The image of the elderly Virgin Queen that has been passed down to us is not always necessarily complimentary. Thanks in no small part to popular film and television shows, we are inclined to think of the ageing Elizabeth I as painted, face, hands, and chest, in toxic lead-based makeup. We are encouraged to believe that she consciously adopted a ‘mask of youth’. It is an idea so deeply engrained that the Royal Museums at Greenwich adopted the title in its 2018 display of a remarkable robotic reconstruction of the queen’s face. The overall impression is one of grand guignol, of Miss Havisham-esque Victorian Gothic. But to what extent is our idea of the heavily painted grand-dame true? To answer that, we must revisit contemporary accounts of the queen in her old age. The French ambassador, Maisse, who saw her in 1597, left perhaps the most detailed description:
“She rose and came five or six paces towards me, almost into the middle of the chamber … She kept the front of her dress open, and one could see the whole of her bosom, and passing low, and often she would open the front of this robe with her hands as if she was too hot. On her head she wore a garland of the same material and beneath it a great reddish-coloured wig, with a great number of spangles of gold and silver, and hanging down over her forehead some pearls, but of no great worth. On either side of her ears hung two great curls of hair, almost down to her shoulders and within the collar of her robe, spangled as the top of her head. Her bosom is somewhat wrinkled as well as one can see for the collar that she wears round her neck, but lower down her flesh is exceeding white and delicate, so far as one could see … As for her face, it is and appears to be very aged. It is long and thin, and her teeth are very yellow and unequal, compared with what they were formerly, so they say, and on the left side less than on the right.”
It is hardly a flattering picture – but we should keep in mind that at the time the queen was desperately trying to stall Maisse as he pressed her for answers on ongoing peace negotiations with Spain. The ambassador saw Elizabeth the politician. German visitor Paul Hentzner, who saw her in 1598, reported that:
“…her face [was] oblong, fair, but wrinkled, her eyes small, yet black and pleasant; her nose a little hooked, her lips thin and her teeth black; her hair was of an auburn colour, but false; upon her head she had a small crown. Her bosom was uncovered, as all the English ladies have it till they marry.”
It is difficult to believe that Hentzner, close enough to comment on the thinness of her lips and colour of her teeth, did not notice or think to mention that she was coated in white paint. A year later, Thomas Platter found her ‘very youthful still in appearance, seeming no more than twenty years of age’.
Notable, considering the startling detail in all but Platter’s account (and here it is worth noting that he did not have a personal audience but saw her at a distance, and that age was reckoned in the period by sprightliness of carriage and the colour of the hair), is the complete absence of any reference to the queen’s supposed white makeup. Indeed, if we scour the records of descriptions from those who might have seen her, we come across only scattered references.
The first is from a contemporary recipe for makeup, which calls for two new-laid eggs with their shells, burnt alum, powdered sugar, borax, and poppy seeds ‘beaten up very finely with a pint of water that runs from under wheel of a mill … it whitens, smooths and softens the skin’ and should be used three times per week. The result would not be the white matte we see spread over many a modern actress playing Elizabeth, but (if the wearer was lucky) it might provide a scouring agent which would at worst irritate the top layer of skin and at best moisturise and freshen it. The notorious ‘Venetian ceruse’ – that toxic, lead-based killer – certainly existed, but nothing from Elizabeth’s life suggests that she was a devotee of this deadliest of cosmetic arts.
The second is the playwright Ben Jonson, who told his friend Drummond of Hawthornden that “Queen Elizabeth never saw herself [when old] in a true Glass, they painted her & sometymes would vermilion her nose.” Curiously enough, a red-nosed Elizabeth is not an image that has ever captured the public imagination. Further, Jonson also claimed after her death that the queen was prevented from sexual intercourse by the presence of a ‘membrana’ that made her incapable. As we have no record of his ever meeting her, it seems likely we can discount all of his claims as tall tales.
Nor should we trust the third and perhaps most influential reference, which comes from the pen of the Jesuit Father Rivers. He claimed on the 27th December 1600 that ‘it was commonly observed this Christmas that her Majesty when she came to be seen was continuously painted, not only all over her face, but her very neck and breast also, and that the same was in some places near half an inch thick.’ This bizarre and unlikely description has coloured (excuse the pun) numerous screen depictions of the queen, but it is problematic. For one thing, the Jesuit did not actually see her – he admitted that his report was second- or third-hand. For another, Jesuitical descriptions of Protestant women (whom they’d never seen) were inclined to exaggerate (or invent) for the purposes of making the subjects ridiculous, gruesome, or scandalous. Rivers’ report probably belongs in the same category as Nicholas Sander’s claim that Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, was a warty, eleven-fingered, snaggle-toothed abomination.
As far as the contemporary record goes, that is it.
Why, then is the image of the clown-faced Elizabeth so popular? Where, then, does the image of the painted Elizabeth come from? Why, when we picture the queen in her dotage, do our minds turn to Glenda Jackson lost beneath an inch of white matte, Margot Robbie rendered unrecognisable under ‘clownface’, or even the younger Cate Blanchett assuming virginity by means of a paintbrush dipped in whitewash being liberally swept over her?
The answer appears to lie in the Victorian period, which first turned its attention to Elizabeth’s later years. Throughout earlier eras, we see Elizabeth depicted in artwork, from paintings to woodcuts to engravings, as ageless: Robert Smirke’s 1806 erotically charged Interview Between Elizabeth and Essex, for example, shows the doomed earl bursting into the chamber of a veritable nymph. To the Victorians, Elizabeth was a more problematic animal: an elderly virgin quite different to their own grandmother of Europe, depictions of her increasingly tended towards the ghastly and the haggard. Largely, we can thank the legacy of the Victorians and their desire to smear the queen (literally and figuratively) by connecting her with the worst excesses of vanity culled from the wider historical record of extravagance, luxurious extremes, and the arabesque. Unfortunately, their painting of the queen has routinely become established fact. Thus, it is not unusual to find entire chapters of history books (by excellent historians) devoted to Elizabeth’s use of cosmetics, and often going further in explaining the perceived political function behind them (having swallowed the tales that she had painted herself to outlandish extremes, historians’ attention simply turned to why: was it to hide scars left by her bout of smallpox in 1562? Was it to deny the passage of time? Was it part of a widespread fashion? All questions that needn’t have been asked without that unfounded association of Venetian ceruse with the queen). Remarkably, we can therefore trace the history of the queen’s use of heavy white makeup as firstly part of an emerging Gothic tradition to be sneered or appalled at; to an established truth of the queen’s self-fashioning; to part of post-modern analyses of her rule. All of this, however, is based on not a whisper about her use of makeup by anyone who actually saw her and reported on her appearance.
Queen Elizabeth I has never been more popular, and it is likely her story will continue to be so, as long as the world produces actresses eager to cut their teeth on this meatiest of roles. It is therefore time we revised our opinion of the elderly monarch and stripped her of centuries of false connections, dubious stories, and of course, that ghoulish white makeup (the wigs she can keep; people saw those). In doing so, we can take a fresh look at the woman behind the myth.