Images of a Dead Queen

By Woodward, Jennifer | History Today, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Images of a Dead Queen


Woodward, Jennifer, History Today


`There was such a generall sighing and groping, and weeping, and the like hath not beene seene or knowne in the memorie of man' -- words that conjure up recent scenes of national mourning for another royal icon, Diana, Princess of Wales. Jennifer Woodward turns back to the early 17th century to see how visual images of the death Elizabeth I played a key role in her funeral and in creating the ensuing cult of Gloriana.

Elizabeth I died at about three o'clock in the morning of March 24th, 1603. While the natural body of the queen perished, the body of symbolism that had been built up around her did not. The cult of Elizabeth persisted, enjoying a revival under the Stuart kings. It engendered posthumous images of Elizabeth's form in written texts, in visual art and -- as is appropriate for a period when the word `image' referred primarily to a sculpted three-dimensional figure or model -- in life-size effigies. It is these effigies of the dead queen and their cultural and political context that are the concern of this article.

Elizabeth's funeral procession, held on April 28th, was recorded in a series of drawings showing the mourners walking towards Westminster Abbey. The focal point of the procession was not the physical remains which were sealed inside the coffin, but a life-like effigy of the dead queen. Henry Chettle described it as:

The lively Picture of her Highnesse's

whole body, crowned in her Parliament

Robes, lying on the corse balmed and

leaded, covered with velvet, [and]

borne on a chariot.

What was the function of the funeral effigy of the dead queen? The historian John Stow, writing not long after the event, described the effect upon onlookers as follows:

[when] they beheld her statue and

picture lying upon the coffin set forth

in Royall robes, [...] there was such a

generall sighing and groping, and

weeping, and the like hath not beene

scene or knowne in the memorie of

man.

One must be wary, however, of taking such expressions of national grief at face value. John Clapham, writing within four months of the funeral notes that those watching the procession were busy analysing Elizabeth's reign. Some drew a positive picture but others had negative comments to make. There was no national consensus of support. The political success and popularity which Elizabeth enjoyed in the 1580s had severely waned in her last decade. Poor harvests brought economic hardship, inflation raged and government finances floundered in debt. The Essex rebellion and increased factionalism damaged the image of the court, and the country suffered from continuing wars in Ireland and the Netherlands.

While such political difficulties threatened to mar Elizabeth's official public image as Gloriana, the `most royal Queene or Empresse' as propounded by Spenser in his epic poem The Faerie Queene, the funeral effigy restored and perpetuated it. Unfortunately the original effigy of Elizabeth has not survived, but written accounts confirm that the dead queen's image was `all very exquisitely framed to resemble life'. The effigy was dressed in Parliamentary robes, the trappings of rule and majesty. Upon its head was the imperial crown and in its hands the orb and sceptre, symbols of sovereignty.

The effect of this life-like, magisterial effigy on observers was to provoke the spontaneous expressions of grief recorded by Stow. Clapham emphasises the causal relationship between effigy and emotion: `At the sight thereof, divers of the beholders fell a weeping'. The image of the dead queen was being deliberately used to create an impression of community feeling. Of course the record of `grief? in Clapham and Stow may simply be a convention, in which case the textual record becomes part of the process of creating an impression of political consensus. This is not to say that there were none who genuinely mourned the queen, but simply that the homogeneity of the emotional response was a product of the performance of the funeral procession and its record. …

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