In 2003, I had the pleasure of visiting the exhibition on Elizabeth I at Greenwich. Organized to commemorate the 400th anniversary of her death, the exposition featured a vast array of documents and objects covering the Queen’s long life – from a proclamation announcing her birth in 1533 to a replica of her tomb effigy at Westminster Abbey. In between, amongst the many treasures, were the triumphant – the famous ‘Armada Portrait’ showing England’s victory over Spain – and the tragic – a drawing of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots at Fortheringhay Castle.
The diversity of the exhibition was also evident in the size of the objects themselves. Near the entrance was the magnificent suit of armour of the Earl of Pembroke, mounted on a great charger no less, also in steel plate. The armour – on both man and horse – was meant to impress its onlookers. But not all the exhibits were as extravagant. Not far from Pembroke, in a room showcasing the early years of Elizabeth, was a tiny and delicate artifact - a ring once belonging to her.
|The Chequers locket ring|
That Elizabeth was fond of rings is obvious. They were emblems of her great status, and she had beautiful elegant hands to show them off. Elizabeth’s long tapering fingers were universally admired. It was said she liked to draw attention to them by slowly and gracefully removing her gloves when giving audiences. A ‘strip tease’ of the hands one might say!
Besides being once owned by Elizabeth, the ring at the exhibition is remarkable in that it also serves as a locket. The cover, surmounted by the Queen’s initial ‘E’ in diamonds and her title ‘R’ (Regina) in blue enamel, opens to reveal two hidden minute portraits – Elizabeth herself in profile (from about the 1570’s), and an unidentified woman dressed as in the time of Henry VIII. Could she be Elizabeth’s mother, the notorious Anne Boleyn, executed for adultery and treason in 1536?
Documentation on the ring is scarce. It is not known to have been recorded in any of the Queen’s jewelry inventories, and its very origin is a mystery. A clue, it’s been suggested, may be found on the ring itself. Underneath the bezel is a phoenix painted in enamels upon a backing of gold. Because this legendary bird was used by the Seymour family as a device, there was speculation that the ring was presented to the Queen by Edward Seymour (son of Edward VI’s Lord Protector). Was it to placate the Queen, still angry at his secret marriage to her cousin Katherine Grey in 1560?
That the ring originated from Edward Seymour is uncertain. Lady Katherine was dead by 1568, and Seymour was restored to a semblance of favour by the middle 1570’s. Also, the phoenix was not exclusively a Seymour device. Elizabeth herself wore such a jewel in one of her portraits, and a banner from a book printed during the Queen’s reign, has ‘ER’ (Elizabeth Regina) supported by a phoenix (and interestingly enough, by her mother Anne Boleyn’s device of the white falcon).
|Banner with Elizabeth I's 'E R' cipher|
If not Edward Seymour, perhaps another courtier, one closer to the Queen, who was sure that Elizabeth would accept such a gift linking her - in the most intimate terms - to her controversial mother. Can we even suppose that Elizabeth herself commissioned the ring?
After Elizabeth’s passing in 1603, a tradition of the Home family has it that the jewel was inherited by the Queen’s successor King James I who later presented it to an ancestor of theirs. While we have no reason to doubt this story, we should be wary of another - that the ring was the very one pried from the lifeless Elizabeth to be taken to Scotland to make the fateful announcement, “The Queen is dead. Long live the King!” Centuries later, when the ring was acquired by Lord Lee of Fareham in 1919, finding its present home at his estate at Chequers, it was taken for granted that the other woman depicted in the locket was Anne Boleyn.
The assumption has remained unchallenged that is until recently. There are now opinions that the lady is not Anne, but a younger version of Elizabeth herself. Historian Susan James, who has written extensively on Queen Katharine Parr, has even proposed – you guessed it – Henry VIII’s sixth wife, with whom Elizabeth enjoyed a warm relationship as a teenager.
Certainly, Anne Boleyn has her share of modern admirers, and to suggest that the Chequers lady is not Henry’s famed second Queen, has ruffled some feathers. I’m certainly open to new theories as to who the sitter is, but frankly, I don’t see these two women as strong contenders. Let’s start with Elizabeth as a young lady. As the ring shows Elizabeth in full majesty (bedecked in jewels, and wearing a great ruff and a splendid headdress), there would be no reason to contrast her with the person she was. Elizabeth’s early years were tumultuous to say the least. She grew up a bastard, and in her sister Queen Mary’s reign, never knew safety. She was suspected of treason, and even imprisoned in the Tower of London for a spell. Elizabeth was so certain of death, she later recalled, that she even requested the use of a sword if it came to it (an indirect reference to her mother who was beheaded in that manner). When Elizabeth finally did become Queen in 1558, it was both a triumph and a relief. She had no use for nostalgia.
That could also be said in regards to the lady being Katharine Parr. While it is true that Elizabeth was close to her stepmother in her youth, there is no evidence that she continued to revere the Queen Dowager (deceased since 1548) in her later life. Susan James has also theorized that since the lady in the ring has ‘red gold hair’ (as opposed to the ‘black’ Anne Boleyn reputedly had), she was indeed Katharine whose hair was of that colour. However, one has to remember that the miniature portraits were of sculpted gold, and painted over with coloured enamels. The lady’s ‘golden’ hair is perhaps where paint has worn off, revealing the metal beneath. Alternatively, there is a painting (at Montecute House; NPG 4980-15) of Anne Boleyn, which does show her with lighter coloured hair (probably artistic license on the painter’s part as all other versions of this portrait type show Anne as a brunette). Perhaps the creator of the ring based the miniature of the Queen on such a picture.
|Anne Boleyn (by an Unknown Artist), NPG 4980-15|
If not Elizabeth herself or Katharine Parr, are we then back to Anne Boleyn? My bet is a yes. Admittedly, Elizabeth could not have been close to her mother whom she seldom saw as a child, and whom she lost when she was not yet 3 years old. As an adult, Elizabeth’s references to her mother were few, and only in unemotional, legal contexts: a statute at the beginning of her reign confirming her as the heiress of her mother, and a remark defending her legitimacy; that her parents would not have consummated their relationship without the blessing of the English Church.
Nonetheless, Anne Boleyn remains the best candidate. As the late Eric Ives observed in his biography of Anne, the costume of the Chequers lady is of the 1530’s, and in his opinion, her features, tiny as they are, are comparable to the well-known portrait type of Anne wearing the ‘B’ pendant.
Not surprisingly, one of Elizabeth’s mottoes was ‘Video et Taceo’ (‘I see and I say nothing’), a fitting device for one who grew up knowing danger and learnt the necessity of hiding one’s true feelings. Perhaps Elizabeth’s regard for Anne Boleyn was not as detached and unfeeling as it appeared. If she indeed wanted to honour her mother’s memory, what better way than in private through a secret locket ring?
‘Anne Boleyn’ by Eric Ives. Basil Blackwell, Oxford. 1986.
‘Chequers: The Prime Minister’s Country House and Its History’ by Norma Major. HarperCollins, London. 1996.
‘Princely Magnificence: Court Jewels of the Renaissance, 1500-1630’ by A.G. Somers Cocks. Debretts’ Peerage Limited, London. 1980.
‘Elizabeth I: A Study in Power and Intellect’ by Paul Johnson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. 1974.
‘Elizabeth: The Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum’ edited by Susan Doran. Chatto & Windus, London. 2003.
‘Elizabeth The Great’ by Elizabeth Jenkins. Coward-McCann, New York: 1959.
‘The Feminine Dynamic in English Art, 1485-1603’: Women as Consumers, Patrons and Painters’ by Susan E. James. Ashgate Publishing Limited, Farnham, Surrey. 2009.