Elizabethan love story: Portrait of a royal quest for a husband

Monarch, 30, virgin, GSOH, non-smoker, WLTM similar, Protestant preferred, for marriage, maybe more. No commoners or Spaniards
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In 1563, the circle of court advisers surrounding England's Virgin Queen faced an intractable problem: how to entice Europe's most eligible males to walk down the aisle with Elizabeth I.

For an England struggling with its finances and keen to enhance European alliances, it was feared the prospect of a bountiful dowry would be slim as a Protestant bride was not likely to appeal to the doctrinaire Catholic princes of Western Europe.

The solution was to put the striking young monarch in the shop window of wealthy European courts in hope that her majesty would turn the most stubborn of heads. In that spirit, the first full-length portrait of the blushing Queen seems to have been commissioned by the palace so her image could be sent to one or more of the eligible bachelors in Europe's elite dating club.

The image has remained one of the "hidden" pictures of the Elizabeth I, unseen by the public for 400 years. But now it is about to come to auction, for the first time in its history. It will be sold at Sotheby's on 22 November, alongside two other images of the queen aged 27 and 62, which trace her evolution from a fresh-faced young woman full of romantic hopes just after her coronation into the mask-like Virgin Queen of England.

The full-length picture – shown here – is believed to be the most important of a group of early portraits, which depict sophisticated images of the Queen, and it is expected to fetch up to £1m. Sotheby's said no other work comparable in size and decoration had ever appeared on the market before.

Two metres in height, the immense portrait bore the full force of Tudor symbolism which reflected the Queen's ripeness for marriage. She is shown standing before a sumptuous tapestry of summer fruits and scented flowers holding a carnation to signify matrimony, and a pair of gloves denoting power and position. An empty throne is shown in the backdrop to underline her availability. Its symbolic impact would not have been lost on her hungry-eyed suitors, according to Sotheby's, at a time when the pressure to arrange Elizabeth's nuptials was at its height.

David Moore-Gwyn, the senior specialist of British paintings at the auction house, said when the Antwerp-born artist Steven van der Meulen was commissioned to paint the Queen, she was in her early 30s and her single status had begun to perturb a conservative Tudor public that could not fathom the scandalous prospect of a female ruler. The House of Commons even sent the palace an urgent request to begin a search to find her a husband, and with Godspeed.

The portrait, he said, appears as if the painter attempted to show her as an alluring future bride. Her stature was emphasised by the magnificence of her setting and dress, and she is shown looking expectantly to the left, in hope the portrait would one day hang, as a pair alongside the image of her future husband.

"When Elizabeth succeeded her sister in 1558, it was assumed that she would marry, not only to secure the line with the birth of an heir, but also so that there would be a proper male consort to undertake the task of ruling the Kingdom, something not considered fit for a woman. Throughout the 1560s and 1570s there was no shortage of suitors.

"It is quite likely that the portrait was painted with suitors in mind, not as an icon ... It emphasises her youthful appearance, profusion of ripe fruit is a clear symbol of the fruitfulness of the young Queen. Scented flowers reinforce her allure – honeysuckle as a sign of affection. She looks to the left as if expecting the arrival of a suitor and the presence of the outline of an empty throne beneath the Royal arms is symbolic," said Mr Moore-Gywn.

Years later, the portrait would come to reflect the romantic longing and unfulfilled hopes of the Virgin Queen who remained unmarried for the rest of her days. It was eventually given away by her to Griffith Hampden, Sheriff of Buckinghamshire, in whose house (subsequently passed down to the Hobart family) it has remained ever since.

Mr Moore-Gwyn believed it was unlikely that such an important work would have been painted for the Buckinghamshire sheriff, and one theory is that it was disposed of in the 1570s, after a string of unsuitable suitors left the Queen disenchanted by the whole idea of marriage, and the cult of the "Virgin Queen" was beginning to dominate her public image.

Sir Roy Strong, a leading authority on portraits of Elizabeth I, who has written about the painting for Sotheby's in-house magazine, Preview, believed it to be an important early portrait, undertaken at a time when her image was being tightly controlled. "This is a portrait dating from the mid to late 1560s, one of a group produced in response to a crisis over the production of the royal image, one which was reflected in the words of a draft proclamation dated 1563," he said.

He added that it preceded her transformation into the Virgin Queen, when her public image was elevated almost to the point of deification. "Here Elizabeth is caught in that short-lived period before what was a recognisable human became transmuted into a goddess," he said.

David Starkey, a historian and Tudor expert, said there was "no doubt" that there was pressure on the Queen to marry at this time. There is voluminous historical evidence to indicate no shortage of suitors at the time the painting was executed and it may well have been designed to be sent physically to one – or more – European courts for potential suitors to consider.

Some of the most prominent prospects included the King of Sweden, King Eric XIV, Adolphus of Gottorp, the Duke of Holstein, and King Charles IX of France, as well as Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicestershire, with whom she had been friends since childhood and who was believed to be her one "true" love – although he would not have been seen as a "catch" by the court.

Archduke Charles of Austria also made his interest known, although he was a Catholic, alongside Henri De Valois, the Duke of Anjou, and François De Valois, the Duke of Alencon and later Anjou. While Philip II of Spain was considered to be a strong contender, he was a committed Catholic who had previously been married to Elizabeth's half sister.

The practice of sending portraits to a court or circulating it around various courts was common. Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, commissioned the artist Holbein to paint Anne of Cleves, who he would later marry, while Eric XIV, the King of Sweden, sent Elizabeth a portrait of himself, making his interest for her hand in marriage known.

Mr Moore-Gwyn said: "The Archdukes Ferdinand and Charles of Austria were both favoured by Cecil, the Queen's loyal servant, but their refusal to change their religion was an insuperable bar even though, for diplomatic reasons, the Queen teased the Hapsburg Court in 1565 with the apparent willingness to marry Charles. "Probably the only suitor to capture her heart was Robert Dudley who made great play over the unsuitability of the two Archdukes but whose own suitability was greatly harmed by the mysterious death of his wife."

One possibility, he added, is that the portrait was meant for the Earl who stole her heart. A portrait of the young Earl, painted during the same period and featuring him turning to the right, could have been meant to pair with the Queen's portrait. "Like her, he [Dudley] holds a glove and rests his hand on the arm of a chair. This leads to the intriguing possibility of a link between the two images," he said. Such a link might be hard to reconcile with the theory that the painting was aimed at the eligible bachelors of Europe; as so often with Elizabeth, it is hard to be certain.

Elizabeth began her rule aged 25 and reigned until her death in 1603. Her life and the remarkable way in which she transformed herself into the "Virgin Queen" has been the subject of countless films, with the latest biopic of the monarch, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, starring Cate Blanchett, released this week. Yet aspects of her reign remain clouded in controversy and mystery, and part of the value of the Van der Muelen painting is that it offers a new insight into the world of one of our most enigmatic monarchs.

All the queen's men

Potential husbands who may have seen the Van der Muelen painting included:

King Eric XIV

Born in 1533, Eric was king of Sweden from 1560 to 1568, when he was deposed; he died in 1570. Was also linked to Elizabeth as a prince

Adolphus Of Holstein

Adolphus of Gottorp, Duke of Holstein (1533-86) was thought of highly enough in England to be made a Knight of the Garter

Charles IX

Charles, King of France from 1560-1574 would have been quite a catch, but his Catholicism was a problem

Henri de Valois

The Duke of Anjou was Charles IX's brother and successor (as Henri III); but nothing came of marriage discussions.

Charles Of Austria

Brother of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Archduke Charles (1540-1590) eventually married Maria of Bavaria

Duke Of Alencon

Younger brother of Charles IX and Henri III, Francois de Valois, Duke of Alencon and, later, Anjou was strung along royally by Elizabeth in 1579