Queen Elizabeth I was sixty-five years old in 1597 and had reigned for 39 years. In December of that year Andre Hurault-Sieur de Maisse, the French ambassador to Elizabeth”s court, was granted an audience that he had been seeking for some time. His report of the encounter provides an insight into the private Queen that stands in stark contrast to Elizabeth”s public persona projected through her official portraits.
The French ambassador describes an aging, wrinkled, almost toothless woman wearing a red wig and revealingly dressed. Compare this rendering with a painting commissioned three years later known as the “Rainbow Portrait.” In this portrayal we see a Queen who is relatively young, vibrant and the personification of strength. Politics, of course, provides an explanation for the discrepancy. The “Virgin Queen” was now approaching the end of her reign. She was childless and without a natural heir. The portrayal of her as much younger than her actual age may have given her a false vitality that deflected questions about the uncertain future of her Crown.
“She was strangely attired in a dress of silver cloth…”
The French emissary was pleasantly surprised when his request was suddenly granted. Transported by boat up the Thames River to the Queen”s palace, de Maisse was ushered into an antechamber and, along with a number of other expectant visitors, told to wait until summoned.
After some time the ambassador is approached by the Lord Chamberlain and led to the Queen. We join his account as he enters the Queen”s presence:
“…He led me along a passage somewhat dark, into a chamber that they call the Privy Chamber, at the head of which was the Queen seated in a low chair, by herself, and withdrawn from all the Lords and Ladies that were present, they being in one place and she in another. After I had made her my reverence at the entry of the chamber, she rose and came five or six paces towards me, almost into the middle of the chamber. I kissed the fringe of her robe and she embraced me with both hands. She looked at me kindly, and began to excuse herself that she had not sooner given me audience, saying that the day before she had been very ill with a gathering on the right side of her face, which I should never have thought seeing her eyes and face: but she did not remember ever to have been so ill before.
She was strangely attired in a dress of silver cloth, white and crimson, or silver “gauze”, as they call it. This dress had slashed sleeves lined with red taffeta, and was girt about with other little sleeves that hung down to the ground, which she was for ever twisting and untwisting. 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. The collar of the robe was very high, and the lining of the inner part all adorned with little pendants of rubies and pearls, very many, but quite small. She had also a chain of rubies and pearls about her neck. On her head she wore a garland of the same material and beneath it a great reddish-colored 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. Many of them are missing so that one cannot understand her easily when she speaks quickly. Her figure is fair and tall and graceful in whatever she does; so far as may be she keeps her dignity, yet humbly and graciously withal.”
The Ambassador”s eyewitness account appears in: Maisse, Andre Hurualt, (G.B. Harrison and R.A. Jones eds.) De Maisse; a Journal of all that was accomplished by Monsieur de Maisse, ambassador in England from King Henri IV to Queen Elizabeth (1931); Johnson, Paul, Elizabeth I, a Study in Power and Intellect (1976).
“An Audience with Queen Elizabeth I, 1597,” (2004).