Thursday, July 15, 2010

Question from Carlyn - Elizabeth's make-up and mirrors in old age

Hi everyone,

I am researching Elizabeth I’s wardrobe, and cosmetics for a future children’s book project and I came across something that has got me stumped. In one of Ben Johnson’s antidotes of Queen Elizabeth he wrote, “Queen Elizabeth never saw herself, after she became old, in a true glass : They painted her, and sometimes would vermilion her nose.” (The “they” he is referring to are her ladies-in-waiting)

Obviously, Johnson was no fan of Elizabeth. Could he be the source for the rumor that Elizabeth I destroyed all her mirrors in her old age? Is that really true? A clueless Elizabeth with a red nose would sure make a funny illustration, but I find it hard to believe that her ladies-in -waiting would dare to mock their queen. Plus, I really can't trust Johnson as a source. Does anyone know of any other sources mentioning Elizabeth or any other Elizabethan lady putting red on her nose?

Or was putting vermillion on your nose considered attractive?


Foose said...

I believe the ladies-in-waiting daubing Elizabeth's nose with vermilion is meant to suggest that she is a figure of fun both comic and pathetic. In real life I don't think this ever happened, because there would be too many people willing to alert the queen. However, in her old age she apparently appeared peculiar enough to some observers, with thickly-layered paint and deep decolletage. (A German visitor in 1598: "Her face is wrinkled. Her eyes are small and black. Her nose is a little hooked. Her lips are narrow, and her teeth are black (from too much sugar). She wears false red hair." A French emissary in 1597: "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 ... 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 ... 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 ...")

This may not have been completely vanity on Elizabeth's part, but an understanding of what people were expecting and the force of habit. It's hard enough for modern women to give up youthful fashions when they enter middle age (and why should they?) and Elizabeth had the added pressure of being expected to perform Gloriana for every new generation of adoring -- and self-interested --young courtiers.

I will cautiously suggest that Jonson may have been prejudiced by the fact that Elizabeth extended him no patronage (he got on much better with James I, a fellow pedant) and was an aficionado of the Latin poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known as Horace (whose odes he translated, and Jonson also turns up as a character named "Horace" in a play by one of his rivals).

The Latin poet Horace (contemporary with the Emperor Augustus) wrote a number of poems about disgusting aging women besotted with young lovers, a popular theme among the writers of ancient Rome. They were evidently not fans of "cougars": for example, Horace's To Lyce in Decay:

Lyce! Me the gods have heard
Made thee beldam at a word
Still a beauty, thou dost think
Saucy still for sport and drink.

... Obstinate he passes by
Oaks dried up; he shuns thee; why?
For he cannot wrinkles bear
Blackening teeth, and whitening hair.

Etc. (Translation: by W.E. Gladstone)

and To Chloris:

You are old, Mrs. Ibycus, wrinkled and old,
And still you are going the pace,
Your actions are scandalous. Really, I'm told,
They know you all over the place.

You doll yourself up like a girl of sixteen,
You tango from morning to night.
You wear out your partners, you primp and you preen,
"Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

Etc. (translated by Louis Untermeyer)

It was easy for Jonson to slot Elizabeth into this role. I don't think there were any examples of other aging queens for Elizabeth to follow in her presentation or inconography, so she continued what had worked in her youth.

Per the broken or veiled mirror, that's a traditional trope of faded beauties (see the Marschallin in Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" or "Die Frau ohne Schatten" (where the lack of a reflection also indicates sterility). I haven't been able to track it down as an absolute true story of Elizabeth's reign, which leads me to suspect it's another of the legends that grew up around her.

Bearded Lady said...

thanks Foose! I knew you would know the answer.

Poor Elizabeth. She couldn't win.

I do remember reading somewhere that displaying breasts was a sign of virginity? Maybe Elizabeth's peep show was all in line with her image as the virgin queen?

Foose said...

Bearded Lady, thank you. However, I do not pretend to have "the answer," just my assessment of various sources and historians' opinions. I like this blog because everyone can contribute "an answer," expanding the understanding of all of us and encouraging us to ask further questions.

Per the display of breasts and virginity, I have read that too -- one contemporary traveller said it was the custom of England for maidens to do this until they marry. Other historians dispute this. Lisa Jardine claims that the French emissary's report has been mistranslated. Other historians point out that complaining about and satirizing the immodest display of "the paps" by women in other countries was a fixture of all societies of the period, in part due to the fashions. It's hard to say definitively.

Bladerunner said...

Maybe just like many people in old age, she had her goofy moments.

Bess Chilver said...

One has to be careful with the description by the French Ambassador of Elizabeth's gown.

By the late 1590s, there is a fashion of wearing a gown which is open to the waist - but it has a stomached behind it. The neckline is low but not enough to fully show the breasts. Probably enough to give a good view of the decollete.

One has to take into account the bias of the commentator and how "alien" the fashions of England may have looked to that observer if they are not from England.

In terms of "makeup" there were various recipes - some were dangerous such as the white lead but there were safer alternatives which gave far better results.

Even if the story of no mirrors was true (which I doubt!), I suspect that Queen Elizabeth would be able to tell if a bright red colour was being put on her nose! She could still see.

The fashion of the time was to be pale and have red or golden blonde hair. The Queen set the fashion and had to maintain it.

kate said...

Clearly the historical evidence suggests that after suffering smallpox, Elizabeth used a heavy alum cream (full of lead) to makeup her face and cover the blemishes left after the disease. Continued use of this ointment causes, not only lead poisioning, but yellowing(orangish) (hence the reference to vermillion) and wrinkling of the skin. History also tells us that Elizabeth was extrodinarily vain, so prehaps she was truely unaware of her unsightly appearance as she aged, or prehaps as Glorianna, she just didn't care

Foose said...

I think I have tracked down the contemporary source that may be the origin of the suggestion that Elizabeth in old age had her mirrors destroyed. At face value, it's a very impressive source - Elizabeth Southwell, who served as maid of honor from 1599 on and was the granddaughter of Catherine Carey (herself the granddaughter of Mary Boleyn). She left a memorial of Elizabeth's death that includes the following:

"she saw one night in her bed her bodie exceeding leane
and fearfulle in a light of fire, for the which the next
daie she desired to see a true looking glass which in 20 yeares
befor she had not sene but onlie such a one which of purpose
was made to deceive her sight which glas being brought her
she fell presently exclaiming at all those which had so much
commended her and toke yt so offensivelie, that all those
which had before flattered her durst not come in her sight .."

Southwell's manuscript is alleged to date from 1607. Over a year before, she eloped with the illegitimate (by Douglass Howard) son of Robert Dudley, who already had a wife; the couple fled to the Continent, where they became prominent Catholic exiles under the patronage of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, with the assumed titles "Duke and Duchess of Northumberland."

In the book The Death of Elizabeth I, by Catherine Loomis, the author studies this document in Chapter 3 ("Some Strange Eruption to Our State: Southwell's Manuscript Account of the Death of Elizabeth I"). Loomis points out that Southwell's reliability has been attacked by several historians (she is a "compromised figure" according to Paul Johnson), and examines the idea that Southwell's document may be a political piece that betrays a Catholic-influenced agenda, presenting the dying queen as previewing her own damnation:

"Southwell further damns Elizabeth with the story of the true and false looking glasses. The incident is also included in the memoirs of treasury clerk John Clapham ... The dramatist Ben Jonson repeated the story of the court's use of false glasses to William Drummond ... Bishop Godfrey Goodman repeats the story in his memoirs ...

"When Southwell completes the story by describing the Queen's fury with her false commenders [flatterers], she ... makes the Queen guilty of the deadly sins of pride and anger."

However, Loomis also observes that Southwell appears to have had genuine access to the dying queen and may have been a "watcher" of the corpse; moreover:

"Southwell's motive for recording her memories is crucial but impossible to determine. She begins the manuscript with "Ymprimis," the word with which her contemporaries began wills and testimony. If her Catholicism is one reason to accuse Southwell of fabricating stories about the Queen, it is equally possible that religious fervor induced Southwell to tell nothing but the truth."

Foose said...

There is a book called The Subject of Elizabeth, by Louis Adrian Montrose, which addresses the subject of Elizabeth and mirrors in an entire chapter called "Through the Looking-Glass."

Apparently stories about the queen and her fraught interactions with mirrors began to circulate very rapidly around the time of her death. Although Jonson's anecdote is probably the best-known one to the modern age, Elizabethan survivors would have been familiar with a range of similar ones.

"The Subject of the Queen and the Looking Glass appears in a number of anecdotes recorded around the time of Elizabeth's demise. These anecdotes inscribe in the medium of gossip the late Elizabethan theme of mundus senescit ["the world grows old"] and all that it implied about the disenchantment of the old Queen's subjects."

Montose tentatively suggests that the anecdote originated with a [probably apocryphal] courtly incident recorded in February 1603 about a contest between the late Sir Christopher Hatton (died in 1590) and another knight as to "whoe should present the truest picture of Hir Majestie to the Queen." One drew a flattering picture; the other came up with a mirror, which Elizabeth preferred, thus repudiating flattery and vanity ("the scenario is ... predicated upon traditional gendered assumptions regarding the vice of vanity and its specular iconography.")

After the queen's death in 1603, Henry Chettle published England's Mourning Garment, which appears to pitch the first anecdote of Elizabeth's dislike of mirrors and dependence on her maids, but one which emphasizes her indifference to her appearance, rather than any vanity:

"... I have heard it creditably reported ... that she could never abide to gaze in a mirror or looking glasse; no not to behold one, while her head was tyred and adorned, but simply trusted to her attendant Ladies ..."

So it seems there were a number of stories in circulation shortly after the queen's death concerning her relationship with the mirror, not all of them making her out to be comic, or pathetic. Elizabeth Southwell probably had the best opportunity to observe and record a true incident concerning the queen, but I think that at this point the multiple mirror stories can only be proved to be a very popular trope about an aging queen.