THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

11 August 2020

Jewels make the Virgin Queen

Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) amassed an extraordinary collection of objects made from and decorated with gold, silver and precious stones, as demonstrated by two inventories that were drawn up during her lifetime. Aside from the regalia that she inherited from her predecessors — such as the imperial crown, sceptre and orb — she received many personalised jewels from her courtiers at the customary presentation of gifts to the queen on New Year’s Day. Very few of these precious objects survive today: her successors James I and Charles I sold or donated her jewels, while the regalia were destroyed after the abolition of the monarchy in 1649.

Luckily, the inventories (Stowe MS 555 and Stowe MS 556) give us detailed descriptions of the more than 1.500 items that were kept in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. These suggest that Elizabeth surrounded herself with objects and imagery that celebrated female leadership and virtue, supporting her unusual position of being only England’s second ruling queen and the first who chose to remain unmarried: a controversial choice since queens were expected to marry in order to create political allegiances, to acquire a husband to handle military affairs, and to produce offspring.

A portrait of a woman, representing Queen Elizabeth I, wearing a yellow dress, and a golden crown and necklace with gemstones in different colours

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I wearing various jewels (northern England, 2nd half of the 16th century): Egerton MS 2572, f. 11r

One of the very few items from the inventories that survives today is the so-called ‘Royal Gold Cup’. The cup is covered in gold, adorned with pearls, and enamelled with scenes from the life of St Agnes, an early Christian who was martyred during the Roman persecution. It was made for the French royal family at the end of the 14th century, but was in the possession of the Tudor monarchy by 1521. As a Protestant, Elizabeth opposed the cult of saints, but the life of St Agnes may have resonated with her on a secular level: like Elizabeth, Agnes rejected a range of suitors and committed herself to a life of virginity.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

The Royal Gold Cup described in the Inventory of Jewels [‘a cuppe of golde with Imagerye’] (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 10r

A view of the cover of the Royal Gold Cup showing St Agnes in a red dress, accompanied by her foster-sister Saint Emerentiana in a blue dress, being offered a casket of jewels by her suitor Procopius in blue and red clothes

St Agnes, accompanied by her foster-sister St Emerentiana, rejecting a casket of jewels from her suitor Procopius on the cover of the Royal Gold Cup, London, British Museum (image by Fæ / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Elizabeth may have used jewels made from the horn of the unicorn (in reality, narwhal tusk or walrus ivory) to celebrate her unmarried status. The popular belief that the mythical creature could only be captured by a virgin may have made its horn a particularly useful symbol for Elizabeth to reinforce her status as ‘Virgin Queen’. We recently mentioned that she owned a drinking cup made from unicorn’s horn, but our inventories show that she possessed much greater quantities of it. They itemize an unadorned piece of unicorn’s horn (‘pece of unicornes horne not garnished’), a staff from unicorn’s horn featuring a silver-gilt cross with a round crystal (‘Staffe of unycornes horne with a Crosse garnished with silver guylte and a rounde Chyrstall’), and another staff that was made from unicorn’s horn (or bone), adorned with silver, and featuring Elizabeth’s coat of arms.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

A unicorn staff [‘one verge of bone or unycorne [...] with the Quenes Armes’] in the Inventory of Jewels (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 33v

Elizabeth’s jewels suggest that she associated herself with Lucretia, a noblewoman from ancient Rome who committed suicide after she had been raped by an Etruscan prince. During the Middle Ages, Lucretia was cited as a paragon of female virtue by authors such as Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) in his De claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women), Cristine de Pizan (1364– c.1430) in her Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), and Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400) in his Legend of Good Women. Elizabeth owned a ewer engraved with an image of ‘Lucrece kylling herself’, two gilt cups with her image, and a wooden cup which may have depicted her suicide, since it is described as having ‘a woman holding a dagger two edged in her handes’.

Two panels showing scenes from the life of Lucretia. On the left, Lucretia lies in bed while her arm is being held by an Etruscan prince who raises a sword at her. On the right, Lucretia commits suicide with a sword in front of her husband and father

The rape and suicide of Lucretia (? Paris, 1473–c. 1480): Harley MS 4374/4, f. 210r

Other jewels supported Elizabeth’s status as England’s sole leader through images of virgin goddesses from Classical mythology. For example, the inventories describe a salt vessel (‘Saulte’) that was shaped like a golden globe and was held up by two figures representing the Roman god Jupiter and his daughter Minerva. Elizabeth received it on New Year's Day 1583/4 from Francis Drake (1540–1596), who presented her with many gifts he had raided from Spanish and Portuguese ships. While the globe symbolises England’s imperial aspirations, Minerva, Roman virgin goddess of warfare and defender of the state, was strongly associated with Elizabeth, who was likened by her contemporaries  to a ‘new Minerva’.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

Francis Drake’s ‘Saulte of golde like a Globe standinge uppon [...] Jupiter and Pallas’, in the inventory of Elizabeth’s jewels (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 23r

Among the inventories, we find one jewel that seems to reflect on Elizabeth’s leadership in a bold and humorous way. It is a dish described as having an engraving of a ‘woman syttinge uppon a man holdinge a whippe in her righte hande and holdinge his heade in her lefte hande’. This unmistakably represents the late medieval tale of Phyllis and Aristotle. The story tells that after Alexander the Great took Phyllis as his wife, he became distracted from state affairs. His mind was turned back to his kingdom and away from his wife when the Greek philosopher Aristotle remonstrated with him. When Phyllis learned the cause of her husband’s changed attitude, she decided to take revenge: she seduced Aristotle and, after he begged her to requite his love, she agreed to do so on condition that he first allowed her to ride upon his back like a horse. The story of Phyllis and Aristotle was part of a ‘Power of Women’ trope in late medieval and early modern art and literature that reflected anxieties over women’s dominance over men. But for Elizabeth it may have been an example of succesful female governance and therefore fitted in well with the rest of her collection.

A woman (Phyllis) in a red robe using a whip with her left hand and pulling reins with her right hand to control the movements of a bearded man in a grey robe and with a green hat, on whose back she is sitting

Phyllis sitting on Aristotle’s back (Metz, 1302–1303): Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 187r

Elizabeth’s jewels played an important role in how she represented herself to the outside world and was perceived by others. Our inventories suggest that her courtiers were aware of their function and carefully selected jewels or had ones made that emphasised her identification with illustrious women and virgin goddesses. These strategically designed jewels were powerful symbols that helped Elizabeth promote the idea of single leadership in England by an unmarried woman.

From golden toothpicks to drinking vessels made from griffin’s eggs, you can now study the newly digitised versions of Stowe MS 555 and Stowe MS 556 on our Digitised Manuscripts website.