2. Pearls in the Armada Portraits

By Ellie Doran (@Elena_Doran)

Only three Armada Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I survive.[1] All were painted to commemorate the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Whilst it is fun to play ‘spot the difference’ between the details in each portrait, these paintings also provide beautiful sources for examining the global in the early modern period. 

The Armada Portrait, c. 1588 © National Maritime Museum, London
The Armada Portrait, c. 1588 © Woburn Abbey Collection, Bedfordshire
The Armada Portrait, c. 1588 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Several elements of Elizabeth’s dress reveal early modern global connections. The queen is bedecked in hundreds of pearls which cover her dress, hair, necklaces, and the crown that sits behind her. Until the end of the fifteenth-century, most pearls travelling to Europe came from the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and the Gulf of Mannar.[2] But, following the ‘discovery’ of the New World, millions of American pearls produced in the Caribbean transformed the global market.[3] In the early modern imagination pearls were associated with ‘sex and morality’ as well as femininity and chastity. The presence of pearls also suggests ‘wealth, power, and violence’ linking not only to England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada, but also to Sir Francis Drake’s raids on Caribbean settlements, many of which produced pearls for the queen. Not only do pearls show connections between England, Spain, and the Americas, but they also reveal links to Africa. The harvesting of pearls was carried out by enslaved indigenous and African divers who were treated brutally by their Spanish overseers. 

The Armada Portraits commemorate the might of the English navy, as well as the power and magnificence of Queen Elizabeth I, but it is the finer details of fashion that reveal the global nature of the early modern. 

[1] The Armada Portraits are now held in the National Maritime Museum, London, the Woburn Abbey Collectio, and the National Portrait Gallery, London.  For more information see: https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/why-are-there-three-versions-armada-portrait

[2] Michele Robinson, ‘Luxuries that cost human life? Pearls in Early Modern Italy’, Refashioning the Renaissance, (2020). [https://refashioningrenaissance.eu/luxuries-that-cost-human-life-pearls-in-early-modern-italy/]

[3] Molly A. Warsh, American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700, Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, (2018).

Featured image: Three Armada portraits © National Maritime Museum, London

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