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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

The Armada Portrait

Or strictly speaking one of the three Armada Portraits, as there are three surviving versions. This one is currently on display in the Plymouth City Art Gallery called in these dumbed down times, The Box.

All three are thought to have been painted at around the same time, shortly after the great defeat of the Spanish invasion of 1588. This is thought to be the most original survivor with the one in the Queen's House in Greenwich having had some later overpainting of the maritime sections at the back while the one in The National Gallery has been cut down to a portrait format. This painting normally hangs in Woburn Abbey but is on loan during restoration works at the abbey.

Most images anyone has ever made of Elizabeth I since her reign have been influenced by these portraits. It was common in that period for one portrait to be made and then for copies to be made of that portrait. This is why there are three survivors. There were more than likely many more which were lost. For example paintings were made to give as gifts to loyal courtiers or to foreign ambassadors. It is not known for sure who painted any of the three versions.

Also on display next to the portrait is the original Drake Charter of 1587 with its intact wax seal. This warrant from the Queen shows her support for his exploits. She placed Sir Francis Drake in charge of a fleet that set sail "for the honor and saftie of our Realmes and Domynions". The fleet set out from Plymouth to attack, loot and destroy the Spanish naval forces assembling at the Spanish port of Cadiz, a year before the Armada ultimately set sail. This attack became known as the "Singeing of the King of Spain's Beard".

After various engagements with the English Fleet in the English Channel, the Armada made it as far as Calais but were attacked by Drake at night who used fire ships to split up and weaken the fleet. The battle continued for some days as the ships were blown into the North Sea. The Spanish were outmanoeuvred and lost more ships and men. Those that escaped had to do so via the dangerous route travelling north of Scotland and around the Irish coast.

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