There are many portraits of Elizabeth I, but few reflect her image as steely icon as perfectly as the one attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. Antonia Fraser looks at the history behind the face, from her status as queen in 1575 to the ingredients for the cosmetics that gave her that ‘translucent glow’.

Semper Eadem – ‘Always the same’. This was the celebrated motto of Queen Elizabeth I. By it she attempted to convince the world against all the evidence that she would, in the words of the contemporary historian William Camden, ‘hold an even course in her whole life and all her actions’. The caprice, the vacillations, even the sudden heroic inspirations were all to be smoothed over with this bold declaration.

What a relief that her portraits at least are not ‘always the same’. There is an extraordinary progression from the charming, modest teenage girl of around 1547 to the effigy still to be seen in Westminster Abbey, based on the one carried at her funeral procession of 1603. Altogether it has been calculated that about 135 painted portraits survive. And this attributed Hilliard portrayal of the 1570s represents Elizabeth at my favourite period.

Born in September 1533, she would have been 40 or thereabouts. With the aid of Hilliard as court painter – his first miniature of Elizabeth dates from 1572 – the Queen is already beginning to develop that iconic image, half woman, half goddess, which will dominate her later years until the woman has virtually vanished in favour of the painted hieratic figure. From the goddess point of view, her prodigious use of make-up must have greatly assisted the painter to depict her as she wished: mask-like and without shadows.

Personally, I am always riveted by the subject of historical cosmetics, and it’s not the least of the attractions of Queen Elizabeth that she depended on them to such an extent. It’s not so much the contrast in the various elements used which intrigues me, as the universality of the claims made for the make-up of the past. All the products are vowed to be essential, both completely harmless and thoroughly youthifying… just like our own in the twenty-first century. A recipe used to produce Elizabeth’s famously ivory complexion has survived: two new-laid eggs with their shells, burnt alum, powdered sugar, borax, poppy seeds finely beaten and ‘a pint of water that runs from under the wheel of a mill’. This mixture would apparently keep for a year and was to be used, as ‘that Queen’ did, three times a week to whiten, smooth and soften the skin. There were many other whiteners, since pallor was the ideal: mercury sublimate or even ground-up animal bones as a cheap alternative. Even more goddess-like was the use of ‘liquid pearl’ to give a translucent glow.

The result of all these applications was, so far as Elizabeth was concerned, a progressively more and more immobile visage. By the last years of her life, a hostile Catholic priest would describe her as ‘continuously painted, not only all over her face, by her very neck and breast also…in some places near half an inch thick’. It is a comment which recalls that lines of Shakespeare written about the same time. Hamlet reminisces as he holds the jester Yorick’s skull: ‘Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.’ It is, however, significant that although ‘painting’ was regularly denounced by preachers – the more Puritan, the more invective – the connection of a painted woman to whoredom was never pressed so far as the monarch was concerned.

At the same time, this Queen Elizabeth of the early 1570s has not altogether lost her humanity, let alone her femininity. It is useful to recall that Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, had not quite abandoned hope of marrying her at this point. With hindsight, we can see that the likelihood of marriage with a subject (and one with what would now be called a dodgy background: suspicious death of wife, two beheaded and attained ancestors) had probably passed by in the early 1560s. But the people who admired Hilliard’s portrait were scarcely prophets and had no idea that Elizabeth would die a virgin – or at any rate would die unmarried – 30 years later. Leicester’s last great throw, the three weeks of entertainment at Kenilworth, took place in the summer of 1575. Even later, during the bizarre courtship of Elizabeth by her ‘dear Frog‘, the brother of the French king and 22 years her junior, there were those who thought that she could still bear children by ‘those signs that women know‘.

If Elizabeth’s future marital and maternal status remained uncertain at this date, still less of the whole successful outcome of her reign have been predicted. The year 1570, for example, could be described as a moment of maximum danger in an age when dynastic and religious perils were intertwined. Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s nearest heir in blood (but a Catholic), was already being held in captivity in England. The so-called Northern Earls’ Rising in that year in the Scottish Queen’s favour was finally defeated; the premier nobleman of England, the Duke of Norfolk, who had aspired to marry Mary, was executed. We can see now that the danger of a Catholic takeover had been averted, although the Ridolfi Plot followed in 1571. At the time it was easier to dread the effects of the Pope’s excommunication of Elizabeth, which theoretically freed all her Catholic subjects from obedience to her.

Thus the emblem of the phoenix which can be seen on Elizabeth’s breast in the Hilliard picture, just above her famously long white hand, is in itself a deliberate boast of dynastic strength. As Roy Strong has made clear in his masterwork on the portraits of Gloriana, the phoenix in its application to Elizabeth ran the full range of meanings in praise of her uniqueness, oneness and chastity, but ‘it was above all a vehicle in dynastic mysticism asserting the perpetuity of hereditary kingship and royal dignity’.

So the Queen confronts us in all her panoply of costume so richly embroidered and bejewelled that hardly an inch of cloth is visible. Yet it is surely impossible to criticise Elizabeth for her vanity (and she was vain) or showmanship (she loved being a star) without remembering that terrible childhood. When she was three years old her governess Lady Bryan had to write in protest against the lack of provision for her. At this point Elizabeth was the daughter of a woman executed for adultery and herself had been made a bastard, even if she was a King’s bastard. So Lady Bryan addressed Cromwell, Henry VIII’s minister, in despair: ‘My Lady Elizabeth is put from that degree she was before, and what degree she is of now, I know not but by hearsay… And that she may have some raiment; for she hath neither gown, nor kirtle, not petticoat, nor no manner of linen or smocks, not kerchiefs, not night dresses, not corsets nor mob caps nor nightcaps.’ Given that unpromising start, Queen Elizabeth can surely be forgiven her lifelong addiction to jewels and costume – in short, the supremely modern art of bling.

Nicholas Hilliard’s Queen Elizabeth I was loaned by the National Portrait Gallery in 1965. It is on display at Tate Britain.