Her Royal Highness

eliz coronation

[the coronation portrait]

Plenty of historically powerful women and rulers donned the classic pearl as their favorite jewel – Cleopatra, Catherine de Medici, and more, so why choose Queen Elizabeth I? Elizabeth was a big deal, regardless of her love for pearls. Elizabeth was a notable historical figure for three reasons:

  • she was a woman
  • she faced serious opposition from her councilors
  • her controversial Protestant beliefs

Elizabeth’s reign is the perfect vehicle for studying pearls because of her elevated status.

FullSizeRender 6Let’s look at the impact of her gender. Elizabeth was deemed a ‘Deborah,’ or a Protestant princess (McLaren 31). She was an unmarried queen, a status unknown to the royalty of England. Seeing a woman in power was one thing, but her voluntary choice to be unmarried was another. Her decision to not marry was “her and hers own;” and it was with that awesome feminine confidence that she changed England (McLaren 33).

It wasn’t easy for Elizabeth to be queen though. The struggle between ‘queen’ and ‘regime’ summed up much of her reign – what she wanted versus what her councils and lords agreed to (McLaren 43). With Elizabeth a woman and her councilors all men, disagreements never ended.

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With a female ruler in charge, England’s perception of the crown was shifting, yet Elizabeth was still successful in her endeavors. Elizabeth’s formal title beyond Queen was called ‘supreme governor,’ which she took to mean control of both government and the church (McLaren 19). A. N. McLaren said, “she seemingly adopted a rhetorical strategy of claiming headship of the church in her own person when it appeared she could carry the point, falling back on the well-established trope of the prince as head of the body politic when she could not” (19). And she truly did so, incorporating God and religion into every component of her reign. Elizabeth considered her position as Queen as a gift from the divine and the chance to serve as an instrument of God (McLaren 32). Despite her Protestant beliefs, she looked to the traditionally Catholic figure of the Virgin Mary, and prayed to her each night (McLaren 32). The Virgin Mary was controversial in a Protestant world, but she was Elizabeth’s saint. She often used the words of religion to win over her councilors and the government bodies, proclaiming prayers and blessings. Because England was transitioning from Catholic to Protestant, Elizabeth’s outright Protestant stance on religion was extremely beneficial to her rule. With God was on her side, she had nothing to lose. (McLaren 34)

// And I am a Material Girl //

eliz ditchley

[the Ditchley portrait]

It’s not a surprise Elizabeth loved pearls, not only because they are beautiful but also because of their underlining meanings of religion and fertility. For Elizabeth, fertility in pearls didn’t mean being pregnant, rather ownership of her sexual agency. Elizabeth loved to be decked out in pearls, and used them as “symbolic weapons” (Saunders 251). The famous unmarried Queen used the symbols of chastity and sexuality of pearls in a complicated way. Elizabeth was the owner of her sexuality, and in owning it made the choice to be forever celibate. (Raber 168) Knowing her controversial and challenging reign, it is easy to understand why Elizabeth would utilize pearls – to make a statement and to challenge the male authority (Raber 171 – 172).

We know that Elizabeth felt connected to the Virgin Mary because of her power and respect throughout history, but the Virgin Mary is also associated with pearls. Pearls were a religious symbol, and many adopted the idea of Virgin Mary and the pearl because of her miraculous birth of Jesus Christ. A miracle to have a son as a virgin, a miracle for a beautiful pearl to appear from underneath a hard, mollusk shell. (Chadour-Sampson 63). Elizabeth may have loved pearls for their beauty, but they also had a deeper connection to her religion.

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Elizabeth’s love for pearls was well known, so subjects of the queen often gifted objects that complimented Elizabeth’s favorite symbols. She was often given gifts in colors of black and white to express constancy or chastity, and jewels and pearls in shapes like a pelican or bow to show femininity (Stearn 114). For example, Lady Mary Sidney, a distant relative of the Queen, gave Elizabeth a “gold pelican jewel encrusted with small diamonds and rubies, attached to a pearl pendant.” (See a similar pin here.) It worked because the symbols matched what Elizabeth liked – she had used both the pelican and pearls in symbols in recent portraits. The pelican was a motherly symbol, a Queen watching over her monarch and citizens like the symbolism of a mother bird looking out for her baby birds. (Stearn 109).

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But not every gift was “ready to wear,” and Elizabeth was known for re-gifting or adjusting gifts before wearing them herself. Aware of the significance of her appearance, Elizabeth always put work into what she wore to portray specific symbols and meanings. (Stearn 127)

{Smile for the Camera}

Our famous, pearl-loving queen was a big fan of herself, too. Elizabeth was a particularly vain woman, so she had lots of portraits made (Riehl 45). The era of Elizabeth was also a time of increased attention and care for personal beauty and appearance, and Elizabeth ran with this trend in her portraits (Riehl 35). She and her team of official “image-makers” sought to make her as beautiful as the young queen could be (Riehl 13).

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The portraits did more than just to showcase her beauty, they amplified her power as a female ruler. The Queen realized that she was an individual of high scrutiny in England, but embraced that position through her portraits (Riehl 34). People were constantly looking at her, so she used the opportunity to show her citizens her authority. She used makeup to appear more beautiful in portraits, but also so her citizens could see her as an image and face of pure perfection (Riehl 62). Her face was an essential “rhetorical tool” (Riehl 35).

eliz armada

[the Armada portrait]

Elizabeth used the power of her image to portray specific meanings in portraits. She used various objects, clothing pieces, background items, and more as metaphors, but her use of jewelry is most interesting. In her Armada portrait, Elizabeth chose pearls for their specific symbols of chastity and sexuality. The pearls around her waistline are seen as a “chastity belt,” showing her ownership of her (non-existent) sexual life. She also wears pearls in her hair, an angelic halo of purity. Elizabeth’s portraits served as a narrative of her powerful monarch, and pearls were often the accessory of choice. (Chadour-Sampson 72)

Queen Elizabeth I wasn’t the only one who rocked pearls; all of royalty adored the gem and loved to tangle up relationships by giving jewelry and pearls as gifts.


Suggested readings:

  • Chadour-Sampson, Anna Beatriz, and Hubert Bari. 2013. Pearls.
  • McLaren, A. N. Political Culture in the Reign of Elizabeth I Queen and Commonwealth, 1558-1585. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Raber, Karen. Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories. Compiled by Bella Mirabella. N.p.: University of Michigan Press, 2012.
  • Riehl, Anna. The Face of Queenship: Early Modern Representations of Elizabeth I. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • Saunders, Nicholas J. 1999. “Biographies of brilliance: pearls, transformations of matter and being, c. AD 1492.” World Archaeology 31, no. 2: 243-257. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost. Accessed November 4, 2015.
  • Stearn, Catherine Howey. “Critique or Compliment? Lady Mary Sidney’s 1573 New Year’s Gift to Queen Elizabeth I.” Abstract. Sidney Journal, 2012, 109-27. Accessed November 3, 2015. http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:lion&rft_id=xri:lion:rec:mla:R04777234.