Images of a Dead Queen

‘There was such a generall sighing and groning, and weeping, and the like hath not beene seene or knowne in the memorie of man’ words that conjure up recent scenes of national mourning for another royal icon, Diana, Princess of Wales. Jennifer Woodward turns back to the early 17th century to see how visual images of the death of Elizabeth I played a key role in her funeral and in creating the ensuing cult of Gloriana.

Elizabeth I died at about three o’clock in the morning of March 24th, 1603. While the natural body of the queen perished, the body of symbolism that had been built up around her did not. The cult of Elizabeth persisted, enjoying a revival under the Stuart kings. It engendered posthumous images of Elizabeth’s form in written texts, in visual art and – as is appropriate for a period when the word ‘image’ referred primarily to a sculpted three-dimensional figure or model – in life-size effigies. It is these effigies of the dead queen and their cultural and political context that are the concern of this article.

Elizabeth’s funeral procession, held on April 28th, was recorded in a series of drawings showing the mourners walking towards Westminster Abbey. The focal point of the procession was not the physical remains which were sealed inside the coffin, but a life-like effigy of the dead queen. Henry Chettle described it as:

The lively Picture of her Highnesse’s whole body, crowned in her Parliament Robes, lying on the corse balmed and leaded, covered with velvet, [and] borne on a chariot.

What was the function of the funeral effigy of the dead queen? The historian John Stow, writing not long after the event, described the effect upon onlookers as follows:

[when] they beheld her statue and picture lying upon the coffin set forth in Royall robes, […] there was such a generall sighing and groning, and weeping, and the like hath not beene seene or knowne in the memorie of man.

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