A propagandist medal of Elizabeth I

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01 May 2018
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When hearing the word ‘medal’ one typically thinks of the orders and decorations worn on the lapels of military service personnel. However, the medal as an object has a much deeper and varied history as Richard Kelleher reveals

The earliest medals were large two-sided commemorative pieces which first appeared during the Renaissance and drew inspiration from the medallions of the Roman past.

Renaissance medals were commissioned by the nobility and produced by some of the greatest artists of the day for circulation among peers. The new artistic medium had spread into France and Germany by the end of the 15th century but took a little longer to reach England.

It was in Henry VIII's reign that the first English medals appeared and these tended to commemorate people rather than events. However, the great events that occurred during the reign of Elizabeth I provided a vibrant set of subjects suitable for depicting on medals – from her struggle with the Papal party to the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The example discussed here, from the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, is entitled ‘Protestants supported in Belgium’ and refers to Elizabeth’s apparent acceptance of the protection of the Netherlands. 

At this time England had become entangled in events in the Low Countries. Although Elizabeth was in general keen to avoid aggressive military policy English troops had been deployed in the occupation of Le Havre in the early 1560s.

Only in 1585 did an English army return to the continent. This force was sent to aid the Protestant Dutch rebels against the Spanish Habsburg Philip II. Her former suitor and favourite, Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester, led the expedition.

Elizabeth’s strategy was to appear to support the Dutch with an English army, while at the same time opening secret peace talks with Spain. The ingredients for failure were in place, as Leicester wanted to fight an active campaign. Elizabeth, on the other hand, wanted him ‘to avoid at all costs any decisive action with the enemy’. Dudley accepted the post of Governor-General from the Dutch States General which caused Elizabeth to become enraged, she knew this was a Dutch ploy to force her to accept sovereignty over the Netherlands which so far she had always declined.

This medal was probably produced at this time.

The obverse shows the queen seated on an elaborate high backed throne holding orb and sceptre.

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To the left is the figure of Robert Dudley who holds her robe – apparently to implore her to intercede on behalf of the Netherlands. A hydra is trampled beneath the queen’s feet. Five unusually muscular naked boys kneel around the queen holding the shields of Gelderland, Holland, Zealand, Utrecht, and Friesland.

The inscription reads ‘DEO OPT MAX LAVS ET HONOR IN OE ÆVVM QVOD’ (To the best and greatest God be praise and honour for ever, because) and in the exergue is the date 1587.

The reverse is uncompromisingly succinct in its message and symbolises the defeat of the Papal party in the Netherlands. In it, a group of seven figures tumbles from heaven, represented by the name Jehovah in Hebrew above the clouds.

At the centre is Pope Sixtus V surrounded by other bishops and ecclesiastics, as well as chalices and wafers (the paraphernalia of the Catholic Eucharist). Around this, an inscription reads ‘QVEM DEVS CONFICIET SPIRITV ORIS SVI’ (Whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth) a quote from 2 Thessalonians. ii. 8.    

A brutal reprimand soon reached Dudley from Elizabeth:

‘We could never have imagined (had we not seen it fall out in experience) that a man raised up by ourself and extraordinarily favoured by us, above any other subject of this land, would have in so contemptible a sort broken our commandment in a cause that so greatly touches us in honour... And therefore our express pleasure and commandment is that, all delays and excuses laid apart, you do presently upon the duty of your allegiance obey and fulfill whatsoever the bearer hereof shall direct you to do in our name. Whereof fail you not, as you will answer the contrary at your utmost peril.’

This public humiliation undermined Dudley’s position and he finally resigned his command in December 1587.