Elizabeth and Her Pearls (Guest Post)

Guest article by Samantha K. Cohen

It is said that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Of course this was said long after Gloriana left the stage for as everybody knows Cynthia, goddess of the moon adored pearls. Pearls, because of their shimmering beauty, are linked to the moon. They represent purity, virginity, and femininity all of which Elizabeth I put great store in.

As a young princess, Elizabeth was modest. Her clothes and jewels were the finest, but they weren’t ostentatious. When she became queen that changed. “We never think of her termagant majesty, as Walpole truly observes, without picturing a sharp-eyed lady with a hook-nose, red hair loaded with jewels, an enormous ruff, a vaster farthingale, and a bushel of pearls bestrewed over the entire figure.”

Lady Elizabeth Tudor

Counted among the fans, furs, gloves, cloaks, and muffs of Elizabeth’s phantasmagorical wardrobe was 3000 gowns, most of them dripping with pearls – that had to be removed each time the gowns were cleaned. Spare a thought for the poor souls who had that unenviable job.

Queen Elizabeth I with a Fan, 1585-1590. Attr. to John Bettes the Younger. Private Collection.

Portraits and pearls have a symbiotic relationship in Elizabeth’s world. In all of her portraits, pearls are dominant. The Rainbow Portrait was made when Elizabeth was in her sixties yet shows her as a young woman. That wink at reality aside, it’s a charming portrait filled with symbolism. English wild flowers on the royal gown symbolizing the Queen of Astraea. A cloak decorated with eyes and ears symbolizing fame. A jeweled serpent coiled up one arm of the royal gown, the serpent symbolizing wisdom. And pearls, those symbols of virginity, are everywhere. An elaborate head-dress decorated with pearls supports the royal crown. Behind Elizabeth’s head and around her shoulders is a transparent veil edged with pearls. Pearl bracelets adorn her wrists. The cloak of eyes and ears is edged in pearls. Pearl drop earrings kiss the royal neck. And falling over the royal bosom is a rope of pearls.

Elizabeth I: The Rainbow Portrait, c1600, by Isaac Oliver

Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s sweet Robin, died September 4, 1588. In his will, he bequeathed his queen a rope of 600 fair white pearls. Was the rope of pearls falling over the royal bosom in the Rainbow Portrait, those very pearls? If so, how romantic would that be?

The defeat of the Spanish Armada was a great victory for England and Elizabeth. To commemorate this victory The Armada Portrait was painted. Looking at the portrait we see the Spanish fleet, an imperial crown, a globe, and pearls! Dozens of them! Her Majesty’s gown is weighted down with pearls. Pearls are embedded in the sleeves. Strands of pearls are roped over her bodice. Twenty-two pearls frame her hair while a diadem topped with a large pearl crowns the royal locks. And in case that’s not enough, a single large pearl nestles in her hair just above her forehead.

There’s one pearl in particular that Dr. Kaara L. Peterson of Miami University of Ohio wrote about in her paper entitled Oxford University’s “pendant pearl” portraits of Queen Elizabeth I that is of special interest and that is “…the large pearl that appears hanging from a pink-ribboned jewel in the ‘Armada’ portrait…” Dr. Peterson goes on to write “Comprising an identifiable sub-group, there are at least eleven such ‘pendant pearl’ portraits of Elizabeth…all eleven works in the ‘pendant pearl’ group reveal the queen distinctively wearing a pendant pearl, either suspended from a jewel, sometimes with a bow, or hanging from a girdle.”

Elizabeth’s Armada Portrait

Where might the queen have developed her taste for this characteristic pearl accessory? We can look for clues in the Medici court, from whom Elizabeth seems to have borrowed her style of pearl ornamentation again and again…”

In the Ermine Portrait, we can see the breathtaking Medici black pearls in their full glory. These exquisite beauties came into Elizabeth’s possession after her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, lost her head. Whether she should have lost it or no, is not a matter for debate here. She lost it, but before she lost it the black pearls were hers. They first belonged to her mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici who received them from her uncle Medici, Pope Clement VII. The pearls, ones whose tinge was ‘like that of black muscat grapes’ were given to Mary Queen of Scots when she married Catherine’s son Francis II. When Francis died Mary returned to Scotland, married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley and had his son. Darnley was murdered, Bothwell kidnapped Mary, turmoil ensured and Mary fled to England after the Scottish nobles forced her to abdicate in favor of her young son. In England, as Elizabeth’s ‘guest’ she became the focus of several Catholic plots against Elizabeth which eventually lead to her death. Prior to her flight, Mary entrusted her jewels, the black pearls among them, to her son’s regent, the Earl of Moray. He in turn sold the jewels off and Elizabeth bought the pearls – at a third of their value. It’s said she promised to wear the pearls in tribute to her beloved cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, for the rest of her life.

Queen Elizabeth drew her last breath March 24, 1603. Was she buried with the pearls she loved so much? No, she wasn’t. On her death, her pearls went to her successor James I of England who was married to Anne of Denmark, a lady that loved pearls every bit as much as Elizabeth did.

Although Gloriana wasn’t buried with her pearls a wax effigy of her in Westminster Abbey is fittingly outfitted with pearls. A coronet of large spherical pearls sits on the royal wig while a long pearl necklace, pearl earrings with large pear-shaped pendants, a pearl-ornamented stomacher and broad pearl medallions on the royal shoe-bows adorn the ensemble. The marble effigy that lies on her tomb has her holding the orb and scepter, it also has her wearing a rope of pearls with a pearl pendant.

You can’t take it with you or so the saying goes. Elizabeth didn’t take her pearls with her, but she is forever united with them in her beautiful portraits, her marble effigy, and the history of her long and glorious reign.

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