Recently saved for the nation, the iconic Armada portrait of Elizabeth I commemorates the most famous conflict of her reign – the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in summer 1588.
Our conservators have undertaken essential work to preserve the portrait's fragile painted surfaces which are over 400 years old. Discover more about the conservation story:
The painting is on permanent public display as part of the national collection in the Queen's Presence Chamber in the Queen’s House, on the site of the original Greenwich Palace, which was the birthplace of Elizabeth I.
An outstanding historical document
The Armada Portrait is an outstanding historical document, summarizing the hopes and aspirations of the state as an imperial power, at a watershed moment in history. But the Armada Portrait transcends this specific moment in time. Scholars have described it as a definitive representation of the English Renaissance, encapsulating the creativity, ideals and ambitions of the Elizabethan ‘Golden Age’.
This spectacular image has inspired countless portrayals of Elizabeth I in film, theatre and television, and has been instrumental in making her one of the most recognizable historical figures today.
An iconic image of female power
The Armada Portrait was designed to be a spectacle of female power and majesty, carefully calculated to inspire awe and wonder.
Like many Tudor portraits, it is packed with meaning and metaphor. Elizabeth’s upright posture, open arms and clear gaze speak of vitality and strength. She is draped in pearls – symbols of chastity and the Moon.
Numerous suns are embroidered in gold on her skirt and sleeves, to signify power and enlightenment. She rests her hand on a globe, with her fingers over the New World, and above can be seen a covered imperial crown: both signal her potency as a ruler, not just of England but also as a monarch with overseas ambitions.
The painting is also particularly unusual in representing Elizabeth in a naval and maritime context. In the background, two maritime scenes show the English fleet engaging the Armada in the Channel and Spanish ships being wrecked on the Irish Coast during their stormy passage home, while the mermaid on the queen’s chair of state symbolizes sailors lured to their destruction. Intriguingly, both views are very early 18th-century repaintings over late-16th-century originals.
The portrait may have been owned or even commissioned by Sir Francis Drake, who was second in command of the English fleet against the Spanish.
Saved for the nation
The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I was acquired with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund, Linbury Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation, Headley Trust and other major donors, together with contributions from over 8000 members of the public following a joint appeal with Art Fund.
The extraordinary level of support from the public made this one of the most successful ever campaigns for a work of art.
Sponsors and supporters