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September 6, 2016

Book Review || The Cult of Elizabeth by Roy Strong

Elizabeth-i-rainbow-portrait
I've always been partial to period dramas, possibly as a result of my studies in English literature, and Roy Strong's 'The Cult of Elizabeth' was waiting for me at the library. I find the Elizabethan era utterly fascinating for many reasons, chief amongst these the fabulous and intricate handmade clothing worn by the elite, but the way of life is so strange by our modern standards. Can you imagine not having access to a toilet? Not even the Queen had access to an indoor toilet.

Apart from these very domestic cares, Queen Elizabeth I and the intrigues of her court are so tantalising. How did she manage to rule for over four decades (right up to her death at the age of 70), especially in a world that believed that women were lesser beings? Certainly she was surrounded by many more experienced, but all the literature we have on her shows her to be an intelligent and shrewd ruler. It may have been tough for her at the beginning, but 'The Cult of Elizabeth' shows how she managed to hold on to the crown for much longer than she should have been able to, considering her age and her chief responsibility of providing an heir.

Elizabeth's supporters created a near-religion around their queen: She became the Queen of Love and Beauty, representing a chivalric code among her knights and courtiers; while she was ordained by God as the leader of England, her reign of peace served to settle her in the hearts of her subjects - then she defeated Spain; and finally, she became a symbol of the 'true religion', a saviour of her people's beliefs from the anti-christ of Rome.

nicolas-hilliard-man-amongst-roses'The Cult of Elizabeth' alludes to so many facts, events and names that it shouldn't really be seen as an introduction to the Elizabethan age. If you're interested in this, I would recommend 'The Elizabethan World Picture' as a start.

Roy Strong's book starts off with a look at the art that represented the Queen, that was done in honour of the Queen or, done to honour good works in serving the crown, showing how art in this age should be taken as symbolic and idealistic, and never representative of a single event. Art in this age did not take perspective into account, nor did it understand scale or reality: representations were more about the subjective experience of the onlooker than about any reality.

Strong looks at The Procession Portrait, initially thought to be representative of Elizabeth attending the marriage of one of her courtiers, and shows that it is really a subjective representation of Elizabeth in the context of her court. Showing all the most important people who surrounded her during the final years of her reign, it concerns Elizabeth the Triumphant and the 'dance of state'. Nicholas Hilliard's Young Man Among Roses comes next, and Strong describes the chivalry with which Queen Elizabeth's knights honoured her, as their favourite and most beautiful, yet unattainable, woman, pointing to various portraits of the Queen and explaining the symbolism within them. Finally, a look at Sir Henry Unton's memorial portrait is the perfect portrayal of Elizabethan attitudes to art, subjectivity, and honourable deeds.

the-procession-picture
The final chapters show how the workings of the court ensured Elizabeth's reign for so many years. Firstly, Elizabeth's Accession Day was celebrated by the entire nation. No governmental legislation demanded such festivities, but they were undertaken by the masses in every major city, in churches, and even in small towns. The revelries reached such a pitch, particularly after Britain defeated the Spanish Armada, that orthodox Protestants began to worry that the 'worship' of the Queen was comparable to the Catholic worship of Mary. Secondly, on Accession Day, elaborate tourneys were held in the honour of the Queen by her knights. These occasions saw the Queen's knights put on Masques in her honour before tilting in the lists with the aim of gaining her favour. Finally, The Order of the Garter was pursued as a way to instil chivalrous codes among the pageantry and reinforce the medieval feudal hierarchies.

'The Cult of Elizabeth' is an excellent choice if you'd like to expand your knowledge of the workings of Elizabethan England. The only drawback to the edition I read was that none of the artworks were in colour.

{Image credits: Elizabeth I Rainbow Portrait - Attributed to Isaac Oliver - http://www.marileecody.com/gloriana/elizabethrainbow1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3074044
Young Man Among Roses - Nicholas Hilliard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Procession Picture Attributed to Robert Peake the elder - http://tfeanda.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/elizabeth-i-her-people-national-portrait-gallery-london/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31801577}