironic in view of her childless state.

  4. It was said that the storm that blew at the time of the Armada was whipped up by the magician and alchemist John Dee. The fact that he was several hundred miles away in Prague at the time is not considered to have been an obstacle to this enterprise.

    This piece of handy-work, however, was reflected in one or two motto’s of the time such as “He blew and they were scattered” and in the legend struck on the Queen’s Armada medallion something like: “God breathed and they were scattered.” It was seen at the time as a kind of divine intervention. So Dee would probably not have wanted to claim all the credit for himself.

  5. Maybe it is just me, but dosen’t the ‘pomegranate’ look more like the sort of knob you may find on the top corners’ of the backs’ of chairs’? I haven’t had a propper look at it, though, so correct me if I’m wrong.

  6. Rose, I’m not entirely convinced, myself, about the ‘pomegranate’. Here’s a slightly bigger version of the above version:

    There’s a streak on it that resembles the KOA badge pomegranate that is split open to expose the seeds, but I don’t see any seeds here. It might just be the light reflecting off the egg or knob or finial or whatever it is. There’s another version of the portrait here (warning, it’s a biggie):

    It doesn’t have that streak on it, and is the exact same color of the throne, making it look like a finial or some other decorative element. And just for fun, here’s a third version that doesn’t show anything but Elizabeth in front of an ordinary window: no Armada pictures, no crown, throne, etc.

  7. Irish_Impulse- thanks for the links to the other paintings. The paintings appear to be copies/ reproductions by different artists, so there is no telling if it is supposed to be a pomegranate or not.

    One of the things that I did notice was the roses on Elizabeth’s dress. In some of the paintings, they appear to be black and red. In others, they are black and white, and the one at this address ( has the roses in red and white- showing that she is a Tudor- from the York and Lancaster bloodlines.

  8. So pleased you are looking at all the rich symbolism attached to E. This is a wonderful painting. Such power and self-confidence. That is what Elizabeth is all about. What a gal!

  9. Impish, in the third picture you posted, Elizabeth is holding a piece of jewelry that she is wearing in her right hand. Since everything has meaning in her paintings, I wonder what that piece stands for? It’s hard to even make out what it is. When I zoom in, it’s kind of blurry and can’t really make it out.
    I’m not so sure that is a pomegranite. Looks like a finial to me. Why would there be an empty chair behind her in the portrait? Could it symbolize Elizabeth as the one and only ruler of England?

  10. The idea that the pearls might have been a gift by the Earl of Leicester comes from his will, in which he left Elizabeth a “jewel with three great emeralds with a fair table diamond in the middest … and a roap of fair white pearl, to the number of six hundred, to hang the said jewel at.” He had intended this as a gift when she last visited Wanstead (his Essex house), but since he was practically broke, it had to serve as his bequest to “Her Majesty”.

    He especially begged his “dear wife, see it performed”. So we can be sure, poor Countess Lettice (Elizabeth’s she-wolf) had delivered it to the Queen pretty soon after Leicester’s death. He died shortly after the Armada, so several authors have entertained this nice idea that she wore Sweet Robin’s pearls.

  11. Sharon, I’m not sure about the pendant she’s holding out to the viewer to emphasize. It’s tilted, but resembles the one from this portrait (The Clopton Portrait)

    which calls it “The Mirror of France” and said it had belonged to Henry VIII. It pops up again in the Sieve Portraits, one of which can be seen on this page:

    There are three pages of portraits starting at the link below and each can be clicked on to enlarge. The Sieve portraits are on page 2, the Armada portraits, page 3.

    There are similar jewels in other portraits. The one in the 3rd Armada portrait looks smaller, but I wonder if it’s a distorted perspective because the Armada gown is huge compared to some others.

  12. Thanks for the referrals, Impish. I noticed there were other jewels in later paintings that she is also pointing out.

  13. Impish, Thanks for all the links. I didn’t realize there were so many images of her. My favorite picture of her is still the one where she is wearing a white dress and seems to have angel wings behind her – the one that was used for the magazine cover that Claire’s husband made.

  14. “My favorite picture of her is still the one where she is wearing a white dress and seems to have angel wings behind her”

    I see what you mean – the sleeves fall all the way down behind her like the medieval depictions of full-length feathered wings on angels.

    I think my favorite is either the portrait of her at 13 in the red dress, or the Ermine Portrait. I like the large transparent veils of later in the reign like the one in the Rainbow Portrait:

    I found it hard to visualize in 3-D until the Cate Blanchett movie about Elizabeth: The Golden Age illustrated it so beautifully:,,11734102-EX,00.jpg

  15. Impish, I also really like the Rainbow Portrait. I think Cate Blanchett looked beautiful in the white dress – thanks for the links.

  16. Personally, I think the egg-shaped object is a pomegranite. Elizabeth I wouldn’t have just randomly stuck a knob on her portrait. It had to symbolise something, so it could bea pomegranite as others have said.

    Also thanks for all the information. It was really helpful when I needed to anylize the portrait.


  17. Have only skimmed over the information you have provided but was wondering if it came to your attention in the bottom right corner, the statue. It is possible that this statue is Spanish by its detailing. Perhaps it was stolen from one of this ships, as it is hard to believe that it would be a gift.
    Thanks for the rest of the info though 🙂

  18. Hi Hayley,
    Do you mean the mermaid? I can’t figure out whether it’s a carving or statue. According to C J Cairns was “a symbol of the potential destructive nature of females” and that Elizabeth’s position with her back to the image could signify her rejection of its meaning. I wonder if it actually speaks of Elizabeth’s power over the seas. However, you’re right on that it could be Spanish and could be a trophy from piracy or something and could be Elizabeth’s way of showing her triumph over the Spaniards. I’m not sure!

  19. The problem with many portraits of this age is that we no longer see them as intended. The most obvious one is colour. And this picture suffers from it badly. When we print things today you will sometimes see a colour chart to tell the printer when the different colour inks are running out. Well we can do that with this picture so if we use some common sense instead we see that the ships are sailing on sand! So that was clearly blue. Most of the rest of the picture has changed to, but I have worked out the bows were scarlet and blue. The table cloth bright green, the globe highly coloured with blue of course for the water. There is also an absence of yellow in the picture and I think the underside of the cape she wears was that colour. The curtains were also bright green.
    But more than one artist has worked on this picture. The two hands are very different. The one on the globe being painted after the other hand by an artist not as good as the first. The cruder artist left the good hand untouched, but painted a new head and ruff on top of the dress. The evidence for this is that the string of pearls are cut off and should be slightly visabile under the ruff. Even on the crude head the colour has gone leaving a white finish to a once pinky flesh look of the face, plus yellow hair! Yes Elizabeth was a blond!

  20. This is really helpful, but I’m looking for either the symbols in the Hardwick Portrait or just general symbols – can’t find either of them, please help somebody!

  21. The Mermaid appears to represent Mary Queen of Scots/MQS. The profile and color matches the medallion made of MQS in 1580 by Jacopo Primavera during the imprisonment by Queen Elizabeth/QEI . A Mermaid was used in the slander campaign against MQS in placards with her initials, implying she was a siren (French word for mermaid) luring men to their death, after Darnley’s murder in February 1567. MQS was never tried for the murder, only accused and then imprisoned for 20 years.

    In the portrait the Mermaid is armless thus disarmed, very small thus diminished, and on the left side behind QEI thus ‘left behind’ by the 3-stroke-by-a-dull blade beheading that occurred after the 2 decade long imprisonment. The blade had been used to slaughter animals just before the execution leaving the blade dull and the execution thus prolonged.

    To add to the vanquishment statement it appears QEI is wearing the Black Pearls that were stolen from MQS along with most of her other possessions after the overthrow of the Scottish government by the rebel Lords in July 1567. The Black Pearls were given to QEI by the rebel Lord leader after the overthrow of the government. The Black Pearls were an important French dynastic heirloom. The Pope gave them to Queen Medici for her wedding and then as mother-in-law, she presented them to Queen Marie/QMS at her wedding. In the Gower portrait, the 1st one done, the pearls are black; in the copies the appear to become white. So the portrait certainly celebrates not only the Armada but it is also truly a Gloriana victory over her the blood-cousin she imprisoned for so long and then executed.

  22. Great article!
    I had just been to the Royal Armouries in Leeds Uk recently. There was a short film that was based on this painting. The Armada Dress in the film seems like a very good interpretation of the one in the painting.

    I thought everyone may be interested.

    See youtube link here.
    A Dress to Power

  23. you forgot to mention the flowers on her dress- they symbolise youth and rosess in certain represent england.

  24. I really love this website! The information is similar to my curriculum and ties in with my syllabus. Its thorough explanations and reasoning helped me lots for my A – levels!

  25. The pomegranate near the crashing Spanish ships could also represent Spain. The pomegranate was Catherine of Aragon’s symbol, and she was Philip II’s great aunt.

  26. i have history homework and there´s an arrow pointing at the sleeve i need to explain the meaning of it… can anyine help?

  27. It’s hard to tell if it’s a pomegranite. It could and previous ideas hold good. However IF it is an egg, the implications are rather more interesting. With the age and colour fading of the painting, not easy to say if the egg could be red. IF it was a red egg, the implications of that are even more interesting. A red egg points right to Mary Magdalene. Mary was red headed and also linked to the mermaid legend, as was Mary Queen of Scots. Previous posts are correct, mermaid was slang for prostitute in some quarters. But there is more to this, some think they had real mermaid blood.

    In some paintings Elizabeth Tudor is linked to the red rose, or Tudor Rose. The rose links
    Elizabeth to either the Virgin Mary, or Mary Magdalene. There were rumors Liz never let a doctor or her maids see her fully naked. Some rumors claim she was a man, and the ruff covered an adams apples, and the white painted face also hid things. However the Sea Masons and The Cafuelarena claim that she was to some extent, hermaphrodite, and obviously a virgin. As are mermaids.

    It would have been odd, not to say risky to put a mermaid on the chair, if there were not some pressing desire to acknowledge, or signify mermaid credentials. To the ignorant, mermaid meant prostitute. Who on earth would put a prostitute on their chair, unless it was alluding to some deeper secret ? True, the mermaid “could” have been an allusion to Mary Queen of Scots, but why when Liz was trying unite and unify her country ?
    Liz hardly gloated over Marys death, she was distressed by it, and wouldn’t want a reminder of it.

    If Liz was a red headed hermaphrodite virgin, mermaid stock, like Mary Magdalene, and distantly related to Magdalene, the mermaid symbol would be there for obvious reasons.
    To some, it would have been an insult if there was no mermaid.

  28. O.k just had look at the links, and done close ups of the pomegranite or egg. The closer you look, the less it looks like a pomegranite. In one of the links it is either a red egg, or it could be a knob part of the furniture, as another post suggests. If it is a red egg, it is a big if, but if it is a red egg, well to place a red egg in painting with a mermaid, is almost as explosive as Disney putting a painting of Mary Magdalene at the bottom of the ocean in a film about a red headed mermaid called “Ariel”. Magdalene means elevated in Greek.
    A red egg and a mermaid in picture with Elizabeth Tudor, calling herself the virgin Queen,
    rumored to be hermaphrodite, could hardly be more blatant for those with eyes to see.
    The pillars of Hercules “could” be a reference to Atlantis, again linked to the mermaid legend. Atlantis is now known as Santorini, off Crete. It was destroyed by an ancient tsumami.

  29. Hi, I would like to read one of your sources: Elizabeth I: The Armada Portrait by C J Cairns”
    but I can’t find it anywhere and if I click it, it does not work. Could you please give me a link or tell me where did you find the information? Thank you

  30. Hi Cristina,
    Unfortunately, since I wrote my article in 2010 the C J Cairns article has been take offline ad I don’t have a copy of it I’m afraid. Sorry about that.

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