Elizabeth I and Lettice Knollys
It’s hard to think of a more dramatic beauty icon than Elizabeth I, the ruler of England and Ireland for forty-five years. When we think of Elizabeth, or the period of English history named after her, an image from one of her portraits usually springs to mind: titian hair, porcelain skin, and a formidable expression and carriage that convey her sentiment that though a weak and feeble woman, she had the heart and stomach of a king.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone whose image would have come under intense scrutiny, Elizabeth is said to have been very vain and preoccupied with being the most youthful and beautiful in court. She certainly knew the value of controlling her own image, as Robert Cecil, her secretary of state and adviser, attested around 1570: Many painters have done portraits of the Queen but none has sufficiently shown her looks or charms. Therefore Her Majesty commands all manner of persons to stop doing portraits of her until a clever painter has finished one which all other painters can copy. Her Majesty, in the meantime, forbids the showing of any portraits which are ugly until they are improved.
Apart from the portraits that made it past Elizabeth’s scrutiny, we can draw on surviving descriptions of her appearance. A visitor to the royal court commented that, at the age of twenty-four, although her face is comely rather than handsome, she is tall and well-formed, with a good skin, although swarthy; she has fine eyes and above all, a beautiful hand with which she makes display.
Elizabeth used various cosmetics to lighten the appearance of her swarthy skin (inherited, perhaps, from her mother, Anne Boleyn, who is reported to have had olive skin). Snow-white skin was the epitome of beauty in England and throughout Europe during the Elizabethan age, and a wide range of products were used to make skin appear fair, translucent, and smooth, ranging from egg whites and alum to deadly Venetian ceruse all of which Elizabeth is reported to have used at different stages in her life. We know that she used cosmetics, as she was portrayed with a visibly made-up face, and when described by the court poet Richard Puttenham, the implication seems clear that her beauty was enhanced by cosmetics: Two lips wrought out of rubie rocke / Like leaves to shut and to unlock.
In 1562, Elizabeth is known to have contracted smallpox, and the scars this left, on her skin, along with the general effects of aging, led her to apply ceruse (in particular Venetian ceruse, which gave her an especially ghostly finish). Unfortunately, though a highly effective skin lightener, ceruse was also incredibly toxic, and would’ve left. Elizabeth’s skin looking gray and withered. Over time, Elizabeth would have needed to use more and more ceruse just to cover up the damage caused to her skin and rouge too, to disguise the aging process (and perhaps distract from the effects of the ceruse).
But the queen’s look the ceruse, rouged cheeks and lips, finely painted on blue veins (to give the illusion of fine and translucent skin), and eyebrows plucked to a high arch had an intention beyond just bowing to the fashion of the times and maintaining youth: It was designed to convey power and her status as ruler. It’s ironic, then, that some believe that the arsenic, lead, and other dangerous chemicals in her cosmetics were to blame for her death from blood poisoning at the grand old age of sixty-nine though we’ll never know whether or not this was the case.
Though Elizabeth is not often considered to have been a conventional beauty, her cousin, Lettice Knollys (whose mother was Anne Boleyn’s niece), was thought to be one of the most naturally beautiful women at court during the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign and is said to have epitomized the ideal Elizabethan beauty. The most famous painting of Knollys shows her with her flame-colored hair, high forehead, pale complexion, and rose-hued cheeks (whether enhanced by Knollys with rouge, or by the painter, it’s impossible to say).