Three Armada portraits of Elizabeth I united for the first time

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The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, commemorating England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, commemorating England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

It is one of the iconic images of British history, showing a monarch triumphant over a deadly enemy.

Now three surviving versions of the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I are to go on public display together for the first time.

Faces of a Queen: the Armada Portraits of Elizabeth, a free exhibition at the Queen’s House in Greenwich, opens on 13 February 2020 and runs until 31 August.

The Armada Portrait commemorates the most-famous conflict in Elizabeth’s reign: the Spanish Armada’s failed attempt to invade England in 1588.

In each version, the monarch is portrayed as an authoritative figure in a gold-embroidered and jewelled dress, with her right hand resting on a globe showing the Americas.

Originally attributed to the Queen’s Sergeant-Painter George Gower, this has subsequently been contested. Many copies were made over the centuries, but the three that will be united are the only contemporary versions in existence.

Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) will showcase its own version, restored in 2016 following an appeal in conjunction with the Art Fund and National Lottery. It will be joined by two other versions from the collections of Woburn Abbey and the National Portrait Gallery.

The location of the display, in the Queen’s House, one of the Royal Museums at Greenwich, is especially apposite. It is situated on the site of the original Greenwich Palace, which was a centre of the Tudor dynasty and the birthplace of Elizabeth I.

It was from there that she witnessed the return of Sir Francis Drake from his circumnavigation of the globe, and signed the order to execute Mary Queen of Scots, ‘from Greenwich, in haste’.

But it is for her victory over the Spanish that she is remembered, captured in one of the country’s most recognisable works of art.

This article was published in the January 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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