Art History History Painting

History Painting: ‘The Procession Portrait of Queen Elizabeth’ by an unknown artist sometimes attributed to Robert Peake, c.1600-3.

On January 14 1559, it is said that Queen Elizabeth made her royal entry in a state procession from the Tower of London through the City of London to the Palace of Westminster, the day before her offical coronation. She was carried on a litter attended by footmen, officials, courtiers including her ladies-in-waiting and her bodyguard. In the history painting ‘The Procession Portrait of Queen Elizabeth’ we have a very pomp representation of what Elizabeth’s procession may have looked like. This colourful representation was painted towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, some forty years after she became Queen. An unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist is said to have painted it but is now often accepted and attributed to Robert Peake the Elder. The motives behind why the painting was made vary but some say it acted as a timely political propaganda tool to remind us of her turbulent ascension to the throne.     

Elizabeth’s rise to the throne of England may be likened to a roller coaster ride with its emotional highs and lows. At birth, she was the presumptive heiress to the throne, only to be pushed aside and declared illegitimate through political maneuvering by her father Henry VIII, during his turbulent reign as King of England. He would timely reverse his decision in 1544, but still upon his death the line of succession would bypass both Elizabeth and her half-sister, Mary, in favour of their younger half brother Edward VI.

Good fortune, it seems did not smile kindly upon Elizabeth or Mary. During Edward’s reign, under the influence of a regency council, the young King Edward would pass over both his sisters long-held claims to the throne, controversially in favour of his first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey. The succession plan, thwart with problems, immediately ignited a crisis, especially upon Edward’s death, when Lady Grey tried to legitimize her claim to be Queen. But in a rare show of solidarity, Henry VIII’s daughters struck back organizing themselves at the head of a large army and rode into London to reclaim what they believed was their sovereign right. The populist Mary, ahead of her sister, Elizabeth was declared Queen of England. 

England was a dangerous place for Protestants, especially for the protestant Elizabeth, under Queen Mary,  a devote Catholic. Mary saw fit to impose her pro-Catholic dogma throughout the kingdom and even made efforts to restore papal rule again in England. She also went to great lengths to victimize and prosecute Protestants in her realm. (Mary would earn the nickname “Bloody Mary” for her efforts.) Mary even imprisoned Elizabeth briefly in the Tower of London in 1554, in the same tower Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn had spent her last horrible days as a prisoner, before being beheaded on the orders of Henry VIII. With this in mind Elizabeth had good reason to fear her mother’s fate.

Elizabeth’s tower imprisonment came as a direct response to the Protestant rebellion that took place during Mary’s reign. Some people believe it was a desperate act. Fortunately, Mary’s prosecutions would largely fail, including her attempt to punish her sister for treason. Elizabeth would be mercifully released after no evidence of a conspiracy could be proved.

During the last months of Mary’s reign, it became clear that she was mortally ill. Her parliament urged her to name her sister, Elizabeth as heir apparent. She reluctantly agreed and approved the succession of Elizabeth. (A condition of Elizabeth’s succession was that she had to promise of that she wouldn’t change Mary’s Catholic reforms and legislation. Of course, Elizabeth secretly had no intentions of following through with her promises and upon Mary’s death reversed all her sister’s Catholic policies.)

After Mary’s death, and as if she had not suffered enough indignity, Elizabeth would survive a brief Catholic plot against her, before a largely Protestant English parliament would finally call Elizabeth to take her place as ‘queen of this realm’. On the eve of her coronation Elizabeth to the Lord Mayor and the people of London said: “I will be as good unto you as ever a queen was unto her people.” And with those timely words Elizabeth I, in her coronation robes, patterned with Tudor roses and trimmed with ermine, become Queen of England, at the age of 25, in Westminster Abbey, London, on 15th January 1559.


This painting appears in the public domain.

*This article was first published on January 15th, 2014. It has been updated here with a new title and introduction and an additional quote.

2 comments on “History Painting: ‘The Procession Portrait of Queen Elizabeth’ by an unknown artist sometimes attributed to Robert Peake, c.1600-3.

  1. Informative Robert. I watched “Anne of a Thousand Days” again recently. What an amazing world the royals made during those times. The battle of religion and rule played such an important role.

  2. In Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, they insinuated that she left the country in a dire financial situation. I’d never heard that. You usually get a single narrative on historical figures from such a distant time, but if you dig deeper…

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