Elizabeth I – The Coronation Miniature

Elizabeth I - The Coronation Miniature by Nicholas Hilliard

Dr Fiona Clapperton introduces a treasure of the Portland Collection – the Queen Elizabeth I Coronation Miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1600. Hilliard is recognised as one of the most important miniature painters of all time, and was one of the few artists allowed to paint the Queen herself.

Known as The Coronation Miniature, this iconic image shows Elizabeth I at her coronation in 1559. The painting measures just 89 mm high x 56 mm wide and shows the Queen wearing the cloth-of-gold robes of state and her crown, carrying the Orb and Sceptre which are symbols of her authority. A diamond is set in the cross of the orb.

A version ‘in large’ hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard

Queen Elizabeth I, Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1600. © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection


In this coronation portrait, Elizabeth I is depicted aged 25, with youthful features, pale, unblemished skin and her flowing golden hair loose. However, by the time it was commissioned, the Queen would have been in her late 60s or early 70s and entering the last decade of her reign. Thus, academics are unsure as to why the miniature was painted.

We know that in her later years, Elizabeth became sensitive about her aging features. She wrote the following verses when she was in her 50s, lamenting the passage of time and reflecting on her youth: ‘When I was fair and young, and favour graced me, of many I was sought their mistress for to be.’[1] Many of Hilliard’s other miniatures of the Queen painted in the last decade of her life reflect her youthful beauty, showing her with the face of the young girl. This suggests that these portraits were created with the intention of flattering the vain and elderly Elizabeth I.[2]

However, some historians have suggested that there was a symbolic reason behind the depiction of the Queen as a young woman. They argue that the images were not solely linked to ideas of youth and beauty, but rather, that their purpose was to celebrate Elizabeth as being still at the heigh of her power.[3] In this manner, subjects and courtiers would be dissuaded from looking forwards towards Elizabeth’s eventual successor.

Others still have claimed that portraits such as this were intended to show Elizabeth, not as a person, but as a representation of the crown, the country and the church. These institutions do not age, and by depicting the monarch as young, these portraits suggest continuity. Historians with this view have pointed to the prominence of the orb in the coronation portrait, which represents the Christian world, as well as the sceptre, which represents a monarch’s care and control of her people.

Another group of academics have gone one step further and have emphasised links between this portrait and the English reformation.[4] In this miniature, Elizabeth is depicted like a religious icon, and this potentially alluded to the fact that her role as the Virgin Queen had supplanted the veneration of the Virgin Mary associated with catholicism. Moreover, it was well known that the robes worn by Elizabeth, both in this portrait and at her coronation, had originally been made for her sister Mary I. This symbolic gesture would have resonated with Protestant reformers in England, who had been outspoken on the subject of to re-using Catholic altar clothes and vestments. Such details suggest that Elizabeth was a protestant Icon.

However, perhaps the most likely answer is that this miniature was intended to reference all of the above. In this way, an image could be all things to all people.


[1] Jane Dunn, ‘Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens’, p.443.

[2] Roy Strong, ‘The Elizabethan Image’

[3] Siobhan Clarke & Linda Collins, ‘Gloriana’, p.54.

[4] Siobhan Clarke & Linda Collins, ‘Gloriana’, p.56.

Dr Fiona Clapperton

Fiona is a historian and educator. She has a PhD the social history of Country Estates, and her experience includes working at Chatsworth, English Heritage, and the Wallace Collection.

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Plan your visit to the Museum to see this artwork, on show 26 April – 18 June 2023.