Much is always made of how Elizabeth refused to accept the reality of her advanced years, clinging to the image of herself as the young and beautiful Virgin Queen. Always a bit of a fashionista, her clothes and jewelery grew more and more ostentatious as she aged. As her real hair thinned and greyed she took to wearing elaborate jeweled wigs and as her complexion faded she slathered herself with more and more cosmetics. Portrait painters went along with the fantasy, depicting their queen as ageless and eternal, with whiter than white, flawless skin and cascades of Tudor-red hair. This was as much “PR” as it was personal vanity; The ‘Fairie Queen’ ‘Gloriana’ was an almost mythical figure, powerful, beautiful, not a spinster in her twilight years with a turkey neck and little hair left.
Elizabeth is never taken as anything less than extremely practical, in everything aside from the reality of her appearance. She was steadfast in her denial. When her toyboy favourite – Robert Devereux, the young Earl of Essex – burst into her dressing room begging forgiveness and saw the queen in all her natural glory – no ornate gown, no make-up and shockingly, no wig – Elizabeth was so affronted she could not forgive him and he became a head shorter soonafter.
It is this context that makes the following story so interesting. In 1597, one Andre Hurault-Sieur de Maisse was the French Ambassador to Elizabeth’s court. Since his arrival in England he had been petitioning the queen for an audience, one that was suddenly granted. After the meeting, de Maisse wrote a concise report to his master the French King. The following is in his own words (but translated from the French, naturally).
“He led me along a passage somewhat dark, into a chamber that they call the Privy Chamber, at the head of which was the Queen seated in a low chair, by herself, and withdrawn from all the Lords and Ladies that were present, they being in one place and she in another. After I had made her my reverence at the entry of the chamber, she rose and came five or six paces towards me, almost into the middle of the chamber. I kissed the fringe of her robe and she embraced me with both hands. She looked at me kindly, and began to excuse herself that she had not sooner given me audience, saying that the day before she had been very ill with a gathering on the right side of her face, which I should never have thought seeing her eyes and face: but she did not remember ever to have been so ill before.
She was strangely attired in a dress of silver cloth, white and crimson, or silver ‘gauze’, as they call it. This dress had slashed sleeves lined with red taffeta, and was girt about with other little sleeves that hung down to the ground, which she was for ever twisting and untwisting. 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 (“manteau”) with her hands as if she was too hot. The collar of the robe was very high, and the lining of the inner part all adorned with little pendants of rubies and pearls, very many, but quite small. She had also a chain of rubies and pearls about her neck. 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, and hanging down over her forehead some pearls, but of no great worth. On either side of her ears hung two great curls of hair, almost down to her shoulders and within the collar of her robe, spangled as the top of her head. 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, so far as one could see.
As for her face, it is and appears to be very aged. It is long and thin, and her teeth are very yellow and unequal, compared with what they were formerly, so they say, and on the left side less than on the right. Many of them are missing so that one cannot understand her easily when she speaks quickly. Her figure is fair and tall and graceful in whatever she does; so far as may be she keeps her dignity, yet humbly and graciously withal.”
What a strange image! Gloriana in all her gemstoned finery, sitting there with it all on display, mischievously continuing to pull open the front of the robe to ensure the French dignitary got a good eyeful. A 65 year old woman with a low-hanging, wrinkly bosom, coquettishly flashing a young gentleman. It really highlights Elizabeth’s sad refusal to grow old gracefully, her belief that she was still the most desirable bride-option in Europe. She probably would have been rather annoyed to learn that de Maisse spent more time reporting back on the state of her teeth than the magnificence of the royal bosom.