Saturday, August 16, 2014

Question from Stacey - Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots' pearls

I know that Elizabeth wore the pearls that belonged to Mary Queen of Scots in the Armada portrait, but are there other portraits she wore them in? Why would she deliberately wear something that so obviously belonged to Mary Stuart?

4 comments:

Ladyhoby said...

Hi could you please tell me which pearls they are as I have found pictures for both the 4 stranded necklace and also the group of 3 pearls.
My first feelings is she is wearing them because she could. Then next feeling is she is making a point, I'm the queen of this country and no king or queen are going to change it, if you try see what happens.

Foose said...

I looked at a bunch of sources - some say that the queen is wearing Mary's pearls, and others that she is wearing pearls given to her by Leicester.

Some of the sources ascribing the pearls to Mary argue that the portrait shows the "black pearls" (alleged to be as "big as Muscat grapes" or "black grapes") that were included among the collection sold to Elizabeth after Mary's abdication and imprisonment. I can't identify any black pearls in the portrait.

I looked at the original report of the French ambassador to Catherine de Medici, who was also trying to buy the pearls, and his actual wording was "comme noix muscades," which my French dictionary renders as "nutmegs," not "black grapes" - hence, they might not have been black at all, but merely of an unusual size.

Remember the portrait was most likely put together by the artist from a face pattern provided by Elizabeth's overseers of royal art, with the dress and jewelry posed on a stand, and the background painted in later. The queen was not sitting for hours in a huge heavy jewel-studded dress while being painted, cackling over the pearls she had wrested from Mary at below market rate.

Still, she probably wore huge heavy jewel-studded dresses at court events, and I don't think the provenance of the pearls would have disturbed her. Royal people (and most of the elite) were fairly accustomed to wearing jewels acquired from various origins, for one thing. More importantly, Mary Queen of Scots was Elizabeth's enemy, would-be successor, and nearly her assassin; even after her execution, the threat of the "Daughter of Debate" continued as the Armada was sent in part to avenge her. The pearls would have been very appropriate for Elizabeth to wear in the portrait, the spoils of victory over the living and the dead Mary.

Pearls were also symbols of virginity, the sea (where the Armada met its doom), and of America (as asserted in an interesting essay I came across), where the English were making inroads on the Spanish empire. It's possible that the portrait features many other pearls from the Queen's collection, to reinforce the message as much as possible.

As for Elizabeth wearing the pearls in other portraits, I came across very brief and spotty references to the Ermine Portrait and the Rainbow Portrait. The jewels in the former look like three strings of genuinely black pearls, however.

shtove said...

I've read that royal portrait pearls represent virginity, but that could be cock & bull. Elizabeth wears them in the River portrait, with the weird eyes and ears on her dress.

Elizabeth, "cackling over the pearls she had wrested from Mary at below market rate" is more interesting.

A link to the America essay pleas?

Foose said...

I ran across the reference to Nicholas Saunders' "Biographies of Brilliance: Pearls, Transformations of Matter and Being, c. AD 1492" in the online version of the book Indography: Writing the Indian in Early Modern England, edited by Jonathan Gil Harris. The book excerpts portions of Saunders' essay, which appears to have originally run in World Archaeology 31, no. 2 (October 1999).