Exhibiting Elizabeth: Co-Curator Sian Flynn Introduces Elizabeth: The Exhibition Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the Queen's Death at the National Maritime Museum, Sponsored by Morgan Stanley, from May 1st to September 14th, 2003

By Flynn, Sian | History Today, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Exhibiting Elizabeth: Co-Curator Sian Flynn Introduces Elizabeth: The Exhibition Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the Queen's Death at the National Maritime Museum, Sponsored by Morgan Stanley, from May 1st to September 14th, 2003


Flynn, Sian, History Today


ELIZABETH I WAS BORN in Greenwich Palace on September 7th, 1533. Although no longer standing, the brick riverside palace was a favourite of the Tudors and it became Elizabeth's most favourite out-of-town Residence when she was Queen.

Greenwich is central to both Tudor and maritime history Elizabeth's father, Henry, VIII, was also born here in 1491. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was arrested after a tournament at the palace in 1536 and sensationally charged with multiple adultery, including incest. When Elizabeth was Queen, she frequently held court at Greenwich and was wooed at the palace by her last serious suitor, Francis, Duke of Anjou. She also waved farewell to explorer Martin Frobisher, from a window in the palace as his expedition set off in two tiny ships to seek the Northwest Passage in 1576. All of these moments will be explored in the National Maritime Museum's exhibition.

The narrative of the exhibition is broadly chronological, overlaid with a thematic approach. The first section, `The Young Elizabeth', is devoted to Elizabeth's turbulent youth and early adulthood. Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, had expected a prince and the birth of a girl was a disappointment. The exhibition displays a document written before the birth announcing the joyous news, but the word `prince' has had an `s' hurriedly added to it. Elizabeth's position was vulnerable and subject to the vicissitudes of her father's latest marriage, the existence of a male heir and his mood swings. With the birth in 1537 of Henry's long-awaited male heir, Edward, Elizabeth's chances to succeed the English throne became markedly diminished.

It was during Edward's reign (1547-53) that Elizabeth was forced into a stark adult world. After the death of her father in 1547, at the age of thirteen she went to live with her favourite stepmother, Katherine Parr, and her new husband, Thomas Seymour. The dashing admiral was also Edward VI's uncle and greedy for power. From a contemporary miniature, he was clearly an attractive man. Soon, the thirty-eight-year old Seymour was making amorous advances towards Elizabeth; he even slashed at her dress with his sword. His behaviour caused a scandal. When Katherine died soon after childbirth, Thomas resurrected his plan to marry Elizabeth and seize control of the young King Edward. He was arrested and executed for treason. Elizabeth was also interrogated, but as the written transcripts in the exhibition show, she was wily, mature and had a strong instinct for survival.

The next section, `Elizabeth's England', deals with Elizabeth's early years as queen. As the third heir of Henry VIII, the odds that she should succeed to the throne were slim. Nevertheless, on November 17th, 1558, she was crowned. The exhibition focuses on four aspects of her succession to power: the coronation, the re-coinage, the power of the City and the religious settlement of 1559. A less well-known aspect of Elizabeth's early years was the re-coinage of the debased Tudor currency. In fact, this event was so important that it was recorded as one of three major achievements on her tomb. Approximately 670,000 [pounds sterling] of base silver money was withdrawn from circulation--an epic feat of bureaucracy. Examples of the restored coinage and the new small change that was also introduced will be displayed in the exhibition.

In `The Queen's Court', the exhibition broadens out into a more thematic display. There is a section on `Elizabeth's Adventurers', which explores the complex links between Elizabeth, her courtiers and maritime ventures. The Queen's unofficial `court philosopher', John Dee, collected numerous documents to convince the Queen that she was, in fact, an empress and that England already had an overseas empire. This was an audacious mindset considering England's peripheral position in Europe in the sixteenth century. Exploration, however, depended upon private patronage despite theorists imploring that maritime expansionism should be state-sponsored. …

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Exhibiting Elizabeth: Co-Curator Sian Flynn Introduces Elizabeth: The Exhibition Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the Queen's Death at the National Maritime Museum, Sponsored by Morgan Stanley, from May 1st to September 14th, 2003
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