'Her face is comely rather than handsome, but she is tall and well formed, with a good skin, although swarthy; she has fine eyes'.
These words were written in 1557, only about six years before the Hampden portrait was painted, and formed part of a report from Giovanni Michiel to the Venetian Doge and Court. Michiel added that she had a 'beautiful hand' of which she made great display. His description probably provides a true image of the Queen, who is better known for her late heavily symbolic portraits but is here shown in her early years with the good skin and fine eyes noticed by Michiel. The 'beautiful hand' is much in evidence as she has removed her glove and wears a Tudor rose corsage as a symbol of her father's dynasty.
This is the earliest full length portrait of the monarch, and her undoubted stature is emphasised by the extraordinary magnificence of her setting and dress. The background is painted to represent a sumptuous brocatelle hanging, deriving at this period from either Italy or Spain but embroidered with an armorial bearing the arms of Elizabeth I as Defender of the Faith. The carved wooden, tasselled and fringed edged throne seems to have a cushion or back in the same material. The complex, sinuous foliate lattice enclosing stylised Islamic inspired flowerheads, is typical of this period.
Pearls adorn her dress and alternate with coloured gems and huge stones set in pendants. Most importantly this seems to be the first appearance of the armillary sphere as a royal emblem. It can be seen in the lower part of her large string of pearls. As Sir Roy Strong has pointed out (see Gloriana, 1987, pp. 138-141) the celestial sphere was widely adopted in the Renaissance as an impresa, and was widely used in Elizabeth's reign. At the end of a French psalter given to her whilst she was still a princess, there is a drawing of such a sphere, and it occurs on the reverse of a medal of c. 1569. It also occurs on the sleeves of a portrait of the Queen of the early 1580's, and most notably as an earring in the celebrated Ditchley Portrait, and in portraits of members of her Court such as Sir Henry Lee (in his portrait by Mor of 1568). Although it appears as an object of decoration, it fulfilled a serious purpose as an emblem of her devotion to maintaining the reformed faith. Amongst other jewels, the central pendant appears to be one of the Arundel gems, later acquired in the eighteenth century by the Duke of Marlborough. The portrait of such an extravagantly bejewelled dress demonstrates the extent to which jewels had become part of the legend of Elizabeth I early in her reign.
The gown itself is of crimson satin. An interesting arched square neckline is embroidered gauze chemise panels edged in sapphires, rubies and emeralds and topped with a ruff. The ruff itself is delicately embroidered and edged in scarlet silk to reiterate the colour of the ornamental gown and adorned with small gold beads echoed in the cuffs. The bodice has a v-shaped waist which in turn is decorated with white elliptical pearlised beads and gold embroidery, further enhanced by a gurdle of large pearls and rubies. White silk emerges from the decorative slashes along the length of the sleeves which are also punctuated with large jewels. White silk is also used for her small head dress which is caught within the scarlet velvet band, decorated with jewels and simple green foliage.
In her right hand, Elizabeth carries a carnation, (then known as a 'gilly') possibly symbolic of a future betrothal. In her left hand she holds a glove, symbolic of power and wealth, but it is rather unusually made of less ostentatious material such as leather or ivory silk. Possibly a hunting or falconing glove, this simple item amidst the lavish setting perhaps suggests the Queen's understanding and delight in natural and simple pleasures.
When Elizabeth succeeded her sister in 1558, it was generally assumed that she would marry, not only to secure the line with the birth of an heir, but also so that there would be a proper male consort to undertake the task of ruling the Kingdom, something not considered fit for a woman. As early as 1559 a formal request was presented to the Queen by a select committee of the House of Commons that she should marry. Throughout the 1560's and 1570's there was no shortage of suitors, and it was only as a result of the enthusiastic but unpopular suit of the Duke of Anjou in the late 1570's that the cult of the Virgin Queen came to dominate. An important figure amongst the earlier suitors was Erik XIV of Sweden, whose fine full length portrait attributed to Steven van der Meulen (Gripsholm Castle, Sweden) was probably the one which his envoys presented to the Queen in 1561. The Archdukes Ferdinand and Charles of Austria were both favoured by Cecil, the Queen's loyal servant, but their refusal to change their religion was an insuperable bar even though, for diplomatic reasons, the Queen teased the Hapsburg Court in 1565 with the apparent willingess to marry Charles. Probably the only suitor to capture her heart was Robert Dudley, later Earl of Leicester, who made great play with the unsuitability of the two Archdukes but whose own suitability was greatly harmed by the mysterious death of his wife, Amy Dudley, at Cumnor Place. The Queen nevertheless never wholly gave up her attachment to Dudley whose handsome portrait (Private Collection, formerly at Apethorpe) when a young man in his early thirties dates from c. 1564, the same period as the Hampden portrait. He is shown turned to the right facing the Queen in the Hampden portrait who is turned to the left, and like her, holds a glove and rests his hand on the arm of a chair. This leads to the intriguing possibility of a link between the two images.
It is quite likely that the Hampden portrait was painted with suitors in mind. Not only does it emphasise her youthful appearance, but the finely preserved panel to the right with the profusion of ripe fruit is a clear symbol of the fruitfulness of the young Queen. The scented flowers reinforce her allure as a young woman, honeysuckle for example being the symbol of affection. Unlike in some portraits of this early period, she is portrayed not looking straight ahead but to the left as if expecting the arrival of a suitor. The presence of the outlines of an empty throne beneath the Royal arms and motto may also be symbolic of a place in her life still to be filled.
The Hampden portrait is the most important of a group of early portraits conforming to what Roy Strong has called the Barrington Park pattern. They represent the earliest sophisticated images of the Queen and probably originate from the celebrated proclamation of 1563, preserved as a draft in the State Papers, which was designed to counter the existence of too many unflattering images of the Queen. These images were described by the Earl of Sussex in 1567 when Margaret of Parma, Regent of the Netherlands, was shown a portrait 'drawen in blacke with a hoode and a cornet which she perceived was not the attire Your Majestie now used to were'. If the Hampden portrait was intended as a substitute for these early images then it succeeded with the striking red dress and rich gold background.
As Sir Roy Strong has pointed out, there can be little doubt that the Antwerp artist Steven van der Meulen was responsible for this image. He painted the fine full length Eric XIV of Sweden (Gripsholm Castle, Sweden) and also probably the full length portrait of Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex (Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge). The right hand in both the portrait of Lady Sussex and the Hampden portrait appear to be identical. Described in the 1590 Lumley inventory as 'the famous paynter Steven', van der Meulen became resident in London in 1560 and was the most important Court painter of the 1560's.
The Hampden portrait is little known, having remained in Hampden House for many centuries. By family tradition it was owned by Griffith Hampden, Sheriff of Buckinghamshire, to whom it had been presented by the Queen on a visit to Hampden House, his fine sixteenth century mansion. Griffith's son, William Hampden, M.P. for East Looe in 1593, died aged only twenty-six in 1597 and Hampden House was inherited by his infant son, John, who later became one of the most celebrated figures in the years leading up to the Civil War with his refusal to pay Ship Money.
The property then passed down in the Hampden family to Richard Hampden, M.P. (c. 1674-1728) who lost his money at the time of the South Sea Bubble. His estates passed to his younger brother, John, also an M.P., but when he died, unmarried, the property including Hampden House passed to Robert Trevor, Baron Trevor of Bromham who became Viscount Hampden. His father had married Ruth Hampden, daughter of the celebrated John Hampden. When Lord Hampden's second son died in 1824 without issue, the estates passed to the Hobart family who were Earls of Buckinghamshire and whose link to the Hampdens went back to the seventeenth century. The portrait still belongs to Hobart descendants.
There appears to be a strong tradition that the Queen visited Hampden House in the days of Griffith Hampden, but it would be unusual if she were to present a portrait of such importance to anyone unless he was of the highest rank and importance. However his descendent Richard Hampden married Letitia, daughter of William, Lord Paget. The Pagets were an important family with connections to another significant family, the Knollys. It is possible that through these links the Hampdens acquired both this portrait and the distinguished group of four full length Jacobean portraits, formerly at Hampden House which were sold at Sotheby's in 1976.
Full length portraits of Elizabeth I on the scale of life are extremely rare. The most celebrated is the Ditchley Portrait of c. 1592 (National Portrait Gallery, London), the only others being two derivatives from the Armada portrait (at Trinity College, Cambridge and Jesus College, Oxford) and the portrait at Hardwick Hall made up from a woodcut and then extended to a full length. The survival of this rare image of the young Queen, painted not as an icon but to be shown to suitors, is of the greatest significance.