Queen Elizabeth I of England and Pearls

The English (later British) monarchy has been around in one form or another for around 1,400 years.In fact, it’s possible to trace the royal line back to a time before England was a single united country in the later Anglo-Saxon period. The early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms still have, to some extent, a discernible history or royalty that eventually converged onto the house of Wessex in the 800s/900s.Of all of those monarchs, perhaps it is Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) who is the best known around the world. She’s of course known for many things but notably her fondness for peal jewellery. Why is that?Elizabeth as a young girl / womanThe daughter of the executed Anne Boleyn, she grew up in a court where her life was, at times, hanging by a thread.Whilst the cinema representations make much of her relationship with her father Henry VIII and his numerous wives after Anne Boleyn, in practice, she was most at risk during the reign of her sister Mary I.Mary was a staunch Catholic and the wife of Phillip II of Spain. Both wanted to return the notionally Protestant England (where, in reality, Catholic sympathies and practices were still strong) into the Catholic world. As it became increasingly apparent that Mary was unlikely to have children, the succession would pass to the, at that stage, moderately Protestant Elizabeth.That clearly wouldn’t suit Mary and Phillip or the powerful Catholic lobby in the country.So, Elizabeth’s life was far from secure and plots abounded. During this time, she seems to have established a reputation for largely pious invisibility and modest dress. There is evidence that she denigrated luxury and finery and dressed exceptionally modestly and soberly for the heir to the crown.It’s not really clear whether this was her personal style preference or because she was working hard to fade into the background and not to be seen as a contrast to her very religious and sombre sister the Queen.Elizabeth as queenEven in some of the earlier portraits of her as a Princess, already her fondness for pearls is becoming evident.In some paintings you can see them in her headdresses. In others, there are large pearls suspended from a cross worn around her deck and sometimes the neckline of her dress is also trimmed with what appear to be pearls.However, by and large, her dress continued to be shown as relatively modest in its decoration and that continues into the earlier years of her reign. Why?Well, it wasn’t because she didn’t like pearls!Pearls were used as a classical allusion to show Elizabeth as the goddess of the Moon, a virgin and pure. As a princess and new monarch, that would have been important to demonstrate her suitability for marriage – and particularly so in the context of the charges that had been levied against her mother.Yet the fact that England was, in the early years of her reign, a relatively impoverished country riven with religious schisms would also have played a part. Vast ostentation just wouldn’t have been politically advisable.Elizabeth as the soul of the nationBy the middle years of her reign, the position has changed.Although historians argue furiously about it, there seems a strong case for saying that she had decided against marriage on a permanent basis and had wedded herself to the nation. She has started to adopt the “Virgin Queen’ persona that would become famous throughout the world and down through history.Now, at this time in her life, pearls and pearl jewellery are everywhere in her portraits. Some appear to be huge and must have been unbelievably expensive at the time.Of course, pearl jewellery is no longer just an expression of chastity but one of power and wealth. As she ages, England’s position changes and it goes from being a poor country on the fringes of Europe to an increasingly rich and powerful ‘major league player’. Her dress needs to reflect that – and it does, with pearls playing a prominent part.It’s from this period that her use of pearls, jewels, fine dress and her behaviours, give rise to the view that she was essentially vain. This doesn’t sit easily with what we know of the younger Elizabeth and such comments may be confusing her use of pearls to re-enforce her public image with personal vanity.At her death in 1603, the Tudor dynasty ended. No monarch after her would make quite such prominent use of pearl jewellery as she did.